The Thunderbirds Video Games Retrospective

You’re getting two for the price of one, today! This article on Thunderbirds video games has been pumped up like an alligator swimming in theramine so I’ve split it into two convenient sections for those of you who want to read in multiple sittings.

In Part 1 of this article, I’ll be discussing the troubled history of Thunderbirds‘ foray into video gaming, and highlighting the many difficulties involved in developing an International Rescue game which ticks all the right boxes to be considered a success.

Part 2 sees me take a close-up look at a little-known PC game from my childhood developed by SCi and published by Europress in 2002 called Thunderbirds: Vault of Doom, based on the TV episode of a similar name.

Both parts can be read independently of each other, or together if you don’t have a lot of other things going on in your life right now. There are pictures and videos along the way if reading doesn’t do it for you… believe me, I struggle with it sometimes and I’m the one writing this stuff.

P.S. Sorry about the Romeo and Juliet references…

Part 1:
For never was a story of more woe than this of Thunderbirds and her video games.

Part 2:
But, soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Thunderbirds: Vault of Doom is the sun.

Part 1:
For never was a story of more woe than this of Thunderbirds and her video games.

Thunderbirds has action, suspense, some combat scenarios, a range of vehicles to operate, and a wide collection of characters with unique specialist skills. Surely, a video game based on the format is as easy as interpreting Alan Tracy’s nigthmares? So, why has every single Thunderbirds game that’s ever been produced not hit the mark for me?

Allow me to briefly cover the big hitters when it comes to Thunderbirds video games (this is by no means an exhaustive list but I promise you’ll pick up on the pattern pretty quickly):

Thunderbirds (NES – 1990)

Cover art for the North American release of Thunderbirds for the NES in 1990.
I’m not entirely sure Activision knew what game they were releasing when they threw his cover artwork together…

Only released in Japan and North America, this title for the Nintendo Entertainment System told the player that the Hood will destroy the world in 60 days if the Thunderbird machines aren’t handed over to him. The gameplay consists of flying the Thunderbird craft through scrolling vertical shooting levels and blowing stuff up along the way. That’s about the extent of it, and at the time I guess that was enough. By modern standards it’s not particularly Thunderbirdsy, and not particularly satisfying.

YouTube video of a complete playthrough of Thunderbirds (NES) by the channel NintendoComplete. Uploaded 4 Oct 2017.

Thunderbirds/Thunderbirds: International Rescue (Gameboy Color & Gameboy Advance – 2000, 2001)

Sorry handheld gaming consoles of the early 2000’s, but the truth is that I never liked you that much… probably because I never got swept up by the Pokémon phenomenon which hooked my generation. The limitations of the technology at that time were apparent to me even as a child, and these Thunderbirds releases for the Gameboy Color, and then for the Gameboy Advance, didn’t help with that perception. This pair of games saw you fly, drive, and platform around totally un-Thunderbirds-themed levels to shoot stuff. Still images and a few subtitles attempted to inject a sense of urgency and storyline to your endeavours but blow me if I know what it’s all supposed to be about. Another case of a Thunderbirds skin being thrown over some pretty generic gameplay. And who’s that weirdo in the dressing gown supposed to be?

YouTube video of a complete playthrough of Thunderbirds: International Rescue (Gameboy Advance) by the channel Jalop Entertainment. Uploaded 4 Feb 2020.

Thunderbirds (PlayStation 2 – 2007)

Here’s where things get interesting/depressing. When SCi Games acquired the rights to make Thunderbirds games in 1999 to coincide with the television series’ big “digitally remastered” re-release, they quickly announced that a PlayStation 2 game was on the cards. The expectations were high. The PS2 was a console which realistically had enough power to tell a complex story and for players to control the Thunderbird machines and the show’s characters in three glorious dimensions. Thunderbirds VHS releases from the year 2000 teased us with this impressive trailer:

Weird TB1 redesign aside, it looks pretty good doesn’t it?!

The end of that trailer gave us a few dates to look forward to. The Gameboy Color release happened as described earlier in 2000, and naturally didn’t look anything like this trailer because it was for a Gameboy flippin’ Color. But the big PC/PS2 title didn’t emerge in the 3rd quarter of 2001 as the trailer promised. Coincidentally, an ambitious Captain Scarlet game from Batfish Studios was also teased and supposedly completed around the same time but never saw the light of day.

Fast forward to 2006 and 2007, SCi had finished it’s love afffair with Thunderbirds and merged with another studio. It was also the beginning of the end for the PS2 as the next generation of consoles started to take over. This gave low-budget studios the opportunity to develop games for the now-outdated console relatively inexpensively and still achieve some decent sales figures because the system had been so mind-bogglingly popular that casual gamers were still hungry for content. So, Blast Entertainment came along and gave us these titles:

The 2006 Captain Scarlet PS2 game is, and I won’t mince my words, the worst film or television tie-in that has ever been produced, ever. It barely qualifies as a Captain Scarlet game, and it’s so, so, so badly put together that it barely qualifies as a game. Collectors beware – it isn’t even worth buying to put on a shelf and look at, because looking at it will just make you sad.

The Thunderbirds title is basically only saved by the fact that it’s not quite as awful as the Captain Scarlet one. It’s still a nauseating, repetitive, crudely designed game which sees you perform the same tasks over and over and over again in different locations. Again, subtitles attempt to trick you into thinking there’s a story behind all this. Some of the game is three-dimensional, but some of it isn’t. For the first 5 minutes you might just find yourself genuinely engaged by flying TB1 and TB2 around and being challenged to shoot stuff, pick things up, and land in strong winds… but unless you’re content with doing that for the rest of the game, the novelty dries up pretty quickly.

What’s really embarrassing is that Blast Entertainment published nothing but these terrible film and TV tie-in games. That was their entire business model. License holders had so little regard for some of their properties that they willingly handed them over to Blast for a budget release, despite game after game after game from them being so very poor. Little Britain: The Video Game was one of there’s – in fact it released in between the Scarlet and Thunderbirds titles. The studio kept going purely because customers kept buying these games due to brand recognition alone, and license holders just wanted a product on the shelves regardless of whether it was any good or not.

It’s also fair to say that the Thunderbirds license in particular was in a rough spot around 2007. Memories of the commercially disastrous 2004 movie lingered, repeats on terrestrial television were drying up, and Doctor Who was dominating the nostalgia-fuelled family sci-fi market in the UK and beyond. Streaming and high definition releases hadn’t quite arrived yet, nor had social media and the domination of internet fandom to grow the audience. The future of Thunderbirds was uncertain, particularly after Gerry Anderson’s New Captain Scarlet had been so poorly treated by its broadcaster. I’m not surprised that this game was spat out as cheaply and quickly as possible. It probably didn’t do much to help the show’s more skeptical critics who might have viewed Thunderbirds as a quirky, outdated kids show that was past its best.

Gameplay from Thunderbirds for the PlayStation 2.
How does a game released in 2007 look so much worse than a concept trailer released in 2000?

It’s pretty common for film and TV tie-in games to be produced as quickly as possible on limited budgets. In the film and TV context, video games are (or at least were) viewed as merch just like toys or apparel. There are some exceptions, of course – Star Wars video games have been some of the greatest ever produced and stand up on their own merits. But most movies have a really limited lifespan in the public consciousness. They may be hugely popular, but they’ll be superseded in a few months by the next big thing. So if a video game is going to be a part of the merchandising efforts, it needs to be developed quickly and guarantee a profit by being made cheaply. Now, with a big cinematic universe like Star Wars, big merchandising investments are more worthwhile because they’re more likely to pay off. If the buzz of the same set of movies is kept going for years or even decades, then you’ve got room to dedicate time and money to producing impressive and genuinely creative video games and other good quality tie-in merchandise.

Really popular television series have that necessary longevity but suffer from attracting smaller audiences than Hollywood blockbusters. Again, Star Trek is a noteworthy exception but it’s difficult to group it with other TV franchises seeing as it’s a movie franchise too, and also because, let’s be honest, video game fanatics and Star Trek go together rather well. Doctor Who is a better example – a global community of dedicated fans, yet so many video game tie-ins which have failed to break through into popularity with the masses because Doctor Who is just a little bit too niche.

Heck, Thunderbirds has stayed in the public consciousness for nearly six decades, but the number of devoted fans who are also guaranteed to spend upwards of £60 on a big video game release is proportionately small, and it’s even smaller if you’re holding the view that Thunderbirds is strictly a children’s programme. Folks may have fond memories of Thunderbirds, but fond memories aren’t guaranteed to convert into revenue. Big investments into premium games need the security of mass audience appeal or the books simply won’t balance.

Other merchandise like the stunning Big Chief Studios figures get around this problem by producing premium physical items as limited editions. The high production costs for the smaller quantities are reflected in the retail prices which are aimed solely at the most commited fans. Video games don’t have that luxury to be high-end products but also produced in limited quantities. You either make a game or you don’t – you either spend a lot of money to make a spectacular game knowing you’re going to make that money back from the huge potential audience, or you spend a small amount of money to make a passable game for a smaller audience. I’m massively simplifying the argument and deliberately being quite pessimistic, of course, but it’s a simple case of supply and demand. For the multi-billion dollar gaming industry, the demand for a decent Thunderbirds game is a tiny fish in a big, big pond.

However, there is another market out there that hasn’t been discussed yet. Gamers, casual or hardcore, will buy a broad range of titles from across different genres and publishers so long as that game is regarded as a good game. They’re buying that title for the sheer gaming experience and not its associations with existing properties. So, why not concentrate on making a good game, which leans in to all the key ingredients a good game should have like a distinctive art style, engaging gameplay mechanics, and freedom for the player to experience the complex narrative however they choose… and then also happens to be a Thunderbirds game?

Gameplay of the Thunderbirds Cooperative Board Game by Modiphius
The most beautiful object on Earth…

Well, Matt Hancock and Modiphius Entertainment absolutely nailed the definitive board game version of Thunderbirds in 2015 when Thunderbirds: The Cooperative Board Game was released for the show’s 50th anniversary. It proved that when the right people with the right expertise are given the freedom and the budget to produce something excellent based on Thunderbirds, the combination yields incredible results and ends up attracting a new or different kind of audience to the franchise. People play the Modiphius Thunderbirds game who aren’t diehard fans of the show but enjoy the experience of playing it.

The key to that board game’s success is that it is fundamentally a good game, regardless of the Thunderbirds element. Fortunately, Modiphius also had a clear vision of how to combine solid gameplay mechanics with well-researched and respected ingredients from Thunderbirds to the point that the two became inseperable. It was a good board game, it was faithful to Thunderbirds, and that made it a good Thunderbirds board game. Crowdfunding made Modiphius’ Thunderbirds board game possible, and that investment happened based on Modiphius’ established expertise for board games, the dedication (and desperation) of Thunderbirds fans to support any new tie-in products, and the fact that the product itself was demonstrated to be well-developed and appealing to a broader audience.

YouTube video summarising the Thunderbirds Cooperative Board Game by the channel 3 Minute Board Games. Uploaded 27 Jan 2019.

Based on these principles, I believe that making a successful, high-quality Thunderbirds video game would have to be founded upon a long creative development process to understand what makes Thunderbirds tick, and what kind of narrative, mechanics, art style, and other game development would be required to honour that. A new Thunderbirds video game would have to be a new kind of a video game, full stop – an exciting proposition to the gaming community. Game development in uncharted territory is a scary and unknown process which takes time, money, experimentation, some false starts, and a dedication to hiring those hard-to-find companies and people who get the nuances of Thunderbirds and also get the nuances of making video games. But I do believe the rewards would come eventually because at the end of that process you would have a game which scratches an itch for Thunderbirds fans, is something new and exciting for the wider gaming community to enjoy, and would also be accessible enough to the general public who enjoy shiny, new games.

But wait a minute, I thought you said Thunderbirds and video games were a match made in heaven? Why would it take years of planning and development to marry the two together into a successful end product? Well, here comes the reason why I haven’t gone out and made a Thunderbirds game myself, and I suspect is also the reason nobody else has successfully done so either:

I know Thunderbirds inside and out – I hope my reviews of the series which run to a total of 200,000 words go some way to prove that. I’m not a game developer. I play games of various shapes and sizes a lot, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about how they’re made beyond knowing there’s code, time, and money involved. I respect what boots-on-the-ground game developers do enormously, even if the out-of-touch business decisions at the top of the gaming industry are becoming more and more questionable. So, here I am, the ignorant consumer gamer who’s a big Thunderbirds fans. Ask me what I want from my ideal Thunderbirds game… go, on, ask… nope, I’ve got nothing. At least, nothing coherent.

I have laid awake at night trying to dream up the perfect Thunderbirds game – all the vehicles the player could use, all the characters and skills the player could adopt, all the rescue missions and puzzles the player could resolve, all the familiar elements of the show I want to explore. But pumping all of those ingredients into the non-linear narrative of a video game is really, really, really hard.

Heck, even the basic principles like getting all five Thunderbird vehicles and Tracy brothers involved is a struggle. The original television series only manages to show all the craft and all thirteen regular characters on-screen in a single episode – The Mighty Atom – and it’s not like they all had a particularly integral role in the plot. However, most rescues do involve multiple characters and vehicles working together, even if it isn’t all of them all at once. So now add in the complication that only one of those characters or vehicles can be controlled by the player at any given time. Well, games such as Grand Theft Auto V have proven that you can swap and change between characters and still tell a coherent story – but within that story each of the three protagonists has their own motivations and history which influences events and offers the player options regarding how to explore the rest of the story – three seperate strands which weave together at various points. But this only works, in GTA V, because the protagonists are confined to one city where time is linear, so no character can stray too far away geographically or chronologically from the core narrative. In constrast, the events of Thunderbirds take place all over the globe and in outer space. Keeping all the plates spinning logically in an open world which potentially encompasses the entire planet and beyond, and is populated by at least five protagonists (the Tracy boys) that the player can interact as, would be monumentally difficult.

So, you remove the open world element and/or limit the player to interacting as one protagonist throughout. Well, suddenly the game got a lot smaller because you’re only allowing the player to be Scott, Virgil, or possibly Alan (poor Gordon and John have such specific, highly skilled duties within International Rescue that even the original writers struggled to squeeze them in to the episodes). So, your player picks one of those characters – does that now allow them to operate all the Thunderbird vehicles? Well that doesn’t feel right – swapping vehicles doesn’t happen very often in the series and it’s pretty well-acknowledged that each Tracy brother has a specialty, and it usually requires a combined team effort from multiple vehicles to succeed in a rescue.

Gordon, Alan, and Virgil Tracy in the Thunderbirds episode, Cry Wolf.
Choose your player!

Then we get to the rescue missions themselves. A standard Thunderbirds story features one or maybe two missions per episode to tell a complete narrative. A video game would need more than that to last a satisfying amount of time. So you either need to add more missions which provide enough variety for the entire International Rescue team to get involved – including going underwater, into space, underground, and some sort of England-based spy element for Penelope and Parker to get involved since they’re such popular characters. Can all of those missions be linked together in one narrative? It’s certainly possible, but then we come back around to the problem of having too many elements to juggle at once and too many potential paths for the player to follow with multiple protagonists. Thunderbirds doesn’t have a central protagonist. In a Captain Scarlet game, one would happily accept playing as Scarlet for the whole thing, or a UFO game would put the player in the role of Commander Straker. But not everyone would be satisfied with only playing as Scott, or only playing as Virgil. Jeff is probably the most central single figure in the series but all he does is sit behind a desk most of the time.

Okay, so let’s say the player doesn’t get a choice. They get given a mission, and a character to play as, and a vehicle to operate, and they solve each rescue crisis using the tools and instructions they are given. Well, where’s the fun in that? Where’s the creativity or the epic scale that the series evokes? Where’s the freedom that modern gamers expect? The model I’ve just described is pretty much the one that every Thunderbirds video game has used in the past, and I’ve already complained about how dull and unimaginative they ended up being.

And so we get back to square one and it seems like Thunderbirds and video games will never fuse together properly. These are just some of the logical loopholes I have stayed up until the early hours trying to untangle over and over again in my mind. Clearly, the task is beyond me right now. Squeezing all of Thunderbirds into one game, regardless of budget, is more than my brain can manage. Perhaps you can appreciate now why it would take a whole team of highly experienced developers with enormous creative talent and a deep understanding of Thunderbirds and gaming mechanics to come up with a big, impressive game over the course of several years in order to check all of the items on a fan’s wishlist. It can be done. The recent LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is a fine example of how to pull an enormous universe into one, consistent game that respects the source material and also moulds and enhances it to fit the gameplay mechanics… but it’s taken 20 years and a heck of a lot of earlier LEGO video games based on some huge movie franchises to get to that point.

So, how about we change track and enjoy a Thunderbirds video game which not only exists, but I actually like? It’s not perfect, but perhaps that will help to break the problem down and allow us to reach a few sensible conclusions. Introducing: Thunderbirds: Vault of Doom.

Part 2:
But, soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Thunderbirds: Vault of Doom is the sun.

In Part 1, we covered some of the Thunderbirds video game tie-ins which disappointed me. For some reason, those are the ones that everyone remembers – probably because they were console-based and reached a wider audience. But there are a few gems out there for PC which you might have come across in the early 2000s if you were in the UK and looking on the right shelf in your local branch of PC World on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

It seems that SCi were really enthusiastic when they acquired the license to produce Thunderbirds video games. It was a flagship property for the UK-based developer for a few years. First came the Gameboy release in 2000. Then there was the F.A.B. Action Pack for PC in 2001, which was essentially a virtual activity pack for kids containing a mini-game, a quiz, some desktop wallpapers and screensavers, and other bits and pieces. The F.A.B. Action Pack is a surprisingly well-produced bit of kit for what was presumably a bit of a cash-in while SCi were working on their bigger releases – the Playstation 2/PC game which was due for publication in late 2001 but never came to be. The full story behind why that game never happened hasn’t been made public, but comparing the spectacular trailer to the more “rustic” releases that actually came out of SCi, I’m guessing ambition outstripped SCi’s budgetary capabilities.

In 2002, two Thunderbirds titles and a Captain Scarlet game were released on PC by Europress which had been developed by SCi. All of them were aimed squarely at the market for children’s educational games. I remember this period of time was very much the wild west for UK schools and parents getting to grips with more affordable, user-friendly computer technology for the classroom. The internet was becoming more widespread and children were hooked on it to the bewilderment and terror of older generations. Fortunately, some smart people were trying to harness the advanced technology to engage and teach children in exciting new ways. Games developers were experimenting with all manner of ways to educate through gaming technology.

Thunderbirds: Operation Volcano, Captain Scarlet: In The Shadow Of Fear, and Thunderbirds: Vault of Doom all follow a similar structure in that they’re comprised of 3D mini-games based around puzzles, usually with some letters and numbers involved. Operation Volcano stands out because it features some new CG-animated cutscenes which aren’t exactly stunning but allow something of an original story to be told, while In The Shadow of Fear and Vault of Doom draw heavily from the television episodes they’re based upon, with scenes lifted straight from the original shows to fill in the gaps between mini-games.

Vault of Doom (presumably retitled to sound a little less grim than Vault of Death) was the only one of the three releases that I played as a child and it would appear I got lucky because it’s probably the best one of the three from this collection, at least from what I’ve seen. Many of you may wonder why Vault of Death, of all episodes, was chosen as the basis of a video game. After all, it’s relatively low on tech and action, and is primarily character-focussed. I can’t say for sure, but I can see a few advantages to this choice:

1) The story heavily features Penelope and Parker who were pop culture icons in their own right with mass appeal, and they were therefore front and centre on the front cover of the disc box. This also might have served as a means of marketing the game towards boys and girls, because everything Thunderbirds except for Lady Penelope was unashamedly and simplistically marketed at boys during the early 2000s.

2) SCi was based in London, so making a game primarily located in London which was going to be sold in the UK market probably made the most sense to top brass.

3) The narrative structure of the episode does lend itself to branching off in different directions because of the various threads that the plot presents us with.

Thunderbirds: Vault of Doom game menu.
The main menu from Vault of Doom… lots to choose from!

Story Mode is the only option available when the game first boots up and it starts with Parker and Penelope breaking into the Bank of England vault, just as the episode does. Then, once Lambert gets stuck in the vault, the player is presented with three options for how they want to get to get to London – in FAB 1 with Lady Penelope and Parker, following Grandma’s suggestion to use the Hoverbikes in the London Underground, or with Scott in Thunderbirds 1 & 2.

Splitting it up like this does bend the plot of the episode a little but all the elements are still there and tell a coherent story no matter which path you pick. Your selection determines the remaining mini-games you play to complete the narrative. There are eight mini-games in total, and the game features four different difficulty modes from Beginner to Expert which add complexity to the puzzles. As you advance through the mini-games and difficulty levels, you unlock extra features which are:

  • The ‘Mission Select’ submenu which lets you replay your favourite mini-games independently from the story;
  • The ‘Thunderbirds Fact File’ which is an alphabetised database of interesting trivia about the episodes, machines, and characters;
  • The ‘Adventure Maker’ which offers up a library of screenshots from across the series and enables players to write their own illustrated choose-your-own-adventure-style Thunderbirds story.

Those last two items were big news for me as a kid. I loved absorbing knowledge about Thunderbirds, and I loved writing my own stories. That’s why I’m still writing about my tedious knowledge of Thunderbirds today whilst hurtling towards my thirties. But you had to work to unlock the Fact File and Adventure Maker features because they only became available after playing through the Story Mode on the highest difficulties. Not much of a challenge now that I’m hurtling towards my aforementioned thirties, but as a 6-or-7-year-old I had to dedicate all the literacy, numeracy, and gaming strategy I could muster to complete those mini-games. It also required a lot of patience because, like most kids in the year 2002, my home computer wasn’t necessarily up to the task. I lived among a family of computer fanatics to rival Professor Ian McClaine, but a Packard Bell can only do so much when it’s handed QuickTime 5 and DirectX 3D graphics.

So, what were these mini-games that kept me so occupied as a youngster? Well, let’s dive into the details of each one:

The Break In

Re-creating the opening moments of the TV episode, you play as Parker and have to work against the clock to navigate a maze of corridors inside the Bank of England in order to reach the elevator down to the next level. Inside each elevator, you are confronted with a grid of letters. Punch in all the right letters on your keyboard and the elevator takes you down to the next level of corridors to get lost in. Rinse and repeat until you reach the vault. Don’t spend too long wandering the corridors or the alarms will sound and the police will catch you!

This first mission is one I remember vividly because it was compulsory every time you entered Story Mode, so I played it a lot over the course of unlocking everything at the various difficulty levels. Navigating the mazes was a genuine challenge – and still is at the harder difficulties without a mini-map. The choice of music, sound effects, and lighting does create quite a tense atmosphere and when you’re against the clock it tends to get the blood pumping! The typing challenge in the elevator is a bit uninspiring by modern standards, but to a child learning how to use a desktop computer for the first time in 2002, it was tough and it had the desired effect because I was touch-typing before most people in my class at school (I know, I know, showing off again). One thing that does amuse me to this day though is how damn loudly Parker’s feet slap against the floor tiles. You’re supposed to be breaking in mate, quit clog-dancing!

Flight Path

Thunderbird 1 races to London and Scott has to calculate coordinates from three relay towers in the city in order to plot a course for Thunderbird 2 to then land at London Airport. The first job is to fly Thunderbird 1 over the city and locate the relay towers in the right order using the map and waypointer. Upon arrival at each relay tower, a radar screen flashes up four colour-coded numbers in rapid succession that need to be entered in by the player using their keyboard. After three rounds of this, those numbers then have to be added together by the player to produce the final data to be transmitted so that a course can be plotted for Thunderbird 2. Rinse and repeat for all of the relay towers in the city.

It’s maths time! Simple enough on the beginner level when dealing with single digit numbers, but later levels require some serious calculation when the figures get up into the hundreds. Of course, anyone with a calculator or even a pen and paper at their side would have an advantage, but gosh darn it I swear I did all those sums in my head as a youngster. I really was a massive know-it-all at school. Of course, the exciting part of all this was the simple act of flying Thunderbird 1 around the city from a top-down view while the rousing incidental music from the series played. Not particularly impressive today, but at least navigating with a map and compass gave it all some level of credibility. One other bizarre detail was the random collection of shots from the episode Sun Probe being displayed on the little monitors surrounding the gameplay – not sure what the connection was there.

Final Approach

It’s time for Thunderbird 2 to touch down at London Airport and you’re in the pilot’s seat! Make your descent slowly and carefully while passing through rings to earn points, which ultimately unlock this particular mini-game on the ‘Mission Select’ menu. Land too fast or miss the runway and you’ll crash and need to try again.

Vault of Doom gameplay

A simple premise to this one but deceptively difficult. Controlling Thunderbird 2’s altitude, direction, and speed while passing through the rings is a lot to juggle when you’re a kid. Your course is plotted on two conical maps so that you can keep your horizontal and vertical paths steady, which feels terribly technical and important. Multiple camera angles are available to help out, but all those really do is highlight how crude the 3D model of Thunderbird 2 is. But dang, check out all those Fireflashes zipping about and parked on the runway! That’s a really nice touch which demonstrates a level of commitment to the world of Thunderbirds which just isn’t really present in some of the other video games out there.

Breaking The Code

Working from his Mobile Control Unit, Scott now has to crack an alphanumeric code to unlock the vault door before Lambert’s oxygen runs out. With limited time and a limited number of opportunities to guess the code, the player must enter five numbers at a time and study the moving gears to see where they stop in relation to the red arrows in the centre. Too far to the left and the number guessed is too small, too far to the right and it’s too big. Once one of the correct numbers has been found, it’s possible to start deducing where the other numbers fall in relation to it until all five numbers from the combination have been found, opening the vault and freeing Lambert.

Vault of Doom gameplay

This one totally baffled me as a youngster. Lots of numbers and moving parts and a time crunch and only a few chances to get it right. I wasn’t always so good at reading instructions… in fact I’m still not terribly inclined towards it. This one is more of a pure puzzle than a particularly Thunderbirdsy puzzle, so it doesn’t necessarily capture the imagination. Plus it’s not the method that Scott, Virgil, and Alan initially used to break into the vault. A mini-game about inexplicably weedy little laser guns trying to cut through the steel door probably would have been more appropriate.

Lost Underground

After choosing Grandma’s suggested method for reaching the vault, you play as Alan Tracy on a hoverbike travelling through the deserted tunnels of the London Underground. In order to gain access through the fire doors at Bank station, you must navigate through the maze of tunnels to a number of other platforms and solve the puzzle at each terminal. The terminals present you with a pattern of coloured lines resembling those seen on the iconic London Tube Map. Toggle the switches to scroll through various individual line shapes until you find the group that matches the pattern shown. Rinse and repeat until all the fire doors are opened and you can make your way to Bank station. But, beware – The Hood has set the Mighty Atom loose in the tunnels and the little cameras disguised as rodents will snap your picture if you get too close! If they take too many photographs, International Rescue’s secrets will be revealed and it’s game over. Also remember that your hoverbike only has limited power, so don’t get lost or you might find yourself stranded down there!

I love this level. Playing from the first-person perspective of an actual Tracy brother flying around on a hoverbike in a fully-fledged 3D version of the London Underground is exactly what I want from a Thunderbirds game. The element of risk brought in by the addition of the Mighty Atom cameras roaming about just like real rats would do in the Underground is a stroke of genius, and once again works as a nice piece of fan service. The Tube Map-inspired puzzle game is fairly vanilla but I can see how it might flex a young mind learning to break down problems into their component parts.


Upon arriving at the wall between Bank station and the vault, it’s time for Virgil and Alan to place the charges which blast a way through to reaching Lambert before his oxygen supply runs out. The fuse and the explosives are joined by a tangle of complex wiring which needs to be reconfigured to make a direct connection between the devices. The player must race the clock to flip tiles of straight wires and right angles into the correct orientation to create a path for the electrical current to pass through. Once a valid connection is made across the circuit board, the power is turned on and the explosives fire to demolish the wall and free Lambert from inside the vault.

Vault of Doom gameplay

Although much more straightforward than the codebreaking puzzle, this mini-game suffers from the same issue in that it feels rather generic and lacking in Thunderbirds flair. If you like solving mazes then this will appeal, but it’s not necessarily the kind of mission to keep you on the edge of your seat. Could do better.

Race To London

If you choose to reach the vault with Lady Penelope, you’ll be placed in the driver’s seat of FAB 1 and race to London by road. Drive through the streets of the suburbs and the city while the clock ticks down, but don’t drive too dangerously by running red lights or you’ll receive a ticket from the police. Reckless driving and crashes can cause damage to FAB 1 and could put the car out of action. Also watch out for road blocks which may force you to take a longer route and cost precious seconds. Once players have successfully navigated through the streets to reach the Bank of England, the mission is completed, and Parker can rush inside to open the vault!

By far the weakest of the vehicle-centric missions. FAB 1 handles like a school bus strapped to a jet engine and sounds like one too. The clunky controls and bland street design mean that you’ll be checking your map constantly and not enjoying the actual experience of driving FAB 1… not that it’s much of an experience because all you can see is the bonnet and the steering wheel… plus all the streets look identical. As far as educational content goes, I guess it’s mostly a map-reading challenge, which is an element of several other levels so I’m not quite sure what this particular mission offers up. If I had one positive, it would be the fact that the first map looks a bit like the Slough Trading Estate… but I’m not sure that’s intentional… or much of a compliment to the game design.

The Lock Pick

Once you’ve reached the vault, it’s time for Parker to borrow a trusty hairpin from Lady P and get to work on the locking mechanism before Lambert runs out of air. A series of coloured lines need to matched together from end to end until a complete sequence is formed. The roll of available lines is controlled by Parker jabbing it with the hairpin to switch options, but Parker’s hand is moving rapidly from side-to-side so precise timing of mouse-clicks from the player is vital. Take too long, and the oxygen inside the vault will run out. But once the correct sequence of lines is found and all the colours match, the door will be unlocked and Lambert will be saved.

Vault of Doom gameplay

Of the three puzzle-solving mini-games to access the vault, this one makes the least sense to me. I’m not entirely sure why Parker’s hand is swinging wildly from left to right, and the problem itself is relatively easy to solve once you master the timing of the movements. Once again, the design is fairly simplistic and doesn’t feel particularly ambitious. It also doesn’t accurately reflect how one would actually pick a lock with a hairpin either… although I doubt that was a life skill the developers were trying to teach to children.

And there we have it as far as the gameplay is concerned! From 8 mini-games what you get is actually quite a satisfying and varied experience. Each mission is unique and offers up new mechanics to progress through the story. The ability to choose a path through the story mode is a nice touch for kids who really enjoy a particular activity, or struggle with others and either want to works on the skills involved or try another route. After all, learning to play to one’s strengths, and weighing up the available options to achieve a goal is an important life lesson too. I wouldn’t have expected an episode like Vault of Death to offer up so many gaming and puzzling opportunities but by golly it works.

Now let’s take a look at some of those juicy rewards for completing the game on Advanced and Expert mode.

Thunderbirds Fact File

Much more interesting than it sounds, this is a surprisingly full catalog of straightforward information on every episode, every recurring character, every International Rescue vehicle (including TB2 pod vehicles), and some of the major guest vehicles from the television series.

Vault of Doom - Thunderbirds Fact File

I was obsessed with this kind of trivia as a kid. Learning all the birth dates of the characters and technical specifications of the craft felt terribly important at the time, probably because I had aspirations of joining International Rescue myself one day… but shattered childhood dreams aside, this is a nice little bonus feature. What could be a better reward for finishing the game than being offered the secrets of International Rescue?

Adventure Maker

This is a storywriting tool with a difference! The Adventure Maker offers the opportunity to construct original Thunderbirds “choose-your-own-adventure” stories with multiple outcomes and choices available to the reader. With a text editor, a relatively vast picture library, and a simple pyramid structure of story branches to work with, this bonus feature was an absolute treasure trove for my imaginative young mind.

Vault of Doom  - Adventure Maker

I used to boot up Vault of Doom just to use the Adventure Maker and would spend hours going through the picture editor to find the perfect snapshot from the series to represent my little page of text. Also, the fact the tool encourages young writers to think up multiple scenarios and options for the reader to choose from is a really great way to teach creative writing and problem solving. Yes, a story with a beginning, middle, and end is great, but asking children to write stories with twelve different scenes and figure out how to tie them together is a critical piece of literacy education. Creative writing was very important to me as a child (it still is, funnily enough!) but hardly any time was dedicated to it during English lessons at my primary school, so having the tools to work on it at home with Thunderbirds, my all-time favourite TV show, as the subject matter was a big part of my development. I can totally appreciate how others might not be so fussed about the Adventure Maker, but for me it was the main attraction of Vault of Doom and I’m very glad it was there when I needed it!

A few more notes to add about the experience of Vault of Doom as a whole. Since it’s based on a television episode, the developers had the opportunity to link the mini-games together using edited video clips from the show itself, just to add a little bit more Thunderbirds authenticity… and to allow SCi to tell a coherent story without breaking the bank by needing to produce whole new animated cut scenes – Operation Volcano demonstrated some of the limitations as far as that was concerned.

I also appreciate the mission briefings before going into each mini-game. John, Jeff, and Brains each have a block of text to offer different insights about how to tackle the mission at hand. John would provide the overview, Jeff the objective, and Brains the specific instructions on controls and game mechanics. For children, it was a neat little lesson in how to gather information from a variety of sources to aid in problem-solving, as well as a subtle way of introducing secondary characters to the narrative without them actively participating in the rescue operation. All Thunderbirds video games have played with that mission briefing concept to a certain extent, but Vault of Doom breaks the information down into manageable chunks, rather than dumping it all into a monologue from Jeff.

Vault of Doom cover

With all the positive things I have to say about Vault of Doom, I am aware that there’s a huge element of nostalgia behind my review, and that most of the enjoyment I got from the game came from the fact I was playing it as a nerdy 7-year-old who was good at maths and writing and puzzles. But even as I hurtle, positively hurtle I tell you, towards my thirties I can see why it appealed, and I can see which elements strike that magical balance between being a good video game and being good Thunderbirds. Let me remind you that one mission has you riding a hoverbike around the dark maze of London Underground tunnels and getting lost while dodging The Hood’s rodents which are actually cameras and serve as a reference to The Mighty Atom. That’s a fun challenge for any age group, and for any person whether you know Thunderbirds inside out or might be coming to it for the first time.

Vault of Doom provides the smallest snapshots of what a decent Thunderbirds video game could be like. It would have to provide choices and complex non-linear storytelling. It has to have a worthwhile and rewarding main objective. It has to feature a range of characters, vehicles, and locations. It has to involve action. It has to involve tough challenges. It has to involve problem solving and critical thinking. It has to involve a race against time. It has to offer variety. It has to be appeal to all ages.

Will it ever happen? Accessibility to powerful gaming technology has improved dramatically in the 20 years since Vault of Doom was released. Ordinary people working from their home computers have constructed the whole of Tracy Island in Minecraft, or opened up Moonbase Alpha from Space: 1999 to explore in virtual reality. And, maybe, just maybe, this fan project from @BadenNorthey on Twitter will finally scratch that itch of mine…

Thunderbirds The Videogame Teaser poster by @BadenNorthey

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2 thoughts on “The Thunderbirds Video Games Retrospective

  1. I’ve never been won over by the videogames either to be honest, especially thast PS2 one. I did however play games on the official thunderbirds website which had games such as the asteroid game with thunderbird 3, the hood’s challenge and thunderbird 2’s pod pick up.
    They were WAY betterthan that Play Station 2 game, I feel that same way aboutthe Captain Scarlet one now, but at the time I was so enthralled by the series that I kept on playing and completed it.


  2. I’m shocked and appalled that you made an article about the video games of Thunderbirds and didn’t once mention Star Fox, probably the one video gaming franchise with the most to owe to the classic show. Miyamoto has gone on record saying that Star Fox on the SNES was heavily inspired by the show, to the extent that early promotional material for the game featured live action puppets.

    Hell, Miyamoto said his ultimate hope was that Star Fox would be so popular that the people who made Thunderbirds would beg to make a TV show based on it (his actual words).

    This influence can be felt even as recently as Star Fox Zero, with the addition of the Gyrowing intended to fill out the roster of a VTOL cargo carrying vehicle ala Thunderbird 2.


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