Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Thunder Blade (PC Engine)

Rail shooter / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Reprogrammed and published by Nec Avenue in 1990

With the exception of the recent Choplifter HD, helicopters have been totally absent from the shmup scene for a long time. But alas! There was a time when it wasn’t so. Sega’s helicopter game inspired by Blue Thunder and Airwolf might have been totally forgotten by the company during the 90’s, but at least Thunder Blade made many people happy during its heyday, be it at arcades or home systems. Well, maybe not so much in the latter category, given how much downgrading had to be done on the ports... However, considering that Super Thunder Blade is a pseudo-sequel instead of a port, the PC engine version could then be classified as the most faithful rendition of the arcade game.

Of course being faithful is a completely relative statement in this case, for the PC Engine could never equal or even come close to the superscaling capabilities of the Sega board. It does resemble the arcade look more than other ports for mainstream video game consoles, most notably the Master System’s (just for reference, the port for the Sharp X68000 computer is considered to be the best conversion). In Thunder Blade for the PC Engine the score displays and the stage progress meter were properly reproduced, but the same can’t be said about graphics and music. At least NEC tried and delivered a rail shooter with reasonable punch, one that’s far from perfect but still fulfills the mission of providing cheap helicopter fun.

The adventure starts in the city
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

With no story whatsoever, Thunder Blade puts the player in control of an attack helicopter armed with a machinegun (button II) and missiles (button I). The machinegun targets whatever appears in front of the chopper, whereas missiles will explode and destroy whatever’s down below (they don’t trail the surface as in other home ports). Each stage starts with a vertical section where the top down view forces the helicopter to fire forward in a slanted direction, causing the regular gun to hit the ground at a fixed distance (movement and overall reach is also limited). The second half of the stage unfolds in a rail shooting environment, and once it’s over you return to the vertical orientation in order to face the boss, which is either a large plane or tank with multiple turret configurations. Only the last boss differs from this pattern, since it consists of a static fortress in the rail shooting section.

There are four stages in Thunder Blade. They’re pretty short, and this somehow mirrors the short duration of the arcade original. Graphical themes are city, caves, river and oil refinery. Each main BGM is used twice: the most iconic one is used for levels 1 and 3 and the other for levels 2 and 4. The scaling effect won't set anyone's world on fire, but it's decent for the hardware. While the first rail shooting level is rather tame and lacks obstacles other than buildings, later on you need to exercise your dodging abilities around spikes, pillars and pipes. With an initial life stock of 5 and no extra lives in sight, the couple of available continues are very welcome for practicing later stages. No power-ups or upgrades exist, but at least the machinegun comes implemented with autofire. I just don’t understand why the developer didn’t do that with missiles as well, so don't forget to turn on that turbo switch for button I. For great justice. :)

Surviving the odds in this game takes some practice. Although the inputs are simple and straightforward, with normal/reverse controls selectable at the start screen, this is another case where the player needs to work around a few quirks in the gameplay. One of them is the slow firing rate of the main gun in the rail shooting sections, which turns the act of hitting airborne enemies a chore. You can’t just react to what’s coming, instead you need to fire in advance while anticipating the approach of the enemy. If you don’t do this chances are you’ll collide against them and die. In that regard fast jets are worse than helicopters because they can easily pass through your firepower. The good news is that they always appear in the same places and formations, allowing for some minor advantage through memorization.

Thunderous blades in action

Another point of concern is bullet visibility during the first top-down boss confrontation. Dancing around bullets is a skill that develops naturally the more you play, but doing it against the spinning fire blasts of the first boss’s middle section is always a nightmare. Strangely so, bosses get increasingly easier level after level. Your hitbox is deceiving in the initial vertical parts, so don't get too close to enemy helicopters that are taking flight and reaching your altitude. Performing constant round movements is still one the best ways to survive a particular tricky part of a rail shooter segment, just be careful not to collide against anything. And if things start getting too cluttered just “land” and wait for the flying hazards to flee the screen as the TAKE OFF message urges you to return to battle.

Killing as many enemies as you can is the key to scoring higher in Thunder Blade. At the end of the level you are awarded with a special bonus that's directly proportional to the kill count. Less than 80 hits yields 100.000 points, 200.000 points are given for a kill count below 100 and above that you get 400.000 points. I wasn't able to hit more than 120 targets in a level, so I couldn't check if it's possible to get an even higher bonus. Unfortunately the only stage where you can safely try to maximize this bonus is the first one, since the others are either low on enemy count or just to difficult to hoard.

The picture below shows my 1CC high score on Normal for this port of Thunder Blade. It plays considerably different from its counterpart on the Master System, but it's equally fun for fans of old rail shooters. For those interested, ports of other Sega rail shooters also exist for the PC Engine, such as After Burner II and Space Harrier.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thunderbirds (NES)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pack-in Video
Published by Activision in 1989

Marketing can be everything sometimes. I can almost feel the excitement a kid would experience by getting a hold of Thunderbirds on the NES. The box art and the text on the back of the box are pretty much a work of genius, regardless of how much a fan of the TV series anyone was (I wasn’t). I never got to play the game back then, but a few days ago a bad feeling was already in the air as soon as I turned on the console and saw the name of Pack-in Video in the copyright screen. That definitely wasn’t a good sign given some of my past experiences with the company, such as Deep Blue for the PC Engine.

Thunderbirds, the TV show, is a futuristic science-fiction series made with puppets that firstly aired during the 60s. Called supermarionation by its creators, the technique used by the show must have been quite charming for those who lived through that era, but the same can’t be said for younger kids back in the 90s – or for any average adult these days. As a video game adaptation, this particular Thunderbirds game is just as unapealling, although for different reasons. Graphics are fine for NES standards, and even though the music could be better it’s not really a disaster. The main problem is that there’s too much fan service and too little excitement in the gameplay, which then results in a drab, trivial, soulless shooter.

Deadly waters of the Indian Ocean

There’s a strong emphasis in story and characters in Thunderbirds. Jeff Tracy is the mentor of the team that protects the Earth, formed by his five sons Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John. Each one of them is assigned a particular vessel/ship with distinct powers. They’re aided by the scientific genius of dr. Brain, and together they fight against the villainous threats of a bald evildoer named Hood. Interactions between these characters are shown all the time as you transition from one stage to the next while an increasingly irritating song plays along (there came a point where I just didn’t want to read the dialogue anymore, so I pushed START to finish them faster). Plotwise the Thunderbirds have 60 days to foil Hood's plan to build a power source that's capable to wipe out the planet.

Each life has three health cells, and once you die the team needs 3 days to fix the ship for a new attempt at the failed mission. A succesful attempt is the equivalent to 1 day. The game is over only if you fail to fulfill your main objective within the period of 60 days. Missions are chosen by the player in three main sites around the world (North America, Indian Ocean and Asia), and in all of them you unlock secondary missions than can also be chosen at will. In total you need to play 8 missions before going into outer space to stop Hood's final attack, in areas that include ocean, city, caves with volcanoes and high-tech installations. There isn't really a consistent theme distribution throughout the levels, but in general the hardest missions as those set in Asia, whereas North America poses the easiest challenge of them all. You can't choose the pilot/ship because boss Jeff is bossy and assigns specific ships to specific missions.

Each craft you pilot has three power levels upgraded by taking the E items. This item, as well as L (recovery for one health cell) and O (orbital device, also widely known as option) is released only by destroying red enemies. The player can carry up to two options whose formation is cycled by pressing button B in the controller. Button A is used to shoot, and while it does not have any autofire function the strangest thing is that options are always firing regardless of you pressing A or not. Initially only forward and backward formations are allowed, but as you make progress other formations are acquired with special items once you get through selected areas. Further formations include sideways, circle and forward-diagonal (spread). Unfortunately most of the time the firepower provided by the options is too weak to do any damage, but in certain places they might help clearing turrets fixed on walls.

Thunderbirds introduction on the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Taking a hit not only takes one health cell away, but it also downgrades the main weapon by one level. Upon death you lose all upgrades including options, but if you manage to make it out of a stage alive you get a full health bar in the next mission. Besides the outrageous amount of lives you receive by default with the 60 days scheme, that's mainly what makes Thunderbirds an easy clear. The only parts that might offer some resistance are the occasional tank that fires very fast vertical shots, the area that requires shooting through a marsh and the closing gates of the last level. Other than that, what we get is just insipid gameplay and the sorry lack of real bosses. A particularly annoying detail is that power-up items tend to drift upwards and disappear on the top of the screen, often making you go after them only to get hit by an obstacle (any contact to walls is deadly).

It's interesting to note that amidst the lameness of Thunderbirds lies a very clear inspiration from Namco's Dragon Spirit, most notable in the volcano areas and in the flower turret boss throwing petals at the player. Fans of the show might find some enjoyment in the animated intro that mimics the famous countdown from the TV series, as well as the brief cut scenes where the futuristic vehicles depart for battle in each level. However, that doesn't deny the fact that this is an extremely bland and short game. And it's just baffling that the developer chose to implement a password feature while completely ignoring the scoring system.

So there we have it in the picture below. No numbers, just the ending credits.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Thundercade (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Micronics / American Sammy
Published by American Sammy in 1989

A vertical shooter where you pilot a motorcycle equipped with side cannons? This is Thundercade, originally released for the arcades by SETA and later ported to the NES. The idea is terrific and in my mind brings back fond memories of movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Overall Thundercade shares a lot of the same gameplay of Gun.Smoke, even though it lacks the execution standards of the NES port. Unfortunately the first impression you get from this 8-bit adaptation is the complete opposite of exciting. The extremely downgraded visuals, the slow pace and the seemingly high difficulty are bound to repel even the most enthusiastic Nintendo or shmup fan from giving the game a chance.

But alas! Persistence and patience were highly regarded gamer traits back in the 80s, so why should it be any different today? It took me a little while to see beyond the stinky outer layer of Thundercade and once again adapt to the act of mashing buttons on the NES controller (because the game lacks autofire and somehow manages to screw with the turbo functions I had at hand). Eventually I figured it out... The thing is that this game is more deceiving than your average NES shooter, and unless you go out in a rampage of destruction you won’t get very far in it. So kill. Destroy. Shatter. Bring down the house!

Well, bringing down the house is quite hard to pull off at first, unless you make use of the bombs deployed with button A. Regular shots fired with button B are weak and disappear once you acquire any of the sidecars that shoot upwards. Sidecars can also shoot left or right and are found lying around or by destroying parts of the scenery. They comprise single and dual cannons in three power levels: green ones have shorter reach, red ones can reach farther and white ones provide a lot more offensive power. The side in which the sidecar will be attached depends on how you approach it: if you want it to be on the left touch it from the right, and vice-versa. The problem with the sidecars is that they’re gone once they get hit, so the player needs to keep the complete set of motorcycle + sidecars away from harm in order to preserve weapons.

Leading to the base

Besides constantly trying to preserve a huge hitbox, sometimes you also need to deal with jumps that happen when you transition from one kind of surface to another. This is mostly present in stage 2, where touching any border of a different “height” sends the motorcycle into the air with a characteristic sound. While airborne you’re invincible, but the aimed enemy shots + terribly slow motorcycle often lead to a horrible death when you land. And after landing you might also find yourself confined to a smaller area whose boundaries are often uncertain, which then leads to more confusion and more deaths. Beware of cliffs and thresholds!

Throughout all four stages of Thundercade there’s actually a little variety on enemies and none on music (the same tune plays over and over). Graphical themes are city, base, woodlands and fortress, all of them with decent length which avoids people saying the game is too short. At the end of the second and third levels you face a large gunship that fires lots of 3-way shots: kill it fast enough so that you get the B item and enter a brief bonus stage. The objective there is to catch the falling parachutes by moving left or right. A parachute adds 4 missiles to your regular firepower, but sometimes they change into other more useful items such as V (vulcan cannon), 1UP (extra life) or an extra bomb. These last items can also be found in the stages themselves just like sidecars, but with the exception of bombs they’re always hidden inside static obstacles.

Turning the odds on your favor in this game requires a few attitudes most people take for granted. Sticking to what you normally get and being savvy on bombs will most likely make Thundercade a very difficult game. Soldiers and tanks are no big deal, but you should also be able to crush buildings, gas drums, trucks, trees, cactuses, helicopters, gates, dirt hills, etc. The first tip I can give is to shoot every single static obstacle, even the largest ones. Some of them will not fall, but inside those that crumble chances are you’ll find useful items such as the vulcan cannon (V). This is the most powerful weapon in the game but also the easiest one to lose, since it adds two sidecars at once and disappears if any of them takes a hit. It fires a two-way shot whose only weakness is the absence of any attack option at the front of the motorcycle, however this becomes irrelevant when you notice that the vulcan cannon can tear everything apart with ease. Just don't get close to any sidecar item or you'll end up replacing it. By the end of the game the vulcan cannon isn’t nowhere to be found, but the white sidecars are powerful enough to keep you going.

A quick credit of Thundercade on the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

The second hint that helps to succeed in Thundercade is to not hold from bombing whenever you feel threatened. This may sound like dumb advice, but some enemies tend to be unpredictably erratic - those helicopters are particularly annoying, and if you can’t find a position to quickly kill them it’s often safer to bomb. Each life comes with three bombs, so it’s always better to lose a bomb than a life (or your precious weapons) on the face of an impending death. By holding the bomb button for a little while after deploying it you can also make the two forward blasts develop a staggering pattern, thus covering a wider area on the screen. Very useful on both gunship bosses. Speaking of which, no boss is to be found on the third level, while the last boss is just a handful of snipers trying to shoot you down from the manholes of a nuclear power plant.

Once you complete a level you get a glimpse of your progress, along with performance stats on shots fired, number of hits and hit-miss ratio. Since the best way to not die is to be proactive and keep firing all the time, those performance indicators are there just for show. The few continues available at least allow for some practice, even if they throw you back to the start of the level. There is no randomness at all to the game itself, so memorizing the location of hidden items is half the battle for the 1CC. Besides, it’s actually the only way to squeeze a little fun out of the game other than playing it with a friend in co-op.

Upon completion Thundercade halts at the ending screen and you need to reset in order to check the high score. Here’s mine, playing without autofire: