Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Brief History of Thexder

At TGS, Square-Enix unexpectedly announced a new PSN game for the PSP - Thexder Neo, a 2.5D remake of the old Game Arts action-platformer. Even more unexpectedly, it was just released today, available for $10 even to NA gamers. Many months back I started work on a Thexder article, but never quite got around to it. And so, here's a quick history.

Thexder is a mecha who can transform into a jet, something which was obviously immediately appealing to gamers, especially computer folk who were probably getting sick of the usual adventure games. In mecha form, your laser will automatically target any foe as long as you're facing them, so there's no need to jump up and down to hit them. In jet form, the laser can only fire straight ahead, but it's necessary to travel through narrow spaces and reach higher areas. The levels consist of fairly small mazes consisting of many, many narrow corridors. It's one of those games that somewhat historically relevant - like Hydlide, it was popular during the day for being revolutionary, but the game itself hasn't exactly aged well. It's also brutally difficult.

There were two Thexder games created for Japanese computers - the original and its sequel, Firehawk. Both were ported to DOS and released in North America by Sierra, who also grabbed Silpheed, Sorcerian, and Zeliard. For the first game, the cool theme music didn't make the transition due to the awful PC speaker, and some of the special effects were removed, but otherwise it's a pretty alright port. The second game had its story cut out but actually improved the graphics a bit. Coincidentally, Square also ported the first game to the Famicom. It removed most of the stages and redesigned the ones that were left, so it's only the same four stages that repeat over and over - the original version has many more levels. Sierra also released a new Thexder game for Windows 95 somewhere around the mid-90s, which was dreadful, because the sprites were tiny, the action was choppy, and somehow the level design was even worse than ever.

Anyway, as near as I can tell, Thexder Neo is a remake of the original game. The first level is definitely almost exactly the same, although I can't say any more, because I never beat the first level of the original Thexder. (As I said, it's really hard!) This PSP version adjusts the difficulty level a bit, so it's much easier to handle. It controls much smoother too, and adds in an option to lock your direction, so you walk backwards while still firing forwards. Enemies drop various orbs, some of which will recharge your energy gauge, while others will expand its maximum capacity. You'll want to grab as many as these as possible, because not only does your energy drain when taking damage, but it'll also slowly drain as you fire. There's also a shield, although I never quite figured out its functionality nor how to recharge it.

Now, remaking games always brings up an interesting question - how faithful do you want to remain to the source material? The best, like Bionic Commando: Rearmed, take all of the good stuff and polish all of the bad stuff to make for a game that feels somewhat modern while still maintaining a retro sensibility. Thexder does not do this. The tight corridors and obnoxious enemies, many of which require several seconds of constant lasering to be killed, are still here. Navigating the mazes just isn't any fun, because, naturally, they're full of dead ends, and there's no real benefit to exploring. There's even some cases where you can get trapped and need to die to start the level over. The way to "fix" these problems would be to redesign the levels completely and rebalance the enemies further...but maybe it wouldn't be Thexder then? Game Arts already took the basic concept - the auto-aiming fire, anyway - and turned it into Alisia Dragoon for the Genesis, which would've been a much better game to remake. Of course, she doesn't carry quite the weight amongst retro nerds, and she can't transform into a jet, but she does have tits, which has to count for something.

Thexder Neo feels cheaply put together and not terribly interesting unless you're one of the few that actually has some nostalgia for this game - and if you're not Japanese, then you probably don't.



    (The old ones, not the new ones.)

  2. i was just wondering why didn't mention alisia dragoon, and then you did!

  3. You gave me the best idea. I want to form a company that takes all these awesome old Genesis games like Alisia Dragoon, Popful Mail (still techincally Genesis), El Viento, Monster World 4, Trouble Shooters, etc. and obtains the rights, and lets competent anime studios make anime based off of them.

  4. I wish I had known this was available for my Tandy 1000 as a kid, but I love it anyway. I don't think it requires any nostalgia like other Japanese retro remakes. Whereas I can't understand the appeal of such annoyingly difficult games like Spelunker and Druaga, this game has a solid gameplay foundation to go on. And despite Spelunker and Druaga being available in the US back then, Thexder actually sold well and appealed to an American audience.

    Playing the old Thexder now may require a little nostalgia, but they've addressed any issues new players would find jarring. The controls are tight, the animation is smoooth... I don't feel like any deaths in the game are cheap, there is an underlying strategy to it. You may hate the fact that you have to start from the beginning, but when you go back through those levels something clicks in your head and you're able to breeze through them. You'll remember the dead ends, where energy is, what enemies you shouldn't bother with. It's not Contra, your goal isn't to kill everything in sight. It does require some practice.

  5. My main issue is just that I never found the original game very fun to begin with. There's just something about the maze navigation, narrow corridors and the high hit points of the enemies that really irks me. I can see enjoying it in the late 80s, but I only played it for the first time a few years ago, and while it's not nearly as painful as either Druaga or Spelunker, I'd still stick it in that same kinda category.

  6. The shield, for what it's worth, takes 10 energy to activate. While it's running, energy from that is drained, and needless to say, it's a lot more hardy than you are. You don't really need to recharge it or anything, but overuse is really not recommended.

    Alissia Dragoon NEO is something I've wanted to see for years, though, and not just for the tits.