The Space Shooter has its roots in early arcade games like Xevious and Scramble, but the 16-bit home console era is where the genre really shined. The late 80s & early 90s saw the release of such classics as Blazing Lasers on Turbografx-16 and Super R-TYPE on SNES, as well as MUSHA and the Thunder Force games on Genesis. The last of that venerable series was Thunder Force IV, which was released in the US as Lightening Force. And yes, they did spell it “Lightening.” On the box and in the game. Whoops.
Spelling gaffes aside, Lightening Force is one of the best space shooters available for the Genesis. Released by Technosoft in 1992, Lightening Force pits you and your lone space ship against the entire forces of Supergalactic Evil. That’s all standard shmup fare, but Lightening Force adds a lot of new features into the mix. There are loads of power-ups, including weapons, shields, 1-ups and a couple of satellites that orbit your ship, effectively tripling your firepower while absorbing enemy bullets. When a new weapon is collected, it’s stored instead of simply replacing the existing one. You can cycle through these weapons with the press of a button, selecting the best one to use at the moment. Some shoot in several directions at once, some slide along surfaces and some home in on enemies. You’ll need this versatility, because bad guys will come at you from all directions, often pitching you into the seventh level of Bullet Hell. When you die, you lose whatever weapon you were using at the moment, but you retain the others. This is a huge improvement over shmups that leave you nearly defenseless until more power-ups can be collected. You can also control the speed of your space ship’s movements in four increments; handy when you want to zip across the screen one minute and ever-so-gingerly squeeze between asteroids the next.
In term of difficulty, Lightening Force is challenging but never cruel. You get three lives and limited continues, but extra lives come pretty frequently. At the beginning of the game, you can pick the order in which you play through the first four levels; handy if you get stuck on a particular level or if you want to stockpile weapons for later levels. Speaking of which, Lightening Force packs a lot of variety into its level designs. Early in the game, you skim across the surface of an alien ocean picking smaller enemies off before descending to its depths to engage the boss. In a later lever, you must carefully maneuver through a formation of giant space ships which themselves are engaged in battle with an unseen adversary. At times, Lightening Force really makes you feel like you’re a part of a much larger conflict. There are space levels, desert levels, ice and lava levels. All shooter staples, to be sure, but they’re well represented in Lightening Force. There’s usually a lot of action going on at once too, which can sometimes cause the game to chug--Lightening Force’s only flaw, really.
The music in Lightening Force is stellar. It’s a high-energy mix of hard rock and synth tracks that perfectly complements the frenetic action on screen.
Lightening Force’s absence on the Virtual Console or any other modern system is nothing short of a travesty. However, it sold well when it was released and it’s not in high demand these days, so a copy from eBay might set you back a sawbuck. If you love old-school space shooters and you still have a Genesis, it’s well worth the money.
Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I dig through a stack of my old Amiga games and try to find some that still work!