Rolling Thunder may be a forgotten series now but looking at the current gaming landscape it was very influential. All cover based shooters can trace their heritage back to here although that isn’t immediately apparent. A cover based shooter back in the 80s was a novel concept and one that RT pulled off extremely well. It’s a bit ironic that I played Rolling Thunder after Codename: Viper, a game that is, uh, heavily inspired by it. That did not affect my opinion of Namco’s classic with the NES port doing a good job of bringing the action home.
The retro 60’s spy aesthetic certainly gives the game a distinct vibe. As agent Albatross of the WCPO (World Crime Protection Organization) your job is to rescue agent Leila from the terrorist organization Geldra. The Geldra make for an interesting group of enemies since you can’t tell if they are humans or aliens. The Klu Klux Klan style hoods make them all the more scary too.
There’s an interesting bit of history behind the NES port of Rolling Thunder. The game was originally released in the arcade by Atari though developed by Namco. Namco had long since developed bad blood with Nintendo and were not in a position to release the game. That task fell to Tengen, who released the game unlicensed on one of the infamous black cartridges. Tengen’s legal battle with Nintendo has since become legend but needless to say they lost and Rolling Thunder is now rare.
In terms of gameplay Rolling Thunder is similar to Shinobi although it predates that game by two years. Albatross is equipped with a standard pistol with limited ammunition. Your only other weapon is a machine gun that blows through ammo quickly. For the most part ammunition is plentiful although if you aren’t careful you will run out. Firing one slow moving bullet at a time is a death sentence. You have a life bar but it is practically useless. A single shot ends in death; it only acts as a buffer if you collide with an enemy.
More than anything else what makes Rolling Thunder unique is its deliberate pace. This is not designed as an all-out shooter. In fact that is the quickest path to death. Your agent is limited in his actions on purpose. Not being able to jump and shoot is frustrating but the game is designed around it. The many, many doors and crates are set up as cover to avoid being attacked. It becomes a game of positioning and it is done extremely well.
The Geldra may look goofy but make for menacing villains. Each goon is color coded which denote their attacks. Some will simply follow you to deliver a punch while others pack heat. There are ones that simply toss grenades while others require a number of hits to kill. Learning the differences goes a long way as the game throws them in different combinations. While it may seem repetitive their variety and behavior are not. Later in the game you’ll face their experiments gone awry which signals a shift in difficulty. Not that the game needed it.
Rolling Thunder is also mostly known for its unrelenting difficulty. The controls and their restrictions were created on purpose. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. While the doors are made to hide in you still need to keep the aggressive time limit in mind. The few platforming segments rank up there with some of the worst in the genre thanks to suspect enemy placement. That same enemy placement, while measured, still does come across cheap. The game’s arcade roots show in its gotcha level design, the kind made to keep you pumping quarters into the machine. I’ve never been a fan of that and it is even worse in home ports.
To truly reach the game’s conclusion you’ll need to play through it twice. After the first five levels you reach the second story, which consists of heavily remixed versions of the initial stages. If you can actually believe it the difficulty is even worse. Those that can persevere will be treated to one of the most intense final boss battles ever. To that I say good luck.
Namco have done an excellent job cramming Rolling Thunder onto the NES. It doesn’t look as good as the arcade but it doesn’t matter as the gameplay is intact. It might be a bit too difficult for the average gamer but this is still a good way to kill a few days. If you can find it that is.