Friday 19 December 2014

Snes Review : Thunder Spirits (Game 067)

As I flicked through the pages of Read-Only Memory’s stunning ‘Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works’ book I couldn't help but think I had missed out. Wounded in the console wars of the nineties, I believed if a game was only available on Sega's 16-bit system then it wasn’t worth my time. As a child, if you tried to tell me there were things a Mega Drive could do better than a SNES, I would have laughed and probably blurted out something defensive about Mode 7 or how Nintendo’s carts were physically bigger and therefore better.  

20 years later I have grown up.  Not only do I entertain the idea of owning Mega Drive games but I am also interested in knowing the intricacies of the console, discovering what makes certain games better in Sega's world. This was why I not only bought Darren Wall’s aforementioned Mega Drive book, but I also was so enthusiastically behind it that I was one of the first to back it on Kickstarter. If anyone was able to help me realise what I had been missing out on all these years it was him. 

"There's no doubt, that when it comes to the 16-bit consoles the SNES was King of the RPGs" I said to Darren recently. “What was the stand-out genre for the Mega Drive?” I was aware that EA had retrospectively revealed that sports games were optimised for the Mega Drive, but these aren't really games that interest me. Darren instead suggested a genre that was more in line with my tastes:

“The Mega Drive was host to some of the finest action platformers ever made – for me that will always be the genre that I most associate with the machine. However, for every ‘Sonic The Hedgehog’, ‘The Super Shinobi’ or ‘Strider’ for the Mega Drive, the SNES had a ‘Contra III’, ‘Super Star Wars’ or ‘Assault Suits Valken’ to match. The genre where the Mega Drive really outshone the SNES was the scrolling shooter – the console was perfectly suited to run this type of game, and as a result the platform was witness to a golden period for the genre.”

I was surprised to hear this. Having played 'UN Squadron' and 'Cotton 100%' I thought the SNES was well-served when it came to shooting things from a side-on perspective. "Those are great games – I also really liked ‘Super R-Type’ and ‘Axelay’." admitted Darren. "But if you’re interested to see the Mega Drive flaunting its technical credentials, I’d recommend taking a look at ‘Thunder Force III’.”

It turns out not only does this man have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Mega Drive, but he also has impeccable taste when it comes to horizontal shoot ‘em ups. Even a cursory glance online reveals a sea of praise for ‘Thunder Force III’.  Mean Machines magazine believes that “’Thunderforce III’ is one of the most technically stunning Mega Drive blasters around.” Drawing attention to the visuals in particular, they are enamoured with “the shimmering fiery backdrops of the volcano planet [and] the super-smooth parallax scrolling on the ice world”. This “graphical treat” according to Mean Machines magazine is “one of the best blasters available on the Mega Drive ... packing a powerful punch in the shoot 'em up stakes”. 

Playing the game (via emulation) it's hard to deny its quality. The game is fast, frantic and exhilarating. Bosses and bullets fill the screen, creating a frantic, exciting game that is only made better by the soundtrack. 'Thunder Force III' sounds unmistakably Sega, with that signature Yamaha YM2612 sound ringing in the ears of anyone who is lucky enough to play the game. 

To my surprise I discovered that this famously Sega game was actually also released for the Super Nintendo, albeit with a different name. Super Play magazine, the SNES's greatest cheerleader, even reviewed 'Thunder Spirits' although what they said would hardly encourage anyone to go out and buy a copy. “It isn’t anywhere near as good on the SNES; no effort has been made to use any of the special features that a SNES offers. Don’t let your Sega friends see this”.

Comparing 'Thunder Force III' to 'Thunder Spirits' really does show that for the best shooting experience you had to have a 16-bit Sega machine. The  gameplay in both games is essentially the same: The player pilots a spacecraft that's perpetually moving from the left side of the screen to the right. While traversing the environmental level hazards, the player must obliterate as many enemies as possible. This not only gives the highest score but also unlocks additional weapons or improvements to the arsenal that you already have.
Without these weapon upgrades defeating the gigantic end of stage bosses is exceptionally hard. Though the play mechanics vary little throughout the game, each stage looks different which helps to avoid monotony. In the Sega version you could even choose the order of the levels, allowing you greater flexibility to vary a play-through. This option is however missing on the Super Nintendo and it’s the first of many omissions. 

The most significant cut may actually sound insignificant, but in reality it really does hamper your enjoyment. Gone is auto-fire, meaning a SNES player must hammer the fire button continuously when playing. This is not only tiring, but it also makes this already hard game nearly impossible. Considering the nature of the genre, limiting the player’s ability to shoot seems somewhat ironic. This is why I tried to artificially create an auto firing spaceship, using an auto fire controller. However, as soon as I flicked the turbo switch it became clear why auto fire was removed from the Snes version in the first place; having more than 4 or 5 bullets on screen causes the game to grind to a near halt. 

Though it’s not often admitted by Nintendo zealots, the Mega Drive has a faster processor than the SNES. With a limited colour palate and the inability to manipulate sprites or vectors within a 3D space, Sega’s machine couldn’t perform the graphical wizardry that the Super Nintendo could, but, it would always do better at (blast) processing many simple things simultaneously. This is why ‘Thunder Force III’ is not crippled by slow-down in the way ‘Thunder Spirits’ is. 

Other than the slow-down, there’s little to differentiate the two ‘Thunder’ games, especially in the first three levels which are identical. The Super Nintendo’s ‘Thunder Spirits’ is almost a facsimile of ‘Thunder Force III’ which is actually a shame, as there is so much more that could have been done with the game. You’d hope that developers would have taken advantage of the increase in the number of on-screen colours, or would have incorporated Mode 7 sprite scaling in some way, but the graphical potential of the SNES is untapped in ‘Thunder Spirits’.
Admittedly the level bosses are marginally larger and have more frames of animation, but far too often you are left staring at a four colour ship waiting for more enemies to fill the screen (then of course you have to endure the inevitable slow-down that comes with their arrival). There is a lingering sense that ‘Thunder Spirits’ was a rushed programming job, or one that was handled with a lack of expertise and knowledge of the Super Nintendo's inner workings. It should have been an impressive shooter – the optimal version of ‘Thunder Force III’ – instead it's rarely mentioned when people talk about the best shooting games for the SNES. It’s a game that didn't live up to its potential, or indeed the legacy that comes with a ‘Thunder’ title. 

When you compare the game to other horizontal SNES shooters that were made from the ground up for the Super Nintendo, ‘Thunder Spirits’ clearly fall short. Even the bombastic, energetic music of the Mega Drive version sounds somewhat neutered and soulless on the SNES – like a cover band desperately trying to replicate an original performance that they have only heard through a pair of cheap headphones. The tunes are all there but the feeling is lacking. 

It transpires this is probably because every aspect of the game was made with an eye on a Western,  – specifically American Genesis-owning – audience. Tez Okano the director of the PS2 title ‘Thunder Force VI’ once said to Edge magazine that “Mega Drive users overseas [were] not very interested in Japanese RPGs so ‘Thunder Force’ [was created] for these players, a very basic shooting experience like you would have enjoyed during the arcade golden age.” When a game, purpose made for one system, is moved to another, it inevitably will suffer. 

With all this being said though, provided you can put up with the slow-down, there’s a lot of fun to be had playing ‘Thunder Spirits’ – especially if you don’t compare it to the superior ‘Thunder Force III’.  As Tez Okano knows, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in repetitive, mindless blasting. “Back in time I was enjoying arcade shooters at home” he once said. For the ‘Thunder Force IV’ director, playing retro shoot ‘em up games is a way to relax, despite their intensity and difficulty.  “When I get back home after work, I open a can of beer and its instant fun. Today, the games are too complicated, they need too much focus. Playing a ‘Thunder Force’ game means no need to wonder about anything, just shoot, defeat the enemy waves and bosses and get the reward of achieving victory! Just pure shooting fun.”

Like Darren Wall, who originally recommended I play ‘Thunder Force III’, Tez Okano has a soft spot for the series. Even now they are his shooter of choice. “People reminisce about it, talking about all those great moments, sequences, bosses. A series like ‘Thunder Force’ reaches the status of legend.” Presumably though, when Tex Okano looks in his hands there is a Mega Drive Controller rather than SNES Gamepad. Perhaps it’s true what they say, there are some things that Segas do that Nintendon’t. 

Regardless of whether your blood runs Sega blue or Nintendo red I urge you to buy Read-Only Memory’s excellent ‘Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works’. The insight the book offers into the console’s most influential game developers cannot be matched. It presents a truly fascinating snapshot of the 16-bit era. With lavish presentation, unparalleled access to Sega’s archives and – best of all for me – pages upon pages of beautiful pixel art. The book can be bought directly from the publisher’s website.

Thanks must, as always, go to Tsunami Games, who provided me with a copy of ‘Thunder Spirits’. It’s always good to have an eBay seller who offers friendly service and great value. So great in fact that every now and then he gives games away – all you have to do is pay for the postage. This is how I came to own this shooting curiousity.

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