Thunder Force V
Review written March, 2001
Thunder Force 5 is practically fun burnt onto a CD. Whenever I'm getting bored of slow RPGs and need some action fast, or maybe when I just want to let off some steam and blow stuff away, I pop in TF5. Part of the fun comes from the controls - it's very easy to fly all over the screen very quickly. The play control is possibly the best I've encountered in a game. Like other Thunder Force games, you can set your speed if you're using the d-pad (so you don't need to worry about a stupid Gradius-esque power-up speed system) but even better, it's analogue control compatible. Sure, a lot of games are in this day and age, but this is one of the few games I can say was really benefited by analogue control. In many other games, I just use the d-pad, anyway (or would prefer to when I can't!). But in TF5, the ability to finesse through tight bullets while the next instant zoom out of the way of screen filling lasers is granted thanks to the game's pressure sensitive analogue control. Once you become tuned to the game, it's like you have a mental connection to your ship.
Of the other games in the Thunder Force series, TF5 is most similar to Thunder Force 3, as both are mostly straight-forward space shooters. The series in general gets much of its character from its firepower, and TF5 has many elements of the older TF games' weapon systems. Again, you always have a forward and rear shot, and you can add other weapons without losing what you have - you can select between your weapons with one control scheme... although TF5 adds a new control scheme where each weapon is mapped to a different button. I usually use the older fashioned scroll-through-weapons scheme. When you die, so long as you have at least one life left, you don't lose all your weapons, and you don't get set back (that happens when you run completely out of lives); rather, you only lose your currently selected weapon (unless, of course, you were using or strategically switched to a weapon you'll always have, like the forward or back shot). Personally, I like innovative weapons more than traditional Strikers 1945 II-type stuff, and the big new weapon TF5 adds is the free range. It's a big wire frame cone, and when you're not holding down the fire button it'll move in the opposite direction you're moving, so you can spin it around and aim it any direction. Pressing fire locks the cone in position. Then, anything within the cone takes damage, but you'll do more damage the closer you are to your target. Of course, this can be the strongest weapon in the game. There were weapons vaguely like this in TF2 and 4, but it's so different in this installment it feels completely new. The traditional Thunder Force weapons Hunter and Wave return. Also, other powerup items are CRAWs, which are similar to options. They (you can grab up to 3) circle around your ship, increasing the power of your weapons, and can absorb enemy gunfire. Another addition to TF5 is the overweapon power - this lets whichever weapon you're using become extra powerful, though it drains CRAW strength. CRAWs can replenish, but if they're fully drained and absorb one bullet, they're gone. When you die, the CRAWs bounce around the screen, and you can reclaim them, like options in Salamander.
The stages are a little cliche - there's a water stage, a jungle stage, and a stage where you fight an armada of ships, for example - but there are cool hooks, too. For example, before you fight the armada, your ship becomes powered up and fitted into some armor which changes your weapons and gives you a life bar! There are also plenty of unique enemies and attack patterns to keep things interesting: you won't simply be dodging bullets throughout the entire game.
Publisher Working Designs controversially removed the ability to finish the game on easy - you can only play the first four stages on that difficulty level. Personally, I'm glad this was done. Being able to beat the game on easy would cheapen the victory, and it's not as though you shouldn't be expected to beat the game on normal, anyway (it's a hell of a lot easier than R-Type). But I do know some people who got stuck on some bosses on normal difficulty. Also, the end boss is truly memorable, and I was just reminded of how hard it can be from someone who was complaining about what a time he was having trying to beat the thing. It's a large beastie that can throw energy clusters, shoot out big cannon shots as it zooms up and down the screen, slice through the sky with a sword, shoot lighting bolts, and can grab your ship out of the sky and chomp down on it. To make it even harder, you have to beat the boss within a time limit, and if you don't, it'll fly off and you'll get the bad ending. As far as I can tell, if you continue on the final boss, it'll be impossible to get the good ending since you won't be powered up to kill it fast enough. Of course, you'll need to get the good ending to unlock most of the secrets the game has to offer.
Even for a shooter, the game seems slightly short to me; nothing catastrophic, but I think I would have liked one more true stage (the game is six stages long, plus the boss). Still, the game takes about a half hour to clear when you're good, which is about average for a shooter. But if you want more value, the game tries to give it to you. Not only does the game have a normal and hard difficulty, but if you want more of a challenge, beating the game on hard (good ending only, of course) unlocks the master difficulty. Also, beating the game at all unlocks the time attack mode, where you fight only bosses. The game also has a gallery, and more pictures unlock as you do better in the game. The game also had a $10,000 point contest, but of course that's long over now.
The graphics are on the ugly side. It was originally a Saturn game, and it seems some of the Saturn effects were redone in the laziest, easiest way possible for the Playstation. The polygon bosses could have looked a lot cooler if the models were redone for the Playstation specifically, but it didn't happen. Either way, even as a Saturn port, I know the PS could have made it look better than this, since this is one of the ugliest shooters for the system! To be more specific: much of the graphics are 2D, in particular the backgrounds, but some enemies, your own ship, and the bosses are all polygonal. The artistry of the backgrounds is good, but the backgrounds lack detail. In most games with multiple levels of parallax, usually the first levels are the most vibrant and detailed, while the back layers are more monochromatic and simplistic. In Thunder Force 5, the backgrounds look like the last backgrounds in games with multiple levels of parallax... but TFV often doesn't even have other backgrounds in front. Stage 3 is particularly ugly, with lots of browns and greys in its color palette, and the polygon graphics (of towers and the stage's floor, which on the Saturn was scaled a la the floor in Super Mario Kart) look like they were made out of paper, and call to mind some of the worst polygon graphics on the Playstation, such as Vandal Hearts and Azure Dreams.
The manual claims the Playstation version added some new stuff - it DID add the time attack, has more gallery pictures, and I believe it added the FMV. Supposedly, it also added an extra boss and fixed some slowdown. I haven't been able to confirm from people who own the Saturn version if there is an extra boss or not (no one can find it), but they claim the slowdown was no big deal, and was like what you'd see in almost any game (maybe like the slight slowdown in R-Type Delta?).
On the other hand, the music is fantastic! Like the game itself, it's fast-paced and kicks ass. It has a lot of electric guitar riffing, but incorporates lots of strong melodies, too. I often listen to the sound test even when I'm not playing the game. All of the best melodies from the previous games were redone for this game, such as the forest stage music from Thunder Force 3. My favorite songs include the A3 boss fight music, which is a fast song that's very rhythmic (and has a bass solo!), and the boss music for the fight against the TF4 ship, which is a redone version of the TF4 title music.
When Thunder Force V was released it never came close to becoming a hit. But while many more popular games sit unplayed after I beat them, TF5 is one of the PS1 games I keep coming back to for more, time and again, several years after it was released. It's fast, it's intuitive, and it's loaded with action. Thunder Force V is so fun, it never really becomes old.