GAMING GREATS: Blackthorne (1994)

 Rod is on a mission to slay the evil Sarlac (hmm, sounds familiar) in this classic fantasy/sci-fi medley for the SNES. 

Who made it?: Blizzard, Paradox, Mass Media (Developers), Interplay, MacPlay, Blizzard (Publishers).

Platforms: SNES, DOS, Sega 32X, Classic Mac OS, Game Boy Advance, Windows.

Format: Cartridge, CD-ROM. 

Released: 1994 (SNES).

 Blackthorne, known as Blackhawk in some regions, is actually one of my favourite Super Nintendo games. It’s a port of a MS-DOS game, but the graphics, sound and music are quite impressive on the SNES. I haven’t played the original, but I have heard the awesome score from it, and there’s one cue that I really liked but, unfortunately, it wasn’t carried over into the Super Nintendo edition. That’s where most of my criticism ends.

If you have never played Blackthorne, one of the first things you will notice is that it is very much in the platforming style of the original Prince of Persia (1989). This connection was even stronger for me when I first played it because, at the time, the Super Nintendo version of the initial Prince of Persia (1992) was the best game of that style that I had played up till that point, even being better for me than Flashback (1992).

The story begins on a planet named Tuul. The evil Sarlac, whose Keep dwells deep in the heart of Tuul, plots to attack Stonefist, where King Vlaros resides and rules over the Kingdom of Androth. Sarlac is trying to obtain an artifact called the Lightstone. As the attack occurs, King Vlaros, with the aid of the magician Galadril, sends his son Kyle to Earth along with the Lightstone for safekeeping. Fast forward twenty years and Kyle is now a grown man who has seemingly lived the life of a drifter. While trying to hitchhike one night, a strange light appears, courtesy of the magic of Galadril, and teleports Kyle back to Tuul so he can get revenge against Sarlac and save his fellow Androthi from his tyranny.

There are various levels that are split up into stages. The first is set inside a mine where fellow Androthi have been held prisoner, forced to work as slaves. The second is set in a forest/jungle, the third a rocky wasteland, and the finale is Sarlac’s Keep. The layout of each stage is like a maze, with platforms, ladders, elevators, chasms, traps, and enemies throughout. The action takes place on one screen at a time, so there’s no scrolling. In the top left hand corner of the screen, an icon representing the secondary weapon or item that you currently have selected appears. And in the top right hand corner of the screen is your health bar, which is represented as a series of arrows pointing left.

Kyle can run and jump across platforms, jump up to higher ledges, or lower himself down. There is also a forward roll move he can perform. He can even hide in the background to avoid certain enemies and their attacks. With Kyle’s shotgun equipped, he can still hide in the background to avoid gunfire until it is safe to return to the foreground plane and retaliate. He can also still perform a forward roll, too. However, the things he cannot do whilst armed are running or jumping. Learning how to control Kyle is very easy, and you will find yourself getting a handle on the controls early. The Up Button has various functions, such as hiding in the background, climbing up ladders, using elevators, jumping on the spot to grab platforms, using a Key or Bridge Key, speaking to NPCs, and to make a thing called the Levitator go upwards when standing on it. The Down Button allows Kyle to crouch, to lower himself down from a platform when standing on it, to climb down ladders, to descend in an elevator, and to make the Levitator drop so that it can then be picked up again. The Left and Right Buttons move Kyle in those directions, both when walking or running and when rolling forward. And when you activate the remote control bug bomb, you use the Up, Down, Left, and Right Buttons to move it in those directions.

Holding down the Y Button whilst moving (and unarmed) will allow Kyle to run. You can either cycle through your stored items to the one you wish to use, by pressing the L and R Buttons, or you can press Select to bring up your inventory. Then, move the cursor to the desired item and press Select again to return to the main screen with your selected item now equipped. When you have moved the remote control bug bomb into the desired position, the Y Button makes it explode. Pressing X will use any item that you may have selected, as well as to use any item you currently have selected. B will make Kyle jump forward in the direction he’s facing. And A will equip or put away Kyle’s shotgun. When the shotgun is equipped, pressing B will fire it, and pressing Y will make Kyle fire the shotgun behind him without looking. While obviously unrealistic, as a shotgun in real life if fired like that would do serious damage to whomever fires it, in this game it is just a great stylistic touch. I personally like to sometimes use it when an enemy has knocked me down, and is laughing about it, for a bit of smartass payback.

At the beginning of the game, Kyle’s shotgun only has a single rate of fire, and you cannot hold down the fire button to make him continue pumping lead. But as you progress, you are given upgrades to the shotgun which add improvements. In the first level, you can upgrade it so you can fire two shots in quick succession. In the second, you receive an upgrade which allows rapid fire. And in the third, you receive an upgrade which increases the damage the shotgun inflicts on enemies. This was actually one of the first games I played where you could kill NPC’s that are actually your allies. This provided a source of comedy for me because, sometimes, what they would say opened me up to not only be an asshole and kill them, but to also come up with a verbal insult of some kind. For example, in the first level, you come across an imprisoned Androthi chained to a wall, who would say, “Save yourself while there is still time.” To which I would say out loud, “Too bad no-one is going to save you!” before making them eat lead. Sometimes, though, you can’t help them from getting shot because at certain points you will come across an enemy who, when you hide from their gunshots, will hit and kill anyone else in the line of fire.

Other weapons available to you throughout the game are the Hover Bombs, which are used to destroy certain walls that block your path, either by being thrown, or by crouching and placing them on the ground for them to glide along in the direction you’re facing. Fire Bombs, which can also either be thrown or placed strategically, create a small flood of fire that spreads across the ground. Fire Bombs are particularly useful against the green tentacle plant enemies you will face. Then there’s remote control bug bombs which you can move around the screen once activated, and then detonate them manually in order to destroy power generators which create laser walls blocking your progress. But you have to be careful when using these items as you only get a certain amount per level, and in some circumstances, only the amount required to get you through that level. So, if you use them accidentally, you have to restart the stage. There are certain laser walls which require a key to deactivate, and there are also bridge keys that will create a platform for Kyle to cross. Levitators are used to allow Kyle to reach platforms that would otherwise be impossible to reach without one. Once you have used it where it needs to be used, though, you can’t get it back until you find another one in a different stage. Potions allow Kyle to recover lost health. You can find all these items on fallen enemies, or can be given them by fellow Androthi you encounter. Oh, and you can also just execute fellow Androthi equipped with these items, and take it from their lifeless corpse, whichever you prefer!

There are various enemies you will face as you progress through the game. The main one you will encounter are the Orcs who are armed with their own guns, and these come in a variety of colours, each one representing a different type of difficulty in defeating them. Some of these will use remote control bug bombs, revealing them to Kyle to obtain for his own use. If they are in close proximity, even if he’s hiding in the background, they can knock him over with their melee attack. Then there’s these giant Orcs armed with a whip who will strike at you, and can also knock you over with a melee attack if Kyle is nearby. There are also those Androthi who have betrayed their own people, becoming servants of Sarlac, and these guys, while only armed with handguns, can easily knock Kyle over with one hit, so they definitely shouldn’t be underestimated. And there’s also the aforementioned green tentacle-like plants that will grab Kyle and squeeze him to do damage. These will be destroyed automatically after Kyle has been ensnared, and their attack finished. You can just shoot them as you would with other enemies, but to avoid losing health from being groped, it is wise to use a Fire Bomb as these can be used from a height, taking out a few of them at a time. And you will also come across giant rock-like monsters that will be motionless until you get near them, before coming to life. The only time you can do damage to these is when they’re standing upright, because when they’re curled up into a ball and rolling along the ground, they are invincible. But be careful once you defeat these beasties because they will explode, and can do damage to you even during their death. And then there’s also spiders that crawl along the ground that will explode and hurt Kyle if you step on them!

Not only are there enemies that can inflict damage to Kyle and kill him, but there are traps as well. You will see metal plates on the ground; these can sometimes activate blocks that obstruct your path and rise up temporarily, but they can also activate a turret gun that appears from the ceiling and starts to shoot. They are heavily-armoured but can be destroyed. You can either stand in front of them and hide when they fire before returning fire, or you can get behind them and blast away. But don’t be too close to them because, once they are destroyed, the explosion can injure Kyle critically. Another thing to keep in mind is that Kyle cannot fall from every height and survive the landing. Fall from too high a ledge and you’ll die on impact.

There are certain tactics that are great to use throughout. If you know there’s a tough enemy on the next screen, especially if there’s two near each other, and you don’t want to spend time hiding from their attacks, you can just go to the previous screen, crouch on the ground and perform a forward roll into the next screen before shooting at the enemies. Then, turn around and roll back to the previous screen and rinse and repeat. If you do it right, you will catch them off guard and get shots in without them being able to hide from your attacks. Another tactic to use against an enemy if you want to save time is to get behind them and then face their direction whilst they are still looking at where you were, allowing you to empty all you’ve got. Then, once they have turned to face you, get behind them again and repeat the action. I often do that by using the forward roll move. Then there’s a similar tactic to the first one I mentioned, where you instead use an elevator to get a couple of shots in, then go back down, then back up again, and you can catch the enemy unawares before they can hide or shoot back.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the graphics, sound and music are quite impressive. Aside from the fact that Kyle is a man with long dark hair, a white tank top, blue denim jeans, and long black boots, there’s a bit of a heavy metal aesthetic going on with the music. It has a really good “dark” feel to it, which matches the graphical style really well. The animations across the board, from the movement of Kyle and the enemies, to the background elements are all are top notch and very smooth. There’s only a drop in the framerate when doing certain things, like if you’re in the middle of moving whilst a rock monster explodes. The sound effects are really meaty, especially when it comes to gunshots and explosions, and the grunts enemies make when being shot.

If you had to chart the course of my enjoyment with platform games that require extensive running, jumping and climbing, you would begin with the Super Nintendo version of the original Prince of Persia, then Blackthorne, then Tomb Raider, and then Assassin’s Creed. This game was an important entry in that chain for me and is still a fine example of the genre. I definitely recommend you play this game if you haven’t, because you might just discover an absolute gem.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • The cover art for the SNES version was drawn by famed comic book artist Jim Lee.
  • In 2013, the game was added to server as a free download, emulated through DOSBox.
  • Blackthorne was released with modified graphics, higher colour palette and four new levels, which take place on a snowy mountain, for the Sega 32X in 1995. The game had a soundtrack similar to the SNES version, as opposed to the DOS version that used MIDI. This version was also released for Classic Mac OS, running in double resolution, in 1996. A port to the Game Boy Advance was released in 2003, with reduced graphics compared with the original.

Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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