Thunder Spirits Review

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Technosoft. Widely known as a tour de force on the Sega Genesis, they built a long running series of shoot ’em ups with Thunder Force. The original Thunder Force was exclusive to the Japanese market on several computers like the Sharp X1, and NEC PC 8801. But fast forward to the launch of Sega’s 16-bit powerhouse, and you’ll find its sequel present in the line up of titles. Thunder Force II combined the original game’s top down shooting, with horizontal side scrolling stages. It did well enough to spawn several sequels. Thunder Force III was one of the most popular of these. A game that did well enough to see an arcade version called Thunder Force AC. Thunder Force AC played almost like a director’s cut of sorts. It retained most of TF III’s best features, while replacing some of  the levels. It was later released on Sega’s Saturn console.

PROS: It’s Thunder Force III/AC. On the Super NES! With improved visuals!

CONS: Sound effects are weak. A couple of moments of slow down.

STRANGE: Naming conventions with some of the series’ titles.

But many don’t realize it was also released on the Super NES. And this version was retitled Thunder Spirits. Functionally it’s pretty much the same game as Thunder Force AC. Though it will undoubtedly be compared against the original Sega Genesis version. Much like Super R-Type though, Thunder Force AC/Spirits is again, a lot like a director’s cut. Like the original Sega Genesis version, you’ll be going through seven stages of hardcore shooting action. The first three stages are identical to three of the stages found in Thunder Force III. Most of the other stages are either altered, or completely new.

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One feature Thunder Spirits has lost in the translation from third game to arcade game, and back to console game is the stage select. In Thunder Force III, you can tackle the stages in the order of your choosing before heading off to the final leg of your journey. In Thunder Spirits, you’ll just quickly go from stage to stage in predetermined order. Another change is the number of continues, and how they work. In the original version you’ll be given several continues. When you’re out of lives, you’ll have a few more chances to redo the stage at hand. In Thunder Spirits you’re only given a mere three continues. However you’ll continue where you died, replicating the feel of the arcade cab it’s been ported from.

No matter which version you play however, you’re in for the kind of challenge that will make your palms sweat. Thunder Force games are of course shmups. So you’ll be assaulted from all sides at a constant pace. It isn’t a bullet hell shooter but it still has plenty of things for you to avoid crashing into while trying to blow away a multitude of enemy ships. In many ways it will remind you of R-Type. It moves along at a similar pace, save for a few moments where things intentionally go into warp speed.

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The warp speed moments often lead to maze sections where you quickly have to guess which path to take. Choosing the wrong one means you’re crashing in many instances which leads to a bit of trial, and error. But this sort of thing was also typical in the genre at the time, as you could find moments like this in the Gradius series for instance. Aside from these moments however, the game generally gives you enough advance a warning to avoid incoming projectiles. Still, you likely will have to memorize stages as you play through them in order to eventually beat them. It’s the sort of game where knowing when, and where enemies are about to strike is key.

Of course no shmup worth its salt is going to be fun unless it has cool power ups, and the Thunder Force series delivers them in spades. Thunder Spirits gives you a wide variety of them. You collect them by destroying certain enemies on any given level, then picking them up. You have stock lasers, but then there are a few different laser types from there. There are crescent-shaped lasers that do high damage at short-range. There are long-range laser beams that do medium damage at longer ranges. Another power up will send heat seekers above, and below you where they’ll follow along the floor or ceiling, destroying enemies. There are also the laser orbs. These will lock on to enemies, and go after them automatically. They’re not the most powerful of your beam attacks, but they do make many parts of the game easier to navigate.

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Rounding out the weapons are the satellites you can pick up, that surround your ship firing copies of your current weapon. You can also find temporary force fields, that allow you to take a couple of extra hits before you’re destroyed. Make no mistake, in any version of this one you’ll be destroyed. The Thunder Force games are all pretty tough. But once you begin to remember which obstacles come up at which time things ease. Also making things manageable is the ability to change which laser weapons you’re using on the fly. Over time you’ll learn what weapons work best on different enemies. Kind of like if your ship were Mega Man.

Thunder Spirits looks really cool too. The color palette is different from the one in Thunder Force III, and the HUD position is different. But by, and large it’s almost identical to what you would find on the Genesis. The new stages look awesome, and have a lot of really cool flair all their own. Unfortunately, some of this flair costs some performance. So expect to run into some slowdown against some mini bosses, and bosses. For whatever reason, the Super NES just takes a hit in these sections, resulting in a noticeable drop in frame rate. It doesn’t get to an unplayable level by any means. But things do slow way down.

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Beyond that however, the game seems to run fine in most other instances. Still, this will disappoint some players who have been used to playing Thunder Force III on the Genesis, and might be looking into this one. On the audio front the soundtrack here is outstanding, and can hang with the Genesis games. The fast paced songs are all here in that orchestral synth the Super NES is known for. The sound effects however, leave a lot to be desired. Explosions particularly are an issue. They have no real depth to them, and the boss deaths seem to go to a very fuzzy, low bit rate popping sound. The Super NES has always done much better in this regard in other games. So it is a bit disappointing.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from the fun of the game.

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Overall, I’d still highly recommend Thunder Spirits though. While long time fans of the series might scoff at the idea of a TF III on the Super NES, it is in fact a terrific game. Even for those who may prefer the original cut on the Genesis, it is worth playing for the different stages, and updated ending. Likewise, if you have a Super NES, and a Genesis, playing TF III on the Genesis means experiencing a masterful shmup, and the parts of the game that Thunder Spirits replaced. Really, anybody who owns both 16-bit behemoths ought to check out both versions. For those who only have a Super NES in their collection, Thunder Spirits is still one of the best shmups on the console. It has everything you could want in a shmup. Great mechanics. Great visual design. A rocking soundtrack. Really the only things holding it back from perfection, are a handful of sub par sound effects, and some unfortunate slowdown. Still, it just goes to show how good Thunder Force games are. Even when they’re not at their best, they’re still some of the best shoot ’em up games you’ll ever play.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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