Now here’s a blast from the past and an exceptionally rare treat! Lightening Force (Thunder Force IV everywhere else) has finally been ported to a current generation console. In fact, when looking at the history of this game it hasn’t been re-released on its own since it originally hit the Sega Genesis way back in 1993. I’m sure many fans are ecstatic to see it return, and what better way to experience the game than on the Switch? Even if it’s your first time playing the game (as it was mine), if you’re a fan of shmups you’re in for a deliriously fun time.
My first exposure to the Thunder Force series was with the second one on the Sega Genesis. My friend’s father had purchased the Genesis right at launch and shortly after he acquired Thunder Force II. Up to that point I had been hooked on games like Gradius and Life Force on the NES and countless others at the arcade. Seeing the Genesis recreate arcade-like visuals at home really left an impression on me and I was excited to see what the Super Nintendo would bring when it finally launched. While that system would go on to deliver some exceptional hits (Axelay comes to mind), none of the shooters on the SNES could compete with the sheer power of the Genesis CPU.
This comes through very clearly with Lightening Force, a game that has countless amounts of parallax scrolling, hordes of enemies on the screen all at once and large bosses that take up most of the screen. You know a game is pushing the limits of the Genesis hardware when it slows down, a trait often only seen with the SNES, and this game does have its fair share of slowdown (although M2 being the masters they are have put in a toggle to turn off the chugging frame rate if you prefer).
Lightening Force is a horizontal 2D space shooter, similar to games like Gradius and R-Type. In fact, you even get extra floating units that can circle your ship (similar to Options in Gradius) called Claws, which will add additional sources of weapon shots and even deflect incoming enemy attacks. The game automatically scrolls from right to left and you can move about the area in any direction. One unique facet of gameplay is that you can scroll the screen up and down a good distance, revealing more of the playfield as well as additional enemies and power-ups. This means it’s impossible to destroy every enemy in the stages since some will inevitably be off-screen, but the freedom this provides is awesome.
As you shoot down the enemies some will drop power-ups and other things like 1-Ups. As you collect new weapons you’re able to cycle through them and use them as you like. They’re quite varied and some are more useful than others depending on the level you’re playing and the patterns of the enemies. One of my favorites is the Hunter, which fires out Photon energy that homes in on the enemies. It’s not as strong as some of the other weapons, but when the screen is literally littered with enemies in every direction, this gun is a Godsend. Other weapons, like the Back Shot, will aid in taking out ships behind you, whereas the Blade will cut through bosses in no time.
When you begin the game you actually get to pick the order of the first four levels. I’m not sure if there’s a “right” way to tackle them, but I thought it was a nice feature, especially if you get stuck on one stage you could begin a new game and put that one last with the hope you’ll have a full arsenal of weapons to tackle it next time. The later stages are placed in a specific order like most other games of this type. Space shooters are known for their brutal difficulty, so it’s nice to see M2 add in various options to make the game easier for novices. Right off the bat you can choose to play in Original Mode or Kids Mode. If you pick the latter you won’t lose all of your weapons when you die and the game is more forgiving. You can also go into the configuration screen where you can change the mission level (four levels of difficulty) and change how many ships you begin the game with. There’s no shame in starting off easy and working your way up to a higher difficulty!
As is the case with all of the SEGA AGES games so far, there are a bevy of additional options that you can toggle on or off. Everyone has a preference when it comes to visuals, and here you can tweak them to better fit what you like. You can scan lines, turn on smoothing, change the wallpaper, stretch the screen, or keep it normal. I like to have as crisp of a picture as possible so I usually run my games in Dot-by-Dot mode (Nintendo refers to this as Pixel Perfect in their games) and I turn off the scan lines and smoothing. Obviously you can tinker around with each option to see what works best for you. At any point you can suspend the game and create a save state so you can come back to it right where you left off.
Lightening Force is a visual beast and it looks great even today, especially on the smaller Switch screen. Like anything else from this generation, when you blow up the picture on a 55” TV the game is going to be a little messy looking. Still, after playing a few minutes on the big screen I became used to the graphics and it’s still visually striking. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this game and the extra real estate definitely helps in avoiding the incoming bullets. For a Genesis game this one holds up very well and the variety in the environments is very much appreciated. Some levels look better than others, but overall I came away rather impressed that this 25 year old game still looks as good as it does.
The music is pretty good, but nowhere near as iconic as some of the other space shooters I’ve played. Part of that is due to the less than stellar Genesis sound chip, but there are still some great tracks to be found here. The voice is a little muffled, but that’s par for the course in the 16-bit generation.
Lightening Force delivers excellent gameplay via its spot-on controls and fun weapon upgrades. The stages are exciting to explore and the bosses often result in intense shootouts. It’s missing a 2-player co-op mode that I so love in these types of games, but even so there’s enough here to entertain. As a first time player of this game, color me impressed! It’s not often a game with no nostalgia value still manages to deliver this many years later. Hardcore fans will surely already have this in their collection.
SEGA AGES Lightening Force Review
Final Thoughts: GREAT
Sometimes old school shmups don’t hold up as well as they did back in the day. Thankfully this isn’t the case with Lightening Force, which happens to be one of the most accessible and fun space shooters I’ve played. This one’s a keeper!
SEGA AGES Lightening Force was reviewed using a final retail Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher.