Thunderdog: Every Dog Has Its Day

According to Wikipedia, the term “dogfight” refers to an aerial battle between fighter aircraft conducted at close range. Nobody knows exactly when the term started being used to describe air battles, but it’s a word that’s been in circulation for centuries in a military sense. Its first written instance occurs somewhere around 1919 to describe air skirmishes.

Obviously, the term “dogfight” isn’t literal; ace pilots usually aren’t pooches, pawing at the control panel and barking into their headsets. Seems like nobody told Dutch developer Lucky Kat Studios that, though, since their latest title Thunderdogs has dogs literally climbing into the cockpits of fighter jets and battling each other to the death. The game is multi-platform; it’s on mobile devices, Facebook Messenger, and the web, where you can play it right now on Poki. There’s cross-platform play, too, so you and your friends can enjoy the same game on various different devices.

Thunderdogs might take “dogfighting” a little too literally, but there’s nothing cruel or unusual about this one. Lucky Kat’s previous titles range from Grumpy Cat’s Worst Game Ever to Beat Street, and they’ve got something of a reputation for developing fun arcade games with a sharp pixel art aesthetic and an addictive central gameplay loop.

That central philosophy of retro pixel art-inspired arcade gameplay is absolutely carried over into Thunderdogs. The game nominally belongs to the .io genre, which means it’s a multiplayer-focused title in which the objective is to score more points than your opponent. Usually, the more points you have in a .io game, the more of a target you become, and so the onus is on you to avoid being killed while shutting down more long-lived opponents.

Thunderdogs takes some of those .io elements, but adds enough of its own to avoid being derivative into the bargain. It’s a top-down shooter seemingly inspired by NES classics like Raiden and 1942, although its colourful visuals and pun-filled dialogue owe a little more to recent mobile phenomena like Crossy Road.

Each round begins with your plane spawning in a (rather beautifully-rendered) random map, which is filled with other players. You must shoot these dogs down, collecting the bones they drop as they plummet to the ground. Each bone you collect makes your plane a larger target for enemies, so you’re in more danger the better you play. Bones add to your score at the end of the match, as do confirmed kills on enemy pilots, and your score is then translated into coins, which unlock more pilots as well as perks and extras for your current dog.

The central loop of Thunderdogs is just as satisfyingly complete as many of Lucky Kat’s other titles. Dogfights yield coins, which provide bonuses that make dogfights more rewarding. This game design philosophy might sound obvious – each part of the game should operate as a smaller cog in a symbiotic whole – but it’s not until you play something like Thunderdogs that you realize how important this is.

Of course, the whole thing wouldn’t mean anything if the game wasn’t as much fun to play in itself as it is. The controls for Thunderdogs can take a little getting used to; the left and right arrow keys turn the plane, rather than moving it along that axis, while the up arrow provides a brief boost of speed and the down arrow brakes.

Those controls have been designed deliberately, though. Adding turning controls gives your plane sharper, tighter mobility in a pinch, and the multiplayer-focused nature of the game means that there will be plenty of pinches for you to squeeze your way out of. The turning controls also allow for some seriously impressive manoeuvres when avoiding enemy fire, as well as opportunities to turn fights around with slick, ace flying. The controls do have a high skill ceiling – it’s not super-easy to master them – but that makes it all the more rewarding when your planned positioning masterstroke comes off without a hitch.

The other part of dogfighting in Thunderdogs is combat. Your plane can fire weapons using the spacebar, with the default weapon being a slow-firing cannon-style weapon that takes time to reload. A bar at the top of the screen tells you how long you have left before your cannon is fully recharged. This emphasis on short bursts of fire encourages brief trades rather than long engagements, so you’ll need to exercise your mastery over mobility in order to stay alive.

The weaponry itself is pretty darn fun to use, too. The default cannon packs a satisfying punch, but it’s in the weapon pickups that the game’s combat shines. Temporary weapon upgrades can be obtained via packages which appear periodically during the game. Weapons include a laser cannon, a machine gun and a shield, among others.

Tactically, each weapon in Thunderdogs has its advantages and drawbacks. The laser cannon, for example, fires once for massive damage but then needs a pretty lengthy recharge period. The shield is incredibly short-range, but it will protect you from enemy fire and collision. The mines are proximity-based, so they won’t trigger on firing, but when they do trigger they’re pretty much a guaranteed kill.

All of this adds up to a weapon system that feels well-balanced and intuitive. Picking up a weapon doesn’t necessarily mean superiority to other players, because you might be giving up firing rate in exchange for damage, and that places a greater emphasis on your individual skill. Thunderdogs feels fun to play in each game because of the inherent unpredictability of multiplayer, yes, but also because the weaponry is randomized, which means players could suddenly gain an advantage which needs to be dealt with, thus keeping all of the other players on their toes.

Thunderdogs can definitely consider itself in the top tier of .io titles. It has bold, flashy presentation which is consistently a joy to look at, and its gameplay is top-notch, balancing precise skill with a freewheeling fun that’s difficult to replicate in words. We’d strongly recommend you go play this game if you want to experience a fast-paced, super-enjoyable multiplayer .io game that’s a bit different to the others.

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