Retro Game Review: “Thunder Cross” (Arcade, 80s August Special)

Welcome back to 80s August, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate!

Today, we’re going to look at Thunder Cross, an a side-scrolling shoot ’em up (or simply “shooter,” as we called them back then) released in arcades by Konami in 1988.

It’s important to note up front that I am looking specifically at the US release, which featured some significant changes when compared to the Japanese original.

Much like other side-scrolling shooters of the era, Thunder Cross has the typical sci-fi gloss. Your task is to defeat the dreaded Black Inpulse (Yes, “Inpulse”, not “Impulse”), a group of baddies aiming to conquer the galaxy. It’s odd to me that game companies even bothered with plots when it came to these kind of arcade games, but there it is. 

In any case, you and a friend can simultaneously take to the skies to take them down. In addition to your typical shot, your ship is equipped with two satellites/options that align vertically alongside your ship, and a limited stock of “Lil’ Baby” bombs that kill everything in their path. As you collect power-ups, you can upgrade your shot (just once) and collect up to four options.

Your path to victory will take you through seven stages, including a ruined city, giant battleship, space junkyard, fiery volcano, the final base, and more. Oddly, there is no stage that I would categorize as “outer space”, which was almost a given for this type of game at the time. The stage backgrounds are attractively detailed, and look pretty good for 1988 fare. They also feature a healthy amount of parallax scrolling effects, which pretties up the experience a bit.

Wait for them to open wide before you fire away

Fly right to win

Everything in the US version of Thunder Cross is pretty straightforward. The enemies you confront are fairly simple designs such as round metallic orbs or tiny, non-descript ships. The reddish-orange enemies are the ones that drop power-ups, so you’ll want to destroy those whenever you get the chance. There is also a large, round enemy that explodes into a spray of bullets, including one heat seeking bullet, which is very difficult to avoid. You can use a “Lil’ Baby” to wipe it out, but it’s still very annoying to forcibly burn through your limited supply of bombs just to avoid a cheap hit.

There are no mini-bosses, but each stage naturally has its own final boss. These fights are almost uniformly underwhelming, as they are not only far easier to defeat than they should be, but the designs are pretty dull, too. While the final stage features a giant, red robot boss, the others look to be barely more than uninspired, albeit large, chunks of metal. In fact, that last stage overall features flying mini mechs, jumping spider enemies, good music, and the best boss fight. Where was this game in the previous six stages? 

Super Spaceship in Generic Land

Other than the final stage and the battleship stage, the music in Thunder Cross is fairly mundane when compared to its 1988 arcade counterparts. The music track also starts over when you continue, which annoyed me but may not be much of a sticking point for everyone. Visually, Thunder Cross does look pretty good for a game for its time. I’ve already mentioned the parallax scrolling effects, but there are a couple of neat graphical flourishes –  such as enemies flying in from the background – which stood out as impressive. 

Cross into the Land of the Rising Sun 

What’s most disappointing about Thunder Cross, however, is that the Japanese release was a remarkably more interesting game. Sure, the game’s aesthetics are all relatively the same, but the Japanese version features a weapon switching mechanic where players can swap between a vulcan cannon, ricochet boomerangs, and lasers that fire both forward and backward. In addition, you can manipulate the position of your options, spreading them out so that your shots cover more of the screen, or bringing them in tight to inflict maximum, focused damage. Manipulating the satellite options was clearly designed to be the game’s trademark mechanic, so its removal from the US version is beyond baffling. 

All of this leads to a much deeper game with a more enjoyable overall experience. Oh, and that heat seeking bullet shooting enemy? It’s not in the Japanese version. While the Japanese release of Thunder Cross doesn’t reach heights of treasured classic, it was still a disservice to the game to strip it down so much for the US version. 

Only a band of interstellar villains this evil would paint their walls such a ghastly color!

Quarter Choker

Overall, the US release of Thunder Cross is a fairly simplistic and lackluster shooter. Sure, it looks okay for a game from 1988, but there simply isn’t anything remarkable about it. As soon as you finish playing, you’re likely to forget it, and other than the two-player simultaneous play, there’s really no “hook” to bring you back. The only saving grace is that the lack of deeper mechanics might make Thunder Cross a bit more approachable than other shooters of the era, particularly with its quick restart, but that’s a pretty weak selling point. If you can find a way to play the Japanese version, that’s definitely my recommended way to play.

Thunder Cross is available as part of Konami’s Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection on Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo Switch, as well as a standalone download via the Arcade Archives on Nintendo Switch and PS4 that includes both the US and Japanese versions of the game.

Be still and enjoy the parallax scrolling of clouds as your life slowly fades away

Thanks for reading!

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