I apologize for the brief break there, but from here on out Pre-Sonic Genesis posts should be regular enough. My semester will be picking up here in a few months, however, so please forgive me ahead of time for when these articles start to be written strictly along the lines of the American Psychiatric Association’s 6th edition stylebook. If nothing else, immersing myself in Genesis games is good practice – I doubt I will be able to earn much else on a social worker’s salary. Ho ho!
And with that out of my system, I would like introduce this week’s sole offering for Pre-Sonic Genesis. Mercifully, it’s a fairly important milestone in the history of the Mega Drive. For one thing, it is the first third-party game for the system. Granted, the glacial release schedule for a new system isn’t exactly rare for the time. While the numbers escape me, the Master System had barely seen seventy releases before the launch of the Mega Drive. Mostly, it sticks out as one of the few genuinely great games on the console so far.
Or at least, half of a genuinely great game. The vertical freeroaming levels are a holdover from the first Thunder Force, released exclusively in Japan for a handful of obscure systems that never made their way across the Pacific. And just like the first Thunder Force, half of the sequel deals with free roaming overhead shooter segments where the player has to roam around in eight directions bombing a set number of bases and avoiding enemies. It’s basically a free-roaming Xevious and about as tedious as that entails. At least the amazing music makes it tolerable enough.
No, the real charm begins with the even numbered stages, which more than slightly resemble R-Type in form and layout. For those keeping track at home (and I don’t see why you would, as that’s my job) R-Type saw a pretty incredible release in two parts for the PC Engine in 1988 at the height of the horizontal shooter genre. Thunder Force II is nowhere near as impressive as the earlier release, despite being on superior hardware. But Thunder Force II isn’t exactly a marquee product. R-Type was a killer app, the card that sold the public on the PC Engine and defined the direction for most early titles. By contrast, Thunder Force II is a third party port of a PC-98 game released on a system that was still figuring itself out.
But what it does figure out is nothing short of fantastic. The sole saving grace of the overhead levels is the wide variety of weaponry available beyond your default twin shot and single laser positioned on the front and back. Pressing the A and C buttons cycle through the weapons you’ve picked up, and each pick up works differently against ground and air enemies. Most of the same weapons exist in the horizontal segments, but are reconfigured to work from the different viewpoint against the huge waves of enemies pounding down on the player’s craft. The game is excruciatingly difficult, of course, but generous with continues.
Later games in the series abandoned the less exciting parts of Thunder Force II, turning it to one of the Mega Drive’s most beloved franchises. Focusing largely on the exotic locations and unique weapons, Thunder Force III and IV (the latter of which came here under inexplicable name of Lightening [sic] Force) are two of the most beloved shooters for the console. But while Thunder Force II is a fundamentally good game suffering from a small handful of inexplicable decisions (see also: every other game released so far), it and Phantasy Star II both stand out as flawed but playable classics that largely serve as harbingers for better games to come.