Almost a prog album cover.
“Suddenly, the air conditioning broke, and Tom melted into a fiery pulp…”
RELEASE DATE: 06/08/90 – (JP), 10/90 – (US)
Technosoft follows up their genre-creating strategic masterpiece Herzog Zwei with one of the finest shoot-em-ups I’ve ever played. Thunder Force III doesn’t redefine the genre, but it does polish it to a near-perfect sheen. Enormous bosses, fantastic weapons, creative level design, excellent handling: everything you love about side-scrolling shoot-em-ups is on full display here.
The Disco Lobster means serious boogie business.
You control Styx, a ship equipped to destroy the evil ORN Empire’s cloaking devices on five different planets. When you first begin the game, you can choose which one of these planets you wish to attack first. Once you select the initial planet, however, the game controls your course and you’re forced to tackle the planets in the order provided.
Ew, you’re picking that one?
As in Thunder Force II, Styx is always equipped with default weapons, Twin Shot and Backfire. Both of these weapons are surprisingly powerful, even in their initial state. You can, however, upgrade them to Laser Beam and Lancer Fire and really unleash hell; Laser Beam in particular is ridiculously overpowered and can cut through bosses quickly. Additional weapons include Waves, long and slender bursts of energy; Fire, single-shot missiles that crawl along the ceiling and ground; and Hunter, guided homing orbs. Items such as the Shield and the Claw, which triples your attack power, are also helpful, though much less common than the weapons. You can also switch between weapons at any time with the ‘C’ button – an incredibly helpful feature, as each planet’s layout and enemies call for slightly different tactics.
Shame those aren’t geysers of Tang.
While you can initially choose any planet you want to start, if you’ve never played the game before, the jungle planet Hydra is your best bet. Hydra has a straightforward design with fewer enemies, which allows you to ease into the action to come.
Hydra does have this jerk, but he’s pretty easy.
After Hydra, all bets are off. Gorgon is a lava world, with trippy red background waves hypnotizing you and molten geysers spraying constantly around your ship. Seiren is nothing but water, which might sound peaceful, if not for the constant air bubbles pushing you upwards towards enemies. Haides’ ever-shifting terrain feels like it’s always on the verge of falling apart. It constantly moves up and down, and at one point, forces you to retrace your steps backwards until another path can be found. Finally, Ellis is a cruel ice world that showers you with frozen stalactites and forces you through tight crystal caverns.
There’s more frozen dooks where those came from!
The bosses for these planets all have intimidating proportions, though they’re not all created equal in terms of strength. The Gargoyle – which looks nothing like a traditional gargoyle – has an easy pattern and can be taken down quickly by shooting its stomach with the default Twin Shot. On the other hand, the Twin Vulcans’ weakness is surrounded by laser-repelling metal, and is incredibly difficult to destroy without the Hunter homing orbs.
These bosses gave me the most trouble, despite their early appearance in the game.
Once you’ve beaten the five planets, the battle shifts to ORN headquarters. You destroy the enormous ship, Cerberus, from the outside in, then venture into the cold ORN base. The base is one of the largest environments yet, complete with three large sections, two midbosses, light bursts that split into eight-way directional beams, and a boss that requires you to avoid ever-shifting, screen-filling blocks while shooting its center. The ORN mean business. Once you breach the ORN core there are two additional bosses to destroy: an insect-like guardian with arms that wave back and forth in front of its weak point, and the ORN Emperor, encased within a royal purple egg.
“Sure we can’t resolve this with words instead of horrible gruesome death?”
If you have the right weapons equipped and can hang onto the Claw for most of the game, Thunder Force III is cake – at least on the Normal setting. I always expect drawn-out boss battles in shoot-em-ups, so I was surprised at how quickly the bosses died here. The levels aren’t always overrun with enemies, either. There were periods during each stage where I could breathe and gather myself because there was nothing happening on-screen; can’t say that about most Genesis shmups I’ve played thus far. Personally, I enjoyed the lighter challenge compared to, say, Truxton or even Thunder Force II. And beating the game on Normal makes me want to try Hard and Mania to see how far I can get.
I think this screenshot captions itself.
Thunder Force III would eventually be rebranded as Thunder Force AC in Japanese arcades. While the bulk of the game is similar to its console counterpart, the Haides and Ellis planets have been removed for a new space stage and the temple stage from Thunder Force II. The difficulty was increased as well. Thunder Force AC would then be ported and rebranded as Thunder Spirits for the SNES. Thunder Spirits suffered from some additional changes, the biggest of which was slowdown not present in Thunder Force AC or Thunder Force III. Thunder Spirits remains the only SNES entry in the Thunder Force series.
A decent entry, but Thunder Force III remains the superior game.
One could argue that most shoot-em-ups have large bosses, an energetic soundtrack, and interesting weapons. But not all shoot-em-ups feel as good to play as Thunder Force III does. Styx controls so smoothly, and the steady rapid-fire barrage you’re able to unleash from the first level onward is intensely satisfying. Throw in some of the best level design I’ve seen in the genre, and you have a classic that feels as fresh today as it did in 1990. Hats off to Technosoft’s achievement.
Some celebratory cuddles for the camera.