Version Reviewed: Super NES
Year Published: 1992
Publisher: Seika Corp.
The general consensus on Technosoft's Thunder Spirits is that it's a mediocre port of the arcade game it's based on, Thunder Force AC, and is inferior to its Sega Genesis counterpart, Thunder Force III. I have never played the arcade game and probably played less than an hour of the Genesis title. I recognized some of the music from Thunder Force III, but can tell you little else about how they compare to one another. What I can say is Thunder Spirits is certainly not the worst space shooter I've ever played and not even the worst on the Super NES, but doesn't stand out amongst its better contemporaries.
The earlier Thunder Force series titles had overhead stages, but in a move heavily inspired by Konami's Gradius and Irem's R-Type series, Technosoft went all sidescrolling this time. The weapons, speed-up system, and even the stage designs will remind SNES players in particular of Gradius III and Super R-Type. There are times it felt like I took a wrong turn and ended up in Bacterian's Mechanical Base or the solar flare stage in Life Force. Even some of the enemies are nearly identical, such as the fiery phoenixes and the "Mill", a blue ball that appears out of the background and converges on the player's ship, just like the Zubs in Gradius. Bosses include giant ships that could easily pass for Gradius Cores, wall bosses that block further progress, and the final boss, a bio-computer called "ORN", that looks and plays out similarly to Bacterian and the Bydo Core.
Because of this strangely blatant mimicry, Thunder Spirits feels more like a game that's for players who can't get enough of the space shooter genre and will feel comfortable with its familiarities than it is a definitive game of its own. I'll admit that I knew little about it when I originally bought it. There was a short review in Nintendo Power magazine that had a screenshot of the first boss, a giant frilled-lizard creature (also depicted on the box art), that I thought looked really cool, but the review was less than favorable. Nintendo Power was typically uninterested in space shooters, so I didn't let that stop me from picking up a copy when a local video rental store liquidated their SNES stock. Indeed, my cartridge has a "VOID" imprint on the back from an old sticker. Perhaps fitting, since the game would've made a decent rental. Paying full price for it would've been less justified.
The key to winning in Thunder Spirits is to get your ship fully powered-up and try your best to keep it that way. This is common to many shooters of the era, but the curious aspect of Thunder Spirits is that you're not a complete sitting duck if your ship is destroyed. You lose the weapon you were currently using, but you can accumulate up to five. If you still have any, you can just switch to a different one. Even the default weapons the ship always has aren't too shabby and can be upgraded. Each weapon has advantages and disadvantages, but they're all similarly overpowered. When fully upgraded, you're a wall of firepower that's difficult for enemies to penetrate.
The level design of Thunder Spirits is typical space shooter fare, and only occasionally offers something you may not have seen before. While the mechanical bases look like the ones from the Gradius games, there are a few sections where the screen will suddenly scroll backwards as you're forced to maneuver the ship around narrow passageways. It happens without warning, and almost seems out-of-place when it does. There is a stage that scrolls diagonally through the ruins of space junk, which is unusual, yet has the same feel as the Moai stage of Gradius III. Thunder Spirits even includes a "giant warship" level, originally made famous by R-Type's Level 3. After destroying much of this behemoth's exterior weaponry, your ship descends into a hatch to blow up its core from the inside. It's a moment that's satisfying, if all too brief.
One area in which Thunder Spirits makes some attempt to excel beyond its muses is in the detailed background graphics. There is far more going on than in the starfields and subdued backdrops of earlier SNES shooters. Digital lights flash and move in the mechanical bases, multiple-background parallax creates a sense of depth in the underwater stage, and the wavy blazing fire of the volcanic level is impressive. Unfortunately, there is a caveat to these advanced special effects - sometimes the backgrounds are so busy that you inevitably get hit by objects you couldn't see. Gaudy bright yellow and red colors obscure similarly-hued tiny bullets and lasers from enemy fire. One gets the sense that this is why backgrounds were kept simple in earlier shooters - it was a matter of practicality.
Despite its shameless borrowing of elements from other space shooters, and perhaps its inability to live up to its arcade counterpart, I do feel the general dislike of it is somewhat undeserved. It's better recommended for novice players and those who haven't already mastered Thunder Force III or Thunder Force AC, as that seems to be part of the problem - it doesn't offer anything new for fans of those games. It does include multiple difficulty settings, accessible by holding Select before pressing Start at the title screen, but they are only incrementally different. I didn't notice much change at all between Hard and Maniac, the two highest settings. Oddly, if you beat the game once and then enter this menu, you're now given the option to increase your number of ships. So you can raise the difficutly, but also your chances of clearing it. Very strange. At least the music is good. I would give the edge to the Genesis versions of the songs, but when the source material is this good, it's hard to mess it up.
Consider that Gradius III and Super R-Type are also not exact ports of their arcade counterparts, and are known to have slowdown issues, yet they are still loved as classics by many SNES fans. This makes me believe there's something else that prevented Thunder Spirits from achieving the same cult status. I think part of it is that SNES players had moved on from space shooters to RPGs and, after the success of Capcom's Street Fighter II, fighting games. It commits no major atrocities, but it just wasn't enough to reinvigorate anyone's interest in the genre. It seems no shooter was until R-Type III. Released only a year later in 1993, its multitude of stage designs that took explicit advantage of the SNES's unique capabilities reinforce how much Thunder Spirits was imitating without innovating.
Good graphics with huge, well-animated bosses and lots of nifty special background effects.
Fun mindless shooting action for novice space shooter fans.
The busyness of the backgrounds can obscure enemies and bullets in some areas.
Stage designs tend to be derivative of earlier shooters without much innovation.
Not much change in difficulty between the different settings and they're hidden by a code.