Developer Aspect has their heart in the right place with Thundercats, creating a remarkably authentic 16-bit beat-em-up platformer for the currently in distress Cartoon Network reboot.
Players control Lion-o, a broadsword swinging humanoid cat out to stop evil, because that’s what heroes do.
The story is told through static cut scenes and text, the entirety of the cart’s memory taken up by a wailing, “Thundercats, Ho!” every time Lion-O does, well, something. It’s shouted when using a laser beam ejected from his sword. It’s utilized when he calls upon four assistants (three for attacks, one for health/power-ups). He screams when the stage is introduced. He’ll even let one out on the continue screen, only to repurpose the phrase when the level begins anew seconds later.
Even a die-hard fan will want nothing to do with the Thundercats’ calling card after this.
Simplicity is fine when balanced, something Aspect either didn’t understand or didn’t have time for under the guise of publisher Warner Bros. Lion-O’s core roster of attacks is a slicing combo string that leaves him open to offensive strikes on the final blow, a leaping slash that takes the action game equivalent of a year to complete. As powerful as it feels, complete with a satisfying metallic screech, the deaths it causes are unfair.
Lion-O has no defensive stances. A slide initially seems like a savior in this 2D plane until lizard enemies and their ilk begin launching projectiles. It turns out the slide is only for positioning; you cannot duck under fire from across the screen. Since enemies spawn on both sides, usually two to the left and two to the right, it’s a barrage of gunfire that becomes almost unavoidable mid-combo.
The escape becomes a double jump, a move that elicits some feeling of pushing for that extra oomph as Lion-O stops in mid-air for the second half of the motion. In practice that would be fine until implemented in platforming zones with collapsing bricks or falling stones. Maneuvering is only slightly more refined than Arthur from Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Arthur, if nothing else, felt spry with his distance. That’s not the case for Thundercats.
Overall design lacks cohesion, boss fights blending into boss fights, empty rooms needlessly inserted as bridging devices, and sections streaming in warriors ad nauseum. A single attack button becomes routine, and leveling the sword through found power-ups (up to an electrifying third bonus) doesn’t elicit any additional gain to the attack. Even the charged, furious laser beam – crucial in conquering bosses – hits with the same puff of smoke as stock attacks. There’s no sense of the damage being done.
Thundercats has to work for its license, inserting the support characters as one-offs with no defining characteristics. None of them seem to do any additional damage or carry perks over the other. Lion-O can stock three of these support sessions max, crucial in tight quarters, but it comes down to playing favorites. With time, it’s easy to see levels surrounding these additional sprites, but Thundercats sticks to a basic normalcy that dies under the weight of its own monotony.
Leaning into the retro community to ask them for a look is admirable in an era of bulky polygons and first-person views. Work was put into to ensure backdrops carry a murky palette to mimic the Genesis, and sprites have outlines that mimic many Game Boy titles. Animation is sparse for a reason, so at its most basic, Thundercats is competent. Everything closing in on those core ideas is what kills it.
Thundercats is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence.