Blackthorne, a 1994 game from Interplay and Blizzard Entertainment for the Super NES and Sega 32X, is the game that will make you wonder why you ever bothered to play Prince of Persia. It is actually so similar in some ways (such as the feel of play control) that it seems to actually be based on the same engine, but the game is so different in every other way that if so, the fact is largely irrelevant. This review pertains to the Super NES version.
Blackthorne is a screen-based action/adventure game. This means that rather than scrolling, the game's action takes place on a series of frozen areas; a new area is displayed when you either pass through a doorway, or when you move off any edge of the screen. The game's setting involves both magic and technology, or at least, "sufficiently advanced" technology. (Any sufficiently advanced technology has the appearance of magic...) You are transported between the world of "the earthlings" and the world of the game by what appears to be magic, for example, but the game is full of neat gimmicks like force fields (used as both bridges and doors) and my personal favorite, firearms. The protagonist is Kyle, son of King Vlaros of Stonefist. The opening cinematic involves the evil Sarlac condemning Vlaros's people to death ("no survivors") but when you are returned from Earth (or another dimension, perhaps) 20 years later, there certainly are survivors - they are slaves of Sarlac and engaged in what appears to be some sort of mining activity. Your mission (as the "chosen one") is to free the Androthi people from slavery, win the day, and generally be a badass.
Game control is fairly simple. Like Prince of Persia, there are two modes of movement; with or without one's weapon drawn. You begin the game with a simple pump action shotgun and an infinite supply of ammunition. Later, you get your hands on a semiautomatic shotgun which enables you to dispatch your enemies considerably more rapidly. The weapon is drawn or slung by pressing the A button, and fired by pressing B. It can also be fired behind you (Army of Darkness style) by pressing Y. Like PoP, you cannot jump, climb, or run while holding your weapon. You can crouch (by pressing down) and roll (by pressing left or right as appropriate) however, and this allows you to get the drop (and the first shot or two depending on which shotgun you have) on your enemies. You can also press up on the control pad to dodge aside, which will protect you from fired shots, but not from melee attacks. Pressing a fire button while holding up results in your popping out of cover and firing immediately. All bullets travel instantaneously, and their firing is marked only by muzzle flashes, which makes things very smooth, completely avoids any problems with slowdown due to weapons fire, and makes it easier both to avoid fire, and to hit what you're aiming at.
You can do all the same stuff while not holding your weapon, but there are also some other things you can accomplish. You can climb up or down ladders by pressing up or down on the D-Pad. You can also run, by holding down the Y button. The B button causes you to jump. You go through doorways by pressing up; You also climb onto ledges above your head this way. For this reason it is definitely best to draw your weapon before dodging (if you can) if you plan to be doing some combination of dodging and shooting, as it will prevent you from accidentally climbing up things, or going through doors. You also talk to assorted Androthi prisoners by pressing up, which can be aggravating sometimes when you have to wait for them to move so that you can go through a doorway or ascend a ladder. Running while jumping makes you jump much further, but it occurs only when your feet are in the right place, and so must be timed with some precision - just like Prince of Persia. Also just like PoP, if you are just short of making a jump to the point where you can grab a ledge, you will do so automatically. Pressing down while facing away from a precipice will make you drop down and hang on as well, and pressing down again will make you let go and drop down to the floor, or the next ledge.
The major departure from PoP (besides using a shotgun instead of a sword) is the existence of an inventory and the corresponding ability to use items. The select button displays the inventory, but regardless of whether the whole thing is displayed, or just the current item (which is normally displayed in the upper left portion of the screen) the L and R buttons (shoulder buttons) scroll through the inventory list. The X button causes you to use the current item, regardless of whether your weapon is drawn, or not. Some items are keys, used to unlock doors or activate force field bridges. There are also potions which restore your health. There are bombs, which are extremely significant to gameplay, and each of them have their unique purposes. You first encounter hover bombs, which will follow floors and climb walls until they hit something. Later, you get your hands on remote wasp bombs, which are remote-controlled, and which can be used to attack enemies or to destroy objects (like shield generators) which cannot otherwise be reached. Both of these types of bombs are also used against you by the enemy. Lastly there are fire bombs, which are thrown mostly downward, and which spread fire for a ways ahead of you.
Besides the keys and bombs you can also pick up a levitation device. This looks like a triangle on the floor supporting another triangle on a column of blue light. While standing on the upper pyramid, you can press down, causing the column to collapse. In other words, they're a short personal elevator, just tall enough to raise you from one level of floor to the next. A fair amount of your running around involves fetching these devices and using them to access areas you can't otherwise reach.
Enemies come in basically four forms; the ogrelike minions of the Sarlac, their mechanized assistants, traitorous Androthi, and evil plants. The former come in two basic flavors, guards and whip-crackers. Guards have rifles, and themselves come in three colors. They do not do well on a diet of lead and the green, red, and purple types will succumb to one, two, and four shotgun blasts respectively. They also have a melee attack which appears to be based on a rather fat bayonet. Some of these guards will also attack you with hover bombs and wasp bombs; these guards will always (?) drop some of these bombs for you to pick up when they are killed, though other guards which do not use the bombs often drop them as well, especially hover bombs. The whip-wielding guards require a bit more persuasion, and you have to hit them with a bomb to take them out.
The guards are backed up by a few mechanical devices which are themselves typically more annoying than they are. There are armored guns which drop from the ceiling which are triggered by stepping on grey floor tiles. They take about eight shots to kill, but you can duck under the shots by crouching and then roll past them (if there is a "past them" to roll to) or you can dodge aside while they are firing. Far more annoying than these, actually, are the spider bombs which crawl back and forth somewhat slowly across the floor. I have not yet encountered a way to kill them other than stepping on them and taking damage, but they can be jumped over. Finally, there are the remotely controlled "remote wasp" bombs. They can be destroyed by shooting them four times, and they don't move very rapidly.
Traitorous Androthi become more prevalent as you progress through the game. Rather than rifles or shotguns, they are armed with pistols. They shoot much more quickly than the guards, but the time between shots is greater. Where you wait for guards to stop shooting before you return fire, your fellow Androthi are best killed in between shots. Incidentally, while friendlies with guns don't shoot you, you can shoot them, as well as chained friendlies and those who are just standing around. This leads to a lot of standing around watching your buddies fight and often get killed because you can't really do any shooting while they're in front of you. The traitors will also kick you if you get close. In general, they are much more dangerous than the Sarlac minions; on one hand they don't move to get closer to you, but then that's an excellent time to shoot the guards. There is no excellent time to shoot traitors.
Lastly, there are the malicious plants. So far, the only ones I've seen are flytrap-types that do one point of damage when you fall in them and then die. They can otherwise be destroyed with fire bombs, or by crouching and shooting them four times. These are really quite annoying as they have a tendency to blend in with the surroundings, but so far they are the only moving thing that looks like it might be in the background but isn't. The only thing that moves around that's harmless is the rain, which appears once you get above ground.
There is very little not to like about Blackthorne. The primary annoyance is that the game pak does not have RAM in it, and thus you cannot save your game. As a result the game designers saw fit to use passwords to allow you to continue from approximately where you left off. Games that keep track a lot of information generally have complicated passwords - this game uses four characters that only represent your general position in the game based on checkpoints. For example, the first password is FBWC. Unfortunately, this means that your inventory cannot be preserved, and as a result there is not only no motivation to conserve resources to make later stages easier, but your inventory is actually wiped out at each checkpoint. Thus, it behooves you to know in advance (either by being psychic, or by using a hint guide, or to have beaten the game previously) where each checkpoint is located so that you can use up your resources and make each section of the game as easy as possible.
Another minor annoyance is the overencumbrance of the up direction on the D-pad. It is used to climb to higher ledges, climb ladders, go through doors, talk to people, hit switches, pick up items that are not on the ground (bridge keys) and to dodge out of the line of fire. You do get used to this in relatively short order, but it definitely something that you have to get used to. On the other hand, I'm not sure what other controls you would have used, since the start button is given over to a "Give Up" function, probably for use in situations in which you have misused an item needed to progress to the next checkpoint.
Otherwise, the game is really quite excellent. The graphics are not as polished as some other titles, and aside from the number of colors used, look like they could have come from a game on the original NES. The game does have a neat screensaver effect, however, and if it is left idle animation stops (whether sprite-based or color cycling and a round spotlight window bounces around the screen revealing a small area. A lot of the background animation effects are clearly based on color cycling, meaning that the somewhat ubiquitous waterfalls have the look of the array of aluminum discs on the back of an Alhambra water truck. A couple of the enemies could use a few more frames of animation, but most of them move very smoothly. The player himself moves very fluidly, down to his long hair swinging out in front of him when he lands from a jump. As is typical of Super Nintendo games, all blood is shown in green.
The sound effects are excellent, with gunshots actually sounding something like gunshots. Music is fairly good, with acceptable percussion sounds. The music generally conveys a feeling of tension, especially that in the initial (underground) areas. There are no voice samples or other gimmicks which generally do not come across well on the SNES.
Play control is very, very good. As previously stated, the character animation is also excellent, which is really mandatory for good play control in a game like this in which one action must necessarily flow into the next. Again, this is just the same as Prince of Persia. Every action takes a reasonable amount of time (or less) and with some practice it is fairly easy to jump to precise locations, climb up ladders and dodge to the side in time to avoid weapons fire, and so on.
One of the features I appreciate most about this game is the presence of a tutorial, which eliminates any need for an instruction manual. As has become popular in first person shooter titles, this takes the form of a sort of obstacle course in which all of the game controls are explained. Picking up this little-known title used will almost certainly mean you do not get the instruction booklet, so this is especially nice at this late date.
Blackthorne is an 8Mbit (1 Mbyte) Mode 20 LoROM cart with no RAM. A Blackthorne demo cart (containing the full game) was released at the 1994 CES (Consumer Electronics Show).
- Servo5678 says re Blackthorne: This game also appeared on the Sega 32X.