US Gold clinched the 1986 Christmas number one slot with Gauntlet, and a year later did the double with OutRun. This year they're hoping to make it a treble with Thunderblade - but they'll have to fight every inch of the way if they're going to beat Operation Wolf and After Burner to the yuletide top slot.
Thunderblade, Sega's impressive helicopter shoot-'em-up, appeared in the arcades earlier this year and followed hot on the heels of Afterburner. As with most Sega arcade games, there are different models: a stand-up version for pubs and small arcades, and a deluxe sit-on version: a mechanical monster that spins the player as he moves left and right. Although this was a novel idea (and cheap - the entire machine is fully mechanical and not hydraulic), it doesn't give as impressive and thrilling a ride as Afterburner. And, to be honest, I always felt like a wally perched a-top the machine waggling the long joystick - give me the stand-up version any day!
The game itself casts the player into the role of a megalomaniacal pilot who's decided to take on a mighty enemy army single-handedly. Before anyone can stop him he's up and away in his fully-armed Apache helicopter and heading towards the nearest war zone...
There are four levels of action, each with three distinct sub-sections. The first is set in the city and is a vertically scrolling 3D shoot-'em-up. Although this sounds off, it's actually quite simple to explain. The helicopter can fly forwards, effectively scrolling the landscape downwards and is also able to move up and down, "into" and "out" of the screen - that's where the 3D comes in.
The city is comprised of - surprise, surprise - skyscrapers, and the helicopter is guided around or over these; hitting a building results in the chopper crashing to the ground in a twisted and flaming mass of metal and a loss of one of five lives.
Tanks patrol the ground, and fire white missiles at the chopper as it flies overhead. Nifty manoeuvring is required to dodge these deadly items, especially as the collision detection tends to favour the enemy - a missile that looks like it's going to just miss the helicopter is often judged as a hit, which is a mite annoying.
As the chopper flies forward, it fires bullets and missiles automatically destroying any tank or ground target that gets in the way.
At the top right of the screen is a distance meter, which ticks down as the chopper progresses. When the meter is diminished, the next level loads in - in this case, the second city section. This is displayed in first person 3D, rather like Afterburner. Buildings whizz by as the chopper wends its way through this concrete canyon. Tanks make an appearance again, and fire white missiles. This time they're easier to dodge - the collision detection is more generous - although they're sometimes obscured by the large explosions of tanks as they go up.
Planes and enemy helicopters fly across the screen and are blasted out of the way; contact is fatal. The damage meter is again in evidence, and its depletion brings the player to the last of level one's sub-games.
This is another vertically scrolling section, but this time with no 3D.
The chopper flies low over a giant ship that's simply bristling with gun emplacements. These have to be taken out very quickly - if they're left they fire volleys of missiles at the helicopter and make life very difficult. There are also targets on the ship which can be blasted for bonus points.
When the ship's bow is reached, a points bonus is awarded for the number of targets destroyed during the level and the time taken to complete it - the faster the time the bigger the bonus - and play switches to the next level.
This, as with the other two levels - is fundamentally similar to the first level, with the sub-games falling into the same 3D/scroll, format. First as a canyon run, with the sides of a steep valley taking the place of skyscrapers. Tanks appear, and helicopters also enter the fray to add an extra degree of difficulty. The second sub game is a forest, with the chopper flying low over the trees attempting to take out tanks and planes, and the third section is a desert.
The third and fourth levels take place over the ocean and a refinery respectively, and each gets progressively harder, with increasing numbers of enemy forces.
The ST incarnation of Thunderblade has all the features of the arcade game, looks and plays almost identically, but suffers from a few minor flaws and one big one. The major flaw is with the game itself; let me explain. When manufacturers design a video game, they do so with one primary thought in their mind - to make the game earn as much money as possible. Sometimes this is done by making the game difficult, or by limiting the levels - after all, arcade owners don't want gamers playing their games all day for 20p!
Unfortunately, Thunder Blade falls into the limited levels category, and has only four levels, each with three short sub-sections. And really, it doesn't matter how good the conversion is, there still isn't enough to keep a games player addicted for a long period of time.
Looking at the ST conversion, US Gold's development house Tiertex have managed to squeeze in all the original arcade features, but the result is a sluggish and jerky game. The helicopter is slow to respond to joystick movements and the game speeds up and slows down depending on how much is going on - something I haven't seen for quite a while. Shooting around targets is very tricky.
The arcade game was quick to respond, and the two joysticks on the machine meant that you could move in and out of the screen quickly. On the computer, the chopper is so sluggish by the time it actually responds to the joystick the tank has trundled past. This lack of precision also provides problems during the 3D sections: you can see an obstacle coming up, but the chopper just doesn't move out of the way in time - even though you're tugging the joystick like crazy!
The loading time between sub-games is long, and disrupts the flow of play, and there's an annoying end-of-game wait while a sampled soundtrack plays and the first level reloads.
On the positive side, the game is very colourful, with some gorgeous graphics and convincing 3D - if you ignore the jerky update. Sound is quite good with some harsh effects, but the sampled titled music is atmospheric, if a little scratchy.
Thunderblade will definitely appeal to those who love the arcade original, but I don't think it offers enough challenge and variety - I practically finished the game in an afternoon!
If you haven't played the arcade game and fancy the sound of it, I strongly recommend you try it out before parting with your money.
The Spectrum version is very good. It's monochromatic, and consequently dodging missiles is tricky because you can't see them, but the gameplay is slightly better and more challenging than the ST, and the movement and response is much quicker! Generally, I found the gameplay addictive and enjoyable, and the game has more lasting appeal than the 16-bit version. Definitely recommended.