Rolling Thunder (ローリングサンダー) - Arcade, LCD Handheld, NES, Atari ST, Amiga, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, PSP, Wii, Xbox 360, Windows, iOS (1986)
Namco circa 1986 had some pretty nice arcade games under it belt, the most popular being Pac-Man and its variations, but also other classics like Pole Position, Galaga and Dig Dug. At this time, Namco decided to branch out further and attack the side-scrolling action game market. The result was Rolling Thunder, one of the most influential action games to hit the '80s arcades.
The first Rolling Thunder has a retro-spy feel to it. Playing as a secret agent codenamed Albatross from the organization WPCO (World Police Criminal Organization), you must infiltrate the secret lair of an evil faction known as Geldra, in order to save his lady partner Leila. Even though there's no mention of this in the game, it actually takes place in the late 1960s, in an underground base in New York City.
Rolling Thunder plays much like Shinobi, even though Namco's game predates Sega's by about a year. In both games, you spend most of your time ducking behind boxes and shooting it out with a variety of bad guys, while jumping back and forth between the two levels on the screen. However, Rolling Thunder is a little more straightforward, since they are no hostages to rescue.
The most pronounced difference is that, in Rolling Thunder, you have limited ammunition. Running out of bullets doesn't leave you completely defenseless, but you can only fire a single bullet at a time, which is extremely inefficient against the hordes of enemies you'll be fighting off. In order to replenish your ammo supply, you need to duck in one of the many doors spread throughout the levels. Most are helpfully labeled, and a few even offer an upgraded machine gun, with more rapid fire power. There's even a rather helpful bug, wherein ammo stores replenish their stock if you walk a couple of screens forward then double back. However, the time limit is often very tight, so this isn't always abusable.
Many of the doors act as spawn points for enemy soldiers, who will often duck in and out of the fray. You can too, and some unmarked doors give bonuses, but it's rarely rarely good idea to stay hiding for too long since more enemies will usually pop up when you're in dispose. There's rarely any good time for a breather, because Rolling Thunder is known for its brutal difficulty. It's not just kind of hard - it is massively, gut-punchingly difficult. The game gives you a life bar, but this is almost a cruel joke, since running into an enemy decreases it in half, and getting shot kills you outright. Dying also means getting sent back to an earlier part of the stage.
In the early stages, the enemies consist of an endless flood of cloaked goods in bright outfits, which are usually color coded to indicate their skills. Some simply walk around aimlessly, some have guns, others have grenades. The tougher varieties can take multiple hits. Once you've beaten a few levels and have successfully managed to figure out effective tactics to beat them, the game throws even crazier foes your way - agile panthers, flying bat creatures, and jumping fire creatures which explode into smaller flames when you shoot them.
Moreover, the controls are very restrictive. To be fair, many of these issues are common issues of the era - you can't change direction in mid-air, and you can't fire your gun vertically, so you need to work within these constraints to effectively kill bad guys. More maddening is the fact that you can't even fire your gun in mid-air, often leaving you completely defenseless unless you can climb up on a higher vertical level. And while there are only a few platforming segments, they rank up next to the NES Ninja Gaiden as some of the most infuriating, due to the enemy placements, which are perfectly calculated to knock you to your death.
There are technically only five stages, but upon completion of the fifth stage, you begin the second "story", where you need to replay the stages again, but at a higher difficulty level. Second loops are hardly unheard of in games of the era, but the second story features more than just stronger enemies. The stages themselves have been modified with new obstacles, like cages that block off certain hallways or laser beams positioned for the greatest amount of aggravation. Upon beating these stages again, you finally face off against Maboo for the final battle.
The visuals are fairly decent, if a little repetitive. Three of the five levels take place in a generic underground military base setting, while the other two take place in a jungle cave, complete with lava kits. The character sprites are large and lanky, though there are some cool animations touches, like the way the hero effortlessly flips around handrails when jumping between levels, or his overtly dramatic animations. The levels are punctuated with brief, wordless cutscenes of Leila being tortued by the green-faced Maboo, the leader of Geldra. He also appears on the Game Over screen, where he taunts you with digitized laughter. These scenes, along with the title screen, are displayed on a massive monitor as part of a war room setup. The game runs on the Namco System 86 hardware, which also powered games like Wonder Momo and Genpei Toumaden.
The arcade version was included in the Namco Museum Encore collection for the PlayStation, which never made it outside of Japan. Unfortunately, it doesn't work right on PlayStation 2s, and only plays in slow motion. It is also available on Namco Museum 50th Anniversary for Xbox, GameCube and PlayStation 2, Namco Museum Battle Collection for PSP, Namco Museum Virtual Arcade for Xbox 360, and the Wii Virtual Console.
There are two major revisions of the arcade game, known as the "old" and "new" versions. In the "old" version, the only music played throughout the whole game is the Cave theme. The "new" version adds a separate track for the first, second and fifth stages. The "new" version also adds the post-level cutscenes of the girl being tortured, and the ability to get extends. Other additions include bug fixes, difficulty rebalancing, a slightly nicer title logo, and the ability to select stages via a cheat code. Only the "new" version was seen outside of Japan, with Atari acting as the game's distributor in North America.
The Nintendo 8-bit version of Rolling Thunder a pretty decent port. While the reduced detail makes everyone look even more like stick figures, the enemies lose their brightly colored uniforms and seem much less goofier as a result. The post-level scenes of Leila are also gone, though the laughing Maboo is still present. The life bar has been reduced to two blocks, which more closely indicates how many hits the hero can actually absorb. The game is still incredibly difficult, though in different ways. Though there are far less enemies on the screen due to technical limitations, their patterns, especially the grenade throwers, are faster than the arcade version, and require more precise timing. Though there are limited continues, the game does issue passwords so you can skip ahead to the second story. Incredibly enough, the American release of Rolling Thunder actually had a pretty cool cover that combined the two main selling points of the game (guns and saving damsels) into one great package.
The Famicom versions of the game uses the Namco163 mapper chip, which uses the extended sound channels of the system for a slightly richer sound. Since the NES did not support these channels, the American version, published by Tengen, has different, somewhat weaker music, and worse sound effects.
As was usual at the time, Rolling Thunder was ported to every popular computer system in Europe. All of the computer versions were ported by Tiertex, and they're all terrible, to varying degrees. The Amiga and Atari ST versions are shockingly awful, with embarassing animation, miscolored graphics, and gameplay that runs maybe a third of the speed of the original. At first, the music in the arcade version sounds like a decent replication of the arcade music, but it only plays the first half of the theme song, and repeats it over and over. The Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum versions similarly play just as badly, and both look and sound even worse. The Commodore 64 version is, by default, the best of the lot, because it's not completely unplayable. But it's still far too slow, the graphics look terrible compared to the Amstrad version, and the music is also quite bad. All of the versions have a huge portion of the screen taken up with the game's logo. There was also a version for the Atari Lynx in the works, but it was never published.
Rolling Thunder 2 takes the series out of the 60s and into the modern era, with a style that more closely apes the latter day James Bond flicks. The enemy this time is an organization named Gimdo, who is using old technology from Geldra in order to take over the world. Instead of taking place solely in a generic underground base, there are two locales - the first half of the game takes place in a fancy European villa, and the second takes place in Egypt. As you progress through each stage, you slowly work through the facade and into the underground lairs, with scenery more typical of the original game, though with upgraded graphics.
One of the biggest draws is the two-player mode. The heroes are named Albatross and Leila, though due to the time jump between this and the first Rolling Thunder, they're obviously different characters who inherited the codenames of their predecessors. Considering that the female character was just a damsel-in-distress in the previous game, it's cool to see the lady here take on a more active role.
The core of the game hasn't changed much, beyond the expanded scenery. The game is still very difficult, but the biggest concession is that you no longer take damage simply from bumping into an enemy. You will, of course, take a point of damage if they manage to punch you. In the early stages of the game, this greater defensive capability makes dealing with the floods of enemies a little easier. However, once the game introduces enemies that can fire while ducking, then the difficulty shoots way up. There are a couple of new enemies, like foes with glowing shields that can only be hit from the back, and bad guys that attack with bubbles.
The graphics are, of course, a huge step above the original game, as it runs on the 16-bit Namco System 2 hardware, . The soundtrack is much better too, with a number of tracks composed by Ayako Saso, who later worked on assorted Ridge Racer and Tekken games. The arcade soundtrack album features a number of unused songs, which were repurposed for the console release.
Namco seemed partial to Sega in the 16-bit era, so Rolling Thunder 2 ended up getting ported to the Genesis. While it suffers from the usual hit in graphics due to the limited color palette of Sega's system, it's otherwise an excellent translation. There are three new stages which feature some additional enemies, including the return of the panthers from the original game. A few areas feature enclaves in the background where you can duck into and engage other enemies in intense cover-fire standoffs. The new levels also feature brief boss encounters - the arcade game only had a lone encounter with the final boss - as well as a couple of new weapons, the laser and the flame thrower. It's also more generous with hidden bonus items, including time extensions, extra lives, and even health meter extensions.
There are also small storyline scenes between the stages. The arcade version seemed unfinished at times, especially at the end of the fourth stage, where you suddenly when from an underwater base to the deserts of Egypt. At least this version shows the villain escaping on a submarine.
The Genesis version features an amusing password system, wherein seemingly random words are strung together to create nonsensically amusing phrases, sort of like code words. With eleven levels in the Genesis version, it's certainly a meaty game, and being able to resume progress makes a difficult game less overwhelming. It also has one of the most puzzling sound tests in existence, where an alien band jams to your chosen song.
The arcade original has been omitted from every single Namco classics compilation so far. Only the Genesis port is available in official emulation, inside the Wii Virtual Console (Japanese players actually get the arcade version).
Rolling Thunder 3 was the first (and only) console exclusive title of the series, and some changes were made to make everything seem more manageable. You now start with three life marks, so you can actually take more than one bullet before you die, and you resurrect where you died rather than going back to a checkpoint. Even nicer, you can both jump and fire at the same time, and shoot diagonally upwards. The time limit is gone, though a sniper will pop out to attack if you dawdle for too long. There's an additional attack button, so you can choose if you want to use your special weapon, or stick to your pistol, in case you want to conserve ammunition for the more powerful attacks. If you don't have a special weapon, this button triggers a knife attack, for close quarters combat.
The arsenal has been greatly increased. There are nine weapons that you can arm yourself with at the beginning of the stage. Once you pick this weapon, you are unable to select it again for the rest of the game, so you need to vary up your selections. These include lasers, shotguns, flamethrowers, artillery cannons and a variety of grenades, including flash grenades to blind enemies. These extra weapons make your attacks far more versatile, considering that you can now attack enemies from behind barriers by chucking grenades over them. You start off most stages with a decent amount of ammunition, too, so you're rarely underequipped.
All of this taken together, of course, makes the game easier...but only easier in the context of the other games. It is true that it doesn't feel very "Rolling Thunder", since you don't need to replay each and every section to sneak past undamaged, but it is also much less frustrating. It can still get quite difficult, since you still need to restart stages from scratch when you lose all of your lives, and the small handful of bosses are quite difficult. There is an unlockable hard mode which only gives you two blocks of health and amps up the number of enemies, though the instant respawns and large arsenal still makes things easier. This mode also changes the color palette of the levels to different times of day, making the experience look a little fresher.
Unfortunately, the two player mode has been cut entirely, and Leila and Albatross are no longer the main characters. Instead, you can only play alone, with a rather dull agent named Jay. (A code will allow you to play as Ellen, Jay's female assistant, who converse with him during cutscenes. His mission is to hunt down a villain named Dread, the second-in-command from the Geldra group from the original Rolling Thunder. The adventure takes him around the globe, starting from oil rigs in California, to the streets of Las Vegas, and then onto Easter Island. There are two vehicle levels, as you ride on a motorcycle down the California/Nevada highway, and on a jet ski across the Pacific Ocean. They aren't particularly great, but are short and unoffensive. There's also a clever fakeout after the eighth stage, where it seems like you've taken down Dread, only to have your plane ride home hijacked by terrorists. This makes for two more levels before the final confrontation with the true Dread. Who, as the cutscenes show, looks like Maboo, but with a silly monocle.
The third episode was never ported to any other platform, and never re-released in a compilation or digital download service. It was never even released in Japan, for that matter, since it seems like the series was more popular in North America than it was in its home country.
For as influential as it was, it's a little unfortunate that the Rolling Thunder series doesn't command the same respect as other games of the era, like Shinobi or Contra. The Rolling Thunder games were the archetype of the 8 and 16-bit eras - tough side-scrollers that demanded precision and mastery to get anywhere. While the original is just a little bit too hard, both of the Genesis games are some of the better action games on the platform, and well worth investigating.
Comic: Rapid Thunder
Online publisher Shifty Look teamed up with Namco to produce a number of comics and videos based on their classic arcade properties. In 2012, they published several short strips dubbed Rapid Thunder, as an homage to Rolling Thunder. It's essentially just a basic spy story, with no real connections to the actual game. There are only some name drops from the original series, like the heroes being codenamed Albatross and Leila. And even then, many transliterated names differ from versions used in the previous games. "Maboo" is now "Mabu", and "Geldra" is the awkward "Gerudora". The last strip was published in October 2012, and was seemingly dropped before finishing the story.
SunA was one of the first Korean arcade manufacturers to not simply bootleg foreign games and start their own development effort. That said, not all their games were entirely original. Rough Ranger was certainly their worst act of stealing from other games. Not only is the gameplay almost identical to Namco's Rolling Thunder, its animations also were clearly used as a template for the graphics. It really almost is a re-skinned Rolling Thunder with new levels, the only real additions being simultaneous 2-player gameplay and a stage map showing the current progress in the game in between stages. All extra weapons got cut, though, with the exception of an alternative ammunition type for the standard pistol.
The intro to this game has to be the funniest thing in history. The damsel in distress gets kidnapped by nonchalant terrorists, while the two "heroes" just sit quietly at a table right next to the scene, not moving a muscle until after the deed is done. Only then are they moving out to "rescue" her. Even at the end of each stage, a terrorist runs into the screen holding the hostage, just to mock the completely apathetic protagonists.
The game was nonetheless exported to the US, and while it was licensed to Sharp Image, it also got distributed by Capcom, of all things, as the machine's marquee shows.
Capcom later also graciously paid tribute to Rolling Thunder with its NES game Code Name: Viper. Taking place in a time where the war on drugs was fought with machine guns, you play an agent who must infilitrate South American hideouts, kill all bad guys and save some hostages. The gameplay is almost exactly the same as Rolling Thunder, although the main character moves faster and controls a little bit better. Still, it's just as insanely difficult, especially when the enemies will quickly jump at you from below and cause damage without much warning. And in a nod to Shinobi, you need to save all of the hostages (hidden inside the doors) before you can beat a level, making the going a bit more tedious than it needs to be. While it's slightly better than the original NES Rolling Thunder, it's still a bit too difficult for its own good.