#543 – Rolling Thunder

The quiet storm moves across the haunted landscape.
Daryl Hall rescues Sheila E. from the oppressive sounds of the 80s.
Those blue-suited cult guys are ready to rock!



DEVELOPER: Arc System Works

GENRE: Action


Rolling Thunder is a sentimental favorite. I usually try to not let nostalgia overtake me in these reviews, but I can’t deny the great memories I have with this cart. To me, Rolling Thunder is an intense action platformer, with cool retro Golgo-13-esque graphics, spooky music and environments, and unrelenting (but enjoyable) challenge. I’m one of the rare few who feel this way. To many old-school gaming fans that I’ve talked to, Rolling Thunder is a disgrace of an arcade port with horrendous graphics and crappy controls. We can’t both be right. As I re-played the game for this review, I was willing to concede to some of my retro brethren, if I thought their points held up. But I can’t. Rolling Thunder remains a fantastic action game for the NES. Yes, the controls can be sticky, and yes, the game gets overly hard within a few levels, but there’s very few NES titles that blend fast-paced energy with moody atmosphere.

In Rolling Thunder, you play a male secret agent out to rescue a female secret agent from an underground network of multi-colored hooded thugs (if you’re wondering why the between-stage cutscenes are as risque’ as they are, it’s because Rolling Thunder was an unlicensed port by your friends and mine, Tengen). Your task, should you accept it, is to blow away any and all of these thugs. You start off with a simple one-shot pistol with limited ammo, but within the first level, you’ll acquire a machine gun upgrade that makes you never want to use the pistol again: it’s fast, it’s effective, it’s the only worthwhile weapon; stay alive, and you’ll be able to keep it. Each stage usually has dozens of doors, which either contain enemies or bullets. They can also be used to hide from approaching thugs. Just about every stage also has platforms above ground that contain doors, and usually, enemies. You can jump back and forth between the ground and these platforms, but if you hit an enemy, one of your life bars goes down a peg. Get hit again and you’re dead. Get shot with a bullet and you’re instantly killed, regardless of how much health you have.

If Rolling Thunder sounds like any other generic NES walk-and-shoot-people game, that’s because, at its core, it is. Only two things differentiate it: the unusual pacing and the off-kilter ambiance. Your main character is designed to move fast (he has abnormally long legs), but you can’t just move fast and shoot without paying attention to your surroundings. Why? You never know where enemies are going to emerge. They could drop from the sky, they could materialize out of thin air, or they could walk right up to you and beg for a bullet. This fast-slow movement probably sounds annoying, and it can be. As a whole, it’s thrilling and distinct from the typical never-ending swarm of bad guys that populate other action games. The design aesthetic – Sixties spy television show meets noir meets B-movie feel – works perfectly, as does the (mostly) brilliant use of background color. I particularly like how each of the multi-colored hooded thugs move differently, depending on the color of their outfit. These elements give Rolling Thunder a mature feel that was hard for my younger self to resist. Twenty years later, despite my best efforts to dislike it or see it in a lesser light, Rolling Thunder still has that feel. Well done, old friend.


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8 replies on “#543 – Rolling Thunder”

Two games I’ll be checking out that I never thought I would before reading your recent reviews, first “Rockin Kats” and now “Rolling Thunder”… thanks for helping the retro gamer discover otherwise forgotten lost gems

This was another game at the local Pizza Hut arcade when I was a little kid, along with Road Blasters. And like that game, the NES port of Rolling Thunder is decent, in fact this one is, I think by nature, better than RB was. But there was still just something about the arcade version. A weird kind of “cell shaded” look to the graphics, ominous synth soundtrack, that annoying jackass that laughs at you every time you get a game over. Good times.

I am one of the nay-sayers.. I never liked this game. Granted I was not a fan of Shinobi either. I think I just never really enjoyed the two tier, one hit gameplay of these games.

Great review and I am glad you went in with no preconceived notions and still liked the game.


“We can’t both be right.”

“There are trivial truths and there are Great Truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a Great Truth is also true.” -Niels Bohr

😀 Who says you can’t both be right?

I may give this game a try!

And hah, sorry to blow up your blog with so many posts in the last two days. But hey! I’m still really enjoying all of the content!

rolling thunder’s great. this port is a lot like the arcade version, but with a very major change: enemies don’t respawn. this makes the port a good “easy mode” before attempting the tough arcade version. you think you have a problem with stage 3 and 4 now…

this game started that whole gameplay style, as far as i know. sega didn’t simply make shinobi, they also made a closer clone of it called cyber police eswat (no melee), although that game also has all sorts of interesting changes.

this actually isn’t an unlicensed port, but an official port commissioned by namco and released in japan well enough. tengen probably had the rights from namco, but by this point they weren’t playing by nintendo’s rules anymore. not really a bootleg at all, is it?

this port also uses a extension chip that got removed from the nes version; yep, namco made those chips too. i think for this game, it just changes the sound a bit… honestly, i prefer the “normal” sound from the non-enhanced tengen version. otherwise, the two versions is identical from what i’ve seen.

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