Technosoft's classic shoot 'em up series Thunder Force is one of the most underrated franchises in the genre. Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar is possibly the best entry in the series and it's finally available for a modern console.
Sega Ages just made its Nintendo Switch debut with the timeless original Sonic the Hedgehog as well as this lesser known shmup. As a huge fan of Thunder Force, I'm very happy to see it reintroduced to a brand new audience. Fresh from creating the phenomenal Thunder Force III (AKA Thunder Spirits), Technosoft released Thunder Force IV which featured similar gameplay yet expanded the formula with huge stages that you can explore vertically while they scroll horizontally as well as a new line-up of challenging and memorable boss fights. When it released in North America, it was renamed Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar because... well, why not? Anyway, it's a classic in every sense of the word and features incredibly tight gameplay that'll delight any fan of the genre.
Lightening Force is not only possibly the best shmup for Sega Genesis / Mega Drive; it also has some of the best graphics of any 16-bit shmup. As you play, you'll notice that the stages have multiple layers, the bosses transform as they take damage, and the environment features effects that are as gorgeous as they are disorienting. Your ship as well as its options and stream of projectiles look incredible, too. On the audio side, the music is energetic and the sound of constant gunfire and explosions is super-satisfying. I would even go so far to say that Lightening Force is one of the few shoot 'em ups that's actually enjoyable to watch someone else play.
Thunder Force IV allows you to pilot 2 ships. The main ship is the Rynex and you unlock the Styx upon completing the game which is the ship from Thunder Force III. Whichever ship you choose to pilot, you'll be impressed by the array of weaponry that you can utilize and switch between mid-game. You'll soon discover the Blade and Railgun which enhance your basic shots but once you come across weapons such as the ultra-powerful Hunter and the elusive Thunder Sword; you'll be blown away by what your ship is capable of.
This Sega Ages version of Lightening Force features some very cool extras that help enhance the overall experience. For starters, genre newbies can play Kids Mode for an easier challenge. You can also save and load at any time if you want to slowly inch your way through like a dirty cheater. Anyway, one of the coolest additions is online leaderboards but good luck beating the thousands of top-ranked Japanese gamers already on there! Finally, you can switch between the International and Japanese versions of the game, reduce processing delay, tinker with various display settings, and even enter a somewhat hidden in-game configuration menu.
My only complaints with Lightening Force involve unfair deaths which can be exceptionally frustrating if you're not prepared. The first example of these is when projectiles are obscured due to the foreground effects or because they blend in to the backgrounds. You'll frequently find yourself squinting just to ensure no projectiles are heading towards you. The other kind of unfair death is when things rush in from the sides of the screen with absolutely no warning. This forces you to memorize where to position your ship because you can perish in a split second if you're floating in certain spots. Obviously, these issues become less troublesome the more you play and remember what to do in each stage but they can still be off-putting for those who merely want to test their shmup skills.
Bringing Lightening Force back to kick off the Sega Ages series on Switch was an excellent idea as it highlights just how much fun you can have with Sega's retro catalog. Every old-school gamer needs to add this to their digital library.
- + Super-tight shoot 'em up gameplay with incredible stages and boss fights
- + Awesome graphics and sound
- + Satisfying array of weaponry
- - Projectiles are often hard to spot, especially when they blend in with the stages
- - Many surprise deaths force you to memorize stages before mastering them