If this port of Thunder Force IV is anything to go by, with AGES, SEGA may have finally achieved retro reissue perfection. The best version so far of a true 16-bit classic, albeit one with a steep learning curve and some technological shortcomings.
Earlier this year, SEGA announced a successor initiative of sorts under the (oft used) moniker, SEGA AGES. With M2 again at the helm, a plethora of first party classics were promised for the Switch. First out of the gate are Sonic the Hedgehog (yes, again) and the classic Mega Drive shmup, Thunder Force IV.
One for the AGES
For whatever reason the game was retitled Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar in the US, but those of you reading this from across the pond will be happy to learn that both it and the international release are available here. It’s worth also noting that although this AGES outing is based on the original Mega Drive version and not the 1996 Saturn Port, it does include the previously Saturn-exclusive Styx mode, which we’ll go into later.
The all new AGES interface is pretty slick, with large, colourful icons (presumably for visibility in handheld mode) and artwork, in addition to a great little animated intro sequence. There’s even a cool “SE-GA” like jingle on the title screen that’s sure to tug on the old heart strings.
As is par for the course nowadays with retro reissues, there are a ton of visual customization options, including the obligatory CRT filters. Sometimes these effects can be somewhat overbearing, but the AGES preset Vintage Mode actually looks pretty good, with just the right amount of blur and curvature applied to the image to evoke childhood memories of classic gaming via cathode ray.
Styx and Stones
Thunder Force IV follows the shmup genre’s broad strokes, while at that same time successfully forging an identity all of its own.
Unlike many horizontal shooters, in Thunder Force IV, the play area can also be scrolled vertically within a limited range on most stages. This serves to at least create the impression of freedom, even if in truth, you’re just as anchored to the inevitable rightward crawl as ever.
As you’d expect, weapon power-ups come in many shapes and sizes, but unusually, you’re free to cycle through any you’ve collected at will rather than being stuck with the last one you acquired. There’s also a rear fire mode, which is handy given that a great many enemies will try and flank you.
Moreover, it’s possible to control your ship’s speed, charging your engines to anything from 1 to 100% by holding down the Y button. We have two misgivings with this: first of all, in such a fast paced shooter, we don’t really understand why you’d ever want your ship at anything below 100% manoeuvrability at all times. Secondly, while you can adjust engine power by as little as a single percent at a time, we’re pretty sceptical that affording players such pinpoint precision was ever really all that necessary.
Given Thunder Force IV’s gameplay quirks, it’s no bad thing that there’s a digital manual specific to this AGES release to consult at your leisure. Interestingly, it actually opens in the Switch’s onboard web browser, which to be fair, doesn’t prove as cumbersome as it might sound. Most importantly, the manual is sharp and legible in both handheld and docked modes.
Now onto Styx Mode. As we mentioned earlier, this was previously exclusive to the Saturn version of Thunder Force IV, released as part of Thunder Force Gold Pack II. In Styx mode you take control of the eponymous ship from Thunder Force III, sporting a different array of weapons in addition to a dodge move of sorts. Interestingly, (minor spoiler alert) Styx also makes a cameo appearance in stage 5 to fight alongside your usual craft, Rynex. Styx mode is a nice addition and could prove attractive to Thunder Force IV veterans that never got around to picking the game up on the Saturn.
AGED to Perfection?
The shooting in Thunder Force IV is just as fun now as it ever was, but difficulty may prove a sticking point for the uninitiated. In short, it’s a pretty challenging game, even when tackled in the patronisingly titled Kids Mode, and unlike some retro shooter reissues we’ve reviewed recently, there’s no option for unlimited lives to abuse while you get your bearings. One one hand, this forces newcomers to actually play the game as intended, but on the other, many will find retreading the initial stages over and over off putting.
Enemies are loose riffs on the Giger-inspired biomechnical aesthetic very common in video games at the time (see Gynoug, Mega Turrican et al), but are far from the best examples of this particular sci-if trope. While rarely more than merely serviceable in the looks department as a whole, Thunder Force IV’s impressive parallax scrolling effect deserves a special mention. The many interweaving layers of sprites here, both in the fore and background, create a pleasing sense of depth and forward momentum.
The original Mega Drive release of Thunder Force IV is notorious for chugging on occasion when things get too busy. Given how many orders of magnitude more powerful the Switch is than the Mega Drive, M2 have seen fit to include a ‘Reduce Processing Delay’ option, thereby utilising some of the Switch’s leftover horsepower to improve performance. There’s a tangible improvement, but the game still doesn’t deliver a locked frame rate, even with this mode engaged. A disclaimer states that some slowdown is by design, and thus unavoidable. We’ll have to take M2’s word for it on that one.
Sound effects are forgettable and of generally poor quality, particularly the harsh, lo-fi voice clips that play when you collect a power up. Weapons likewise sound brittle and tinny. The music is a mixed bag: we think the compositions are pretty great, but the actual quality of the samples leaves a lot to be desired. Ultimately, it seems that Thunder Force IV may have been hamstrung by the limitations of the Mega Drive’s Achilles heel: its notoriously lacklustre Yamaha YM2612 sound chip.
It’s easy to become weary of SEGA’s never ending cycle of modern re-releases, but to the company’s credit, each set of reissues is generally better than the last. This AGES version of Thunder Force IV is an excellent starting point, and certainly more interesting to hardcore SEGA fans than yet another Sonic the Hedgehog redux.
The game is satisfying to play with some nice and unique ideas, even if it hasn’t aged all that gracefully from an aural standpoint and pulls few punches in terms of difficulty. The new AGES wrapper is by far the slickest yet, and bodes well for future releases, among which is the arcade version of Thunder Force III, Thunder Force AC. .
+ Original shmup gameplay
+ Extra STYX Mode
+ Slick AGES interface
– Poor sound effects
– Performance issues
– High difficulty