Monday, May 11, 2009

VC look: Lords of Thunder

With most 2D shooters we're used to a number of tropes that go with the genre. Typically you can't take a single hit without dying, you can't decide what weapons you want at the start of a level, if there is terrain you can crash into it and die, in emergency situations you can call upon a limited stock of super-bombs to clear the area, and most of the time your enemy's method of attack consists of filling the screen of bullets until you run into one. Despite coming out in 1993 Lords of Thunder already takes a number of these tropes and turns them on their ear. This is one of the benefits of making a console 2D shooter as the rules of game design can be re-made as seen fit.

The story involves something about bad guys, heavy metal, and mystical armor and you won't see much of it if you're jamming on the start button to get into the game. The game starts off by allowing the player to select one of six stages. Most of them have some sort of elemental theme to them but you're not going to see much of an advantage in taking a fire armor to an ice
stage. After completing the first six stages(and their accompanying bosses) you go on to the final stage and the biggest bad guys that go along with them.

Now I mentioned something about fire armor earlier so what's the deal with that? Well essentially at the beginning of each stage you choose from four elemental-based armors(which again don't really mean anything. This isn't an RPG where you can take advantage of an enemy's elemental weakness and vice-versa). These armors decide your weapons. The wind armor shoots lightning straight ahead and in a diagonal fashion, the fire armor shoots flames straight ahead but eventually fires in a circular pattern just to the front of the player, the water armor shoots of waves that spread out in front of and behind the player, and finally the earth armor throws bombs above and below the player that do spread damage and are especially good for cramped locations. It's likely you'll find a use for all of these weapons over the course of a stage but unfortunately if you pick the one least-suited for a stage you'll simply have to make the best of it. There should have been a way to switch armors while in the actual stage(which while slightly awkward could have been mapped to the TG-16's select button). The armors all have three levels of power(which are gained by gems and lost by getting hurt) which effect the intensity and uniqueness of your firepower. Every armor also comes equipped with a forward cannon(one of the few tropes this game applies itself to) and a sword that is automatically used when close to an enemy. Though while using the sword the main weapons won't fire, which can be annoying in certain circumstances yet nonetheless it's a respectable design choice. The player can also get access to a stock of up to three elemental bombs. These are linked to your armor of choice but you can still take damage while using them and they're practically useless against bosses. They are cheap though so I guess it's always worth having a full stock.

Cheap? As in you buy items? Sure enough after you choose your armor you go to a shop to buy health-restoring items, gems to power your armor, continues, an elixir to revive you after losing all your health, and shields/bombs which I kind of tucked off to the side as they're either overly expensive or useless. Gems flow in by the thousands over the course of each stage so you should never be lacking in what you need.

And finally we come to the actual game itself. As mentioned earlier in the review, Lords of Thunder is a horizontal side-scroller with some unique properties. In areas where there's a ground or walls you can freely run across the ground and fly into the walls with no repercussions(though some stages are like to attempt to crush you through a combination of traps and the auto-scrolling nature of shooters). Very few enemies actually adopt the "line of foes"(another trope) method of attack. In fact several of your enemies will find more ways to kill you aside from simply flinging bullets. Many will lunge at you, breathe fire, swing swords, and so on. In most stages you're also likely to run into a mid-boss. These guys usually drop some exceptional power-ups and a health-restoring item. Oh and of course everything drops gems. When you're not dodging attacks and killing things you're constantly flying everywhere to grab gems before they disappear. The bosses themselves are about what'd you expect after seeing how everything else in this game behaves. They're big huge guys that telegraph almost all of their attacks(you'll see some animation or unusual behavior before the boss makes their move). 

You'll find that most of the threats in this game come from a combination of the environment and enemies looking to "box" you in with their firepower and girth. Though you can take many hits before dying you'll quickly discover that you have no real period of invincibility in-between hits so getting into really bad situations could cost you dearly. Like Sega's game Space Harrier it's not what you dodge that kills you, it's what you run into while trying to get away. Your "ship" also happens to be rather large thus making it an easy target for the enemies. Obviously it'd be asking for too much to have a tiny hitbox and a long health meter. That said there are still some needlessly frustrating elements to this game. The final stage runs a bit long and the one health power-up in it comes from a stray enemy swarm you're likely to miss. This wouldn't be so bad except the rest of the game is rather easy by comparison, so it makes for an annoying wall to hit(and also the one place where choosing the wrong weapon can really break you). Also on a related note while the developers did a fine job of balancing each weapon the sword just doesn't have enough strength to compensate for the loss of other weapons. This tends to be a frustrating aspect as since you have to play aggressively and move all over the screen the times the sword is actually useful(like when there's nothing else on screen) don't come around often enough. Also I think the game would have benefitted from turning all of your unused currency into bonus points at the end of the game(like Forgotten Worlds). I think it would have been a great way to challenge oneself to avoid purchasing everything and having something to show for their trouble. 

Not quite related to everything else but I think it's a great idea that the suicide bullets(another shooter trope where enemies fire off bullets after they're destroyed, why they're called suicide bullets when the enemy doesn't kill themself to fire them is beyond me)) on the harder difficulties are handled well. In a game where you're likely to get close to tons of foes it's good that the extraneous bullets don't appear until after the enemy has finished exploding. Granted I can't imagine getting very far in the Super difficulty setting but at least it seems to play somewhat fair. 

All in all Lords of Thunder is a great title to pick up if you need a 2D shooter on your Virtual Console. While it does lack depth it is also quite accessible and something easy to pick up when all you want to do is kill stuff to a heavy metal soundtrack. 

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