November 25th, 2012 | By Matt Suckley
Developed by Arcade Overload Games, Thunderbolt is a game with one objective: to blow stuff up. Thunderbolt serves as a tribute to the side-scrolling shoot’em-up genre which enjoyed huge popularity in the 80s and early 90s. In recent years, within the indie scene the genre has boomed. So how will Thunderbolt stack up against its huge competition?
Thunderbolt‘s minimal story is presented in the form of scrolling text and partially animated backgrounds, just like an old arcade game. The story tells of a scientist known as ‘Mr. I’ who discovers the art of time-tunneling. With his new-found ability he opens a time portal in his basement, and decides to go back in time in order to “change the course of history”. He goes back to, it appears, World War II (a very arcade-influenced version of WWII in which a solo fighter can single-handedly win the war) and that’s about it as far as exposition goes.
Thunderbolts provides nothing innovative and it has no new tricks up its sleeve to reinvigorate the genre. However, Thunderbolts does not intend to – Arcade Overload‘s intention is made clear by the game’s subtitle: Collision of Times. This is very much a retro-tribute game, aiming to bring the same 1942-inspired shoot’em-up action into a modern world. Whereas other developers have aimed to modernize the genre for a new audience, Arcade Overload has opted to keep the basic frameworks of the classics intact. Fly forward, dodge bullets, shoot baddies, either alone or with a friend in 2-player co-op. Simple!
Authentically retro it may be, but Thunderbolt’s feature-set does feel a bit bare-boned when compared to other indie shooters that have managed to couple old-school charm with genuinely new ideas, such as Jamestown and Velocity. Your plane comes equipped with bombs that can be used to get you out of a tight spot, and there are also some obligatory weapon power-ups to pick up along the way, but these are really the only diversions from the unrelenting singularity of the rest of the game. It remains a largely enjoyable experience, but this lack of variety means that it is far better suited to short bursts of play than marathon sessions.
Visually, the game is appealing. While the environmental design feels a bit empty, with huge swathes of basic green landscape and very sparse points of interest or variation, there is some nice 2D sprite-work on display in the form of enemy vehicles. Explosions feel weighty and impactful, which is a necessity in a game that relies on them this heavily; your downed enemies are destroyed in a ball of flame that will tug the nostalgia strings of gamers who grew up during the 16-bit era. Boss enemies, when finally destroyed, will erupt in a huge torrent of cathartic explosions, as is traditional, giving the climax of each stage a feeling of emphatic victory.
Thunderbolt doesn’t quite have the pull-your-hair-out level of difficulty with which the genre is synonymous, although it is by no means easy. What Arcade Overload has done brilliantly is to minimize the frustration traditionally associated with shoot’em-ups by implementing a forgiving checkpoint system. Every level is split into small chunks, each one separated by a checkpoint so you don’t have to face the tedium of beginning again from the start each time you die. This compromise to modernity streamlines the whole affair without sacrificing the game’s vintage sensibilities.
Weighing it all up, Thunderbolt‘s appeal is twofold: if you are, as the game’s synopsis suggests, an older gamer who is “bewildered by current-gen console controllers with more buttons than you have fingers”, then Thunderbolts is definitely for you, as it retains the comforting simplicity of classic arcade games. On the flip-side, it is an equally appealing prospect for younger gamers who may not be familiar with the shoot’em-up genre. In a world dominated by first-person and third-person shooters, it is the traditional-type shooters, the origins of the genre, which feel unique. This is the true collision of times.
As a throwback, a glimpse into what gaming used to be like, Thunderbolt is a thoroughly competent game which provides good, explosive fun. However, a shoot’em-up releasing in this day and age really needs a hook, a unique selling point to make it stand out, and Thunderbolt is disappointingly by-the-numbers. If a no-frills experience is what you’re after, then Thunderbolt is a well-executed example of gaming purism that is worthy of your time. However, if you’re looking for something a bit more ambitious, then there are a wealth of more creative and expansive indie shooters out there.