There was a time in the late '80s when Thunder Blade machines were a fairly common sight in amusement arcades. Yet even with a decent amount of distribution it was never in the same league as its close cousins; the instant visual assault from Sega's flashier and more exciting looking games such as Out Run, After Burner and Space Harrier made Thunder Blade's slower pace seem decidedly tame in comparison (especially next to the extreme-speed dog fights of After Burner). Ultimately it never really took off, failing to capture the hearts of a generation.
Various home versions were produced and while some captured the spirit fairly well, none managed to get close to the graphics of the arcade game. Thunder Blade was then left firmly in the archives, until developer M2 revitalised it as part of its Sega 3D classics range. Finally available in Europe, has M2 worked its usual magic and breathed new life into this oft-maligned classic in 3D Thunder Blade, or should it hover back into the depths?
The premise of the game is standard fare - shoot down all the bad guys in your state-of-the-art helicopter gunship (which bears more than a passing resemblance to '80s movie/TV chopper Blue Thunder). You're blessed with an infinite supply of machine gun bullets and air-to-ground missiles with which to take out the array of enemy military vehicles lying in wait.
Boring story setup aside, Thunder Blade is actually a pretty interesting proposition due to a unique gameplay mix. Each of the four stages is split into three parts - a top-down vertically scrolling shooter, followed by some flying into-the-screen (ala After Burner) and then finally a boss battle. All three sections merge together seamlessly; the in-game camera dynamically adjusts the viewpoint as required. It's this sporadic mix that gives Thunder Blade its unique charm.
Being in control of a helicopter also enables some pretty cool gameplay elements. Throttle controls (which can be mapped to the C-stick of a New Nintendo 3DS or Circle Pad Pro) allow the player to adjust flight speed right down to a hover – although you're an easier target at slower speeds, it's simpler to avoid buildings and structures. M2 has kindly added a feature for players struggling with this aspect; the lowest difficulty setting removes death from scenery collisions, ensuring navigation of the more complex scenarios is much less frustrating.
Additional control settings include two variations for the gryo/motion sensor to simulate being inside a moving arcade cabinet. Unfortunately imprecise movement combined with the annoyance of tilting and twisting the console is not a great experience. These options are best left alone in our opinion.
Graphically speaking, Thunder Blade has never looked better; the arcade game was technically superb back in the day, with clever use of sprite layering/scaling providing a fabulous sense of depth and immersion. Viewing these (still) impressive visuals in stereoscopic 3D adds even more depth, and with a solid 60fps (even with the 3D slider all the way up) it's hard not to be impressed when flying over the top of huge city blocks with the ground laid out far below. Together with the various screen settings (including widescreen and simulated in-cabinet views) the presentation of the Nintendo 3DS port is stunning.
As beautiful as it undeniably is, the downside of Thunder Blade is the overall length. The entire game can be completed within ten minutes, but without the replay value provided by Out Run's route choices or After Burner's impressive twenty three stages (for example), Thunder Blade rapidly grows tiresome. This is not helped by some frustrating gameplay; often you'll die from crashing into an unseen enemy aircraft rather than being shot down, or burst into flames from running into scenery you're certain was avoided. It's fair to say the collision detection is a little dubious at times.
The top down sections are basically bombing runs, which can be fun but fall short of being as good as a 'proper' vertical shooter; planning ahead to take out the ground based enemies before they can react isn't too difficult. It's a real shame, because a full-blown 2D shooter with these graphics could be incredible. Finally, the boss battles aren't really battles at all; they're simply flybys that are completed by staying alive rather than any destruction requirements (only the final boss has to be actually destroyed).
To aid longevity, M2 added a Special Mode that's unlocked after clearing Arcade Mode once. Special mode tacks on an additional (newly designed) into-the-screen section followed by an extra boss battle at the end of the fourth stage; essentially about two to three minutes of extra gameplay. There are a few other tweaks such as enemy placement changes, weapon priority alterations and scoring system tweaks (plus your chopper is a different colour) but it's really just Thunder Blade 1.5 – a nice to have but nothing especially game changing.
Typically Sega's sprite scaling games are synonymous with a fantastic soundtrack; it's all subjective of course, but Thunder Blade's soundtrack just isn't very exciting or memorable. It's an accomplished enough bass-y set of similar sounding tunes which do a job (and are by no means terrible) however the soundtrack as a whole just isn't as stand-out brilliant as other Sega classics.
Coming to a suitable conclusion on 3D Thunder Blade is a difficult proposition; on one hand it's clearly the best of the 3D Classics on a technical level, but on the other hand the source material wasn't a particularly top-notch game to begin with. Beautiful graphics can't elevate average gameplay and the overall replay value is limited. There will be fans of the arcade original who will really love this conversion and if that person is you, it's everything you could ever want from a handheld Thunder Blade. For everyone else, treated as a quick pick-up-and-play blaster this has some value, but there are better choices available.