Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Thunder Force IV)
-Techno Soft (1993)
The Empire of Lone was finally defeated and peace was going to be spread through the galaxy, but a new threat emerged. While the Galaxy Federation was fighting Orn, an ally of Orn, the planet Vios, was increasing the size of its own forces and making its own plans. Shortly after the destruction of Orn, Vios saw its best chance and launched an attack. The Galaxy Federation was just still recovering from the war with Orn and now they must fight the Vios unprepared - almost. The new Fire Leo 4 is complete and there isnít any better time to test it than now. Equipped with brand new fire-power and a weapon of more destructive power than any before it, the Vios better pray that they will survive.
Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar is actually the next Thunder Force sequel, Thunder Force IV. For some unknown reason, Sega changed the name of the U.S. release and misspelled it. "Lightening Force" would refer more to lighten a load of space rocks from your space dump truck. "Lightning Force," on the other hand, would fit the game nicely, as the most powerful weapon in the game is pretty much a huge shot of lightning. The "Darkstar" is also questionable because Iím pretty sure there is nothing in the game called a Darkstar. Plus, Thunder Force III was such a popular game; wouldnít keeping the Thunder Force IV name make more sense for greater sales and to let all the fans know that this is the next sequel? Lastly, the ship shown on the Lightening Force box cover is completely different than the actual ship you pilot in the game. Take a look at the box art for the Japanese version and you'll see what I mean. Ah, the infinite mysteries of localization. At least the game itself wasn't changed because Thunder Force IV is perhaps the greatest shooter the Genesis ever had.
Let's start off with something that has and hasn't changed the most, the weapons. The twin shot and back shot are back, but now have new upgrades. We were used to the twin shot being a powerful laser like shot, but tit is now called blade and has a blade appearance. Itís a very cool looking weapon, but the previous gamesí laser-ish upgrades were more powerful. The back fire gets railgun this time, a weapon more like a laser. Snake is much like fire from TFIII. It shoots from the top and bottom of the ship and snakes along until it hits an enemy. Free way is just like nova from TFII, but fires missiles instead of circles of the opposite direction the ship is traveling. The hunter, claws, and shield are also here along with a new ultimate weapon called thunder sword. Thunder sword consists of two balls that rotate around the ship like the claws. When you donít fire any weapons, the balls charge up. Once the fire button is pressed a huge beam of energy is released with two lightning bolts shooting out from the ship. Itís impressive and will destroy some enemies that usually take many hits with one shot.
Thunder Force III introduced us to the ability to choose our starting level, but in Thunder Force IV you can choose the order of the first four stages. Stage one, Strite, is an aquatic level with a robo-seahorse type of boss. The Ruin level looks like a ruined space colony from a Gundam show. Itís a cylindrical background with devastated buildings along the top and bottom and has a nifty claw ship boss. The Air-raid stage is especially cool because youíre flying through a fleet of enemy attack ships bombarding a planet. There is a sweet sequence where youíll see the targeting reticules of the ships in the foreground and all you can do is try to avoid them. Eventually allied missiles will come up from the ground and turn back the invading fleet. Then the speed of the stage picks up and you have to fly though the cruisers that are flying towards you. The boss has an original concept where you actually have to push off the top portion of it to attack the weaker center. The next stage, Daser, is a sea of sand dunes and a tough robot jock waits at the end of the stage.
These first four stages are great and have tough bosses that take a lot to take down, but stage five is where things get even better. Joined by a few wingmen, you and your new comrades attack a huge space cruiser. The friendly ships are on a different plane than you, so they donít really do anything but fly around, but itís cool to see support fighters. At the end of the stage a big flying robot destroys its own cruiser along with your teammates. The stage five awesomeness doesnít stop there, though. Three Fire Leo 3s (the ship you piloted in TFIII) come to upgrade your Fire Leo 4 with some big snorkel type of attachment and the thunder sword weapon.
Stage six is an icy sea where a pointy organic looking ship will meet you at the end. If you donít have the charge balls this battle takes a very long time. Stage seven is a cave with narrow passages and a boss that at first is just like the big slug boss from TFII, but then it scares the crap out of you when it goes manic and unleashes some formidable attacks. Stage eight is another cave but has a series of rooms that have four sub-bosses, plus a very strange fly-in-a-sac boss that just seems out of place from the rest of the game. Stage nine, the Wall, is the main base of Vios and has some big organic ship as its boss. Next to the final boss, this is the cheapest in the game. It has an attack that I could not avoid, no matter where I was. The final stage is a two-part assault on the robot that attacked your team and the final boss. While you're fighting the robot a huge
Thunder Force IV is not an easy game. Its default difficulty is leagues harder than that of TFIII. The bosses are all much tougher as well. For many of them it is not even clear how you are supposed to defeat the bosses the first time you encounter them. I like that some of them don't have the clearly marked "shoot here" spot of many other shooter bosses, including ones from other Thunder Force games. You really get a sense of accomplishment once you destroy a boss, especially if all you have is a twin shot.
The graphics are easily the best in the Genesis' run of the series. Everything has a ton of detail crammed in. The stages feature lots of parallax scrolling and have more foreground elements than before. Many parts of the stages are also two screens high. You can play the game different ways, by flying solely on the top or bottom halves of the screen, or by trying to cover as much ground as you can. The only bad part about it is that you will miss power-ups until you've learned where they are all hidden.
The music is also the best in the Genesis' series. right when you power on the game you're blasted with a hard heavy metal guitar and drums that make you want to head bang as much as blast aliens. There are multiple music tracks during each stage. About halfway through a stage the music will change to something more for the fight you're about to get in. then it changes again for the boss. This is more cinematic approach and is something you don't see in shooters.
Even though I miss a few weapons, namely the laser and wave, Thunder Force IV / Lightening Force is an incredible game. This is the most intense shooter on the Genesis and a game that every shooter fan needs to play.
The endings show that the game is to be continued and it is pretty interesting how much of the story in Thunder Force V is foreshadowed in the ending for Thunder Force IV. I wonder how much of the story was actually already planned because TFV didn't come out until over five years after TFIV. I just thought this was something that was very interesting.
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