1986 played host to quite an array of unique concepts for arcade video games. Titles such as Joust 2, OutRun, and Rampage were demonstrating that not everything had to be a pessimistic Pac-Man clone or involve shooting aliens. Yet, 1986 also played host to an impressive selection of games that did involve alien-shooting, including Konami's Salamander. While many arcade games strived to set themselves apart with unique concepts and interesting yet addictive gameplay, a handful of others strived to make the greatest technical achievements possible with the hardware available. An arguable leader in this field was Namco, who in between a Mappy sequel and an extension of Xevious, released a unique 3D shoot-em-up by the name of Thunder Ceptor.
Thunder Ceptor combines elements from some of Namco's previous arcade hits, namely Xevious and Pole Position. Your objective is to fly your ship - which is viewed from behind and can adjust altitude as well as moving left and right - from the start of the track to the end. The tracks never have any bends to them, but some have multiple "pathways" that present you with different arrays of obstacles. Most enemies and some minor obstacles can be destroyed with your ship's blasters and smart bombs, but the majority of obstacles must be avoided and will only disappear if you crash your ship right into them. You do not get lives in Thunder Ceptor; similarly to Pole Position, you will continue to fly indefinitely, no matter how many times your ship explodes, until your constantly-draining Power reserve is completely empty, at which point your game is over.
The game offers more than just obstacles and cannon-fodder enemies, however. You will also need to contend with the occasional "miniboss" ship, which is completely indestructible until you can destroy the orbiting mini-ships that accompany it. It is crucial that these ships be destroyed as quickly as possible, as your ship is limited in speed until the boss is destroyed, and your rate of fuel consumption is not affected by this speed loss. The key to success in Thunder Ceptor is avoiding everything and killing the bosses quickly, and never, ever letting off the accelerator.
While not especially amazing as a game, Thunder Ceptor was one of the most technologically advanced arcade games in 1986, sporting a sound board consisting of a Yamaha FM chip and Namco's usual custom DAC hardware (Namco had become famous for nearly always including custom sound hardware in their games instead of off-the-shelf models), and an unusually powerful (for the time) 12.2 MHz 68000 processor, which helped power SNES-like perspective planes and full sprite scaling without any loss in frame rate, with dozens of sprites on screen at a time. Thunder Ceptor was very much in direct competition with Sega's own Space Harrier on both a mechanical and a technical level, and Space Harrier ultimately boasted more powerful hardware and more popularity among its player base, as well as coming out almost a whole year earlier.
Later, the same year, Namco released a sequel-slash-revision, ostentatiously titled 3-D Thunder Ceptor II. The overall composition of the game is quite similar to its predecessor, though it does have some notable additions. The "tracks" are all new, with new formations of obstacles and enemies to fight, including the invincible flying panels from Xevious. Also on occasion, a friendly ship (the same as yours, except painted white) will zoom ahead of you and drop a power-up item. Power-ups can either refill a small chunk of your power bar, or render the Ceptor temporarily invincible and able to crash straight through obstacles without fear of damage. These powerups move quickly, though, and it's very easy to miss them, especially if they get dropped right behind a large obstacle like an asteroid.
The biggest change for 3-D Thunder Ceptor II, however, is that it is actually rendered in stereoscopic 3D using a pair of special glasses attached to the arcade cabinet. It is unclear how this actually worked (due to an alarming lack of data on the English-speaking Internet about the game's hardware), but MAME does emulate these glasses by displaying their output as two screens. With some dedication (and perhaps very strong eyes), it is still possible to play the game in "3D" - but it is perhaps not worth the eye strain.
At the height of Thunder Ceptor's popularity in Japan, Namco released the game's music, which was composed by Norio Nakagata (also known for Genpei Tōma Den), as a track on a "Flexi disc" included with the May 1987 issue of Beep Magazine, accompanied by tracks from Rolling Thunder and Yōkai Dōchūki (Travel Book of Monsters).
It is perhaps unfortunate, if a sign of the times, that neither Thunder Ceptor nor its "sequel" ever received home ports. The real fact of the matter was that none of the computer systems available at the time could really deliver a game of this technical caliber without sacrificing much of what made it interesting; while other similar games received home ports like Space Harrier and Galaxy Force, these did not come without serious technical compromise, even on systems that came years later. Perhaps Namco could not be bothered to pare the game down to work on "inferior" hardware, and one could hardly blame them, given the state of home ports for the above two games. Namco has also not bothered to include Thunder Ceptor on any of its Namco Museum series, deciding to focus instead on their pre-1985 hits like Pac-Man. Thunder Ceptor would remain lost for the years to come, except to a curious few with an emulator and an Internet connection.
Additional Thunder Ceptor Screenshots
Additional 3-D Thunder Ceptor II Screenshots