Let’s dig around our dump and look for something a little different. Past the discarded NES consoles, past the buried 2600s, to the section marked Coin-Op. It is here that we find the discarded cabinets of yesteryear. Once these machines would have brought joy to those who played them with a simple coin put into the coin slot. Now they sit dormant. Waiting for the day someone plugs their power leads back in and watches as they glow back into life.
There are quite a few here, their cabinets collecting dust. We wipe off the banner of one – Pac-Man, we move on, Out Run sits there trying to entice us to sit in the driver’s seat one more time, but we decline. Even Rampage can’t tempt us, maybe another day, but not today. We’re looking for something else, something specific, and then we see it. It sits alone in the corner, isolated from the other cabinets and left to its own devices. We look up, words emblazoned in blue punch out from a background of red and yellows. We pick up the discarded plug that lay next to the cabinet and jam it into a socket. At first, nothing happens but then the arcade cabinet comes to life. Sounds unheard in years ring out through the abandoned hall of the Dump’s arcade. We have resurrected Rolling Thunder…
So what makes a game like Rolling Thunder part of the Game Dump? It wasn’t a particularly memorable story-line, something we’ll come to later. Neither was it the flashiest of games or had the catchiest of music. Its protagonist carried a strange codename, and it didn’t spawn a franchise that has lasted to this day. Yet, the sum of all these parts made it into a memorable game that has remained lodged in the Game Dump archives and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon.
Rolling Thunder was created by Namco, now Bandai Namco Entertainment, and was released for the arcades making its Japanese debut in 1986. The storyline was simple. Each level had an upper platform and a lower platform, and our hero, Albatross, needed to move from left to right and shoot anyone who stood in his way. His enemies were a series of hooded toughs, with each hood denoting a different ability, they weren’t too dissimilar to the foot soldiers from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Albatross was up against the sinister agents of Geldra, trying to rescue the missing agent Leila Blitz, who also works for the WCPO, or World Crime Police Organisation. Every spy story wouldn’t be complete without a sinister villain and Rolling Thunder had Maboo, the green-skinned mastermind behind your colleague’s kidnapping and head of the goons out to get you.
James Bond this was not. Stealth wasn’t an option here. It was a pure run-and-gun type of game, with the aim to shoot down anyone who stands in your way, whilst ducking into doorways to hide from return fire. To get more ammo or upgrading from a peashooter of a pistol to an eventual assault rifle.
The Spy Who Doved Me
Shocking bird-themed codenames aside, the game was brutal in its difficulty. Although Albatross had an energy bar there was very little you could do to survive. Two hits were all it took to end your game and force you to start over. Many arcade games were like this, the idea to encourage you to pump more coins into the slot to play and push through to the end. One thing Rolling Thunder has going for it, even after three decades, is the smooth animation. The world is cheesy and straight out of a sloppy Sixties spy thriller. To look at how Albatross moves like silk as he slides in and out of doorways and over bannisters, you can see the real attention to detail went into bringing him to life. There are very few details on the team who worked on the game, making it difficult to give credit where it’s due. But this credit is worth it as this was the animation of a quality not seen until Another World and Flashback came along years later. One piece of credit that does deserve an award is the music. And we have a name to go with it! Junko Ozawa was a composer for Namco for many years, the music of Rolling Thunder was written in Assembly. A language many games composers would use to bring the music to life. This is an age of game teams being of a more intimate size. Now hundreds of people work on a game, but for someone like Ozawa, she was expected to compose and adapt the music for the console adaptations. Which she did when the game was ported to the NES in 1989. A feat that forced Ozawa to learn the NES programming language to achieve this.
Spreading its Wings
The game received an immediate port to the home computer systems following its arcade release. None of these could hold a candle to its arcade cousin. For those looking to experience Rolling Thunder at its finest, then an arcade that holds the game must be hunted down. Or there are various ways for this original classic to be played on home computers of today. From the halls of the arcade, Rolling Thunder would invade the Amiga, Amstrad, Atari ST, Commodore 64, the NES, and the ZX Spectrum. Even with its main villain Maboo, a green-skinned mutant that looked like a cross between the Green Goblin and a Power Ranger reject, the game was a massive success. Atari published the game in 1986, adorning each arcade unit with graphics depicting shootouts from within the game. With its vibrant colour scheme and funky spy styling, it shot its way into an arcade in a blaze of glory and was a roaring success.
The game was so successful along came a sequel. Rolling Thunder 2 hit the arcades in 1990, finding a port to the Sega Megadrive in 1991. The sequel was actually a prequel, with a contemporary setting. Only this time the damsel in distress of the first, Leila, came out to play. Players could take on the role of Albatross and Leila, in the fight to take down Geldra once and for all. The gameplay was like the first instalment in its simplicity to learn, but a lifetime to master mechanics. Both original and sequel were well-received by critics at the time averaging around an eighty percent score. In a strange twist, not unlike a direct-to-video sequel to a successful film, a third game found its way onto the Sega Megadrive.
Rolling Thunder 3 came out blazing in 1993. The game played very much like its predecessors, with the new additions of allowing you to select a weapon before the start of each level. The game would only see a Western release on the Genesis in North America with the series fading into obscurity.
Although the game has not ever had a makeover and only low-level re-releases of the original on modern platforms, the difficulty and addictiveness make it still very playable to this day. Perhaps one day Namco will call upon the services of Albatross once again and send him out into the world to face down evil. But for now, we have our memories…