Back in the mid-80’s Hibiki Godai helmed a new type of game for the NEC PC-8801, it featured a transforming robot that could fire lasers. The game was called Thexder. Considering the technical limitations of the hardware compared to today’s gaming devices, games like Thexder espouse the benefits of focused simplicity when it comes to crafting games. The whole point of the game was to get Thexder from one side of the level to the other, whilst navigating tricky maze-like corridors as well as preserving its energy in order for the player to proceed. Very simple but deeply compelling.
Thexder received numerous ports over the years, released in all manner of countries and a few sequels to boot as well. Yet, despite its global success, not many seem to remember the game even existed at all. To correct such an injustice, Square Enix recently funded the publishing of a Thexder update called Thexder Neo to be released on the PSP. This was done via Game Arts, the original developer of the first game, and Zereo. The game is fundamentally a very well wrought remake though and is for the money is an incredible bargain for any gamer.
Neo’s main campaign revolves the plucky Thexder making its way through 10 levels to take out a beefy boss and evil alien generator in order to save the day. Thexder is armed with a laser and a shield, both of which use energy. This energy also doubles as health as enemies can deplete it if they come into direct contact with Thexder. So, what transpires is the player trying to find their way through a maze, whilst avoiding enemies but also looking for a means to replenish their health before they die. Exploration is effectively both highly dangerous and utterly necessary.
Thankfully Thexder can transform into a fighter jet, allowing it to speed through narrower corridors and avoiding large groups of enemies in order to proceed. However, Thexder’s laser changes functionality between the two modes; in robot the laser homes in on certain nearby targets whereas in fighter mode it just fires in a straight line. A lot of the later level design takes this into account, as certain energy drops will only be reached by firing Thexder’s narrow beam in a straight line down a tiny corridor.
Energy drops come in two kinds; red and green. Red replenishes your energy and green increases the capacity to store energy. At the beginning of the game you start out with 100 units of energy but by the end, if you play your cards right, can max that out to 500. The tricky part about the latter upgrading of energy is that certain enemies only drop green orbs. So you’ll expend energy with your laser trying to kill them and they could also damage Thexder in the process. Like everything in the game, simple health regeneration and upgrading is a risky endeavour.
There are lots of easter eggs tucked away though, as much of the upgrading comes from finding hidden caches either in the form of crystalline flowers or jumping dolls. So as long as you’re not wasting your energy by firing your lasers constantly or engaging your shield in a paranoid fervour, you can begin to explore the sprawling levels to find these hidden gems. The curious aspect about all this, is that whilst the enemies become more potent over the course of the game Thexder’s laser doesn’t. So again you’re often forced to figure out a way around them.
If you die at any point during Normal mode that is game over, so you only have one life to do 10 levels basically. However, there is an Easy mode available which mercifully allows you to restart at the beginning of each level if you fluff it (plus the enemies deal less damage and give you more energy). In case anyone was wondering, we reviewed the game off the default Normal mode difficulty.
If all this is sounding incredibly rigid and decidedly old school, it very is. The technical limitations that Hibiki Godai had to deal with on the NEC PC-8801 have been re-introduced via very obvious budgetary constraints. However, this reduced budget has allowed the game itself to be charged at noticeably lower price point. In addition, even with the reduced funds the game is still very pretty to look at and retains a respectable amount of production value. The trick is that Zereo didn’t try to overdo it, they had an already cogent design to work with and they stuck to that. As a consequence, Thexder Neo is an utter joy to play.
Amazingly, there’s even an online versus mode present. Again, for the tiny asking price having an online mode is definitely very impressive. Interestingly, the game was released globally online via the PSN store too. So despite Thexder’s age, it’s still pushing the boundaries in terms of digital distribution at least and that more than anything else is wonderful affirmation of the series’ gaming worth.