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Rolling Thunder

The modern day cover based shooters that the gaming public has fallen in love with all owe a debt to Namco’s Rolling Thunder.  Gears of War, Resident Evil, and hell even Call of Duty to an extent, all share similar gameplay aesthetics, eschewing straight run and gun action for a more tactical approach to combat.  It’s strange to use that word in reference to Rolling Thunder but it’s true.  Rolling Thunder’s focus on stop and go action probably turned off many but for those that were able to adjust to resisting their impulse to run in guns blazing they were rewarded with a good action game that was balls out hard.

Agent Albatross of the WCPO (World Crime Police Organization) is sent on a mission to save fellow agent Leila Blitz from terrorist organization Geldra and foil their plans.  It’s a simple plot made all the more strange by the game’s setting.   The Geldra are supposed to be aliens but they wear hoods like the Ku Klux Klan and the game has a retro 60s Bond look.

Rolling Thunder was released in the arcade by Atari but its NES port has a bit of history behind it.  Namco had fallen out of favor with Nintendo by this point and so were not in a rush to open an American office.  This version of the game was released by Tengen unofficially, hence the giant black cartridge and missing seal of quality.  The whole Tengen/Nintendo saga is worthy of a separate article of its own but needless to say once Tengen lost its legal battle with Nintendo their unlicensed games became rare.

Rolling Thunder resembles Sega’s Shinobi although it predated that game by 2 years.  As Albatross you are equipped with a pistol with limited ammo and your only other weapon throughout the entire game is a machine gun.  Generally speaking ammo is in abundance and you’d have to be a terrible shot to completely waste it all.  The life bar might as well not exist; bumping into enemies cuts it in half while getting shot is instant death.  It’s realistic I guess but you’re going to be so cautious while playing the game that it won’t even register in your mind.  Like Shinobi most of your time is spent ducking behind boxes and other objects while waiting for a chance to attack.  However Rolling Thunder takes it a step further through its clever level design.

Every level is filled with a ton of doors that hold either weapons or extra time.   But their real worth comes from using them as over.  Technically you can hide in any door you find indefinitely although the strict time limit will prevent that.  Using the different doors to hide from pursuers hot on your ass is crucial to survival thanks to the devious enemy placement.  Most levels will always give you two levels you can jump between at any time and so can the Geldra.  You can use this to your advantage and force an unsuspecting to jump after you and blast them in the process but you have to always keep in mind that they can do the same too.

The Geldra come in many colors and each exhibit specific behavioral patterns.  You’ll learn to quickly identify which ones will actually fire back or chuck grenades from the mindless idiots who will simply rush you.  It’s the mixing and matching of different Geldra soldiers that will cause the most deaths as some take up to 3 shots to kill.  It’s not all faux KKK members that you’ll face as there are an assortment of mutants, ravens and other annoying creatures to face.

Needless to say Rolling Thunder is incredibly difficult with most of the trouble stemming from the rigid controls.  Much like Simon Belmont once you perform an action you are locked in, making the platforming sequences a nightmare.  The ability to jump and shoot is sorely missed; to some extent I can see how it might have made certain parts of the game easy but it’s not as if the game isn’t tough enough without it.  At least this version has password saves, making the trip to the end lighter on your free time.

Rolling Thunder is a bit lengthy at 10 levels and is challenging enough that you won’t finish anytime soon.  The control issues bring it down a notch but at its core the game’s central conceit is executed well.   It doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Contra or Shatterhand but is a relatively nice alternative.

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Rolling Thunder 3

Home console sequels to established arcade games were usually disastrous for any number of reasons.  Back in the day arcade cabinets usually housed technology a generation or two removed from what we were playing at home and usually featured dazzling graphics and sound in addition to polished gameplay.  But there are those few exceptions that not only meet there forbearers but surpass them, a category Rolling Thunder 3 falls into.  As the last game in the series it allows Rolling Thunder to go out with its held high with its excellent action and polished production values.

Set in the same period as Rolling Thunder 2 the plot of this third game follows Agent Jay rather than the familiar Leila and Albatross.  At the same time Gimdo is being taken down by his fellow agents Jay is sent to track down Dread, the second in command of the Geldra forces to ensure all traces of their leadership are wiped out.

As a side story to Rolling Thunder 2 this third installment features a lot of the same gameplay but differs in many subtle ways.  The cut scenes introduced in the second game have become more elaborate and cinematic.  Most importantly the biggest flaws that have plagued the series since its inception were finally corrected, creating the most enjoyable and playable entry in the series.  While it would have been nice to see more games that carried the ideas presented in Rolling Thunder 3 further it’s at least heartening to know that Namco hit it out of the park with this last game.

The arsenal of weapons available has been greatly expanded and the game presents you with a choice at the beginning of every level.  Of the nine weapons available only one can be selected per stage with the caveat that it becomes unavailable forever after.  They run the gamut from the typical shotgun and flamethrower to bazookas, lasers, and 3 types of grenades.  It can be a crap shoot whether your choice of weapon will actually be beneficial since you aren’t briefed on what lies ahead, on the other hand you can forgo a special weapon and cut up enemies with a knife, perfect for saving ammo.

Most importantly Rolling Thunder 3 refines a lot of the more frustrating elements in the games.  Your life bar has expanded to 3 bars, allowing you to survive at least 1 gun shot and collisions with enemies will only bounce you back.  Agent Jay can not only jump and shoot he can fire diagonally as well.  The uninitiated it doesn’t sound like much but those of us that put up with controlling a gimpy secret agent in the past it makes a world of difference.  Now you actually have a choice in whether you want to ascend to a higher level and get shot in the process or kill an enemy from afar.

The level design has seen a bit of a slight shift.  There are still plenty of boxes and doors to hide inside but most levels have more wide open areas to force conflict.  The Geldra are more varied in their forms of attack and are not afraid to get up close and personal.  Managing ammo becomes mandatory late in the game as doors with spare refills become less frequent.  While the normal shot and special weapons have been assigned to separate buttons it’s still easy to blow throw bullets since the Geldra are a lot sturdier than before.  Round 9 in particular can be a sore spot as it takes place on an airliner with no doors.  It’s actually pretty cool how they managed to incorporate the series trademark gameplay element in an enclosed space and is one of the game’s highlights.

Much like Shinobi 3 there are two vehicle based levels; namely a motorcycle and jet ski.  Not only are they a welcome back from the side scrolling action they are pretty challenging as you switch lanes to avoid debris and bad guys.  Boss battles are suitably intense but close observation will identify simple patterns.  In fact now that you respawn right where you died the game is a bit easier.  Not that it’s cake walk but due to the prior changes I listed above the game as a whole is fairer in terms of the challenge presented.

While the two-player coop is sorely missed I don’t believe it would have added much to the game in the first place.  With 10 levels and 3 secret areas waiting to be discovered Rolling Thunder 3 is more than equipped to keep any action fan engaged for many hours.




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Rolling Thunder 2

My first experience with the Rolling Thunder series came with the unlicensed port of the first game on the NES.  That black cartridge was weird as hell but the game itself was even stranger, with hooded enemies that looked like members of the Ku Klux Klan.   While it wasn’t the greatest game in the world it was enjoyable so when I heard about a sequel I had high expectations and amazingly the game surpassed them.

Rolling Thunder 2 was released in arcades in 1990 with a Genesis port the following year.  Moving the setting from the retro 60s intrigue of the original has given the series a futuristic makeover.  The Geldra Organization returns with plans to wipe out several satellites around the world, interrupting global communication in the process. Agents Leila and Albatross are on the case in one or two-player coop.  Every facet of the series has been given a facelift, creating an enjoyable run and gun shooter in the traditional mold.

The action is heavy but luckily both agents have access to a number of weapons to even the odds.  A machine gun, flame thrower, and cluster bomb are yours for the taking with limited ammo for each.  The limited ammo for all weapons will temper your urge to go on a wild killing spree; run out and you’re left with a slow one shot at a time pistol that spells instant death if it comes down to that.  That resource management is a bit odd in an action game but within the confines of the Rolling Thunder series works well.

Although there is a healthy dose of action, labeling Rolling Thunder 2 as a strict run and gun shoot em up might be a bit of a misnomer.  The Rolling Thunder series is famous for featuring equal parts platforming and that aspect has been ratcheted up for this series.  The terrain is far more varied and the backgrounds more interactive, with many more doors to hide in and passageways to duck into to avoid bullets.  The first game was a bit simple in this regard and the variety is undeniably a welcome change of pace.

The Geldra goons have increased in diversity and employ new tactics to kill you.  They now swarm you in greater numbers and in different combinations.  You’ll have very few moments of tranquility since they are relentless and their attack patterns are more unpredictable.  The bastards aren’t afraid to duck behind the same cover you employ to avoid you and chuck grenades in any arc necessary to get you.

The challenge is definitely high and isn’t helped by the fact that you can’t jump and shoot.  It sounds stupid and minor but once you start to play you’ll see just how inconvenient it is. There are far too many instances of enemies placed in unfair positions you can’t reach but they have no such issue.  The boss battles are the perfect examples of this.  It doesn’t break the game but is definitely a pain in the ass because these situations occur frequently.

This remains a pretty good action game despite its faults.  Although it isn’t a large step over the original arcade game in graphics it’s still decently pretty.  The Genesis port adds a few more levels over the arcade game and a few cutscenes for a more complete experience.  I recommend this after you are finished with the Gunstars and Shinobis of the world.

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Codename: Viper

Back in the 80’s clones of popular games were a dime a dozen.  Well I guess you could say that still persists even to this day.  Super Mario Brothers was revolutionary, so naturally everyone proceeded to follow in its footsteps.  Of course they didn’t analyze why it was so revolutionary, they simply figured if they chuck a cute character and some floating platforms in a game they’d strike gold.  Tetris and the numerous games that followed in its wake were of the same ilk.  In this case, Capcom created a clone of Namco’s Rolling Thunder.  It’s weird in that I played this before Rolling Thunder so the two get switched around in my brain

You assume the role of Kenny Smith, who is tasked by his commander, Director Jones, to investigate a large drug syndicate in South America.   Your job on each stage is to rescue as many hostages as possible while working your way to the end.  One hostage in particular will provide the grenades necessary to reveal the exit.  At the end of each level you are given partial clues that will in time reveal the mastermind behind the drug activity.  Looking back it never occurred to me until years later that this was released at the height of the war on drugs.  Remember when every arcade machine had the “Winners don’t use drugs” message? I honestly hope they weren’t expecting to get a sales boost just because of that.

Make no mistake this is identical to Rolling Thunder in gameplay with a few exceptions. Had they named the game Codename: Rolling Thunder no one would bat an eye.  Just like Namco’s classic you can jump or drop down between floors to avoid attacks.  Kenny is a more athletic protagonist and can change direction in midair if you’re fast enough.  The numerous doors that dot the landscape can be entered to obtain power-ups but can also serve as cover.  By holding up you can hide indefinitely to wait for enemies to pass by.  A direct collision with an enemy will only knock you back but Kenny isn’t so resilient that he can survive more than one gun shot.  You only receive 2 weapons in the entire game: the pistol you start with and a machine gun. Other power-ups come in the form of more ammo, time, health and very rare extra lives.

The 8 levels in the game will take you all around South America.  Confining the game to one set continent might sound stifling but there’s a great deal of variety in the locales you’ll visit, from the jungle to a warehouse, a South American village, and even Mayan ruins.  While there are numerous hostages to save the P.O.W mandatory in completing each level becomes harder and harder to locate as the game progresses.  As the levels progress the number of doors increases, meaning you’ll have to check every one to find the man you need.  By the fourth level the stage layout becomes more maze like, not that you’ll ever need to worry about time running out.

In the early going there isn’t too much enemy variety.  The majority of the time you will face different colored soldiers, with their color denoting their attack pattern.  It quickly becomes a priority to memorize which ones take more than one shot to kill since they’re usually quick on the draw if given the chance.  The latter stages in the game start to get tricky when newer enemies are introduced such as hawks and more aggressive soldiers.

Codename Viper isn’t very challenging but it does have its share of cheap tactics.  There are far too many moments where enemies will pop up from cover with no warning or dart across the leaving little time to react.  These cheap deaths are frustrating and make the game a series of trial and error at points unless you have beyond lightning reflexes.  The password saves help but honestly aren’t necessary as this isn’t a long game, not that I’m complaining.

I do wonder how Capcom got away with this release and were never sued by Namco.  All jokes aside there’s nothing ground breaking here, just a solid game.  Although Codename: Viper lacks any one stand out feature its good for at least an hour or two of entertainment, especially if you are a big fan of the Rolling Thunder series.

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