It is an unstated, near-universal maxim that a family-targeted film must have an accompanying videogame tie-in, with the corollary being that such a videogame must also appear on the Game Boy. Thunderbirds follows this plan, but its chances in the market were promptly shot down after the disastrous reception to the recent movie. The larger question, then, is whether the game stands well enough on its own to appeal to anyone other than the few people who saw and enjoyed the film.
The first Thunderbirds games were based on the 60s British television show, which lasted for barely more than a season but since gained a cult following thanks to its quirky, puppet-based aesthetic. There was a puzzle-driven Commodore 64 outing in the 80s and a vertical scrolling shooter for the NES in 1990. These games, however, focused more on repeating established game mechanics than properly building on the franchise, and as a result ended up as conventional games with a license slapped on. The franchise became a live action movie in 2004, and while it kept the basic story and characters of the original series, the entire affair felt generic in its attempt to appeal to a family audience and the film flopped at the box office. This is also the version that provides the basis for the GBA game.
Most of the game’s levels can be described as a sort of action adventure featuring the film’s three teenage protagonists, Alan, Fermat, and Tin Tin. The player takes control of these characters all at once while winding through the levels. Each stage has to be completed by bringing the three characters from start to finish while evading the game’s obstacles. There is a certain amount of challenge in getting past the obstacles, since each character has distinct skills and limitations.
Much of the time they will be controlled as one party, but they can be broken away individually to reach areas that others can’t. Alan and Tin Tin can jump over pits while Fermat can’t, but Fermat can roll through tunnels to otherwise unreachable rooms. Many of the game’s puzzles center on finding a way past spurting gas or flames that block the trio’s way. Alan can push crates in front of deadly traps like these in order to let the team pass, or on top of ground-based buttons that need to be held in order to keep a door open. In situations where a button is out of reach, Tin Tin can use her telekinetic abilities to move objects onto such buttons and also trigger levers and switches. Using a computer is the only way to turn off some traps, and this is Fermat’s task.
The adventure aspect of Thunderbirds is all about puzzle-solving, for good or ill. The few enemies that appear can only be avoided and never attacked. This makes sense in terms of the background story, since the characters are just teenagers and even in the movie never fight anyone head on. There are some puzzles that present a satisfying challenge, but a certain sameness as well since there are few distinct obstacle types. The puzzles and their environment have a frustratingly arbitrary design sense and none of them are truly memorable. Accordingly, while some parts might be enjoyable for puzzle fans the first time through, there is little reason to revisit them.
The graphics for this part of the game are strictly utilitarian. There is never any doubt about what is a particular object or trap, but while the visuals in no way hinder the gameplay, there is little imagination behind them. The levels in Thunderbirds are all comprised of a similar set of backgrounds and objects, and the game becomes numbingly dull to look at by the time the final level is reached. The characters themselves look vaguely like their movie counterparts, and are different enough for the player to control without confusion. The character portraits appearing during cutscenes are nicely drawn.
The second style of play consists of the player piloting a Thunderbird ship through a series of obstacles and enemies. This takes place in a scrolling field with an overhead, isometric perspective that might remind some longtime gamers of the arcade classic Zaxxon. Playing Zaxxon instead of these levels is a better idea anyway, as by and large they are the least interesting part of the game. There is a decent variety in terms of graphics, but most of the levels are too slow for comfort and the best that can be said of them is that they are over quickly. The levels that do work well are the ones where the player has to move and react rapidly, like racing through an asteroid field or chasing down an enemy pilot. More of these kinds of levels would have made the Thunderbird piloting sections less of a chore to look forward to.
The game is challenging in parts, but its overall difficulty is fairly easy. Younger gamers might find the difficulty appropriate, and Thunderbirds is generous in distributing free lives to players for the more challenging sections. Still, most players will inevitably lose all of their lives a few times and for those cases, and more importantly for when the player gets tired of playing for one sitting, there is a three-character password system to record progress.
The soundtrack sounds like it was cobbled together in less than a day. There are two songs that alternate in Thunderbirds, and while both are bad, one is noticeably worse that the other. This track ended up with no discernible melody and sounds like random notes and beats were flung at the sound hardware. Most players will no doubt consider their wisest decision regarding this game to be turning the sound off.
Thunderbirds deserves some congratulations are for not fitting the gameplay into a generic side-scrolling platform or beat-em-up style, but in the end it can’t rise above the glut of mediocre licensed videogames. There is too little of interest for people who don’t care about the series, but fans may not mind spending a few hours with it. Especially appealing to fans is the fact that the game’s story diverges from that of the movie, though the game features a similar overarching plot to defeat the villainous Hood organization. It’s too bad that the game’s story is given a bare bones treatment, but the small bits of dialogue are true to the characters from the movie. Still, Thunderbirds ends up as yet another tie-in product. Overall it adds as much to the franchise as an action figure or a lunch box.