Given Sega's track record with these Marvel movie tie-in games, there was little reason to think the various Thor products would be anything but typical mediocrity. We haven't finished the console versions, but what we've seen and played so far suggests they'll end up reaffirming the old adage that movie games suck. In a welcome, bizarre twist, the DS version is on the other end of the spectrum, offering an old-school experience that reminds me of the SNES' glory days - well animated sprites, catchy music, challenging bosses and enough abilities to keep the admittedly monotonous action from grating on your soul.
At its core, Thor DS is a run-right-and-hit-things game straight out of 1993. Even as someone who adores 16-bit sensibilities though, the mindlessness of these types of games can quickly erode any initial nostalgia. To that end, developer WayForward has beefed up the combat mechanics so they're more in line with a 2D game you'd play today. The most exciting addition, which is crucial in the later levels, is juggling enemies and stringing together combos that progressively deal more damage. For example, Thor can whack away with the usual Y-Y-Y approach, but then hit up and B and he'll leap into the DS' second screen carrying nearby foes into the sky where he can then smash them back to the ground.
Best of all, Thor DS actually rewards you for experimenting with its battle setup. At one point I wondered if I could sneak in a final hit on a falling enemy by throwing the hammer just before he lands, and after a few attempts, yes, you totally can. Another time I thought it would be cool if I could grab an enemy out of the air as he's flung back by Thor's strikes - you can do that too. The game didn't tell me to do that, it didn't have a juggle combo tutorial, it's just built in such a way that you learn how to play it better simply by playing it at all.
Furthermore, there are several hidden runes throughout the various levels. You can equip three at a time, each providing myriad benefits. One creates a shockwave any time you throw Thor's hammer (Mjolnir, for those who care), which damages any enemies in your immediate area; others bolster Thor's defense, increase his screen-frying god powers or alter other aspects of his abilities. There are 18 total, and equipping the right ones for certain areas really pays off.
So what's the problem? Well, all these cool abilities are there from the start, so by the end of the first act you've practically seen and done it all. Aside from some ball-busting bosses and the various rune effects, the gameplay is locked in place. So in a way, Thor DS' nuances merely prolong the aforementioned mindlessness that plagues these types of games. Personally I didn't mind all the hammer-smashing because I found the combat basics satisfying and addictive; even when I stopped playing, that "feeling" of juggling enemies stuck with me enough to enter my thoughts without provocation. But make no mistake - there is much repetition.
I'd like to end by thanking WayForward for not phoning this one in. It's a very capable 2D studio, responsible for Contra 4, A Boy and His Blob and (another licensed game that had no business being good) Batman: The Brave and the Bold. We salute WayForward's efforts here; in other hands, this could have been every bit as uninteresting as the prior Sega-published Marvel games. Instead, it's a surprisingly capable throwback to the 16-bit days, one that animates beautifully and offers combat that isn't totally brainless.
May 6, 2011