Count Chocula and the Return to Thundera

You’ll know all about the saga of the two ThunderCats games that weren’t – I’ve been there and covered that in my Beyond the Ice Palace retrospective. This time we’ll be delving deeper into the kitty litter tray as we examine the only ThunderCats game of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s that was. It seems that the Arietta Bird hasn’t sung for a long while.

In the early days games were considered merely the financial shoehorn into producing serious business software.

If you recall, ‘ThunderCats: The Lost Eye of Thundera’ was Elite’s 11th hour bid to release a TV ‘toon tie-in game in time for Santa’s delivery deadline in 1987. It’s the one Brummy-based Gargoyle Games christened ‘Samurai Dawn‘ (or was it really ‘Wolf’? No-one really knows) when it was just a wee nipper, prior to Elite pitching the cat-alyst to revamp it, thereby averting a sales slump cat-astrophe. Three cheers for Elite. Hip hip hooray, hip hip hooray …hip hip hooray?

If you think I’m going to ask him to wear a leotard and a wig…

Conceived in 1985, the pawsome ThunderCats morality play had already been king of the US jungle for two years when it finally pounced on UK shores, where the show was promptly lapped up with equal fervour. Originally shown on CBBC, there was sufficient demand to warrant reruns on the core BBC channel on Saturday mornings. Overnight the furry juggernaut became a Going Live! fixture, cementing its rightful entry in the kid’s cartoon hall of fame.

Cheesy wildlife metaphors were in full force and LJN were churning out accompanying toys, pencil cases, pez dispensers and knickers quicker than you can say ‘made in China’.

Make no mistake, this was a really big deal for Elite, and the show’s legion of fans.

Widely revered for the technical proficiency of their baffling fantasy adventure games for the Spectrum, Gargoyle had been operating in Dudley since 1983, releasing titles both for their own label – Faster Than Light – and Elite. Especially noteworthy they devised a novel workaround for the Spectrum’s notorious ‘attribute clash’ drawback, aptly demonstrated in their 1986 shoot-em-up, Light Force. Their remarkable achievements didn’t go unnoticed by the gaming press:-

“The graphics are THE BEST that I have seen on a Spectrum shoot ’em up … large, colourful and very fast, and the background scrolling is excellent.”

– Light Force review, Crash, November 1986

The Regulus system is under attack by aliens. You didn’t have any plans tonight did you?

In terms of hauling Elite’s scorched backside from the fire, you could say they already had form. In 1985 Elite embarked on a wildly overambitious project to create an interactive cartoon adventure game in the mould of Dragon’s Lair based on the Scooby Doo license, for the ZX Spectrum of all systems!

When development predictably ran aground, Elite panicked and drafted in Gargoyle Games to knock together a quickie platformer so the valuable license wouldn’t go to waste. The result was ‘Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery’ released in 1986 – remarkably it wasn’t awful! Your Sinclair and Crash! concurred at the time, awarding it final scores of 9 out of 10 and 91% respectively.

What with Elite commissioning, or producing in-house, a total of three potential one-and-only ThunderCats games in the event that some of them veered off schedule, the press were understandably confused… as I’m sure some of you are if this is new ground.

“Elite are producing three games based on the TV series/comic/plastic toy, this first one written by software house, Gargoyle.”

– ACE issue 3, December 1987 review

Race won, the Atari ST master was produced, followed by ports of the same core offering for all 8-bit systems, and the Amiga. Humanoid feline alien junkies throughout the galaxy got their long-awaited fix, leaving Amigan He-Man fans green with envy.

A port for the NES courtesy of shoddy licensed game studio LJN was planned and even advertised in the usual haunts, though never materialised. This makes little sense given that the purrfect show was as popular as ever, and still two years away from its 130th episode resolution. There were plenty of Days of Thundera ahead.

It’s regrettable it didn’t get its moment in the sun, if only beclaws it would have been entertaining to watch James Rolfe lambast it on YouTube. And he would have, mark my words. There’s no way it could have been vaguely bearable – LJN had the rights. L… J… N.

“Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living holds the Eye of Thundera. Dare you search for it?”, teases the title screen.

Not only has the mummified crone nicked off with the source of the puddy tat’s power (the lustrous red orb lodged in the hilt of the Sword of Omens), he also catnapped three of your chums – Wilykit, Tygra and Panthro – while you were tied up foiling an attempt by his henchmen to invade the Cats’ Lair.

Assuming the role of Lord of the ThunderCats, manchild Lion-O, it’s your duty to breach Mumm-Ra’s Castle Plun-Darr stronghold to ensure their safe return, because friends help friends as a character-building dash of good-natured Basil Exposition helpfully informs us.

What follows is a series of 14 environmentally themed, extremely bland levels you traipse through from a to b, hacking and slashing by numbers… or sometimes from b to a depending on the will of the arrow you’re guided by. Yes, sadly this is what passed for innovation at Gargoyle’s HQ.

Your battlefield – ‘The Garden of the Elementals’ – is diced into four diverse-ish segments; earth, fire, water and air. Not that you’d notice mind you – they all take the same mundane, random obstacle, linear approach to level design that will have you dozing off long before you have chance to roar, “HOOOOOOO!!!” to call for backup. Walk, slash, walk, slash, walk, slash… the baddies, not your wrists! If you think I’m mopping up all that blood, you can think again! Snarf on the other hand…

The Sword of Omens – the Swiss army knife of Third Earth – is your only means of defence initially; a real shame given it’s as useful as a chocolate teapot. Funny that since in the show it’s so versatile it does everything from flossing your gnashers to bestowing ‘Sight Beyond Sight’ (TM).

Here in pixel land we can swing it half-heartedly and stop dead in mid-air, part way through its expected arc as though clashing with a covert brick wall. That’s it. There isn’t even a low swing variation to help you tackle the scurrying micro molemen epidemic that has infected your homeland. You can kneel and slash, it’s just not very effective, much like the rest of the unreliable, unresponsive control mechanics.

Probably the best artwork in the game. It was a promising start at least.

Speaking of our trusty pal, the Sword of Omens, when it’s in our possession, a representation of it appears at the bottom of the HUD clearly showing the Eye of Thundera remains in its rightful place. In effect we’re chasing a stolen orb that’s actually located two inches from our own paw! Unless you’re particularly attached to your abducted fellow Thunderians, I’d pack up my hero kit and head back to base for a catnap. Our work here is done.

Oh alright, if you insist. Our broadsword’s trajectory is ideal for dispatching airborne birds and vulturemen, jackalmen or any other bipedal humanoid creatures, though you won’t miss it an iota once you find the laser gun on level two, seeing as that will afford you a bit more time to react from a safe vantage point. Purrhaps best not to get into the source continuity issues the existence of this weapon raises. That would be super-nerdy, and I’m anything but that. Nevertheless, this and a selection of other power-ups, including extra lives, time or just bonus bragging points, can be harvested by breaking open any shields, vases or skulls you encounter.

Jumping is something you’ll be doing a lot of, this being a scrolling action-platformer that at the time was compared to the likes of Green Beret, Vixen, Pitfall, Rygar, and Rastan. Baffling then that the animator made the motion look so ludicrous – pushing up on the joystick causes you to draw up both legs simultaneously into a sort of invisible chair sitting position. Worse still, you elicit a comedy clown ‘yoink’ sound effect with each and every leap. Yes, it’s one of those games *sigh*.

While a looming, supersized Mumm-Ra makes an impromptu appearance in the upper portion of the screen when your time expires, this doesn’t trigger the loss of a life as you might expect, only your inability to earn a bonus at the end of the level. Supposedly at this juncture the number of henchmen you face ramps up exponentially as a punishment for procrastinating too long, though really, how would you tell the difference?

Mixing up the gameplay a smidgen is the ThunderClaw jet car, a hovercraft like device that allows you to take to the skies while still having access to your laser rifle. As gimmicky as the hovercraft is, it’s essential in the final act to be able to assail an otherwise inaccessible wall and fly to victory. Without it you’d never know the finale is a pitiful anti-climax culminating in a single screen wrap-up sequence.

Exacerbating the situation, the boss you’d presume to face during the denouement actually appears on level 7, and he’s more of a trivial irritation than an arch nemesis of the Netherwitchly Ever-Living kind – he can’t even muster the enthusiasm to move anything other than one arm to fling a handful of pixie dust at you. He’s such a non-event our rendezvous is triplicated in the space of a few minutes by way of compensation… or to emphasise the immortality concept perhaps. By the time we approach the terminal curtain call there’s nothing left for us to do, thus the game fizzles out with a lame whimper.

“Mumm-Ra is defeated. The Eye of Thundera is returned”, the static title card informs us.

Where’s the morality lesson anvil and hearty belly laugh of Everything Turned Out OK in the End-ism we’ve come to expect from the ThunderMentors? I doubt Dr Robert Kuisis Ph.D rubber-stamped this one.

Regardless of which version you play, the sound effects remain unmistakably 8-bit, not least where the sword-swing explosion oddity is concerned. Explain that one physicists! While the meowsic bears no resemblance to the illustrious ThunderCats theme tune whatsoever, and only accompanies the title screens, we can at least celebrate the fact that it’s courtesy of Rob Hubbard (8-bit ports and Atari ST) and David Whittaker (Amiga port).

ThunderCats is home to what is quite possibly the weirdest implementation of parallax scrolling you’re likely to see in an Amiga game. The lower two thirds of the backdrop are nearly always fixed in a flat, stationary perspective, while the top third segment glides by at a pace independent of the lower portion, creating a jarringly artificial distinction between immediate and distant scenery. The upshot is a playfield that appears to simulate looking through a cut-away wall into a cave, with a slice of remote scenery plonked on top that coasts by as though on a conveyer belt.

You might think a game as sluggishly controlled and dumb as this in the AI department would be a pushover. Not so – thanks to the one hit kill system and the tendency for Mummy’s minions to attack in zombie-like waves, you’re never more than a step away from evisceration. And don’t expect the hovercraft to offer you any kind of sanctuary as it only takes a single blow to take that down too.

I suppose it’s some consolation that this works quid pro quo – midget or monster, all that’s required to bump off your adversaries is a single sword swipe or laser shot.

On the very lean positive side, the characters are at least recognisable, and erm…

You know what’s more interesting than bashing cruddy half-baked licensed ThunderCats games? Spotting pop culture allusions in the superb, iconic cartoon series.

Did you know for instance that ThunderCats features its own android twist on Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks and their Endor village habitat?

The benevolent cutesy critters are known as Ro-Bear Berbils, worry incessantly about being morally righteous citizens and articulate via downbeat synthesizer voice boxes, making them sound like cyborg Holden Caulfields.

Berwoks in ThunderWars …at least I think that’s what the press release said.

Jaga – the ThunderCats’ ethereal spiritual advisor – is the feline interpretation of Obi-wan Kenobi. The venerable Samaritan sacrifices his own life in the pilot episode to ensure the gang reach Third Earth safely, and continues to guide them from the ‘other side’ as an apparition.

“These aren’t the ThunderCats you’re looking for.”

Thundera, the ThunderCats home planet is unwittingly destroyed by their magnanimous mentor when he hurls the Sword of Plun-Darr into a volcano to neutralise its evil potency.

Tolkien would be tickled pink to concede that homage I’m sure, if he hadn’t died 12 years before the ThunderCats were born.

Jaga’s erstwhile bosom buddy and fellow ThunderCat, Grune the Destroyer, is banished from Third Earth in a force field having turned to the dark side. Superman II depicts much the same scenario, whereby General Zod and Co. are entombed in a crystal prism and ejected into the atmosphere on route to the Phantom Zone where they are expected to spend the rest of eternity. Makes Judge Judy look like a pussycat, eh?

Order Jaga to kneel at your peril!

Thundranium is to ThunderCats what Kryptonite is to Superman.

Third Earth is assumed to be our earth set in the distant future, aping a certain cult classic sci-fi movie series with planet in the title. Supporting evidence for this theory most notably emanates from Mumm-Ra’s references to Egypt.

You’ll never make a Monkian out of me!

Noble Lion-O can telekinetically will the Sword of Omens to leap into his grasp in the same way Luke Skywalker calls to his lightsaber in Star Wars.

Lion-O’s “Hoooooooo!!!” Eye of Thundera support plea sky projection is a parody of the Bat Signal used in Gotham to call upon Batman’s crime fighting services.

“Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats, Hoooooooooo!” is not entirely dissimilar to He-Man’s “By the Power of Greyskull!” strength-summoning incantation.

In typical Scooby-Doo fashion, disaster averted, each episode wraps up having imparted a gem of moral wisdom, and everyone laughs heartily in unison as the credits roll.

Hmmf. I suppose we’ll have to get back on track sooner or later. It may as well be now.

In terms of critical reception, opinions of the T-Cats’ pixelated embodiment were surprisingly polarised. C&VG thought all the £9.99 8-bit incarnations were tantamount to the second coming, claiming “all the versions are well wicked”, that ThunderCats “could soon collect the same cult following as Ghosts ‘n Goblins” and “the game is addictive enough to make you purr with pleasure”. They cherry-ed the cake with a 90% final score (issue 74, December 1987).

Cruisin’ Third Earth Commodore 64 style.

Trivia-tastically, the game’s demo was included on the cover tape of the magazine containing the review so people could play it and make their own minds up. I’d love to see the subscriber stats the following month!

The Speccy-tacular Sinclair port.

I suspect the ACE team had been licking hallucinogenic cane toads too when they awarded the Spectrum and Amstrad ports of ThunderCats a score of 931 out of 1000, declaring it “fiendishly addictive” and “a good-looking compulsively playable game” (issue 3, December 1987).

Take one Spectrum game and add a dash of colour. Tada! Instant Amstrad port!

Amiga Computing (September 1988) deemed our 16-bit preference an “impressive conversion”. How so? They decreed, “the signature tune is first rate catching the mood of the game just right; other spot effects add to the pleasure”. They went on to pretend that the “animation is impressively smooth and realistic” and capped off their summation with an 85% bottom line. A subsequent trip to the the hospital resulted in a diagnosis of cataracts… probably.

In a similar vein, ACE – no doubt high on Berbil fruit – declared the £24.99 Amiga version is “still pretty hot stuff” awarding it 895 out of 1000 in a ‘screen test update’ article (September 1988).

Speaking of Elite’s track record, CU Amiga were much more realistic with regards to the quality of their ThunderCats title: “With such a long series of releases in such a short time, there had to be a duff one in there somewhere. And here it is.” The underwhelmed critic underscored his verdict with a grade of 5 out of 10.

So that was ThunderCats then; the official chosen one, the lord of the wannabes. All I can do is apologise wholeheartedly from the bottom of my bedraggled soul on behalf of the anonymous developers who contributed to this, this, this… I can’t bring myself to use the word.

I’d also like to extend my sincere condolences to the virtuous Lion-O, Tygra, Panthro, Cheetara, Snarf, Wilykat, and Wilykit. Given your selfless philanthropic services to Third Earth and tireless underpinning of the moral fibre of ’80s kids across the globe, you deserved better.

I’m actually feline a bit queasy after that, almost like I’ve just emerged from an intergalactic suspension capsule voyage and aged a decade or two in the process. Maybe it’s a guilt wave brought on by perpetuating the still raw memories of this travesty. Perhaps we should move on.

In October 2016 a fan made OpenBOR engine remake known as Super ThunderCats was released by MersoX Games. It runs from a standalone executable Windows application, and features overhauled graphics and audio, an additional overhead driving segment and a credible boss fight finale (at the end of all places!).

“Ah! Then all is not lost. The Code of Thundera still lives!”

Drilling down to the nuts and bolts, the contemporary revamp improves upon the original Eye of Thundera in a number of key areas.

  • It comprises sound effects and music sampled directly from the cartoon, including Lion-O’s “hoooooo!!!” bellow, which is triggered whenever you complete a level.
  • Encounters with Jaga confer the ability to upgrade your sword to an orb-dispensing remote destroyer similar to the 1987 game’s laser gun, only more appropriately themed.
  • Several of the most renowned mutants – Jackalman, Monkian, leader Slithe and Vultureman – serve as end of level bosses, while you confront despot numero uno, Mumm-Ra, on the final level.
  • You’re required to defeat two entirely different renditions of your arch nemesis to complete the game, making your victory double-epic… relatively speaking.
  • Your progress is autosaved at the end of each level.
  • There’s now a top-down ThunderTank shoot ’em up interlude where you’re tasked with taking down spinning red snowflakes (replicated from the original game, though not actually part of the ThunderCats universe) and a Lizard Cannon mounted S-S-Slithe.
  • The original game’s hovercraft doesn’t put in an appearance at any point.
  • Lion-O’s motion is fluid and he’s finally mastered the fine art of the full sword swing!
  • The finale incorporates an animated snippet from the cartoon; the scene where everyone’s favourite loveable rogue, Mumm-Ra, is enveloped in a glass prism and cast into the ether Superman style. Deja vu anyone?

Insurrection and murder won’t wash with Superman: General Zod, Ursa and Non are banished to the Phantom Zone.

As grrrrreat as it is (thanks Tony), it won’t placate the lamentable years I spent blubbering into my officially endorsed ThunderCats pillowcase; a fitting tribute nonetheless. For the time being I’ll keep up the therapy sessions and try to let it go.

That’s two out of three ‘ThunderCats games to be’ under our belts, so what became of the third? Rumour has it that Elite’s own in-house surrogate was fudged into the sequel to Bomb Jack. Aficionados of the series know it as Bomb Jack II – shrewd bunch!

Supporting evidence revolves around the inclusion of an accurate reproduction of the cartoon’s theme tune and protagonist as the hero (in-game in any case), and the fact that he carries a knife as a weapon, whereas none were found in the first game. In this one you can’t fly and it doesn’t even contain any bombs.

How ironic that a non-ThunderCats game should feature the bona fide ThunderCats theme tune, while the official ThunderCats game didn’t. It should be funny, however, one is not amused. 😐

Ah, you know what? It wasn’t released for the Amiga, only the 8-bit systems so as decreed by Amigos Podcast rules I’m forbidden from covering it. Aww, shucks. Sorry – rules are rules. Shame, judging by the pedigree of the other two contenders, I bet it’s a 24-carat masterpiece.

“The tremors grow worse. Go, while you still can.”

Right, time to pull the Great Oceanic Plug on this cataclysmic shovelware. Cat’s all folks!

One thought on “Count Chocula and the Return to Thundera

  • January 20, 2017 at 3:40 pm
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    Elite must have gotten to the editors….these reviews are dillusional…perhaps given the games colorful upbringing they reviewed the wrong game.

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