At the time of writing, the aftermath of this year's E3 is the big news in the gaming scene, but rather than speculating about all the exciting new experiences on the horizon (I hear you'll be able to make Pac-Man punch Mega Man in the new Smash Bros., crazy times indeed) I'm going to go back to a simpler era with one of the most basic gaming set-ups of all: a lone soldier travels from left to right, trying to rack up a personal bodycount to rival the Siege of Leningrad. Oh, and vaguely defined terrorism, there's some of that too. It's Taito's 1990 arcade pistol-whip-em-up Thunder Fox!
Which Pokemon is the Thunder Fox again? Thunder Fox is a decent name for an elite military unit, I suppose. You've got the symbolic power of thunder married to the fox, an animal which not only knocks over your bins and mates loudly on your front lawn at three a.m. but also has an unceasing hatred of terrorism.
The year is 199X. Terrorism - true videogame terrorism, terrorism which has no explained goal beyond terrorising people, has swept the world. According to the intro text "the evil power of invasion extends over the land, sky and sea," so these terrorists are well-equipped and nothing if not ambitious. What is this evil organisation called? Where did they come from? Who leads them? I have no idea. Look, do you want to sit around here listening to a question and answer session all day, or do you want to get out there and kick a terrorist in the mouth? Yeah, that's what I thought, but first we're going to meet our heroes.
It's Military Man, Johnny Toughguy, the Shirtless Avenger, the same barechested warrior who you've controlled in every other game where a lone soldier saves the world. His trousers are blue. I think that's the most interesting thing about his character design. No, wait, I take that back - I'm interested to know why he's wearing forearm sheaths. Did he walk into the quartermaster's tent and ask for the very opposite of a sleeveless vest?
Also, Orange Flavoured Military Man! Orange Flavoured Military Man will not be appearing, as he is the P2 character and I am lonely, so desperately lonely.
And we're off, moving along one horizontal plane, stabbing the members of a terrorist organisation who spend most of their operating budget on jumpsuits in a variety of colours. Johnny Toughguy here didn't bring a gun but he did bring a knife, which puts him in the 50th percentile of arcade game heroes for combat preparedness.
Thunder Fox owes quite a debt to Namco's Rolling Thunder, which must be one of the most influential games to never get a mention on lists of influential games. You can stab enemies that come near, you can jump around the place and - yes, like in Rolling Thunder - you can hold up and press jump to leap between the different heights of background scenery. For instance, pressing up and jump here will would make our hero hop onto that wall. It doesn't just do that, though, and because Johnny Toughguy likes to pack a little murder into everything he does his height-switching super jump is also a spinning cartwheel kick of death, an extremely useful move that you'll get much more use out of than these early areas might suggest.
"Beep beep," says Johnny, "clear the road! I mustn't be late!" Away he goes, tootling across the battlefield like Toad of Toad Hall, only with a large-calibre mounted gun bolted onto his vehicle. It's nice that Thunder Fox is giving me a bit of variety already. It's also nice to have a feeling of power in an arcade game for a change. The jeep isn't up to much, but it's more than enough to dispatch the agents of an evil organisation whose battle plan seems to be to run toward their inevitable deaths as quickly as possible. The yellow-suited goons only have knives, but they're not afraid to leap under my wheels. Maybe they're hoping they can puncture my tyres in a display of noble if ultimately pointless sacrifice.
It's all very dynamic, at least. As I've said, enemies really hurl themselves at you, and Johnny Toughguy himself moves at a good pace, shifting from place to place in a fluid manner that's made possible by the responsive controls and the ease with which you can make a threat assessment - thanks to their colourful uniforms, you can quickly distinguish between the thugs that are going to run over to you can try to introduce Mr. Bowie Knife to Mr. Liver (the yellow ones) and the ones with rocket launchers (the red ones). Your best, nay, only course of action is the same regardless of the enemy in question - get over there and stab them - but it's nice to know which enemies have guns.
Guns that I can take for my very own. Here, Johnny Toughguy has picked up a pistol. I think he's supposed to be firing it from a louche, "intro to a Bond movie" pose, but he merely looks tentative and off-balance. Maybe he isn't happy about the dishonour of not killing his foes in one-on-one physical combat, but that stain on his honour can be washed away thanks to one of Thunder Fox's stand-out gameplay features: whacking things with your gun. In a very welcome and surprisingly rare twist, you have two attack buttons when you're holding a gun. One button fires the gun, as you might expect, but the other lets you hit people with your weapon, allowing you to both conserve ammo and clobber someone with the butt of an assault rifle. It's a fantastically liberating mechanic, freeing you from the concerns of wasting bullets on low-level grunts that are right next to you, and for this fact alone Thunder Fox has leapt up in my estimation.
The end of the first stage is guarded by a tank. Or all these enemies in the first stage were guarding the tank, possibly. The evil organisation only seems to have one tank, so it makes sense that they'd be trying to take good care of it. They can't let it get damaged, not now that they've applied their totally sweet skull decals to the turret.
As armoured battle vehicles go, this tank doesn't pose much of a threat. It's cannon is easily avoided and you can stand on top of it, protecting you from being crushed beneath its treads. The fact that you can't damage the tank with your knife - Thunder Fox's only concession to the concept of realism - might have been a problem, but helpfully a soldier pops out of the hatch ever now and again, and killing this soldier nets you a grenade. Throw the grenade at the tank, wait for another soldier to open the hatch, stab him and take his grenade. Johnny Toughguy may not have a shirt, but he's definitely got tank-busting smarts.
Stage two begins and suddenly Thunder Fox is a side-scrolling shooter. Of all the genres to be occasionally shoehorned into otherwise ground-based action games, the side-scrolling shooter is the most common and, sadly, the most predictably dull. Thunder Fox's side-scrolling shooter is no exception to this rule, a brief and unengaging Gradius pastiche where you shoot at the one and only enemy type as they appear in seemingly random attack "patterns". Two things lift this area ever so slightly. One is that your VTOL-hovercraft-motorcycle thing takes visible damage as you get hit, from trailing smoke to a full on-board fire. The other is that these vehicles look like something from 80's toyline Manta Force, and Manta Force was super-cool so anything that reminds me of it gets a thumbs up. Manta rays? Thumbs up. Sweetcorn? Kinda looks like the yellow Manta Force soldiers, so thumbs up. These Manta Force-looking vehicles? Well, you get the idea.
The point of that little flight was to reach the enemy's airborne battleship, a flying weapon so gargantuan that it can support tens of burly men performing jumping kicks all over its airframe with no noticeable drop in aerodynamic performance.
So yeah, Johnny Toughguy can perform a flying kick by pressing the attack and jump buttons together. I know I always say that if you can perform flying kicks you should use them all time, but in Thunder Fox's case this is more true than ever. They're faster than walking, plus they can take out five or six enemies at a time if they're all clumped together.
There's a miniboss on the outside of the plane, a bullet-spewing turret that has one fatal flaw: it can't shoot upwards. Of course, Johnny Toughguy can't stab downwards, so it's a moot point. Oh well, I'll just have to jump-kick into it repeatedly until it explodes, providing me with a hole through which I can access the inside of the battle carrier.
The most notable thing about this part of the game isn't that the enemy forces have formed an impromptu conga line - they do that on every stage - but rather the doors in the background. If you walk past them while they're open, you're sucked out of the plane to your death. Now, this is an understandable result of cabin depressurization, but I'd have but less surprised by my sudden exit if I hadn't been happily walking along the outside of the aircraft mere moments ago.
The boss of the plane is it's engine, although it's less of a boss and more of a room that constantly fills with enemies until you've stabbed the engine enough times. It's not a hugely difficult task.
Then things all go a bit Super Metroid. It turns out that blowing up the engine of a plane that's currently in flight necessitates a swift escape, and Johnny Toughguy must make his way through the soon-to-be wreckage whilst up against a time limit that's beatable but which necessitates a more aggressive style of play. There's nowt more aggressive than flying kicks. I had plenty of time to spare at the end.
Our hero escapes the plummeting aircraft by driving a jetski out of the cargo door, which nicely sets up stage three's aquatic jaunt. Frogmen dive from the helicopter above, but they seem more intent on stabbing the sea than dealing with their human adversary, and it's very easy to bait the helicopter into dropping it's scuba-diving cargo at one end of the screen before moving backwards and away from any danger.
It might not be a hard stage but it does look nice, with a very pleasant pixel sunset in the background and even a silhouetted city to admire as you blast the frogmen. A lot of Thunder Fox is nice to look at, with graphics that aren't quite at the very top end of what arcade titles from 1990 had to offer but which have a crispness and a cleanness to them that works very nicely with the relentless action of the game.
At the end of your jetski ride is a man with a big pointy stick. I can't tell if he's wearing a flap of cloth to keep the sun off his neck of if that's his hair and he's rocking a skullet. If it's the latter then give it up, man. You're nine feet tall and you can deflect bullets with a stick, you don't need to cling onto what's left of your hair to protect your masculinity.
I struggled with this boss at first, his long reach and scorn for firearms proving problematic until I realised I was forcing it a bit too much and all I had to do was calmly walk forward, poke him with my knife and then retreat so I could do it again.
The boss escapes in a helicopter. I think I'm supposed to assume that the boss is saying this, but it works much better if you imagine that it's Johnny Toughguy threatening to catch up with the boss and finish the job.
The player might not be privy to the true goals of these terrorists, but whatever they are they must be very convincing because there are a lot of men willing to charge to their death for the cause. Giving them guns and hats that don't cover cover their eyes might have helped them reach those goals, but as I jump-kick my way across this aircraft carrier it occurs to me that their boss probably didn't anticipate them having so much trouble with one commando who couldn't even be bothered to put on a shirt.
Fighting my way past all these jet fighters, I survey the scene and it feel like something's... missing.
There we go, that's much better.
The latter half of the aircraft carrier is where Thunder Fox's resemblance to Rolling Thunder shines the brightest, with enemies pouring out of background doors and more chances to jump up and down between the different platforms, but this is like Rolling Thunder cranked up to, I dunno, some number just past ten - I'd say you're up against waves of enemies, but waves go in and out and the enemies here give you no such breathing space. It could have become annoyingly overwhelming, but because the enemies all die in one hit it never feels too oppressive and indeed there's a rare satisfaction to be found in clearing a platform of enemies by cartwheeling through them or knocking them aside with an assault rifle before picking off the stragglers.
Oh, it's you again. Not much else to say about this second encounter, other than the man with the big stick doesn't manage to escape this time, and to add insult to injury I stole his helicopter to get to stage four.
"Pound" seems like an odd word to use in this context, but okay. I'll pound their mine so hard that I'll reveal hitherto unknown seams of precious gemstones!
Pictured above: Thunder Fox in a nutshell. It's simple, but no less enjoyable for it, and at the risk of harping on about it I would lie to remind you that if you wish to preserve your precious flamethrower fuel you can press the other attack button to batter people with it instead. There are often enough gun-toting enemies around that ammo conversation isn't necessary, however, and on top of that I wouldn't want to deprive Johnny Toughguy of the joy he feels when he's burning terrorists alive.
That is the face of a man who really loves his work.
Finding new things to say about Thunder Fox's stages is getting more and more difficult, but I did say I was going to play something simple and that describes this game perfectly. Simple doesn't mean bad, of course, and everything that Thunder Fox does it does with assurance and solidity. It helps that it's a short game, the stages feeling even shorter thanks to the breakneck pace of the action.
And then, a boring boss fight pops up to spoil the party. The concept of fighting a wrecking ball isn't the most enthralling in the world, but the bigger problem is that it's only vulnerable spot is the small laser cannon that's handily highlighted by a big arrow in the above screenshot. The laser spends most of the battle tucked safely away inside the crane, and when it does pop out it's at a frustrating height where you'll spend a lot of time either attacking just over or just below it, all the while being harassed by the wrecking ball and the chunks of rock it dislodges, rocks that do more damage than getting shot by a tank if they so much as brush against your feet. It's not fun, but on the plus side it's the only part of Thunder Fox that I have any major complaints about.
Your final mission is to assault the enemy headquarters, another military-themed stage in which the game throws a bit of everything you've faced before your way, plus a couple of new defences like big spiked slabs that fall from the ceiling. I didn't seem to activate these booby traps personally, so I have to assume they're always turned on, forever moving up and down along the corridors of the enemy base. Such is their commitment to terrorism that they're even willing to terrorise the interns who are just heading out to get coffee.
I've just realised that rather than comparing Thunder Fox to Rolling Thunder, I should have been talking about its similarities to SNK 1988 arcade game P.O.W.: Prisoner of War. While P.O.W. takes on more of a traditional beat-em-up slant, both games feature the ability to perform melee attacks with your firearms, both have you fighting waves of near-identical soldiers and both have same military theme that's occasionally interrupted by an angry wrecking ball. The difference between them is that Thunder Fox is fun and P.O.W. isn't, providing a great lesson in how two games that are very similar mechanically and in terms of content can by separated by such a gulf in enjoyment levels. Thunder Fox is fun because it moves quickly and relentlessly, unlike the main character in P.O.W., who moves as though he accidentally put on three pairs of lead socks that morning. Thunder Fox has the brief vehicular sections to break up the fighting, where as P.O.W. has more ladders than a window-cleaners' convention. Thunder Fox takes the basics found in P.O.W. and speeds them up, the kind of change that can make a big difference in genres such as this that are packed with a lot of very similar titles.
The last guy was just a warm-up for the final boss, who is riding around in a big chair bolted to the ceiling. I had to read the line "you have well made it over into here, haven't you" about five times before the words coagulated into something resembling an actual sentence, and I think the head villain is congratulating me on reaching his inner sanctum. Maybe his chair has a dodgy inbuilt auto-translator that he bought off the black market.
The boss hangs around at the top of the screen trying to drop bombs on your head, but he reckoned without the awesome power of Johnny Toughguy's cartwheel kick and his less awesome but no less useful power to walk left or right to a spot where no bombs are falling.
You know, I think I just did this fight.
To make up for the final boss' relative lack of threat, Thunder Fox takes away your ability to continue your game from the point at which you died - if you lose all you lives against this guy, you have to attempt the whole fight from the start, dangling chair and all. It's a happy medium between being able to bury the boss under an avalanche of extra credits and not being able to continue at all, resulting in a tense yet winnable fight. After enough of a beating the boss ditches his gun in favour of a spear, of all things, but even that is not enough to stop the crushing justice of the Thunder Fox unit and soon the game is complete.
I bloody hope the battle is "truly finished" - the game didn't offer me a Ghosts 'n' Goblins-style chance to do it all again and there's no way I'll be clearing this on one credit. As far as I know there's no secret ending, but if you know otherwise then feel free to let me know.
As Johnny Toughguy and Orange Flavoured Military Man relax with a cup of coffee and reminisce about the battles they just fought - battles Orange Flavoured Military Man was not involved in but which he seems to have a very clear memory of - I'm left to reflect on a game which, yes, was very simple, but no less fun for it. Thunder Fox has only one goal, to give the player a quick thrill through pacey combat against numerous but lightweight foes, and on that front it's a definite success. The gameplay is smooth, the controls responsive, your moves varied, all of it wrapped up in some good presentation, with nice graphics and a really good soundtrack:
This is the theme for the aircraft carrier stage, and the whole game is scored with this jazzy, upbeat feel that works really well despite its tonal difference from the gameplay. It also reminds me of Side Pocket, which is more than fine by me.
Thunder Fox comes recommended, then - it might not blow your mind, but it might blow an hour or so of your time in an enjoyable way. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to sift through the mountain of news that's poured out of E3. I heard there was a teaser for the new Doom game, and it's been a while since I got my hopes uncomfortably high.