By Evan Norris 28th May 2020 | 1,240 views
Thunder Force AC is a great game made better via the SEGA AGES line. An arcade retooling of the Genesis shooter Thunder Force III, AC makes its return trip to consoles in all its 16-bit glory, fortified with online leaderboards, unlockable ships, an easy "kids" mode, and some fun display options. The core experience is short and suffers from some cheap kills, but overall it's another standout shooter on Switch.
AC takes place immediately after Thunder Force II. Hoping to end a drawn-out war with the ORN Empire, the Galaxy Federation deploys the FIRE LEO-03 STYX, a mobile fighter with the firepower of a battleship. Its mission: attack several planets under the Empire's control and then infiltrate the imperial base.
Thunder Force AC is a 2D horizontally-scrolling shooter similar to titles like Gradius and R-Type. You will pilot the STYX through eight sci-fi levels, each filled with roving enemies and finished with a giant boss. If you suffer a hit, you'll forfeit one life and lose your current power-up. Lose all lives and you can continue, via credit, from where you left off. Run out of credits and it's back to the very beginning.
You'll probably find yourself running through credits faster than you'd like when you start the game; this is an arcade shooter from 1990, after all, and it doesn't pull any punches. Thunder Force III on Genesis is known for its accessibility and forgiving nature, but AC is noticeably more challenging — although still less diabolical than some bullet hell shooters. Luckily, studio M2, which managed this Switch port, added in several difficulty settings, including a distinct "kids" mode that increases the STYX's firepower, adds extra credits, and retains all power-ups upon death. The only problem: several "gotcha" moments where an unannounced fireball, blast shield, or boss will shave off a precious life, rather cheaply. Still, no matter your skill level, you should be able to see the end of the game.
Not only will you see the end credits (with some humorous mistranslation), you'll have a blast playing through all eight levels. Thanks to several weapon and speed options, Thunder Force AC is much more than your standard shoot-em-up. Throughout your journey you'll amass five different weapons: the default twin-shot and back-shot, a wave beam, a forward cannon with missiles, and weak-but-effective homing orbs. You can switch among these five types at your leisure, allowing you to tailor your fighting style to the level and any incoming enemies. The forward cannon with missiles, for example, is useful for enemies on ceilings and floors, as the missiles fire up and down and then hug any surfaces. Back-shot is essential for taking down ships that attack from behind and in the backward-scrolling sections of the Cerberus stage.
That's right, there are several levels where the STYX will scroll backward, upward, and diagonally, which makes weapon management and speed settings even more important and strategic.
If you tire of scrolling through ORN imperial space with your default STYX fighter, you can try three others — as long as you've unlocked them. Torn from later Thunder Force titles and brand new to this Switch port of Thunder Force AC, these extra ships represent additional replay value in a campaign that sits on the short side.
In fact, you could finish AC in about 30 minutes, once you know your way around. That said, with four ships, several difficulty settings, and online leaderboards for both arcade and "kids" mode, the game is certainly replayable.
Since this is M2 and SEGA AGES, you can expect pixel-perfect emulation, plus a multitude of display options. These include several borders, a CRT-like "Vintage" display, and even a "Cabinet" mode that recreates the arcade experience.
Had Thunder Force AC arrived on Switch unaltered, it would still be a great game. Yet the port masters at M2 have made the classic shooter even better, thanks to online leaderboards, additional playable ships, a range of difficulty settings, and a host of display options. It's a relatively short game with a modest amount of trial and error, but its mechanics, level designs, and quality-of-life features make it a must-play for shoot-em-up fans.