Lords of Thunder / Winds of Thunder (ウィンズ オブ サンダー) - TurboDuo, Sega CD, Wii Virtual Console, PSN (1993)
When you get down to it, shooters are a fairly stereotypical genre. Developers usually go one of two routes when making a shooter: (1) Ship defeats bigger ships, or (2) Ship defeats huge aliens. Deviations from this design formula are rare as, let's face it, it just makes sense to use a maneuverable plane to outperform gargantuan threats. But sure enough, Hudson Soft sought to transcend the shooter stereotype in Lords of Thunder, a horizontal fantasy-style shooter that put a rare face on the object of mass destruction. Though this might not have made it any more deep than other shooters, Lords of Thunder's graphical and aural distinctions lend it to be remembered long after putting it down.
Lords of Thunder (called Winds of Thunder in Japan) was published by Hudson in 1993 for the PC Engine/TurboDuo, though it was the labor of Red, the same development team behind Hudson's RPG series Tengai Makyou and others. Although its name bears a resemblance to Gates of Thunder, another shooter made by Red for the PC Engine, the gameplay is entirely different. While the PC Engine was enjoying success in Japan, its American counterpart in the TurboDuo was facing a historic console battle as the Nintendo vs. Sega debacle left little room for a third system in the hearts of gamers. While kids in the day obsessed over the blood content (or lack thereof) in home versions of Mortal Kombat, very few systems could garner a foothold in the US market, including the ill fated TurboDuo. Regardless, Lords of Thunder was marketed as a banner title for the system, but it made little difference, as any marketing the Duo did have would never be successful. Even though it didn't prove to be a killer app, Lords of Thunder was an example of the looming supremacy of CD-based media.
Lords of Thunder follows the adventure of a god-knight named Landis (or Randy in the Japanese version). In typical fashion, a supremely evil dude named Zaggart and the six minions of his group Mistral have torn the world asunder. While this would give reason for most god-knights to set off on an RPG-style adventure, Landis is a man who knows time is money and rightfully flies off to seven stages of hardcore shooting action, so he can get back home before the babes in his hot tub even start to get lonely.
Because you are directly controlling a flying knight/badass who wouldn't have it any other way, Lords of Thunder has a number of characteristics that set it apart from other shooters. Besides the fantasy style setting, as you begin the game you are given a Mega Man style level selection. The stages themselves embody the graphical variance you'd expect from a shooter: from the lushness of a plant stage, the frost of a snow-bound cavern, a barren but heavily occupied desert, a watery lagoon, a fortress atop a jagged cliff, to the hellfire of a volcano. Nothing really new in that department for sure, but the stages themselves are very well designed - intermittently featuring horizontal, vertical and diagonal scrolling that really add to their atmosphere.
Landis gets himself pretty decked out, as by default he fires a constant beam and has a close range sword attack in addition to supportive bomb attacks. However, the most important aspect of the game play however is the choice you have before each stage between the game's upgradeable sets of armors, each for one of the elements:
EARTH - At its weakest, the Earth Armor begins by shooting a single downward-shooting bomb (akin to a missile in Gradius), at the second level it adds another upwards shooting bomb, while at the third and final level the area of the bomb effect is greatly enlarged. The regular bomb is a meteor storm, which is very powerful.
WIND - At the first level, the Wind Armor adds a compliment of two small piercing lightning bolts that shot forward, while at the second level these bolts are greatly enlarged. The third level adds two more bolts, shooting diagonally. The bomb is a very cool looking thunder pillar that rotates and takes up most of the screen.
FIRE - The Fire Armor starts off by adding two diagonally shooting fire beams, while its second form is probably the greatest change of all the armors as it ditches the diagonal beams and turns into a large forward shooting fire blast. At max, it creates two fire pillars that arc 180 degrees in front of Landis, and is rather strong. The bomb summons a very familiar looking fire dragon that homes on enemies.
WATER - The best armor in the game. It begins by firing two shots that arch back slightly before blasting ahead, while the second level is just a larger more powerful form. The third level however, shoots two large waves in BOTH directions. The bomb is a fairly standard explosion of water.
HEART - Just kidding.
Strangely enough, there is no elemental strategy to be had from having on a certain one of the four armors in certain stages. What it boils down to is that they affect what color Landis is in the stage; but more obviously, they affect the difficulty of the game. Though the game itself has Normal, Hard, and Super difficulty levels, you'll find out that it has additional difficulty depending on which armor you select: extremely difficult or very easy. Rather, you can basically choose the Water Armor and tear through the game in no time flat because of its ability to shoot both ways, or have a real challenge with one of the other armors. Granted, the Fire Armor is also good, as it is extremely powerful, but the Earth and Wind Armors are almost completely useless as they can't provide defense from their offense - in other words, it's a lot harder to keep up with the enemy onslaught with them, even at full power. Considering the fact that the Water Armor can shoot enemies dead before they even have a chance to get on the screen, it makes the other ones seem obsolete. Landis himself knows what's up, as the armor he is wearing in all of the cut scenes is blue - guess which one that is?
Landis himself also has a few quirks. His sprite is larger than say, Vic Viper or R-9, in addition to enemy shots being larger than in other shooters. Thankfully though, he moves at a swift default pace, and controls accurately. Being the god/knight/whatever he is, Landis's sword is a very powerful weapon, more powerful than most normal shots. The caveat to this is that he has to completely stop shooting to use it - fine if it was part of your strategy, but annoying if it happened by accidentally flying too close to an enemy, allowing other enemies you would have hit to get some cheap hits in. It's worth noting that Lords of Thunder is not a one-hit kill game, though you lose weapon energy when hit, not to mention that each stage must be cleared in one life, as there are no mid-level checkpoints.
In addition, Landis also has the option of buying things before he begins each stage. Enemies, besides dropping the occasional weapon and life power-ups, mostly drop crystals, which can be exchanged for items in the shop. On top of getting some much needed pre-bout titillation from the sexy blonde shop keep, Landis can buy the prerequisite extra bombs, life and weapon ups, as well as shop exclusive items like the shot deflecting shields, extra continues, and the elixir, which fully restores your health should you deplete your initial stock.
Graphically, Lords of Thunder has aged decently. The game is very colorful, and the dual 8-bit processors of the Duo do a great job of displaying lots of enemies with minimal slowdown even in the most extreme sequences. Some of the enemies are quite large too, especially the bosses, and take up most of the screen. The enemies themselves range in design from classic fantasy adversaries like wizards and water dragons to more bizarre things like flying tortoise carriers to an evil jaw totally bereft of a face. The game also has some impressive, subtly animated cut scenes, which either help to flesh out the story or prove that the development of the story took a backseat to the game's most impressive aspect - its sound.
The last facet of Lords of Thunder, but absolutely positively not the least, is its aural experience. Though the sound effects and all are good standard fare, the immediate standout of the sound design is the music. Produced by T's Music - whose members have done the soundtracks or arrangements to games like OutRun and Final Fight CD to more recent games like Super Monkey Ball 1 and 2 - they were able to take advantage of the CD format and fill it to the brim with some of the most amazing 'instrumetal' riffs and licks gaming had ever seen - years ahead of the current champion of gaming metal, Guilty Gear. For a game about flying god-knights and wizards, a rock soundtrack might seem somewhat over-the-top, but for whatever reason blazing guitars and fantasy settings go hand-in-hand together.
In addition to the PC Engine/TurboDuo release, Lords of Thunder was also ported to the Sega CD. The game play is almost exactly the same, but the graphics on the Sega CD is neither as bright nor as sharp. In the Sega CD version, you get stunned for a second when you get hit. Besides this, the Sega CD version is general is a bit easier. This is particularly noticeable in the highest difficult setting, where enemies in the PCE version fire suicide bullets when killed. There are some slight discrepancies in the audio as well. While the PC Engine version has a fully narrated intro and a talkative shopkeeper, such voiceovers were omitted when the game was brought overseas to the TurboDuo. Nonetheless, these voices were reintegrated into the Sega CD release, including the sexy shopkeeper. Additionally, all of the music has been rearranged to sound less raw than the Turbografx version, although the melodies are identical. It's not really better or worse, persay, it's more of a stylistic change.