In the early ‘90s, it was believed by many Mega Drive / Genesis fans that Thunder Force II, III and IV were the best examples of the shoot ‘em up genre on their system. It was hard to argue with them: the Thunder Force games delivered an awesome combination of constant action, impressive graphical trickery, ridiculous screen-filling weaponry, a thumping soundtrack and a level of difficulty that always provided a real challenge, but rarely felt cheap.
Although Sega published the Mega Drive’s three Thunder Force games, the rights always stayed with their developer Technosoft, but when Technosoft went bust in 2001 and was acquired by a Japanese pachinko company, the entire Thunder Force series – along with the rest of its game library – was held in IP purgatory until Sega finally bought it in 2016.
Since then, the big S has been re-releasing the Thunder Force titles in various retro compilations, including the Sega 3D Classics series on the 3DS and the Mega Drive Mini. When the Sega Ages series launched on the Switch, the first two games were Sonic and Thunder Force IV. Here we are about a year and a half later, and with Sega Ages now 18 games strong, it’s time for a Thunder Force rarity to make an appearance.
Thunder Force AC is a reworked port of Thunder Force III designed for arcades. Although it’s similar in many ways, there are a number of changes that set it apart from the game many already have on their Mega Drive Mini. For starters, two of the Thunder Force III stages – Haides and Ellis – have been taken out of Thunder Force AC and replaced with new levels (including a temple stage taken from Thunder Force II). The ability to choose which level to start on is also removed, making it a more linear affair.
Another notable difference is that when you lose all your lives in Thunder Force III and choose to continue, you’re taken back to the mission select screen and have to start the level from scratch. When you continue in Thunder Force AC, your ship respawns where you left off; this makes it much easier to brute force your way through more difficult sections if you only have a life or two left. All of this results in a game that isn’t necessarily better or worse than Thunder Force III – it’s just different, and an interesting alternative take.
Naturally, this being a Sega Ages release, the team at M2 has introduced a number of tweaks and enhancements to ensure you’re getting more than just the ROM file slapped into an emulator. These include three unlockable ships, each with their own unique properties. The RYNEX ship from Thunder Force IV, for example, has completely different weapons, whereas the STYX Mass Production Model – which made a cameo as a support ship in the fourth game – has an interesting quirk where a flame comes out the back when you change speeds. If you change speed at the same time as using a reverse shot to hit an enemy behind you, you’ll get bonus points – ideal for improving your high score.
There are other, less grandiose additions than entirely new ships, but ones that are arguably even more welcome. The arcade port removed the autofire that came as standard in the Mega Drive game – the Sega Ages version brings autofire back and enables it by default (though you can turn it off if you’re a massive fan of jabbing your thumb into the B button thousands of times in a row). Given the constant stream of action in the game, this seemingly minor inclusion potentially makes all the difference between whether we recommend buying it or not; a lack of autofire without big arcade buttons to slap could have made this a real chore. Meanwhile, most of the music and sound effects have now been reworked into stereo, when they were mono before.
There’s also a new easier difficulty option, which is rather harshly called Kids Mode. This actually combines a bunch of little tweaks which come together to make the game a lot more welcoming to shoot ‘em up novices. The number of continues you get increases from 6 to 9 – which is nice – plus your shots do a lot more damage than usual, which means bosses can be taken out more quickly. On top of that, if you die you don’t lose any weaponry, which means that once you earn the deadly homing gun you can just unleash death until the credits roll.
No doubt the hardcore shmup fans – the kind of people who say ‘shmup’, incidentally – will turn their noses so far up at this addition that they might actually be able to smell their own brains. Obviously, though, this is only an option; nothing’s being forced upon anyone who wants to play the game the way it was originally intended, and to ensure nobody’s treading on anyone’s turf there are also two separate sets of online leaderboards – Expert (for the normal, untouched game) and Freestyle (for the game with any options tweaked, including Kids Mode).
The other usual Sega Ages features are in here too, including a handful of filtering and resizing options, and the ability to play in ‘cabinet mode’, which shows you the game running on an arcade cabinet with general arcade ambience going on behind it. This is hit and miss depending on what game you’re playing, and we’re leaning more towards ‘miss’ with this one; the screen is just too small to be enjoyable, especially in a shoot ‘em up where there are lots of bullets flying around.
Perhaps the most surprising improvement here, though, is the addition of HD rumble. Often this feels tacked on when it’s retrospectively added to an older game but it genuinely improves the feel of the Thunder Force AC. It triggers when an enemy is destroyed, almost giving the sense that your ship is feeling the shockwaves from its explosion. Small enemies only make your controller murmur a little, whereas larger ones trigger more defined jolts. It adds to the immersion to a surprising degree and it’s actually one of the better uses of rumble we’ve played in a retro game, which we weren’t expecting.
Our only other real quibble is that we'd have liked to have seen the Mega Drive version of Thunder Force III on here, too (and perhaps even the SNES port Thunder Spirits, purely for completion's sake, as it's not actually very good). In the same way that previous Sega Ages games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Columns II and Ichidant-R included both Mega Drive and arcade variants, it's a shame that the same wasn't done here; after all, Thunder Force III is so similar to AC that we'd imagine Sega would never be bold enough to give it its own separate Sega Ages release. It wouldn't... would it?
Given the presence of Thunder Force IV in the Sega Ages series, it’s fair to say that Thunder Force AC isn’t as big a novelty as other Sega Ages arcade games, like Virtua Racing or G-LOC. This doesn’t necessarily matter, though; it’s still one of the better shoot ‘em ups of its time, and the addition of a new mode aimed at less experienced players gives a much-appreciated entry point for gamers who’ve always been interested in the genre but felt intimidated by its generally high level of difficulty. Whether you’re a shmup fiend or a complete amateur, there’s fun to be had here.