Rolling Thunder: Namco’s Hidden Arcade Gem

Whether you have been in Indianapolis or Ingoldmells, you have been just about assured to see a sport by Namco in any 1980s arcade. Increasingly tired-looking Galaxian, Galaga, and Pole Position machines have been nonetheless kicking round on the finish of the last decade, whereas Pac-Man stays one of the vital well-known names in gaming in the present day. But there was one nice Namco sport that did not fairly have the identical lasting affect as the long-lasting Pac-Man, and even its once-popular area taking pictures video games, but managed to exert a quiet affect each on the corporate’s later video games and the business as a complete.

Rolling Thunder appeared in direction of the tip of 1986, and its design was fully completely different from the rest in arcades on the time. Where most coin-ops had a science fiction theme – even Taito’s evolution of Breakout was set in area – or resembled a Saturday morning cartoon (like Namco’s Hopping Mappy, additionally launched that very same 12 months), Rolling Thunder was a platform shooter with a plot straight out of a 1960s spy film.

Taking on the position of a lanky undercover agent (appropriately named Albatross), you march by way of the underground lair of a company known as Geldra, which is presided over by a green-skinned, bald villain named Maboo and his military of hood-wearing goons. There’s really a bit extra to the plot than this – there is a fellow agent in misery known as Leila Blitz and an orbiting area weapon of some type – nevertheless it’s all a lot window dressing for the sport itself: a vaunt from left to proper throughout an more and more treacherous panorama filled with platforms, weapons, and lasers.

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For the time, Rolling Thunder was fairly modern: in some ways, it is the precursor to the fashionable cowl shooter. You can conceal behind crates and different obstacles to keep away from enemy fireplace, or lurk behind doorways, a few of which provides you with extra ammo when entered. You wanted each further bullet you can get, too: Rolling Thunder actually is astonishingly tough.

From the very first second, Maboo’s military of hooded henchmen recordsdata in from each path – not solely from the left and right-hand sides of the display but in addition from these doorways talked about earlier. Some fireplace again at you with pistols, others attempt to get in shut and punch you within the jaw, whereas nonetheless others lob lethal grenades. Albatross cuts a dashing determine in his purple shirt, matching crimson footwear, and gray trousers, however he is additionally one of many frailest secret brokers in historical past. A single hit from a projectile or two slight nudges from an enemy will kill him, which supplies the fixed sensation that you simply’re trapped in a hive filled with killer bees.

Even by the requirements of different mid-80s arcade video games – like Capcom’s infamously harsh Ghosts ‘N Goblins, for instance – Rolling Thunder is viciously arduous. Later ranges throw a downright bizarre number of new enemies into the combo: panthers, athletic beast-men with lengthy arms, flaming humanoids that leap from pits of fireplace, large vampire bats, and extra. This is not the form of sport the place you possibly can merely react to issues as they occur, both. The merciless layouts of the degrees require you to know upfront the place enemies are going to spawn from and what they’re more likely to do. For an unsuspecting participant, the common sport of Rolling Thunder will probably be over in seconds – getting good on the wretched factor would theoretically break the bank in 10p items.

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So if Rolling Thunder actually is so tough, why is it value dredging out of the archives for a bit like this? Because, for all its coin-guzzling extra, the sport stays unusually addictive.

Rolling Thunder shares among the design philosophy seen in Namco’s earlier area taking pictures video games like Galaxian and Galaga. In these coin-op hits, Namco’s programmers create a satisfying sense of stream that retains rewarding you as your expertise enhance. In Galaga, taking out a whole looping formation of aliens leads to a delightful suggestions of sound results, explosions, and bonus scores. 

Rolling Thunder

While Rolling Thunder appears to be like very completely different from Galaga, it shares an identical design philosophy. It too throws waves of multi-colored enemies at you – although these occur to be people moderately than bees from outer area – and gunning them down is equally satisfying as soon as you compromise into the sport’s rhythm. Rolling Thunder does not transfer at a very quick tempo, however its animation creates the impression of fixed, fluent movement: the best way Albatross athletically vaults over a railing as you leap to the next platform is one instance of this. The fluid animation, prowling, catchy music and digitized sound results (“Blam! Argh!”) create drama in what may in any other case be a dry platform shooter; for the time, the element of Rolling Thunder‘s character motion was fairly uncommon.

Rolling Thunders different masterstroke is its machine gun. Armed with a pistol for a lot of the sport, Albatross can improve to a extra highly effective firearm by coming into a specifically labeled door. For just a few wonderful seconds, the frail hero feels invincible. Holding down the fireplace button leads to a stream of bullets which depart enemies collapsing and withering of their wake. This transient but wonderful feeling of invincibility is one other distinctive Namco contact: it is Rolling Thunder‘s equal of the ability pellet in Pac-Man, or the ingenious mechanic in Galaga the place you possibly can combat with two ships side-by-side. It’s when the machine gun comes into play that Rolling Thunder‘s sadistic issue stage is sensible, in a round-about kind of means: for those who did not really feel getting ready to being overwhelmed for a lot of the sport, getting the machine gun would not present the identical thrill.

There is, actually, a crafty technique of stockpiling an infinite quantity of machine gun ammo, thus supplying you with a minimum of a slim probability of creating it previous the primary couple of ranges: stroll forward a display or two, then double again to the door the place you first picked up the machine gun, and your bullet depend will enhance. You can hold doing this as usually as you want (so long as you control your time restrict), which implies you possibly can amass an enormous reserve of about 800 or so bullets.

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I want someone had advised me this again within the early ’90s as a result of I may have in all probability used the trick to get a bit additional than stage three, the place I invariably died a merciless and embarrassing demise. No matter what number of cash I stuffed into the Rolling Thunder coin-op I discovered in an east coast arcade, I all the time appeared to die in roughly the identical place – a pit of lava the place the slightest contact from an enemy had you falling to your doom.

Nevertheless, I favored Rolling Thunder a lot that I purchased the ZX Spectrum model after I obtained again residence. Like nearly all the house conversions, it solely offered a pale imitation of the arcade, with the Spectrum model missing the unique’s catchy music and dazzling coloration. The greatest conversion was, maybe, the one on the NES, although even that is removed from good: the sprites are smaller and the issue stage’s much more bewildering. Mind you, the Japanese model is available in a brilliantly-illustrated field with an identical set of stickers inside, in order that’s a bonus.

Removing the rose-tinted glasses, it is easy to see Rolling Thunders flaws, even in its sparkly arcade incarnation. Yes, it is too arduous, and the platform sections are, frankly annoying – the lack to change your course as soon as you’ve got began leaping always works towards you, as an enemy can simply leap into view on the identical time and kill you with a single contact. Nevertheless, I’d nonetheless argue that the sport’s improvements are extensively ignored. 

Rolling Thunder Stills

One 12 months after Rolling Thunder, Sega made Shinobi, a walk-and-shoot sport with remarkably related mechanics to Namco’s arcade machine. You march alongside, soar on crates, shoot dangerous guys and leap as much as greater ranges. Sure, Sega introduces its personal concepts, reminiscent of certain hostages to rescue, space bosses and photos of Marilyn Monroe for some cause, however the template’s remarkably related.

Visually, Shinobi‘s arguably worse than Rolling Thunder. Its sprites are muddy and fewer easily animated, and many of the backgrounds are composed of easy beige or inexperienced blocks. But Sega additionally improves on Rolling Thunder‘s format in just a few methods: it is much less arduous from the outset, and its central character has extra strikes at his disposal. Sega additionally gave Shinobi a ninja theme, which was far trendier on the time than Rolling Thunders swinging-60s spy theme.

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Shinobi, after all, spawned a variety of sequels and spin-offs, and a brand new entry appeared on the 3DS in 2011. Rolling Thunder obtained a few sequels itself: Rolling Thunder 2, launched in 1990, is maybe even higher than the unique, with extra assorted enemies and backdrops, a extra mild studying curve, and a two-player co-op mode. The Sega Mega Drive conversion can also be glorious, with extra ranges that did not seem within the arcade model. 

Rolling Thunder Stills

The second sequel, launched in 1993, solely appeared on the Mega Drive. It’s essentially the most obscure sport of the three consequently, nevertheless it’s nonetheless a extremely entertaining shooter. You can select from a complete arsenal of shotguns and bazookas, and there is even a scene the place you get to zoom round on a giant motorcycle like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.

Thereafter, Namco appeared to overlook about Rolling Thunder, and I’m not fairly positive why. Maybe it was as a result of, by way of the remainder of the late 80s and early 90s, rival corporations made their very own, related video games. Aside from Shinobi, Sega made the sci-fi themed ESwat, Data East made its RoboCop tie-in sport, Capcom made the cheekily related Code Name: Viper and people are however just a few examples.

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Then once more, it may very well be argued that Rolling Thunder and its athletic hero lived on in one other kind: in 1995, Namco made Time Crisis, a 3D gun sport which, though not formally a Rolling Thunder sequel, appears to be like and performs like a 3D successor to that sequence. You take cowl behind crates, shoot multi-colored goons with a pistol, and steadily make your means by way of a villain’s lair looking for a damsel in misery. It has that Namco stream as soon as once more: the satisfying jolt of adrenaline you get if you take down a sequence of enemies, the flash of bonus factors, the digitized bangs and shouts of “Aargh!”

Rolling Thunder may very well be seen, then, because the forgotten hyperlink between Namco’s golden age arcade hits – Galaxian, Galaga, Pac-Man – and its hit gun video games of the 90s. When it was on kind, Namco was the grasp of quick-fix coin-op experiences. Rolling Thunder was, for me, considered one of its much less celebrated however most satisfying creations.

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