Thunder Force IV is the ultimate adrenaline rush and hands down one of the best shooters on the Mega Drive. It also had one of the most depressing endings of a 16-bit era game.
Developed by Technosoft in 1992, Thunder Force IV came to me as as a gift from a friend as it was on sale. Back then, I only rarely got games, so whenever I had a choice of what to buy, I picked RPGs for their longevity. When it came to shooters, I usually borrowed them from friends as we swapped cartridges. Thunder Force IV was the first shmup in my library thanks to my friend.
The plot is simple. The Kha Oss Legion, together with the remnants of the Lohun Empire, wants to annihilate the Galaxy Federation. It’s up to you as the pilot of the new Fire LEO-04 Rynex to stop them. From the moment I loaded TFIV and chose the order in which to tackle the first four stages, I knew I was in for a special experience.
What makes a shooter great versus frustrating are its controls and available arsenal. Fortunately, TFIV’s controls are tight and the developers let you adjust your speed on the fly, accelerating or decelerating depending on your preferences. A weapon bar is also available, similar to the Gradius series. While it doesn’t offer the same level of customisation, at least you only lose your selected weapon when you die rather than the entire arsenal. The best upgrade by far is the claw, which releases drones that rotate around the Rynex and mimic its attack. My personal favourite weapon is called the Hunter which does exactly what its name implies: fire photon energy bursts that track down enemies. There’s also a shield to buffer defences and stave off death for another collision or three. A very nice touch for the sound effects is that whenever you grab power-ups, there’s a voice that tells you what you got. It’s a bit hard to understand, but also very 16-bit era in the best way possible.
Thunder Force IV is a beautiful game that pushes the visuals of the Mega Drive. The numerous parallax layers are used to create a vivid sense of scale and complexity. The levels scroll horizontally, though there are vertical layers to each, giving the canvas depth. In one of the first levels you choose, you deploy above the Strite Sea which the Kha Oss are using as training grounds for their fleet. Swarms of enemies try to take you out as the day changes to night. You’re forced to take the plunge down under the sea and confront a massive enemy battleship. The fight is intense as you actually have to circle around the marine cruiser and avoid its attack from the rear. To that end, the Rynex has two starting weapons which are its twin and back shot. Both of these can be upgraded. I also appreciated how the developers defaulted autofire on the controls so that you can just hold the fire button down. The fight goes on for some time, but you can’t finish the cruiser off underwater. By the time you emerge from the sea, it’s turned back to day again as the battle continues.
Air Raid is one of the best levels in the game. It’s basically the Rynex fighting an enemy invasion fleet. There are tonnes of ships everywhere with hundreds on the horizon and the alien crafts feeling ubiquitous. Their cannons lock their targets on your ship and let loose a torrent of artillery. Missiles fire at the Rynex and a surface bombardment is ensuing. Your side does fight back at the end with anti-aircraft shells firing at the enemy cruisers. As you approach the boss, multiple ships do a kamikaze run at the Rynex. You have to deftly avoid being rammed to death. There’s a lot I’d forgotten about the game before I replayed it recently, but the aerial battle was one I still remembered.
The stage transitions are nearly seamless, with the music blending into the clear screen and the next section starting right away. The fifth level starts you off in space going at hyper speed. Your target is an alien battle cruiser that’s defending the alien planet where the Empire’s computer is located. The dreadnought is so massive, you have to orbit around the entirety of its body and use rear guns to protect yourself. Fortunately for you, other members of the Thunder Force join the attack to help you defeat the cruiser. Unfortunately for them, right before the battle cruiser is destroyed, it unleashes a shower of laser fire that destroys most of them. The remnants of the force are dealt an even more lethal blow by a new adversary that escapes from the battleship, the Orn Faust. Faust retreats after additional aid comes for the Rynex. The end of the level has you surrounded by your own ships who proceed to install a secret new weapon called the Thunder Sword. As long as you have the Claw equipped, you can power up the Thunder Sword to fire what the game manual describes as a “colossal burst of energy.” It’s basically a charged shot and changes the dynamics of the gameplay since you now possess a super-powered weapon.
Your ship comes installed with one of the best stereo systems in the Solar System as the music in Thunder Force IV has some of the best retro tracks of the era. I am listening to that music as I write (there’s a sound test in the game). It was even better when I was a kid when I hooked in the earphones to the Mega Drive jack for stereo sound.
I loved Thunder Force IV, but I also struggled with its difficulty. The final stage starts with a planet in construction hovering on the horizon. A frenetic rematch ensues with the Orn Faust. At some point in the battle, the Faust will suddenly drop beneath the screen. That’s a warning that a massive energy burst that takes up almost the entire screen will be hurtling your way. You have to fly the Rynex to the top or bottom of the screen to survive. It took me a lot of tries, but I finally overcame both the Faust and the last boss, which is a behemoth of a ship that is holding the Empire’s mainframe computer (there’s a simple cheat I eventually learned that helped a lot as a kid; in the config screen, set your number of lives to 0 and get 99 lives).
I still remember how thrilled I was when I first beat the game. I couldn’t believe I’d won. As the Rynex escapes, the explosions from the Vios catch up to the ship. I assumed I’d outrun the blaster and there’d be a dramatic last-second escape. But no, the epilogue makes it clear the Rynex was destroyed in the explosion. Some scientist even comments that the “sortie was nothing more than a reckless action.” Instead of being rewarded for all my hard effort, I felt like I’d been punished for it. It was a bittersweet ending and a tough lesson for me as a kid. Sometimes you can do everything right, have the best of motives, and still get the short end of the stick.
Lightning always precedes thunder, and in the same way, Lightening Force was the game that gave me my lifelong love of shmups. It also taught me that vanquishing evil requires a lot of sacrifice, like the squadron of ships who were destroyed trying to get the Thunder Sword to me.
Still, I really wish the Rynex had survived.