The quiet storm moves across the haunted landscape.
DEVELOPER: Arc System Works
RELEASE DATE: 1989
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.