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Thexder NEO
Score: 73%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Zereo
Media: Download/1
Players: 1: 2 - 6 (Online)
Genre: Classic/Retro/ Arcade/ Shooter

Graphics & Sound:
Go ahead and say it. I'll wait. "What the hell is a Thexder?" you ask. Well, to be honest I didn't know either when I started playing Thexder NEO. Following the waves of success of retro remakes like Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Square Enix decided to dig through their back catalog for a dead franchise to revive. What they found was Thexder, an old school space-action shooter from Japan that was ported to PC in the mid 80's. The series was very short-lived, but many fans still regard it as a classic alongside Life Force and Gradius.

Retro-remakes come in two flavors nowadays. Either the developer shows an interest in "modernizing" the look or they keep the nostalgic style intact. In the case of Thexder NEO, Square Enix chose the former. Thexder NEO has been recreated with all new 3D models and enhanced backgrounds. While Thexder NEO is sparse on variety, the overall effect of having a retro throwback visual style is handled well with a few graphical improvements such as pretty particle effects and much smoother animations than the original.

The soundtrack to the Thexder NEO seems as if they re-recorded an original 8-bit theme with orchestral instruments. It sounds great and is sort of catchy too, but while idling on the icon in the Cross Media Bar (XMB) of the PSP, the original retro theme plays in the background and its sounds so much better! It is a shame that Thexder NEO doesn't offer the original theme as an unlockable or as an bonus extra because I think it the most memorable part of the whole experience.

When people talk about old-school games, they are usually looking back with pretty thick rose-tinted glasses. Thexder NEO is a product of a long-forgotten age in gaming history that is seeing a bit of revival lately, but unlike many other remakes, Thexder NEO is sticking to its guns by not moving out of the past.

This is as basic as many games can get. Thexder NEO is a game about piloting a robot that can transform into an airship through a series of admittedly difficult levels. If there was a story, you wouldn't know because like the old-school games of the past, Thexder NEO has ZERO story elements, which means the only concern is survival and blasting away at everything that moves on the screen. The only hint of a story that I could find is on the PlayStation Network which says: "During a routine survey, the interstellar weapons platform Laevina detects Nedium, an asteroid of unknown origin, and soon finds itself in the grip of the planetoid's ultramagnetic field. Shipwrecked atop an impregnable fortress of rock, the starship turns to its last resort - the Hyper Dual Armor prototype Thexder." This is just a really long way of telling you why the bad guys are bad, and you should shoot them!

Like Xevious and Galaga before it, Thexder NEO throws you into battle right away with little to no time to learn the controls. As the robot, you run around shooting your laser at the enemies and pick up shield and health orbs that restore their respective meters. An overshield protects you from attacks for a brief time, but also deals damage to any enemy that touches you. At any time, you can transform into the airship and fly around each of the ten levels, still shooting a solid blue laser. The levels are designed to incorporate both forms often and frequently have you switching back and forth within seconds of one another. The action is quick, tight, and intense.

A serious problem that Thexder NEO faces for the modern gamer, however, is that every action the robot makes drains energy. Shooting the laser incrementally drains one point of energy every second, so shooting in quick bursts becomes necessity instead of strategy. Activating the overshield costs ten points of energy, and although the maximum energy capacity increases after each level, it is possible to be in a situation where it is impossible to activate a much needed shield. While the system isn't broken, it is incredibly frustrating because you must seek out certain enemy types that drop green orbs that restore energy.

For the select few that play their PSP online, Thexder NEO supports competitive play styles by allowing up to six players to compete in the same level for the best completion time against each other in a real time race. It also sets up flags that must be destroyed before the level is complete to add an extra level of friendly competition, but I don't see this feature really catching on. Something that I would have liked to have seen is any sort of level editor. A level-editor would go a long way to giving Thexder NEO more replay value if you could download and play other people's custom levels. As it stands, though, the online play scrapes by with the bare minimum.

Straight up, Thexder NEO is hard. There are two difficulties to choose from at the start of a new game: Normal and Easy. As a seasoned gamer, you might be inclined to think that Normal may be a walk in the park, right? Wrong! On the Normal difficulty, you are only given one life. When you die, you start over from the beginning of the game. There are no luxuries like a regenerating health bar here, only pain. At the end of each level, the ship flies into the next level with the same amount of energy and health it had when it finished the last one. It is punishing and brutal, but yet I still kept playing.

If you can't accept the steep challenge of Normal mode, then Easy Mode may offer relief. By allowing unlimited continues, Easy mode is the way to play Thexder NEO if you want to beat it quickly, and I do mean quickly. The single player game can be beaten in a half-hour sitting on Easy and what is worse is that there is only one boss fight. At the end of last stage, the final boss appears and after making quick work of it, the credits roll. There are no extra levels or bonuses to unlock except trying to beat your best score or time.

Game Mechanics:
The back-to-basics approach that Thexder NEO uses extends into its simple control scheme. There are only four actions that the robot can take: jump, shoot, transform, and activate shield. The platforming elements that make up Thexder NEO feel fine especially with a satisfying jump mechanic, but the shooting mechanic does have some problems. Shooting the robot's laser will fire a beam straight ahead if there are no enemies present, but as an enemy comes in range, the laser locks onto the nearest enemy. There is no direct control over the laser which makes some airship battles frustrating because the enemy airships will literally fly in circles around your ship and you cannot turn around fast enough to lock onto them. It is a frustrating and cheap computer tactic.

The coolest idea that Thexder NEO has is the ability to transform on the fly. The transition is quick and flying around in the airship form is as easy as moving the robot from left to right. It all feels very natural and responsive, which is crucial for the feverishly difficult challenges toward the end of the game. Flying around in the airship is actually quite fun; unfortunately, there are very few times when you can roam freely.

There are many ideas that work well for Thexder NEO like quick and easy gameplay coupled with a slick, retro style at a cheap price. But the punishing level of difficulty scares away anyone but the hardest of hardcore. There are lots of drawbacks in Thexder NEO, specifically the absence of a more robust online feature and a ridiculously short campaign, but anyone looking for old-school action can overlook these flaws and still find some enjoyment. Thexder NEO is a relic of the past, but to some people, that can be a good thing.

-HanChi, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Hanchey

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