Gate of Thunder
by sunburstbasser

Think back to October, 1992. Do you remember what you were doing? Do you remember what games you were playing? Chances are, if you lived in North America, you weren't playing your shiny new TurboDuo and the best pack-in ever packed in.

You should click this little sound clip while reading.

Gate of Thunder is a horizontally scrolling shmup from an era when ten were released a week and even good ones were forgotten. Gate of Thunder took good points from Gradius, R-Type, Darius, Star Soldier, and a lot of Thunderforce and mixed them to create a game that stands out not only from that time, but is regarded as the best shooter on a console with, no joke, HUNDREDS of them on it.

The first thing that makes Gate so good is the music. Gone was the simple chip of the TurboGrafx, in it's place was full redbook audio rock and roll. In case you don't know, red book audio means live music. Your CDs are red book. The FM Synth of the Genesis and the powerful sound processor of the SNES were both known for making great music, but neither could reproduce the sound of real guitars plugged into real amps played by real people. And that clip above isn't an arranged soundtrack, you actually hear that while playing Stage 1.

The second great thing about Gate of Thunder is the weapons. The weapon system borrows elements of Thunderforce and Hudson's own Star Soldier games. Like Star Soldier, weapons come as little pods with different colors corresponding to the weapon you'll get. You'll have access to blue bullets, green crescents, and red bombs. Powered up, the bullets turn into lightning and the crescents and bombs get much larger. Homing missiles and shields are also available. The first powerup will also add two options, one above and below, that can be set to fire left or right by double tapping the fire button, akin to Thunderforce. You'll need it too; enemies attack from all parts of the screen and there is rarely a warning that an enemy is coming from behind. Unlike the TG-16 Star Soldiers, even powered up one hit is death without shields and shields only take three hits. Destroying enemies before they destroy you is the key to victory. Your options also double as guides, as they will be pushed around by terrain and give you a better idea of what needs to be avoided. They don't push you out of the way, though, so you can't just expect them to do the work for you.

Enemies come in all types, many of them unique to a certain stage. For the first two stages, typical starfighters and battle ships assail you, and occasionally a giant robot (all good shooters have giant robots as enemies). By the third stage, you'll start seeing tanks shaped like moles and spaceships that look somewhat like the alien's head from Alien. Later stages feature enormous snakes, bee planes with cockpits instead of eyes, and a few enemies look suspiciously like the R-9 from R-Type. Speaking of which, the mecha/organic R-Type Bydo enemies seem to be a source of inspiration for many enemies, while others look somewhat aquatic ala Darius.

Just as varied are the levels. Each one is a whole challenge, separate from those preceding and succeeding. And despite the Turbo's ability to draw exactly one moving background plane at a time, massive background sprites fill each stage with parallax scrolling, and at least in stage 2 you can see girders going in multiple directions in the background. The foreground that you can actually crash into is dynamic and alive, more so than most of Gradius. In the first stage, you spend almost the entire level between the ground and a giant battleship that takes up roughly the top half of the screen. As it scrolls by you'll destroy bomb bays, lights, engines, gun turrets, hangars, and still be assaulted by enemies in front and behind with limited maneuvering room. The second stage begins in space, and moves into a factory with girders that you have to slip between while being shot at. In the fourth stage you start in a desert before following a hole in the ground to an underground lake.

At the end of each stage is a boss, and these bosses don't piddle around. The first boss is obviously based on the Big Core from Gradius, but ends up being much more intimidating. For starters, it fills a full 1/4 of the entire screen. It follows similar tactics to the Gradius boss, but faster, and the larger size and huge laser blasts actually make it somewhat threatening. It is only vulnerable when it splits to reveal an inner core and at this point takes up a full half of the screen. The second boss is just a big robot, but it shoots a laser that turns 90 degrees and is very fast, keeping you on your toes. The third boss must be fought between it's own arms, the fourth is a robot on treads with enough firepower to wear down your shields and lives without much thought. Bosses tend to use simple attacks, like a straight laser, but their other attacks often push you right into the path making it more difficult to defeat the boss.

Despite the little 8-bit CPU running everything, there is absolutely no lag that I've seen anywhere in the game. The levels are fast, much more so than R-Type or Gradius, and at any time there are enough sprites that it'll make you question the supposed 64 sprite limit of the hardware. Levels load in just a few seconds, with the soundtrack being streamed directly off the CD and keeping load times short. Your bullets are fast, enemy bullets are fast, this is a much faster-paced shooter than was standard at the time when R-Type was the dominant shmup. Companies that were making slow, laggy shmups for the technically superior hardware of the SNES should have quit the day Gate of Thunder was released.

Gate of Thunder's scoring system is pretty non-existent. Kill things, get points. Some places like the bomb bays in the first stage or the rocks in the third can be milked a little to get more points, but for the most part high score is determined by how far you can get. Score leads to extends, but not like Compile. The extends are set at pre-determined intervals and due to the lack of major scoring exploits, you won't be able to just ride through the game on respawn invincibility. A few extends can be found within stages by shooting them, then nabbing them. The green crescents work well for this as they have a huge coverage and penetrate walls. Be careful, though, as many of these pick-up extends are located in spots where you can run into a wall easily, losing shields or your current ship. On death, you lose whatever weapon you had equipped, your missiles, and your options. Whatever weapons you weren't using remain at their current power. The loss of those options will really hurt more than anything else. The game can be beaten without them, but it can get very frustrating without them because so many enemies pop up from behind, fire, and leave and won't ever cross your line of fire.

Gate of Thunder does not have a rank system, so the game can be beaten just by playing a lot. Each level will be the same every time. The game does have multiple difficulties and they are handled very well. You have a choice of Normal, Hard, and Devil. Devil is an apt name. Enemies seem to get a slight health boost, but the real change is in their number and aggression levels. Stage 1 has double the number of enemies, and not just little popcorn enemies either. Giant robots and big gunships come in droves, and formations of popcorns have as many as double the number of baddies. Instead of firing one shot, most fire two shots at you or two bullet spreads. One thing that doesn't change is the lack of lag. Those bullets come at you at full speed even with double the number on screen.

Gate of Thunder should have sold the Turbo Duo. While the Sega CD was filled with pointless FMV games and the SNES suffered lag in pretty much every game at this point, Gate showed just how much potential for gameplay, graphics, and music the CD held and did it on hardware that was, supposedly, outdated. Unfortunately, the Duo remained a niche console in America despite games like Gate of Thunder.

Partly because of that niche, getting hold of a TurboCD or TurboDuo in North America is a pretty expensive undertaking. I've seen auctions end at more than $300 US for a Duo. A TurboGrafx-16 base system isn't too hard to get, but the CD player can go for around $200. Personally, I imported a Japanese PC Engine Duo for far less than that, and since the CD games are region-free they can be played on any setup without a hassle. The game itself can cost $35-50, pretty high for a nearly 20 year old game. For most players, the best option is the Wii. Gate of Thunder was the first CD game released for the Virtual Console, and costs far less than an actual copy. Most emulators don't work well with CD games, and actually getting a useable ISO is a pain in the ass. So, for most of you, stick with the Virtual Console, while those of you more hardcore can get the real deal.

I really don't have much more to give you, but you should probably click this.

5 out of 5 socks, and thats only because 6 out of 5 is weird.

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