It’s not that space shooters don’t exist on Nintendo systems, but there’s certainly not enough of them to keep cockpit-hopping fans from feeling parched. 3PM Games took advantage of this vacuum by releasing Thorium Wars on DSiWare and now, just like the alien antagonists of the series, it's back with Thorium Wars: Attack of the Skyfighter on the 3DS eShop.
As the title suggests, Attack of the Skyfighter focuses only on flying craft, offering three models of fighter for most missions. The Utu Skyfighter is the middle-of-the-road choice, with the Indra sacrificing speed for heavier armour and firepower and the more fragile and softer-hitting Shango made to zoom. The differences in stats are pretty tangible; enough that you might consider your choices depending on what kind of situation is presented.
All of the fighters offer smooth piloting thanks to a tight, button-only control scheme. The Circle Pad naturally shoulders the manoeuvring work, with A and B on throttle and brake, X to barrel roll, Y to look behind the ship and R to fire. The L button places a helpful targeting box over the nearest enemy, but doesn’t engage any sort of homing lock-on — the D-pad is also put to good use, with Up activating a speed boost and Left and Right toggling between rapid-fire and charged weapons. It shouldn’t take much time until the setup becomes second nature.
The mission count comes in at a slightly disappointing eight, one of which is a gratefully included but still bland tutorial. Stages vary between navigating the tunnel-like routes of canyons, caves, or stations and the “free range mode” of city or sky battlegrounds. Although the basics of stage setup can feel somewhat similar, things are nicely spiced up with different objectives in each mission. One stage, where you're set the task of taking down a chain of three titanic, floating bases in the open sky, is especially refreshing.
Navigation is a little improved in Attack of the Skyfighter thanks to the simple addition of compass directions on its rotating radar. Even so, some stages can still be quite maze-like, and a blinking dot on your screen may still not provide you enough information to avoid unintentionally backtracking through levels with few landmarks or differentiations in them. Some locations also feel tough to get around not due to the response of controls, but because the rooms and tunnels feel too confined; finding yourself having to turn around at these spots is doable, but still feels more like getting out of a cramped parking lot than slick jetting. An option to pull a U-turn a la Star Fox 64 would be very welcome.
Stages can be taken on again at any time once first completed, and at any of the game’s three difficulty settings. This is good for those who want to try going in with different ships or are shooting for medals based on how often one does not burst into flames. The game can be quite tough at times, with one ram from an enemy ship enough to put your own out of commission, but levels are generously sprinkled with checkpoints to ease the pain.
Attack of the Skyfighter has a good look overall, with the ship models being especially eye-catching, but a lot of it feels pulled from the bag of general sci-fi parts — the music, although limited to a few tracks, does nevertheless add a good dose of atmosphere. There is a bit of story, with briefings laying out the Thorians’ motivations and how you, the only starfighter they ever seem able to get inside their bases, will thwart them, but it doesn’t seem that involved. This is perfectly fine for anyone who just wants to shoot things and save the day, but others looking for characters, motivations, or a sense of squadwork might feel lonely instead.
Thorium Wars: Attack of the Skyfighter is a solidly crafted game that does a lot right in offering a classic, arcade-leaning space shooter experience. It could stand to have more play content (all eight stages can be cleared in a little over 2 hours on medium difficulty — faster if you’re a pro) and added oomph in terms of story and a more life-filled, interactive universe, but anyone whose finger itches more on the trigger of a flight stick than a gun should certainly take a look.