Thunder Force 5 (1997, Technosoft for Saturn)
What a sensational thrill ride! I can’t think of a better or more exciting roller coaster ride for the Fifth Generation than Thunder Force 5. Like a great rock band at the peak of their powers, Technosoft demonstrates a true mastery of their craft while making it look easy, leaving everyone else in their dust. This is probably my favorite arcade shoot-em-up on Sega Saturn.
As with the previous entries in the series, you fly a futuristic spaceship that can be equipped with a variety of weapons that can be switched on the fly. You also have rotating orbs called “craws” that add to your firepower. In TF5, the craws also enable a second-level attack for each weapon, at the expense of draining their power. The ever-reliable hunter cannon returns once again, along with a forward shot and reverse shot. New to this series is the free range gun, which locks lasers onto any targets that fall within its sensor range, as well as an updated wave shot that functions like an infrared ray.
The story is presented in a stylized, fragmented opening sequence, involving a captured alien technology called Vasteel and an artificial intelligence called Guardian’s Heart that achieves consciousness and rebels against humanity. Most of the details are cryptic, emerging in bits and pieces during boss fights, and are almost deliberately mistranslated “Engrish” that only adds to the charm. In layman’s terms, you fly a spaceship and shoot everything that moves.
Now here’s what I think Technosoft does better than anyone: they are masters of the set-piece. Their stage designs are not built around endless waves of identical enemy spaceships or flowery bullet patterns, but in constructing dramatic showdowns against enemies of varying sizes and strengths, threats that come from every conceivable direction, and even environmental obstacles. Sometimes there is a slight break in the action before the next frantic assault, a momentary pause before you are hurled into the next attack.
In the first stage, you begin as the camera sweeps around your spacecraft in three dimensions. You then settle on the standard linear waves of opposing targets and chances for weapon power-ups. Then new enemies appear from the distance as you descend, dropping missiles from aircraft as you fly past giant icebergs. Then an enormous fish-like creature charges through the water at you, almost leaping out of the screen. You descend to continue pursuit, where you face sunken ruins, seacraft and even organic creatures who attack you. You fly into the air as waves of guided missiles chase you from behind. Finally, the stage boss appears, an enormous creature that appears to be an amalgamation of bird, fish and machine. I am reminded of the brilliant creature designs from the Panzer Dragoon Trilogy, which was no doubt an inspiration here.
The first three stages can be selected in any order, true to series tradition, and I am pleasantly surprised by how challenging they are. I’m surprised how tough things can get, especially when I crash and lose my precious weapons. Memorable moments include a journey through a fungal forest (practically lifted wholesale from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind), an attack by an angular creature that moves like a great ape, the appearance of giant motorcycles that skid and turn and make chase, and a futuristic city that is constructed in multiple layers on top of one another.
Much like Thunder Force 4, the game’s first act is only the warmup, and the action truly comes into its own on the fourth stage. The colors shift from metallic monochrome to richly textured, multi-hued rainbow tones. Your environments include mountains covered in rolling waves of fog (a nice recreation of the spectacular flames from TF3), a chase through an underground tunnel tripped with alarm systems, and a titanic battle against a transforming robot named Guardian’s Knight that has to be the greatest boss fight in the series’ history. But then I can also say the same about the epic showdown after that, and the one after that.
Stage five takes place among a giant space battle, where your ship is connected to a giant spacecraft that completely changes your weapon arsenal. The biggest surprise — spoiler alert! — is the appearance of the spaceship from TF4, which has been captured by the alien computer intelligence. The resulting battle takes a number of rounds and results in significant destruction (and rebirth) to both ships as the TF4 theme plays in the background. Thank Heavens nobody told Metallica how Technosoft just completely stole the Master of Puppets riff when they weren’t looking.
Stage six takes place in a realm that almost resembles the Matrix, only with far more colors that just melt off the screen. The backgrounds include geometric shapes and mathematical code, as though you are hacking into a giant computer brain (in a sense, that’s probably what you’re doing). A hexagon background shifts and changes shape, and a new world is “loaded” into view, including new enemies and threats that become ever more abstract. The boss showdown…well, I would not dare to spoil that sequence. I will praise its inspired mad genius and marvel at the sight of an artificial brain being born in front of your eyes as the entire world fractures and spins apart.
The seventh stage consists of the final showdown against the intelligence. This lengthy sequence plays like a cross between TF4’s finale and the Seven Force from Gunstar Heroes, as your opponent changes shape and attacks multiple times before everything collapses into flames. Everything then ends on an ambiguous note, at least until you beat the game on the hardest difficulty level, which results in the “good” ending. Needless to say, it’s well worth the effort, so I strongly advise players to practice, practice, practice.
Thunder Force 5 is a sensational visual showcase for the Sega Saturn, with that unique combination of 2D and 3D graphics, of sprites, pre-rendered CG and polygons that seems to age like wine. Many consider the graphics to be “dated” but I think it looks terrific. It helps if you appreciate the squarish, sometimes chunky look of Saturn 3D, and it especially helps to play on a CRT television display with RF or Composite cables, which results in a crisp, clean display whose rough edges are properly smoothed out. I also marvel at the overall visual design and the many ways this roller coaster climbs, dives, twists and turns in all directions. And the future city just looks astoundingly good, incorporating parallax scrolling, VDP2 planes and 3D polygons that swoop and dive in unison. Saturn may have been a programmer’s nightmare, but in the right hands, it was every players’ dream.
That TF5 was never released in the US is criminal negligence (the fault of an infamous meltdown between Working Designs and Sega of America at E3 1997). A Sony Playstation version was released in 1998, and this is the version that most players know. Unfortunately, it’s a much more austere experience, stripped of much of the visual charm and simplified to fit within the hardware. Whatever. Thunder Force had one true home and that was Sega. Any other destination is sacrilege and a waste of time.