The Games That Made Me - part 2
Thunder Force IV (Sega Mega Drive)
Something about Thunder Force IV has persuaded me to rank it above all other Mega Drive games I owned or played. Maybe it’s the 16-bit version of some 80s metal guitar riffs. Maybe it’s the rail gun weapon. Maybe it’s the fact that I used a cheat mode every time I played it (It’s that last reason).
In any case, the moment I saw the graphics on a screenshot in the previews section of Sega Power, I knew I had to own this. At the time, I think I owned a Master System II and so I’d have to wait until Christmas when the Mega Drive arrived, all shiny-like. Even then, it was another month until I got this for my birthday (Christmas was a time for Sonics 1 & 2, you understand).
This game is hell. I believe there’s a term ‘bullet hell’ for shoot-em-ups - as they were called back then, before ‘shmups’ ruined everything - and I bet this doesn’t even qualify, but to me, it was as hardcore a game as I’d ever played. And that was on easy mode (probably - I rarely default to Expert or anything).
But it’s fast-paced, brain-numbing fun. Very Japanese, obviously. The design alone is telling, with crazy ships and intricate foregrounds. I guess it has a fair amount in common with R-Type as well, which was a favourite of mine prior to this (again, despite my absolute uselessness at playing it successfully).
It strikes me that the reason so many of these side or vertical-scrolling shooters have such a steep difficulty curve is that it must be a challenge to design the gameplay, what with bullets spraying at a rate of a dozen a second. Just imagine having to refine the timing and speed of all of these enemies so as to not create a point or points in the game which the player can literally not get through without dying. A few gaming podcasts recently have (quite coincidentally) spoken about the value of games in which you feel that any time you lose, it’s your own fault. You know you could have done better, and so you pick up the controller and try again. If it feels like the game is just being unfair, it stops being as much fun.
Of course, we all unjustifiably blame the game more than once in our lives to avoid our ego taking a hit from a bunch of pixels, but there’s something to learn from games like Thunder Force IV when - if all else fails - you can just include a cheat mode as standard and let the player just enjoy the experience from start to finish.
I rarely complete a game, but this one I did. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement, but I played it through maybe 20 times. And the music for Stage 9 alone made it all worthwhile.