Rolling Thunder: Namco’s Hidden Arcade Gem

It was an incredibly tough scrolling shooter with a cool 60s spy theme. We take a look back at Namco's Rolling Thunder...

Whether you were in Indianapolis or Ingoldmells, you were pretty much guaranteed to see a game by Namco in any 1980s arcade. Increasingly tired-looking Galaxian, Galaga, and Pole Position machines were still kicking around at the end of the decade, while Pac-Man remains one of the most famous names in gaming today. But there was one great Namco game that didn’t quite have the same lasting impact as the iconic Pac-Man, or even its once-popular space shooting games, yet managed to exert a quiet influence both on the company’s later games and the industry as a whole.

Rolling Thunder appeared towards the end of 1986, and its design was completely different from anything else in arcades at the time. Where most coin-ops had a science fiction theme – even Taito’s evolution of Breakout was set in space – or resembled a Saturday morning cartoon (like Namco’s Hopping Mappy, also released that same year), Rolling Thunder was a platform shooter with a plot straight out of a 1960s spy movie.

Taking on the role of a lanky secret agent (appropriately named Albatross), you march through the underground lair of an organization called Geldra, which is presided over by a green-skinned, bald villain named Maboo and his army of hood-wearing goons. There’s actually a bit more to the plot than this – there’s a fellow agent in distress called Leila Blitz and an orbiting space weapon of some sort – but it’s all so much window dressing for the game itself: a vaunt from left to right across an increasingly treacherous landscape full of platforms, guns, and lasers.

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For the time, Rolling Thunder was quite innovative: in many ways, it’s the precursor to the modern cover shooter. You can hide behind crates and other obstacles to avoid enemy fire, or lurk behind doors, some of which will give you additional ammo when entered. You needed every extra bullet you could get, too: Rolling Thunder really is astonishingly difficult.

From the very first second, Maboo’s army of hooded henchmen files in from every direction – not only from the left and right-hand sides of the screen but also from those doors mentioned earlier. Some fire back at you with pistols, others try to get in close and punch you in the jaw, while still others lob deadly grenades. Albatross cuts a dashing figure in his red shirt, matching crimson shoes, and grey trousers, but he’s also one of the frailest secret agents in history. A single hit from a projectile or two slight nudges from an enemy will kill him, which provides the constant sensation that you’re trapped in a hive full of killer bees.

Even by the standards of other mid-80s arcade games – like Capcom’s infamously harsh Ghosts ‘N Goblins, for example – Rolling Thunder is viciously hard. Later levels throw a downright weird selection of new enemies into the mix: panthers, athletic beast-men with long arms, flaming humanoids that leap from pits of fire, giant vampire bats, and more. This isn’t the kind of game where you can simply react to things as they happen, either. The cruel layouts of the levels require you to know in advance where enemies are going to spawn from and what they’re likely to do. For an unsuspecting player, the average game of Rolling Thunder will be over in seconds – getting good at the wretched thing would theoretically cost a fortune in 10p pieces.

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So if Rolling Thunder really is so difficult, why is it worth dredging out of the archives for a piece like this? Because, for all its coin-guzzling excess, the game remains strangely addictive.

Rolling Thunder shares some of the design philosophy seen in Namco’s earlier space shooting games like Galaxian and Galaga. In those coin-op hits, Namco’s programmers create a satisfying sense of flow that keeps rewarding you as your skills improve. In Galaga, taking out an entire looping formation of aliens results in a pleasing feedback of sound effects, explosions, and bonus scores. 

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While Rolling Thunder looks very different from Galaga, it shares a similar design philosophy. It too throws waves of multi-colored enemies at you – though these happen to be humans rather than bees from outer space – and gunning them down is equally satisfying once you settle into the game’s rhythm. Rolling Thunder doesn’t move at a particularly fast pace, but its animation creates the impression of constant, fluent motion: the way Albatross athletically vaults over a railing as you leap to a higher platform is one example of this. The fluid animation, prowling, catchy music and digitized sound effects (“Blam! Argh!”) create drama in what could otherwise be a dry platform shooter; for the time, the detail of Rolling Thunder‘s character movement was quite unusual.

Rolling Thunders other masterstroke is its machine gun. Armed with a pistol for much of the game, Albatross can upgrade to a more powerful firearm by entering a specially labeled door. For a few glorious seconds, the frail hero feels invincible. Holding down the fire button results in a stream of bullets which leave enemies collapsing and withering in their wake. This brief yet glorious feeling of invincibility is another distinctive Namco touch: it’s Rolling Thunder‘s equivalent of the power pellet in Pac-Man, or the ingenious mechanic in Galaga where you can fight with two ships side-by-side. It’s when the machine gun comes into play that Rolling Thunder‘s sadistic difficulty level makes sense, in a round-about sort of way: if you didn’t feel on the brink of being overwhelmed for much of the game, getting the machine gun wouldn’t provide the same thrill.

There is, in fact, a cunning means of stockpiling an enormous amount of machine gun ammo, thus giving you at least a slim chance of making it past the first couple of levels: walk ahead a screen or two, then double back to the door where you first picked up the machine gun, and your bullet count will increase. You can keep doing this as often as you like (as long as you keep an eye on your time limit), which means you can amass a huge reserve of about 800 or so bullets.

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I wish somebody had told me this back in the early ’90s because I could have probably used the trick to get a bit further than level three, where I invariably died a cruel and embarrassing death. No matter how many coins I stuffed into the Rolling Thunder coin-op I found in an east coast arcade, I always seemed to die in roughly the same place – a pit of lava where the slightest touch from an enemy had you falling to your doom.

Nevertheless, I liked Rolling Thunder so much that I bought the ZX Spectrum version when I got back home. Like just about all the home conversions, it only provided a pale imitation of the arcade, with the Spectrum version lacking the original’s catchy music and dazzling color. The best conversion was, perhaps, the one on the NES, though even this is far from perfect: the sprites are smaller and the difficulty level’s even more bewildering. Mind you, the Japanese version comes in a brilliantly-illustrated box with a matching set of stickers inside, so that’s a bonus.

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Removing the rose-tinted glasses, it’s easy to see Rolling Thunders flaws, even in its sparkly arcade incarnation. Yes, it’s too hard, and the platform sections are, frankly annoying – the inability to alter your course once you’ve started jumping constantly works against you, as an enemy can easily leap into view at the same time and kill you with a single touch. Nevertheless, I’d still argue that the game’s innovations are widely overlooked. 

One year after Rolling Thunder, Sega made Shinobi, a walk-and-shoot game with remarkably similar mechanics to Namco’s arcade machine. You march along, jump on crates, shoot bad guys and leap up to higher levels. Sure, Sega introduces its own ideas, such as bound hostages to rescue, area bosses and pictures of Marilyn Monroe for some reason, but the template’s remarkably similar.

Visually, Shinobi‘s arguably worse than Rolling Thunder. Its sprites are muddy and less smoothly animated, and most of the backgrounds are composed of simple beige or green blocks. But Sega also improves on Rolling Thunder‘s format in a few ways: it’s less hard from the outset, and its central character has more moves at his disposal. Sega also gave Shinobi a ninja theme, which was far trendier at the time than Rolling Thunders swinging-60s spy theme.

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Shinobi, of course, spawned a range of sequels and spin-offs, and a new entry appeared on the 3DS in 2011. Rolling Thunder got a couple of sequels itself: Rolling Thunder 2, released in 1990, is perhaps even better than the original, with more varied enemies and backdrops, a more gentle learning curve, and a two-player co-op mode. The Sega Mega Drive conversion is also excellent, with additional levels that didn’t appear in the arcade version. 

The second sequel, released in 1993, only appeared on the Mega Drive. It’s the most obscure game of the three as a result, but it’s still a highly entertaining shooter. You can choose from a whole arsenal of shotguns and bazookas, and there’s even a scene where you get to zoom around on a big motorbike like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.

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Thereafter, Namco seemed to forget about Rolling Thunder, and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it was because, through the rest of the late 80s and early 90s, rival companies made their own, similar games. Aside from Shinobi, Sega made the sci-fi themed ESwat, Data East made its RoboCop tie-in game, Capcom made the cheekily similar Code Name: Viper and those are but a few examples.

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Then again, it could be argued that Rolling Thunder and its athletic hero lived on in another form: in 1995, Namco made Time Crisis, a 3D gun game which, although not officially a Rolling Thunder sequel, looks and plays like a 3D successor to that series. You take cover behind crates, shoot multi-colored goons with a pistol, and gradually make your way through a villain’s lair in search of a damsel in distress. It has that Namco flow once again: the satisfying jolt of adrenaline you get when you take down a chain of enemies, the flash of bonus points, the digitized bangs and shouts of “Aargh!”

Rolling Thunder could be seen, then, as the forgotten link between Namco’s golden age arcade hits – Galaxian, Galaga, Pac-Man – and its hit gun games of the 90s. When it was on form, Namco was the master of quick-fix coin-op experiences. Rolling Thunder was, for me, one of its less celebrated but most satisfying creations.