For the animation fans out there, it’s truly a shame that the revamped Thundercats series was canceled after only one season, because by all the accounts I’ve been exposed to it was a great tribute to the original show, if not better in nearly every aspect in comparison. Does "Thundercats" for the Nintendo DS match that level of quality, or does it belong in an electrified litter box? Let's find out!
Thundercats is a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that tries to pay tribute to classic 8-bit/16-bit games in its genre. Tries. Unfortunately, instead of generating new fond memories that will force a player to come back to the game with a nostalgic gleam in his or her eye several years down the road, Thundercats will unfondly be remembered as an overly frustrating game that offers too little to justify taking part in the experience.
The player-controlled character throughout the entire game is Lion-O, leader of the the Thundercats. Immediately, naysayers will bash the title for making only one of its primary characters playable. To appease those folks, the game provides other characters (Tygra, Cheetara, WileyKat & WileyKat, and Panthro) as power-ups that can be accessed via the touch screen who will come to your aid mid-battle if you have a Thundercats medallion to call for them (you collect these as you progress through the game).
As far as design goes, Lion-O is the least visually impressive character in the game. His sword appears to have had more effort go into its design than his actual design, and it is very fluid in its motion during battle. Unfortunately, it suffers from being visually misleading because often you will strike an enemy and find out you were not within the weapon’s limited damage-inducing range, even though the sword made contact with the enemy! This made battle much more tedious than it needed to be, as it required the player to perform much closer combat than should have been necessary to defeat some baddies.
The control scheme is as simple as it gets. You move using the D-pad's right and left functions. You jump with the B button and use your sword by pressing the A button. By pressing the A button consecutive times you can unleash some combos that are more effective than merely pausing between slashes. The L and R buttons allow you to cycle through your touch-screen power-ups, but this seems less efficient than just tapping the screen. The rest of the buttons on the DS are not used at all (save for the start button, of course). It’s not necessary, but it would have been nice to have also been able to use the X/Y button combinations to use the jump/attack commands. The present control scheme itself is fine in theory, but in practice there are instances where the player does not receive the intended response by pressing a button. I couldn’t tell you how many times I fell to my death because I pressed B and Lion-O either didn't jump at the time I needed him to, or in some cases didn't jump at all. For a game that really only uses two buttons, you would like to think those two buttons would be perfect in their responsiveness during gameplay. That's not the case here.
Beyond its somewhat screwy control scheme, Thundercats really disappoints in terms of its level design. Although the backgrounds are greatly-detailed and are definitely the most beautiful aspect of the game graphically, the levels themselves fall into one of two categories – “meh” or “@#$$%%@@$$#@#”. The former inspires no real interaction with the player, as it only asks them to defeat the enemies present on the screen at a given interval and proceed to do the same exact thing on the next screen, the only differentiating factor being the number of enemies or the strength of the enemies present. This is fun initially, because slaying the on-screen baddies really fills you with a sense of Thundercattiness. However, the monotonous repetition wears on you quickly, and you find yourself wishing you could bring more to the experience besides hacking away at enemies whose game-whole patterns you’ll determine within the first twenty minutes of play time. The power-ups OUGHT to spice things up, but in my playing experience I only found two of them to be of any real worth – Tygra’s gun shooting and the WileyKit/Kat’s item drops, with the others providing little to no positive to my battles.
The latter design is far more destructive to the Thundercats experience, though. There are parts of certain levels in the game that require you to utilize platforming skills to progress to the next portion of the level. I’m pro shaking up the gameplay and demanding different things from the player midstream. However, what I’m not okay with is asking a player to use an already faulty jump mechanic to scale portions of levels that are clumsily designed and provide little to no room for error. I’m also not okay with forcing a player to be confused about whether or not Lion-O successfully landed on a platform after jumping, as the animation would make it appear that he was going to land safely but he would only actually land safely about 75% of the time. For a game whose playing time upon story completion should clock in at under three hours (assuming everything’s done perfectly – a tough task), this type of fault is unredeemable.
The game’s boss battles, which occur at the end of each stage after you’ve fought through several stages of bad guys, do not provide a refreshing experience that separates itself from the rest of the game. Each just feels like an overpowered enemy and not something more important. A frustrating part of these battles is that fighting on the edge of the screen actually forces the boss OUT OF THE FRAME (this occurs during normal battles too, but isn’t as harmful to the player due to the relative weakness of the enemies). Due to this “feature” (i.e., FLAW), I found myself on multiple occasions lashing into a boss with Lion-O’s sword and having to pull away from battle because I could no longer distinguish whether I was making contact or not, and I couldn’t see what attack the villain was about to use! Having to wait for a boss to come back on to the screen after Lion-O’s pushed it around is disruptive to the flow of battle.
The developers did do some things right with this release. The cut scenes in-between stages are made up of stills from the animated show with text written to tell the story. These stills look really nice and create a good sense of continuity between the game and the show. I also enjoyed the game's throwback soundtrack, although some of the sound effects leave a lot to be desired (Lion-O will scream "Thundercats.....HOOOOOOO!" at least 50 times during a game-long playthrough - no joke.) The game also provides a Stage Attack mode that allows you to go back and play through your favorite stages and earn visual cards based on your performance. You’ll unlock a lot of these visuals on your entire first play-through, but obtaining all of the different art requires that you improve your skills and replay parts of the game. It wasn’t enough of an incentive to inspire me to trudge through the stages again, but fans of the brand might find some value in these pieces (particularly the concept art – it’s GORGEOUS).
On the whole, I can’t say Thundercats is worth the $30 investment. The game’s in that weird position where it will probably be too frustrating to be fun for younger players AND older players alike. It offers very little as far as gameplay is concerned, and much of its length will come not from the game itself, but more from the player having to repeatedly replay a level until he or she can finally figure out the way to get past the obstacles it throws out.