“ Manufacturer: Square Enix / Genre: Action & Shooter „
Of all the remakes we've been inundated with in recent times, Square Enix's update of obscure eighties shoot 'em up Thexder has to rank among the least appealing. Released as a budget, download-only title for the PSP in late 2009, Thexder NEO doesn't suffer any glaringly obvious troubles in translation; its 21st Century lick of paint is fine and the acclimatising of the controls to fit the PSP also passes without incident. The problem is, it never engages the player. It's overly simple and yet still manages to feel clumsy, with neither the shooting nor the platform elements suiting the levels they've been designed around.
It's not particularly adventurous or especially comfortable with the tricks it tries to pull, and as a one-sitting adventure, the only mark it's likely to leave is a minor hole in your wallet. A 2D maze exploration/shoot 'em up, Thexder NEO sees you controlling a mech-robot that also doubles as a cruiser plane. The first allows for thruster jumps, slow but accurate movement and an auto-targeting laser, whilst the latter caters more for exploration with fast-paced flying, allowing for the easy traversal of obstacles and narrow tunnels. Put like this, it certainly has potential, but the two elements aren't remotely cohesive, and the game doesn't feel designed to accommodate either.
Levels are quite compact with very few open spaces, which predictably makes the nippy cruiser a handful to control. In this mode, you'll often find yourself ricocheting off the scenery, like you've stepped into some surreal robot-pinball experiment. Had the action mimicked the 8-direction shooting of Robotron or Dreamcast classic Bangai-O, things surely would have been a lot more compelling. As it is, you don't aim at all - it's literally fire and forget, as holding circle will evaporate anything that's in range of the laser, essentially removing the shoot 'em up element. That's not to say the game is easy though, as it finds ways to exploit the general sluggishness of the mech by having dull-looking enemies (which appear to consist chiefly of rotating blocks, rockets and beacons) home-in and latch on to your bot, draining energy at a speedy rate. However, the lack of enemy projectile fire means manoeuvrability is rarely put to the test in any meaningful way.
The ten stages are designed with a hint of exploration in mind, though they're neither long nor particularly varied. There are no items or weapons to find; just health and shield replenishers, and thus combat quickly becomes repetitive. Then there are the half-hearted platform bits, comprising of the odd electrified floor or lava pit, but nothing that really makes a distinction between using the mech and the cruiser; you can jump over most gaps with ease, or you can glide over them with such simplicity that you wonder why they bothered putting them there in the first place.
Switching between the mech and cruiser is a smooth process activated with a tap of 'triangle'. Whilst this should have been a perk of Thexder NEO, it instead highlights that neither work properly in the cramped, tightly-packed environments. Rather than the level design becoming more expansive in the later stages, it actually compounds its problems further by increasing the number of narrow tunnels and dead ends to such a degree that by about the eighth or ninth level, it feels like you're playing a depressing futuristic version of PacMan, minus the ghosts.
Speaking of ghosts, that's exactly what you'll find if you investigate NEO's new infrastructure online multiplayer mode. It's nice to see such a feature being included on a PSP title, though clearly it failed to capture gamers' imaginations. Having searched for rooms on launch day and a number of occasions since, I found not a single other online presence at any stage. This is understandable a few months after release, but Square Enix should have encouraged the community more in the early days of its release, because as selling point for the game, it proved as good as useless.
The Normal setting is one for those who are after a real challenge, with just one life and no continues to fall back on. Easy is roughly the same but allows for continues, so you can at least see the end of the game if you persevere. Otherwise, it's uncharacteristically bare-about-the-bones by Square Enix standards, as even the similarly ill-fated revamp of Impossible Mission offered the choice of playing the game with original or redux graphics.
Ultimately it wouldn't have saved the game though, as in the end there just isn't much fun to be had no matter how you dress it up. And with this in mind, age was only going to be unkind to an update of Thexder. Twenty five years ago, its tricks may have looked smart enough, but the 2009 version is little more than an ancient shoot 'em up that's well past its sell by date. Unlike many other more memorable titles of its era, it doesn't manage to achieve the simple, addictive gameplay experience it aspires to because design contradictions never allow it to. Ironically, similarly cheap games that have been inspired by the one-more-go mantra, most notably the excellent Age Of Zombies, are now highlighting why NEO isn't a viable purchase in the modern market.