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CONSOLE: PlayStation 3 DEVELOPER: Square Enix PUBLISHER: Square Enix
RELEASE DATE (NA): January 28, 2010 GENRE: Action
// review by Jeff

Thexder's Laboratory!

The original Thexder actually comes from way back in 1985. It was developed by Game Arts, more famously known for its Lunar and Grandia RPG series, for the NEC PC-8801 computer in Japan only. It would later be ported to additional consoles, including the also-Japan-exclusive MSX computer and the Famicom. North American audiences would get to live the Thexder experience thanks to Sierra On-Line, who ported it all over the place. They also brought over its sequel, Fire Hawk: Thexder - The Second Contact, which ended up being a decent seller, both on its native turf and abroad.

Thexder doesn't benefit from having a unique or existent storyline, so its focus was primarily on a unique form of gameplay. You control a mech-like robot whose goal is basically to "get to the end of a stage". Each stage is setup like a maze, and you have to navigate your way through to find the corridor out. His only form of attack in a thin laser, but luckily for us, it's on constant auto-aim! That's right, no need to POINT and shoot; only shooting is enough. The downside is that his laser drains the robot's energy, so it must be cautiously used. Energy can be refilled by defeating specific enemies that drop energy capsules, which our aluminum ally will absorb. His defensive strategies are limited to making an aura shield appear around him, which also drains precious life energy. As you progress, you'll inevitably pick up orbs that will increase the bot's overall life meter, which is extremely useful. The key is balancing energy collection, using the weapon, and... well, not getting overwhelmed by other strange bots causing you damage.

Oh, and did I mention that he can transform, at will, into a miniature jet? Well, he can! It really helps to get through tight crevices within areas. He can still fire off his laser while in jet form, though it comes at a price: you can't stop moving as a jet until you return to regular cyborg form. Then again, most airplanes can't freeze in mid-air, either.

The game had a decent presentation for its time, complete with colourful graphics, an impressive soundtrack, and gameplay that dares to allure. Its success in the mid-1980s secured its place as a video game classic, but beyond Thexder 2, nothing was really done with the series, aside from "Thexder 95", a re-release designed for play through Windows 95. That is, until Square Enix took it upon themselves to re-invent the game for more modern consoles. Already familiar with Thexder (having developed the Famicom port themselves), Square Enix created a 3D remake (well, 3D sprites, though the game remains as 2D as it always was), releasing it first on the PSP simultaneously worldwide, followed by a PlayStation 3 version a few months later.


This mechanical marvel is no Poin-thexder!

In Thexder NEO, the gameplay remains entirely intact, although the robot's movement is far less blocky. Even the level layouts are true to the original. What you'd mainly be playing for is the visual upgrade: this game is far more pleasing to the eye. The black backgrounds of olde are no more, replaced with mostly techy scenery. And, naturally, all sprites have received a smooth, smooth improvement. The music also gets the treatment, with a far more electronic breakbeat soundtrack that draws on earlier tunes. It's funky, although it doesn't quite pack the punch of the classic Thexder songs that were more in-your-face.

There are a few other key differences in Thexder NEO that make the game a bit different from its source material. For one, the shield function has its own separate energy bar and no longer drains your primary life meter. Secondly — and I consider this a boon — the game actually has a legitimate final boss. Granted, it's a very easy and simple boss battle to complete, but having that last mechanical creature rise from the fluorescent waters below as you fry it to bits gives the game a better sense of closure in its finale. Lastly, finishing a level takes you to an actual "Stage Completed" screen, where you receive bonuses for not using your shield at all, as well as some refilling of your energy for your hard efforts. Much appreciated.

Thexder NEO does keep one more aspect of the game that is key to its quality: it's hard as heck. Surviving on Easy Mode is assuredly a major challenge, but anything beyond that is likely to instill a headache upon the player. Enemies tend to come in flocks and, if the robot can't destroy them immediately, they will tend to hover around the hero and drain his energy like a keg at a frat party. And some of the obstacles are pure annoyance, like the large piles of seemingly random square "things" that slowly break apart when you shoot them, though their elements also tend to try and hunt you down. (That description makes no sense unless you see them first-hand.) This was true way back in 1985, and it's true today. If the challenge of old Thexder games turned you off in the 80s, you might want to think twice about picking this up. To prove that point, you also have the option of firing up the original 1985 release, also available in this package, without needing to unlock it.

I enjoyed the simple gameplay, and the game's presentation is indeed engaging, but getting tackled by a bunch of vagabond squares won't appeal to everyone. This release is really for fans of the original Thexder, as this is old-school gameplay with an extra coat of paint. I highly doubt it will lure a whole new generation to the series (it didn't), but Thexder NEO is still an ample curiosity. For people on the fence, I suggest snagging the game when it next goes on sale.


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