Friday, July 5, 2013

My Love Affair With Lightening Force, part 1

You beautiful Engrish, you.

In the summer of 1992, I was the proud owner of a brand new Sega Genesis console, complete with Sonic the Hedgehog pack-in cartridge.  I had previously played Sonic, and indeed a Sega Genesis, via a casual friend from school.  He was the guy that lived with his grandparents and seemed to have a limitless supply of new cool stuff to show off to the other guys in school.  So when the Sega Genesis came out and was the "next big thing" in video games in our little corner of the world, he was the first one in town to have one, and we were all lined up at his house to watch in awe as he booted up Altered Beast with its then-awesome graphics, sound, and presentation.  Those huge characters!  The beyond-awesome transformation screen completely with cheesy/cool fire effect!  Those big bosses!  It was magical.  And even though hindsight tells us differently, Last Battle was even impressive those first few times we played it.  I was witnessing the beginning of something incredible.

Thankfully, this wasn't indicative of the future of gaming.  Except the blood part.

Fast forward a year or so later, and this same guy had come home with a new game that was highly anticipated: Sonic the Hedgehog.  Once again, we all lined up to play, and when I finally got my chance at the control pad, I was awestruck at the incredible graphics, fun music, great level design, and simple but effective mechanics.  By the time I had played long enough to get through the Green Hill Zone and reached the Marble Zone, I was sold on the game.  Once I saw the Labyrinth Zone and how much variety there was in the game, I absolutely knew I just HAD to have the game, and a Sega Genesis system to play it on.  My mission was clear: attain a Genesis console by any and all means necessary, within my Jr. High kid's allowance limits.  Unfortunately, that meant waiting until I had nearly graduated, if I was to go at that pace.  Thus, I made the difficult choice to sell my Game Boy system I had bought just 3 years earlier, along with all my carts, to earn enough money to go in half-way with my younger brother to purchase the Genesis console, along with a used TV to play it on.  My parents never allowed me to purchase or own the NES console, because they said I would monopolize the TV, and they were right.  By the time the Genesis came into the picture, my parents at least told me I could get a TV to play it on, since my brother and I could purchase this stuff together.

I spent weeks pouring over Sonic the Hedgehog, playing until I had mastered each level and got through the game all the way.  I then went back and played through again while gathering all of the Chaos Emeralds and perfecting my technique.  After that, my younger brother, a friend, and myself all played the first couple levels doing "speed trials", seeing who could complete the first couple stages the fastest.  I held the record for Green Hill Zone stage 1, at just 30 seconds.  I don't know that I've ever been able to complete it that fast since, but it sure was a rush zooming through tubes, around loops, and spinning through the air propelling toward the end of the level.

Run, blue hedgehog, run!

So why all this talk about Sonic the Hedgehog?  What about Lightening Force?  I'm getting to that, gentle reader, but I feel it's necessary to set up my history with the Genesis console, and just how much it meant to me as a young lad to finally have my own, having only played at friend's houses for years.  Point being, I spent an awful lot of time on Sonic.  I also clocked a lot of hours on the puzzle game Columns.  I played Quackshot starring Donald Duck a lot, and dumped a heap of time into Decap Attack too.  I played Strider a ton until I finished it, then set it aside and didn't touch it again for some 10 years.  I (mistakenly) sold Fantasia and Toki after finishing them.  But I don't think I spent more time on the Sega Genesis with ANY game outside of Lightening Force.

I had read positive reviews for Thunder Force II and Thunder Force III, but hadn't actually had the pleasure of playing them.  Matter of fact, I hadn't even had the joy of playing a Sega Genesis shoot-em-up yet, because I didn't own any, and no one I knew that had a Genesis had one at that point.  Guys were too busy with Sonic the Hedgehog to invest time in yet another scrolling shooter.  But when I saw Lightening Force (known as Thunder Force IV outside of the US) on the shelf at Kay Bee Toys, despite the humorously misspelled name, I knew that was a game I had to have.  It was a similar reaction to the box art, screenshots, and description as my first reaction to the Genesis when I played it, or Sonic when I first laid eyes on the game.  I was filled with a complete wonderment and desire to jump right in and play.  So a few months after I bought my Genesis, I plunked down the $40 I had been saving up to buy a new game and took it home, anticipating what an incredible game it was going to be.  I had made my mind up already that it was going to be great.

Say what you will about "Western" box art, but I think this is just as effective as the Japanese artwork at communicating just what's in store.

Thankfully, when I actually got it home and plugged it into my console, it was just as magical as I had hoped.  My clunky old 19 inch tube TV crackled with incredible music and vibrant colors, and I was wowed at the parallax scrolling, fast moving game play (Blast Processing!), interesting locales, and intuitive weapon system.  I was struck at the Mega Man-like ability to choose the order of the first four stages, which lent an element of strategy and planning that I hadn't previously seen in a shooter.  I was immediately sucked-in when my ship suddenly went underwater in the Strite stage, presumably to face off against the giant battleship, only to discover that was but a ruse.  I was thrilled with the giant Blade weapon, and awed by the powerful Rail Gun.  When I made it to the Ruins level, I was impressed with the Hunter weapon, a truly useful homing weapon that made things easier, but still no cakewalk.  This was the shooter I had waited all my gaming life for.  Gradius had entertained me, and R-Type 2 had impressed my socks off in the arcade (my local bowling alley!), but this...THIS was the game that all those previous shoot-em-ups had teased me about, the game that would be the culmination of all that had come before it.  At least in my 15-year old mind, it would.

The thing to understand about Lightening Force is that, it was the penultimate scrolling shooter game on the Genesis, and rivaled even the Super NES for sheer quality.  The SNES port of Gradius III was plagued by slowdown.  Super R-Type wasn't quite the conversion of R-Type 2 many had hoped for, and was just a slow game overall.  Axelay was impressive, but the 2.5D overhead perspective of some stages was confusing and it was difficult to judge the perspective.  And other than Mode 7 effects, it didn't offer anything more impressive than what Lightening Force was already doing.  And the ill-fated Thunder Spirits, a SNES port of the arcade conversion of Thunder Force III (aka Thunder Force AC), was a mediocre translation of Thunder Force III that was actually inferior in many ways to the Genesis original.  That doesn't mean these games are inherently *bad* by any stretch, but compared to Lightening Force in terms of all it has to offer, all it can do, and all the entertainment value it brings, they just don't add up.  I feel the same way about the rest of the shmup library on the Genesis as well - there are plenty of gems like Gaiares, M.U.S.H.A., Robo-Aleste, Android Assault, and the Japan-only releases of Gleylancer and Eliminate Down, but I still believe Lightening Force stands tall above the rest due to its sheer quality and execution.

So now that you've read an entire novella of me gushing about the game, how about reading some more on the subject?  Because I'm far too emotionally connected to this title to do a proper, objective review, I'm simply going to break it down into various components and talk about the game at length.  I'll do a whole part on the music, as that was highly influential for me, and talk about some of my obsessiveness over same.  I'll do an entire section on the graphics, and may delve a bit into the technical details that prove why this game was head and shoulders above the competition for the Genesis.  I plan on writing a portion on the game play and level design, because I think it bears exploring more specifically.  I will also likely write a piece musing about my memories of playing, beating the game, discovering the "omake" music tracks, the "99 lives" trick, and more.  I realize that is a lot of content to write about a single game, but I feel like this game often gets skipped over when people talk about the best games the Sega Genesis has to offer, and that's a shame, because it's an absolute gem.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series!

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