Ken Williams was not a fan of consoles in 1986. According to Sierra On-Line’s Tenth Anniversary catalog which recounts the story of his trip to Japan that year, he was convinced that “the Japanese had a lot to learn about the future of personal computing” and set out to try and show them what as a businessman and the president of one of the West’s biggest developers.
He also witnessed Nintendo’s Famicom craze first-hand and prior to seeing it, had never thought very highly about the console market in general. To understand where he might be coming from, one has to understand that his attitude was the same in the United States among many burned by the Video Game Crash a few years earlier which saw the collapse of a market dominated by the once mighty Atari.
Many in the West didn’t think consoles would ever rise to the prominence that they had enjoyed during Atari’s golden era in the late 70s and early 80s, an attitude that Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi and his hand picked team would be fighting to overcome when they wanted to bring the Famicom outside of Japan and into the US.
Computers, on the other hand, were quickly growing in power — and accessibility — and PC gaming was experiencing its own small revolution during the early 80s as breakout titles and a host of applications created iconic studios overnight such as Sierra thanks to the work of Ken’s wife, Roberta, such as in the adventure genre. At least in the West. But the attitudes towards computers in Japan were a bit different.
A combination of factors worked against making the personal computer in Japan a breakout device the way companies in the West such as IBM had leveraged into a global market. High prices and the lack of the kind of cottage industry of clone builders in Japan worked against sparking the same kind of personal revolution that the West was undergoing.
That wasn’t to say that Japanese PC manufacturers didn’t build anything — they did, such as NEC whose PC-98 series came to dominate the Japanese market. Yet it was also clear that the popularity, and accessibility, of PCs in the West still far outpaced that in Japan.
This was probably what was on Ken Williams’ mind having grown up and having seen first hand how PCs in the US were transforming people’s lives and opening doors. Incidentally, it was also what Hiroshi Yamauchi had wanted to quietly inspire with the Famicom’s expansion slot potentially making it an affordable, low cost, computer terminal.
So where did Thexder come in?
Well, the Famicom’s incredible success apparently blew Ken away. And then he took a look at the games and was impressed by how good they were. The expectations he had brought to Japan did a complete 180 turn — now he felt he had to learn from the Japanese on how to make such amazing games, lessons that later went towards SCI (the system used for games such as King’s Quest IV and Space Quest III).
Yet it was Thexder that stood out in his mind the most. He was “politely shooed out of three Japanese computer stores” for taking up too much time in playing the game so instead of selling something to the Japanese, he ended up buying an NEC PC-88 and a copy of Thexder to take home. People back at Sierra were hooked. Ken later acquired the license from Game Arts and it debuted in time for Christmas in 1986 later becoming Sierra’s biggest seller in 1987.
Thexder’s a 2D, side scrolling single-player game where you take control of a giant robot that can transform into a jet. It’s also armed with automatically aimed lasers, so all a player has to do is hold down the fire button and move around to try and not get hit by what is flying at them. Transforming into a jet got players over pits and other obstacles and a shield helped to ward off damage as they fought to survive (and score) their way through 16 stages. Health was measured in energy which slowly drained after so many shots, getting hit by any of the hazards (or melting in a pit of fire), or use your shields.
The game also featured voice (such as an intruder warning on entering a stage) along with some great sound effects and music such as a rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the title screen. It was an action tour-de-force at the time for arcade fans and paved the way for Sierra’s other imports such as Silpheed and Nihon Falcom’s action RPG, Sorcerian, later on.
The game was tough, although it did allow players to continue from the last level they were in or the highest one that they had ever completed and go from there. Enemies could also be suicidal — they would often mass ram you into dying with brutal ambushes. Flying around as a jet could also be a bit tricky since colliding with a wall could turn you back into a robot, dropping you down into whatever you might have been trying to avoid. Fortunately, the levels were static and weren’t randomly generated so a little memorization, or handy sketching, helped players get through them.
It was also ported to a number of machines from the venerable Apple II to DOS, the Amiga, and the TRS-80 CoCo. It was also a big title helping to show off Apple’s new IIGS (the GS stood for “graphics and sound”) which had come out in ’86 and was touted for its much improved multimedia capabilities as a beefy 16-bit system.
Thexder had a sequel in 1989, Thexder 2 (also known as Fire Hawk: Thexder the Second Contact), and Thexder 95 (for Windows 95). In 2005, Thexder & Fire Hawk (compilation) arrived for the PC-88 designed by Hibiki Godai and Satoshi Uesaka, the original designers of the first game. And in 2009 and 2010, Thexder Neo (an enhanced remake of the first game) came out for the Sony PSP and PS3 respectively courtesy of Square Enix, though none captured the kind of excitement that the first game did for Sierra in 1987. Today, players can try the first game out for themselves at archives such as Virtual Apple ][ and see how well they might have done.
Yet the game still brings a digital tear to fans that remember its place in history in the late 80s as a special effects laden arcade shooter, something that brought plenty of pew pew excitement to PCs at the time and inspire many more to take its place. It might have only had its 15 minutes of fame, but for many, being able to transform into a jet and a giant robot blasting through enemy hordes was an experience that still haunts their laser guided dreams.