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Retro video game review: Thunder & Lightning (NES)

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NES Thunder & Lightning video game

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Predating the Tetris craze, the “ball and paddle” form of puzzle games was a sub-genre ever since Breakout became popular on Atari 2600. The video challenge continued in such classics on Arkanoid on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1990, smaller developer Romstar handled the creation of a new entry to this fast-paced action-oriented twitch-timing puzzler category: Thunder & Lightning.

The formula is deceptively simple: The player is tasked with clearing all blocks on the screen. This is done by moving a paddle back and forth, near the bottom of the screen, in a horizontal motion that allows no vertical movement. A ball is bouncing about the playable field. By guiding the ball with ricochets off the controllable paddle and crashing this sphere into the obstacle blocks, they are cleared, until all are gone and the stage is completed. Contacting the ball at different angles with the paddle results in an altered trajectory, adding an element of precision to the player's control.

Thunder & Lighting is a paddle-ball game with 30 levels. Although if it were as simple as clearing the boards in a mere challenge of reaction time and geometric prediction, the ultimate result would be a non-fun exercise in repetitive tedium. In order to spice things up a bit, T&L does add a few tangy ingredients.

First are the characterizations. The area progression in Thunder & Lightning is not a static affair. It is quite lively. There are creatures of varying shapes, sizes, and shades throughout. In undersea-themed portions, squids and barnacles prove to be adversaries, while submaries drop helpful items. In the skies, airplanes drop helpful boosts while birds crash about chaotically (in a noteworthy prescience to the Angry Birds series, honestly). The player will travel through spiraling space and even encounter “mini boss” personalities, one of which in particular does indeed throw lightning and boom with thunderous power. All of these moving characters, from block turtles to UFOs, prove to add a sense of real theme and personality to this game.

Second are the power-ups. By first hitting the ball into designated helper characters, different items with differing effects are dropped. If the player manages to catch one on the paddle, which can be a risk given the need to keep the ball in play as well, he or she is rewarded with a beneficial effect. These range from slowing the ball down, to making the balls “BIG” and thus crashing through blocks without bouncing, a rocket launcher that fires at blocks by pressing the A button, widening the paddle, a catcher's glove that causes the ball to “stick” to the paddle until the A button is pressed, or causing the ball to split into three balls or even several at a time.

The power-ups are a significant factor in Thunder & Lightning. In some stages, especially those with regenerating blocks (!), they prove to be absolutely essential. Hardcore paddle-ball enthusiasts could debate as to whether or not an absolute need for items defeats the very spirit of the genre. Most of the power-ups do not overlap; the exception is the multi-ball bonus, which can stack with other items, resulting in power-up combos such as having three balls that crash through obstacles. Mastering the use of the power-ups will be crucial towards achieving success in Thunder & Lightning.

Third is the overall presentation. Whether you chalk it up to the small-company charm of Romstar or a measured effort in itself, Thunder & Lightning definitely has a colorful, whimsical feel to it. Unlike Breakout (which feels utterly mathematical) and Arkanoid (which has a sci-fi flavor throughout, albeit lightly), Thunder & Lightning runs the gamut of all sorts of fantasy and speculative-fiction elements, from the natural to the supernatural altogether.

Some very neat flourishes can be seen in the minor details as well. The ball itself has a symetrical shading unlike any other paddle-ball sphere that results in a dynamic yet eye-friendly design. Some of the animals are almost adorable, and even the enemies can be cutesy in their little pixel figures. There is a “shine” effect that occurs when the ball strikes against permanent, non-breaking blocks; this emphasises their metallic construct, and is a really cool visual feat. Romstar certainly had a talented artist or two on staff at the time.

Some notes on soundtrack: Unfortunately, the same background music is used throughout the bulk of gameplay, and the sounds are your typical “ping” and “ting” of the ball-and-paddle scene. The good news is that the main track is not terrible, including some nice synth drum work and a smooth, tonal melody. Otherwise, though, there is just not much material here to smile or frown upon alike.

We can compliment the style of Thunder & Lightning, along with its basic mechanics, level design, power-up variety, and other product aspects. It does have one notable flaw, however, and it becomes obvious to anyone who attempts to play through the game in its entirety – some of the stages are pretty darn easy, while others are a major pain.

These problem areas are not even an issue in the sense that they are too challenging or difficult somehow, no, although it can be hard to deal with the sudden changes in trajectory when permanent blocks are used too close to the floor. Instead, it is the darn turtles that provide the biggest headache, those stupid turtles who keep floating down and adding blocks that must be completed in order to progress.

Without power-ups, these stages are basically impossible, as the rate of which blocks are added is greater than the ball is capable of removing on each of its flight paths. Complicating matters is the fact that only certain power-ups will really help; for example, widening the paddle will do no good, and the rocket weapon will not make a difference if permanent blocks are in the way of a vertical shot.

The player, then, even at their best, must keep playing idly until not only the power-up character is hit, but hit until the “correct” item is given, and then still has to execute a flawless maneuver in order to complete the board before more blocks are inevitably added. These instances, of which there are a few, are just too obviously detrating from the rest of the gameplay. Breakout and Arkanoid did not have such mechanics, and for good reason: It forces the player to waste time for no reason, as the design is not a valid form of gatekeeping. There is no meritocracy represented, whereas an increase in skill or score results in success; no, instead, it is best left to chance and minutes burned, which is an unfortunate stroke of ill decision-making on the part of the developers.

Honestly, those particular sections really do stand out. Thnder & Lightning is just fine otherwise; in fact, it is still a decently fun game. Now, it does lack analog control, such as what Breakout had with paddle controllers and even is available for Arkanoid with the Vaus controller. This takes T&L down a peg, too, as using a D-Pad is obviously a disadvantage over being able to precisely place the paddle at whim, and will result in many errant deaths (tip: grab those 1-Ups when you can).

In the end, we have a bit of fun, limited both by the hardware limitations of a directional-pad controller, and the design limitations of very annoying, unnecessary portions here and there. If you are a dedicated ball-and-paddle connoisseur, Thunder & Lightning stands as an essential exhibit to try. Otherwise, some will enjoy while others will not. At least it is nifty-lookin' and operates hitch-free.

Overall rating: 3/5 stars.

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Eric Bailey blogs at NintendoLegend.com, where he is reviewing every American-released NES video game. He also serves as Editor-In-Chief of retro gaming features site 1MoreCastle.com, and can be followed on Twitter @Nintendo_Legend.

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