|Thunder Force 2|
|Reviewed by Deathspork|
Your home planet of Nebula has been assaulted and conquered. The Lone Star System's ultimate weapon and impenetrable fortress, Plealos, is still docked there, destroying anything within its sight. You are one of the few survivors, and revenge is on your mind. Utilizing the space ship Thunder Force II, you've made it your personal mission to destroy Plealos, if it means sacrificing your own life.
But first, you decide to fly through 8 other stages for no apparent reason. The important thing is, though, that you'll have one hell of a time doing it!
Thunder Force II teaches us that alternation is a good thing. It's not really a new concept, mankind has known this for thousands of years; farmers know to rotate the crops they plant so that one will leave the soil fresh for the next. TFII exemplifies this same principle, with 2 types of stages that play considerably different from each other. Coming one and then the other seriatim, your mind is kept fresh for the next challenging stage.
The first type of stage is in top-down, overhead view. Notice I did not say "vertically scrolling". While traditional shooter physics are maintained, here you have the unconventional responsibility of deciding where to fly, in any of 8 directions. In each of these stages there is no less, no more than 4 main outposts you must hunt down and destroy, using nothing but landmark to landmark memory to guide you. These are usually distinguishable by being surrounded by enemy turrets and taking more hits to kill than normal land obstacles.
Your ship is installed with 2 default weapons, which it will have at all times no matter what; a forward firing double shot and a forward and backward shot. There are plenty of weapon upgrades to help you out, but on these overhead stages power-ups are not often needed, the default forward shooting weapon will usually suffice.
The pleasure of the overhead stages is in the search and destroy feel of them, never before or since done on this scale in a shootemup game. Adding a boost of replayability to the game, there is a timer on these levels, and when beaten it will show you how long it took to find and destroy all outposts. The first time you play a stage it may take 5 minutes, but with experience you can get your time down to 1 or 2 minutes. It's possible to get enough bonus points from a good time to rake in 2-3 extra lives at once.
While I found these levels enjoyable, they definitely feel unpolished. The scrolling is amazingly fast, and there is no slowing down. It gets berserk in the line of fire coming from an enemy outpost, because you have to constantly change directions to avoid bullets and not fly past your target. Shooting the outposts is not easy, because your weapons don't hit them at all, rather you destroy them with bombs you are constantly dropping. It is difficult to even see the bombs on-screen. Their range is about 3 inches in front of your ship. Of course, if your gun could hurt the outposts, it would be too easy. Overly finicky gamers will find the overhead stages no fun at all. Of course, the overhead stages are only supplemental to the big money levels, the side-scrolling stages.
The side-scrollers are a completely different ball game. Remember preceding shooters such as Gradius and Life Force, where it took time and experience to earn the more effective weapons? That's been thrown out the window. Thunder Force II spoils the player with a superfluous assortment of weaponry, none of which are particularly weak, rapidly filling their line of fire. All you need to do to pick up one of these weapons is simply find it in a slow-moving carrier, which are all over the stages. Better still, you can collect all of them at the same time and switch between them on a whim.
As in the overhead stages, your default weapons are a forward firing shot and a two-way fire shot. These can be upgraded to lasers and a five-way shot. Other weapons include the wave cannon, an ultimately powerful flurry of shrapnel, and the hunter, which sends out streams of large white shots that move violently around the screen as they tag the nearest enemy, just to name a couple. To compensate for your formidable artillery, enemy patterns and stage obstacles are enhanced well above the level of the average 80's shooter. Thus, the bar is entirely raised with Thunder Force II.
Unlike the overhead stages, weapons are vital to the side-scrollers. Failure to pick certain ones up and use them at the right time will make it hard or impossible not to lose a life. There is one part where a hunter is placed just before 4 enemies materialize near the corners of the screen, and start firing at you. With the hunter, they are picked off almost as soon as they are there. Another part features matter you have to fire on and destroy to get past. Nothing new, a shooter cliché actually, except here it is set above you with solid wall blocking the rest of the way. You need a side blaster to take care of it.
For the most part, however, the side-scrollers leave plenty of room for improvisation. Obstacles mostly require conditioned shoot-em-up skill with only a minimal amount of memorization.
Accompanying the weapons system, there are add-on parts called craws. When found, craws roll around your ship canceling out any bullets they touch and damaging enemies, while firing at the same time. You can have 2 craws at once, and they can be sped up with "roll" powerups, to seriously heighten your defense. There are also shields, which unlike many shooters have a time limit on them instead of a hit limit. No free rides here
While the overhead stages are void of boss battles, the side-scrollers give you a pretty eclectic mix of them. Most look generic, but put up an interesting fight, while the one original boss, a giant meal worm, is pathetically easy. The other bosses include a big tank, a Gradius-inspired stage 2 effort (with enough variation to make it seem new), and a monstrously difficult mass of machinery residing in stage 8.
The sound quality in the game is poor, as is normal in early Genesis games. To someone who plays classic games often this discrepancy will not even be noticeable. The music itself is done well, is very memorable, and you'll notice this from the instant you turn on the game. The music tracks are trippy, and sometimes delve into the hard-hitting. Using only a handful of notes, the composers effectively get you pumped up to try again in the short riff that plays when you use a continue. The music always floats along in the background, however, never taking the spotlight from the shining point of the game, the gameplay.
Oh yeah, and there are voice-overs. BAD voice-overs. Beginning a new game, you are greeted with a poorly drawn "thumbs up" sprite along with the words "Good Luck", while an insultingly bad voice says, "Shugey sha sugar shack. Ladder. Good Luck." At least that's exactly what it sounds like. In the game itself, you hear a female Japanese voice say the name of the power-up each time you pick one up. Most of these are actually pretty decent, you can hear what she says, and it's a nice touch to the game. There is, however, one horrible example. Pick up a shield and you hear "Raise on pa ickeymon". Maybe (hopefully) that one was just never translated from Japanese. A little unintentional humor like this never hurts a game.
The graphics are good. That's about the most spot-on analysis I can give you, as the game doesn't look bad at any point, and there's never a spectacular moment, just all around good. Much more emphasis has been put on the side-scrolling stages than the overhead stages. I suppose the highlight would be the giant meal worm in stage 6, who is drawn well and has realistic movements, but is lacking detail. Backgrounds in the side-scrollers, with the exception of level 8, are almost trite. This is made up for with some great backdrops in the overhead stages, their saving grace graphically. Enemies all around seem stereotypical, a turret on the ceiling, a line of machines that crawl out one crevice and into another, fighter jets and so on. For the most part things are clearly visible so you can easily tell what's going on. One blaring exception to this, in a couple of the side-scrolling stages, there are thin pillars you can barely see. When you shoot one a section is knocked out, but when passing through it if you don't keep going straight ahead, you'll slam into it, when you didn't even notice it
Bottom line, the graphics here get the job done, but if you're looking for eye candy play Thunder Force III or IV.
You start out in an overhead stage, which looks like it could just as well be Earth. Being the first overhead stage, it will take you a while to adjust. Once you start getting past this stage on a regular basis, the rest of the overhead stages will come much easier.
The first 3 levels will get you hooked, but stage 4 is where the game begins to shine. After destroying a few obligatory drones, the screen starts to scroll rapidly, just as the enemies perform their synchronized roll. New enemies materialize from out of nowhere. A solid barrier comes together from the top and bottom of the screen. Soon these same barriers come back, pushing in just one direction, forcing you to the top and then the bottom and then the top again. Few shooters can match this level of intensity, much less in one of their earlier stages.
If Thunder Force II is bursting at the seams with quality, the seams are forcefully ripped apart as soon as you reach level 8. An alien-inspired Egyptian theme makes up the background, the uninviting landscape made of pyramid bricks. From the onset, you are bombarded with less-than-friendly fire, floor turrets and mech-suits making a tag-team match out of it. Lasers zap across the screen instantaneously when you cross their line of sight, picking off any dawdlers. The music thunders on with an ominous tone, as though the stage itself is maliciously gloating about what it's about to do to you.
Weapon selection becomes less of a suggestion and more of a requirement. As hordes of enemies continue coming, you must strike a balance between using the stronger weapons for stronger enemies and using those with the best range on groups, all the while maneuvering insane level design and switching in specific weapons to pass certain stage obstacles.
The stage comes to a point where it stops completely. After a short pause and a quick "What the hell?", the scrolling reverses, stops again, and continues forward through the defiant S turn. At another point, the scrolling pauses for a long while, trapping you in a room with 4 mech suits, a laser, and a ceiling turret.
After running through a gauntlet of enemies that attempt quick cheap shots, a new wormy background is ushered in with a mini-boss, playing with your fragile mind as you will hope it is the end-of-stage boss. When he goes down, all the stops are pulled out as the screen scrolls extremely fast, through tight corridors with branching paths, taxing a life to all but those who are well in practice with the game. As it slows down again, a final few drones come up from behind and toss a few bullets your way, as though the stage is saying "and don't come back!"
Then comes the boss. How hard is he? You'll need to learn the level inside and out to reach him with enough lives to even stand a chance, for I've gotten through it all without dying only to lose my remaining stock on this boss. The lasers he shoots are placed extremely close together, and then he has a shot that spreads out. You will waste a lot of time looking for a safe spot, because there isn't one. You are given the insane challenge of staying in between his laser shots while still avoiding bullets. And after what seems like 5 minutes, he goes down, victory is yours, and the game isn't over. There's one more stage. Remember? Plealos?
Stage 9 is an anomaly, the essential "big battleship level", only this time done as one of TFII's own unique overhead stages. The turrets here put up several times more of a fight than those of earlier stages, the secret to winning is destroying them in your moments of invulnerability after death. When you finally accomplish taking out all 4 outposts, the game still isn't over. Plealos takes off, the screen goes dark, a mind-melding melody begins to play. In the game's final death throe, you must scale your way up the side, around to the front, turn around and travel through a tight tunnel to the main cannon of Plealos. The rather anticlimactic final moment is spent destroying it in your moment of invulnerability. Finally, you can breathe again, the game is won.
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