Ancient Greek playwright Euripides apparently once said that "ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head," and putting aside a very literal interpretation - of course they would, one hundred headless soldiers would not be an effective military force - I guess I'll need to be some kind of super-genius to guide one lone soldier through Aisystem Tokyo's 1994 SNES port of Taito's Operation Thunderbolt. It is a very good job that I am a genius, then. If Einstein was still alive today he would definitely be spending his time talking about old videogames on the internet.
Operation Digitised Photo of an Action Man Accessory Set, more like.
Originally seeing an arcade release way back in 1988, Operation Thunderbolt is the sequel to Taito's classic uzi-em-up Operation Wolf (and therefore also the prequel to Operation Wolf 3), so it's got something of a pedigree behind it: I'm sure Operation Wolf was many arcade patrons' first experience of holding a real fake gun and pointing at fake bad guys that fake died when you pulled the real, physical trigger, if you see what I mean. Operation Wolf certainly seemed to be ubiquitous on my rare childhood visits to the arcade, although I don't recall ever seeing an Operation Thunderbolt cabinet in the wild. Then again I don't recall what I ate for breakfast this morning, so that doesn't really mean anything.
So why am I playing the SNES port and not the arcade original? I dunno, really. I'm interested to see how the conversion to home formats was handled but the idea of playing, say, the Amstrad CPC version is a bit too harrowing. Also, the SNES didn't have many games that supported the SNES mouse or the Super Scope and Operation Thunderbolt allows you to use either (or neither) of those peripherals. Whatever the reason, I'm sure playing a conversion of a credit-draining arcade game using the SNES mouse is going to be a soothing, pleasant experience.
The vague semblance of a plot congeals before the player's eyes, because we'd all be terribly upset if we we suddenly asked to start shooting thousands of people without knowing our motivation. In this case it's some good ol' terrorism, as villains who were clearly at the back of the queue when balaclavas were being handed out hijack a plane and take the passengers hostage. The terrorist on the right has an almost apologetic air about him, as though he's placing his hand on the pilot's shoulder and saying "hey, how about this mass kidnapping, huh? Crazy. Anyway, buddy, if you just fly us where we want to go it'll all work out fine. We'll all go out for ice cream when we land, how does that sound?"
This diabolical scheme is masterminded by a warlord named Abul Bazarre. I can't tell his name is supposed to be a pun on "bizarre" in a "Sodamn Insane" / General Ahkboob from Total Carnage, or if it's just weird. I suppose it doesn't matter, his combination of military officer's uniform, sunglasses and cartoon-Satan facial hair mark him out as a dangerous individual.
Bazarre finds a camera crew "willing" to broadcast his demands, veering wildly between pleading and threats before revealing that he wants the immediate release from prison of his incarcerated comrades. Well, here in Videogame Land we don't negotiate with terrorists, no matter how fancy their epaulettes are - we send in a lone agent to rack up a higher body count than malaria. It's the videogame way. Which super-soldier will be entrusted with this harrowing mission, then?
Surprisingly - and in a change from the arcade original, which only has two - there are six playable soldiers to choose from, although there is little difference between them aside from some very minor variations in firing rates and magazine capacity. In a time when the issue of representation for minority groups in videogames is more widely debated than ever, it's nice to see a cast in a retro game that covers plenty of genders, colour and creeds. I'll be playing as Norwegian lieutenant Sonja Thiessen, for several reasons. The fact that's she's on the left of the character select screen is a major one, granted, but also how often do you get to play as a Norwegian in a videogame? She's also using an Uzi (even thought it says Ingram M11) and the Uzi is the One True Gun when it comes to this era of arcade shooters. Also, Dan refuses to open his eyes and Chamkaur has a bit of a lazy eye going on, so I'm not sure I trust them to be operating firearms.
You commanding officer is Colonel Jones. His lack of gaudy, oversized shoulder decorations means he's someone you can trust, so listen closely as he fills you in on Operation Thunderbolt. Those of you with an encyclopaedic knowledge of real-world military operation codenames - hey, I'm sure those people exist somewhere out there - may have realised that Operation Thunderbolt is extremely loosely based on the real Operation Thunderbolt, AKA Operation Entebbe, the 1976 operation by Israeli forces to rescue the passengers for a hijacked plane. I'm not sure how I feel about a real-life incident of this nature being used as the basis for mindless entertainment, but given that I've played plenty of World War Two themed games I imagine I'll get over any reservations fairly quickly.
You're offered three possible stages to begin with, but don't let this and the larger-than-expected roster of playable characters fool you - Operation Thunderbolt doesn't offer any meaningful choices. You still have to complete all three missions and there are no gameplay changes for playing them in a certain order, so you might as well pick one at random. I'll be starting with stage one, as the gods intended.
That's a funny way of saying "shoot everyone and anyone that crosses your path without asking them anything even vaguely approaching a question," but what do I know, I'm just a lowly grunt.
This screenshot of Operation Thunderbolt tells you all you need to know about the basic gameplay setup, doesn't it? You shoot the bad guys, using either the pad or the mouse to place your crosshair over their bodies - it doesn't matter which part of their bodies, either, you can kneecap every last one of them them if you're some kind of sicko - and press the button to fire. You can even use the Super Scope, if you can get over the embarrassment of sitting alone in your room pointing a piece of drainpipe at the television.
What might not be immediately apparent from this screenshot is that Sonja is walking "into" the screen, merrily sauntering down the streets as the lavender death-squads amble in from the sides. As such, I quickly discovered that optimal tactic here is to keep your crosshair roughly in the middle of the screen, because then you only have to move it left or right to shoot just about everyone: the close-up enemies get shot in the head, while the more distant soldiers, the ones who were understandably cautious about approaching a lone woman walking down the middle of the road firing an Uzi, get shot in the feet.
This stratagem need only be altered when you're faced with one of the more durable "special" enemies, such as these helicopters. The best way to deal with these is to use one of your rockets, activated by pressing the other fire / mouse button. They're not the screen-clearing super weapons you might have hoped for, but scoring a direct hit destroys pretty much everything in one shot and their blast radius is large enough that you might get lucky and take up a few other enemies while you're at it. Of course, the rockets are in very limited supply, but then so is your basic ammo, with extra rockets and Uzi magazines being occasionally delivered onto the screen in small boxes with parachutes attached, or otherwise in satchels that fly across the screen as though someone standing just off-camera is trying to throw them to you. Not so original now, huh, Bioshock Infinite? You can also collect damage-reducing bulletproof vests and health refills if you're lucky, but mostly it's magazines and rockets.
There's a magazine now, look! I know it looks like a Pez dispenser but trust me, you're going to need to shoot it.
Other than that, this is the same-old slaughter-em-all gameplay that enthrals and delights gamers young and old, a world of clearly-defined good and evil, where the bad guys' military tactics don't stretch beyond "pull trigger gun shooty bang bang" and the mighty Uzi can chew through flesh and steel with equal ease. It's okay, is what I'm saying, relatively diverting without possessing anything to set it apart from the crowd.
The graphics are good, at least. This Bintazi agent is nicely drawn. Wearing purple seems like a good idea, I think Bazarre's troops are like bees and they select their targets based on colour.
Stage two is nothing but a throwback to the original Operation Wolf, with the same "sidling sideways through a military base" action. There are plenty of soldiers, there are some guard towers to destroy and even the occasional plane that half-heartedly tries to get in on the action, like its aeroplane mother has forced it to go and play outside because she's fed up of having it under her feet during the school holidays. You make your way through the stage as a bloodthirsty Santa Claus, giving out bullets to the soldiers and rockets to everything else, although unlike Santa Claus your gift-giving is not limited by religious denomination and you can only walk like a crab.
I shot this oil drum over and over again but it steadfastly refused to explode. I did this with every other oil drum in the stage, too, even though I knew nothing was going to happen. I just couldn't help myself. I have been brainwashed, a pathetic rat clicking at the food-dispensing lever in the hope that I will be rewarded with explosions.
Stage three now, and after a relatively sedate start Operation Thunderbolt suddenly remembers that it's an arcade game, and as you make your way through the swamplands in your little boat wave after wave of jet fighters and enemy ships fly directly at you with the sole intent of making you extremely dead. Sometimes soldiers fall from the sky and land in your boat. Where the hell did they come from? Were they hanging from the bottom of the jets, just waiting to be deposited right in front of my gun? Look, comrade, if you couldn't take me out with millions of dollar of screaming airborne death-tech then one or two underpaid terrorists aren't going to get the job done.
I would advise you to play stage three first, actually, because it's so much more challenging than the first two that you'll need all your health and ammo just to squeeze through it, and then you can spend the much easier first and second stages trying to collect as many power-ups as possible without the constant interruption of an F-15 Strike Eagle trying to park itself up your nasal cavity.
I hope you weren't too attached to the idea of choosing which stage to tackle next, because from here on Operation Thunderbolt is a strictly linear series of stages full of the same gunplay as before but with the occasional new twist. These twists are not always welcome, however, and stage four introduces the bane of my health bar in every lightgun game I play: hostages. You free them by shooting padlocks off doors in the background and then immediately regretting that you did so - lightgun game hostages are always a nuisance with a tendency to try and absorb your bullets into their tender, delicate flesh, but in Operation Thunderbolt they take it to a whole new level, hanging around the combat zone for absolutely ages after they're freed, gurning towards the player as though they're auditioning for Britain's Next Top Abductee and generally being an absolute pain in the arse.
You lose health if you shoot a hostage, as is generally par for the course, but things are exacerbated by the sluggish controls. Dragging the crosshair about with the SNES mouse is much slower than it feels like it should be and using the pad is like, well, playing a lightgun game with a control pad. I can't comment on how it would feel when played with an actual Super Scope, but because you need to be firing almost constantly I can't imagine it's especially comfortable. So, the precision required to shoot bad guys but not innocents is difficult to come by, plus you can't really use your rockets because of their large damage radius. In conclusion, the hostages can bite me, although they'd probably make a massive song and dance out of that, too.
Eventually I stumbled across a boss, Guile's older brother who was kicked out of the enemy army with a dishonourable discharge for refusing to wear a lilac uniform. I feel like he should have a cigar clamped in his teeth, but he doesn't. He has a minigun instead - not between his teeth, obviously - which was a problem, but not as much of a problem as my complete lack of bullets. Yes, I managed to expend all my ammunition, partly because it took me a while to figure out that you can only hurt the boss by shooting him in the head. I should have realised sooner, looking at his arms. They do look like they could stop a bullet. Anyway, if you run out of ammo your gun's firing rate drops from "constant" to "twice a week," and the only way to survive this fight is to always be stunning the boss with headshots: with your reduced firing speed, the boss gets off approximate seventy thousand minigun rounds for each of your shots. Obviously, this was not going to work out well for Sonja.
Each character gets their own personalised death scene, which is a nice touch, although on balance I think I'd prefer it if the characters had more to distinguish them from each other outside a painful, lonely death on the battlefield.
Mission five, and Operation Thunderbolt is back to normal. It's a shame, then, that in this case "normal" means far too many difficult-to-destroy enemies, enemies that you've already seen many times before. Sonja and all her fellow mercs are woefully under-equipped for taking on this kind of force, or at least they would be if I didn't have access to Action Replay codes. Could I have slogged through the rest of the game without cheating? Well, yes, and I did manage to get pretty close to the end under my own steam, but honestly making myself invincible had very little impact on the enjoyability of the game.
It's all getting a bit much as I assault the enemy bunkers: so many soldiers that you'll wonder whey they bothered with the terrorism and didn't just straight-up invade another country, the return of the minigun boss as a standard enemy and more hostages. So many hostages. How big was this sodding plane that they hijacked? It must been like a clown car when they were unloading their kidnap victims, Johnny Terrorist standing around bemused as a seemingly stream of passengers slid down the emergency slide while calliope music played in the distance. At least I won't have to fight and vehicles while I'm in the bunker, hey?
Oh come on. It was around this time that I gave up all pretence of saving the hostages and started firing upon anything that moved, figuring that the health lost from shooting innocents worked out about the same as the health I'd lose trying to pick off the terrorists with accurate marksmanship.
Here's the boss of this stage. No, behind all those grenades. Look, you'll just have to trust me that there's a man back there dressed in a manner even more befitting the name "Colonel Mustard" than the Cluedo character. Who would have thought that a grenade launcher could have the same firing rate as a minigun? Not me, but the grenades are large enough to not be too difficult to hit, and if you keep shooting this uninterrupted barrage of explosive for long enough eventually you'll cancel them out, giving you the chance to land a few hits on the boss. At this point I'm wondering why they didn't just give him a Ghostbusters-style proton beam weapon, as that would be no less believable than having the boss use a what must surely be a garden hose adapted to spray grenades rather than water.
We've almost reached the end now, with another into-the-screen stage as Sonja legs it does the runway in search of the hijacked plane. I'm only showing you this for completion's sake rather than because there's anything interesting about it, unless you're interested in seeing how to make a game action-packed but still, somehow, kinda boring.
It's the final stage, and Sonja has made her way onto the plane where the terrorists responsible for the hijacking were so busy celebrating a crime well done that they forgot to change out of their steward's uniforms and balaclavas. Speaking of balaclavas, take a good look at the faces of the two guys at the back.
That's, erm, that's quite a look you've got going for you there, buddy. Real terrorising. I'm scared, honestly, I am. Scared that I might wake up in the middle of the night, only to see your weirdly-accentuated eye-holes hovering inches from my face, a noise like a a thousand guinea pigs trapped in a George Foreman grill wailing from your mouth hole in a terrifying song that marks the end of all things.
Oh no, the pilot has been taken hostage! Oh well, I've already shot plenty of other hostages, one more's not going to make a difference. Has this terrorist never seen Speed? I have, I know what to do in this situation.
Oh, right, flying the plane. Apparently Sonja cannot fly a plane. Only the pilot can fly the plane, which is why he gets to wear a headset and sit in the big chair. Trapped on the plane with nothing else to do but lock herself in the the tiny bathroom, Sonja is soon captured by Bazarre and (presumably) subjected to a horrifying public execution. It's a Game Over situation, I know that much. God damn it, Speed, I thought I could trust you! Once more we must remind ourselves that the only lesson worth taking from the movies of Keanu Reeves is that we should all be excellent to each other.
Okay, so I tried it again, this time aiming at the terrorist and not trying to shoot him through the pilot's lungs. I wasn't super careful, because the pilot can take a few hits before he dies, but the game seemed to appreciate my effort nonetheless and I managed to take out the terrorist. The pilot, remarkable cheerful for someone who was being held at gunpoint and took a few Uzi rounds to the chest mere moments earlier, flies Sonja and the rest of the surviving hostages to safety, and Operation Thunderbolt draws to an underwhelming conclusion.
Well, I rescued some of the passengers. I'm due for at least three-eights of a medal.
Despite its few endearing features - the graphics and the varied if mechanically identical set of characters, mostly - Operation Thunderbolt quickly runs out of steam and decides that simply upping the difficulty is enough to keep the player entertained. It's like saying "hey, you like swimming, right? Well why not swim though this pool full of angry bees!" It suffers in comparison to the other games in the series, too - Operation Wolf has the power of nostalgia and at least some amount of novelty to it while Operation Wolf 3 is endearingly bonkers and poorly translated, but Operation Thunderbolt lacks that spark required to make it special or even particularly memorable. It's not terrible, and on a console where lightgun games are in short supply it's probably one of the better offerings, but in the end I'm left disappointed that a game called Operation Thunderbolt was more of a damp squib.