Last time out, I wrote about a game starring a lone and embarrassingly under-prepared soldier taking on a vast terrorist army, and I complained about how unfair and difficult it was. Today's article should finally convince you that I am not an intelligent man, because I'm going to do it all again with Namco's 1986 arcade action-platformer Rolling Thunder!
Here, colourful men work hard on their nefarious schemes, each of them thinking the same thing yet unwilling to be the first to broach the subject with their compatriots - that maybe their television is too big. They had their reservations when their criminal overlord called the shop and asked for "the biggest television that won't require me to further reinforce the floor of my underground lair", but none of them dared stand up to their master, the powerful yet disappointingly-named Maboo.
Here's Maboo now. He's a sassy little imp, isn't he? He looks like a badly-moulded rubber toy of an alien that you'd get from a capsule vending machine, the ones made from the strangely sticky material that becomes permanently encrusted with a two-inch-thick layer of hair and dust within seconds of opening its packaging. Or maybe like a fusion of Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z and the Joker who just bit into a lemon. He's an enigma, is Maboo, but he's smiling because he's combined two of the all-time classic video game plots for Rolling Thunder - he's in charge of a terrorist organization that wants to take over the world, and he's kidnapped a female acquaintance of the game's hero! Yes, Maboo and his villainous group Geldra have abducted WCPO agent Leila Blitz, and it's up to her fellow agent to smash Geldra and rescue Leila. That agent is you, the player - code name Albatross!
I wonder how Albatross feels about sharing his name with a bird often seen as a portent of doom. At the very least he must have suspected his superiors didn't hold out much hope of him accomplishing his mission. Or maybe he's just really good at golf.
That's Albatross at the bottom of the screenshot above, and surprisingly for someone wearing flared grey slacks and bright red shoes he is the most conservatively attired character in the game. Albatross' turtleneck sweater and shoulder holster are probably enough to clue you in that Rolling Thunder takes its aesthetic from the spy movies of the sixties and seventies, as seen by someone who has previously jammed an entire jumbo pack of wax crayons into their eyes. The secret agent ambience is further enhanced by the first stage's musical theme:
Now that's definitely the soundtrack you want when you're stealthily infiltrating a secret base. It's a shame, then, that Albatross goes in all guns blazing. One gun blazing, anyway, because he only brought a pistol. Look, nothing else would fit in his shoulder holster and the holster is integral to his entire look, god, do you not understand fashion?
Gameplay-wise, Rolling Thunder is a typical side-scrolling action-platforming effort with a few extra flourishes. For one, large parts of each stage are separated into upper and lower sections that Albatross can leap between by holding up or down on the joystick while jumping - for example, in the screenshot above you've got the floor, and the balcony packed with so many enemies that it must surely be reaching the limit of its safe weight capacity. There are also doors in the background. Most of them lead to a formless dimension of darkness that exists solely to spawn gaudily-dressed terrorists, but some - denoted by the BULLET signs pointing to them - give Albatross a refill on his pistol ammo if he enters them. You can duck into almost any doorway and you might even be able to dodge some enemy projectiles this way, but most of the time hiding in one of these closets just means that when you're ready to come out again there'll be dozens of Geldra goons waiting just outside for you.
More than anything the gameplay of Rolling Thunder reminds me of Shinobi, which is possibly a little unfair because Rolling Thunder was released first. Shinobi came out roughly a year later, so who knows whether Rolling Thunder served as its inspiration? I'm just glad that Rolling Thunder doesn't also include Shinobi's hostage-rescuing mechanic - I'm having enough trouble as it is just guiding Albatross through Geldra's tyre storage facility.
A suave super-spy on a mission to save the world does battle with a fanatical terrorist. They're each standing inside a stack of tyres with only their heads poking out. I bloody love videogames. Admit it, Albatross, you engineered this whole situation just so you can say "I guess he's dead tired" when you kill him, didn't you?
It was a smart move to disguise your operations with a convincing cover, Geldra. No-one would suspect a humble sandbag-making company could ever be plotting world domination! Maboo's ultimate plan is obviously to take over the world using a weather machine, causing extensive flooding and sending the price of sandbags through the roof!
Once you've reached the end of the stage - there's no boss or anything, it just ends - you're treated to a scene of Maboo and his goons checking out Leila on his giant telly. It seems that Leila's abduction is something of a work-in-progress, with Leila running from her hooded attacker and dear god what is wrong with Leila's head? It looks like an egg in a wig with a face crudely painted on the pointy end.
Stage two begins much as stage one ended, but Albatross has found something that will make taking on Geldra's massed ranks a little easier: ARMS. Arms as in "weaponry," Albatross has definitely had human arms this whole time. Slipping into a door marked "ARMS" grants Albatross a rapid-firing machine gun to replace his pistol, and thanks to some wide, flat floor plans and the Geldra troops' habit of mistaking a conga line for a viable battle formation, the machine gun can really wreak some havoc.
Also, check out that bad guy at the bottom. He's looking around, confused about where Albatross has disappeared to and presumably bemoaning that his hood may look menacing but it totally cuts off his peripheral vision.
I fully enjoyed this brief moment I spent feeling powerful, because having played Rolling Thunder before I knew it wasn't going to last.
I do appreciate that Namco gave Albatross a completely different animation for firing the machine gun rather than just swapping out the pistol sprite, it's a nice touch in a game that's good all around when it comes to graphics. I can understand if you're not charmed by the intensity of the extremely colourful graphics and especially the Geldra soldiers, who do look like a bunch of KKK members who decided they needed to zhuzh up their image, but personally I really like it and the animations in particular are very impressive, smooth and... well, I'd hesitate to use the world "realistic" but they certainly look correct.
As well as making Geldra look like an organisation staffed by disgruntled clowns, the bright colours of the troops - they're called Maskers, or so I'm told - serves two important purposes. One is that it means you can always see them on-screen, and the other is that their colour tells you what they're going to do. Purple hoods are the newest recruits and as such haven't passed weapons training, their lack of weapons meaning their only chance at taking Albatross down is by walking up to him and punching. Yellow-hooded Maskers take two bullets to kills, white Maskers have grenades and so on, and if you can memorise all these different flavours of Geldra then you'll be able to anticipate their next attack. Of course, that all goes out the window as the game progresses and the number of Maskers rammed into each stage makes the action resemble a terrible accident at a Skittles factory, but for now it comes in handy.
Oh, they finally caught Leila. Don't worry Leila, Albatross will be there soon. It's nice to see Maboo getting involved in the grunt work down at the bottom right of the screen, too often your megalomaniacal overlords are content to sit on their golden thrones without ever seeing how the other half live. This dedication to fostering good management-employee relation is paying dividends, given how willing the Maskers are to walk right into Albatross' bullets.
Stage three is a cave level, and it introduces some new enemies like these horrible shrieking yellow goblin things, one of which is pictured here really milking its death scene, the big ham. Okay, fair enough, I'd probably go a bit over the top if someone shot me in the gonads, too, and the targeted nut-shot is something that seems to happen a lot in Rolling Thunder. Because so many enemies fire horizontal projectiles it soon becomes a reflex to crouch to avoid them before shooting, a survival mechanism that has the unexpected side-effect of making Albatross look like a sadistic misandrist who will let no groin go unpunished.
The drawback to all this testicular carnage is that Albatross can't turn around while he's crouching, something that would have been extremely helpful when enemies are pouring in from every corner of the screen. While the moves Albatross does have are responsive and consistent, he does suffer from some handicaps that fans of retro gaming will probably be familiar with in that he doesn't have much control over his jumps once he's leapt into the air, and he can't fire while jumping, all of which becomes more frustrating as the game goes on.
No, bad kitties. I don't want to have to explain to the World Wide Fund for Nature that it "was either me or the jaguars, I had to mow them down with my machine gun!" They never accept that as an excuse.
The next area starts off looking much like the last, only with a 100% increase in the amount of giant mutated bat-people. Wait, is from "none" to "some" a 100% increase? I'm terrible at maths. Anyway, bat-people. They like to swoop. That's the bat in them, you see. This is where not being able to jump and shoot starts becoming a liability. It wouldn't be a problem if you could take things slowly and wait for the bats to flap on down to your level and then shoot them, but that's not possible because Rolling Thunder refuses to give the player even the slightest hint of a break. There is no respite from the action, with each stage having a tight time limit... but even if you had all the time in the world, standing around just makes more enemies appear from the doorways. Relentless forward movement is the only way to approach Rolling Thunder, and while you're battling enemies and jumping between walkways it is fun: simplistic, sure, and Albatross' limited range of motions hamper things a little, but it's a dynamic, hectic scramble for survival that is enjoyable to play. So, it would be a real shame if something reared up and stopped that momentum dead in its track, huh? Something like, I dunno, a platforming section?
Oh, fabulous. I'm sure this section going to be just like the results of Albatross' marksmanship - an incredible pain in the balls. Just allow me a moment to clear my throat and unfurl a huge banner that reads "I SHOULD HAVE SEEN THAT COMING" before I say hey, at least there aren't any enemies nearby!
"No, Maboo, this isn't what I meant when I said I always wanted to be a fireman!" he cried, but it was too late, he was already in the Lava Transmogrification Chamber and a few hours later he popped out looking like a demented Ready Brek mascot. You can't even shoot these little bastards half the time, because when you do they split into two flame-monsters and end up hitting you anyway.
I think it's fair to say that Leila is having a bad day.
Stage five: as before, only with a chain-link fence you can move either behind or in front of, getting confused about which enemies you'll be able to shoot in the process. When I say "you" I mean "me," you'll probably have no problems with it at all.
Time is of the essence in Rolling Thunder, but you cannot simply ignore the enemies and press forwards because you'll end up in a situation like this, where Albatross' imminent death is such a foregone conclusion that the masker on the left has decided to sneak away from the scrum and get a good spot in the queue at the Evil Cafeteria. You might be thinking hey, it says you've got a full health bar down there, so maybe Albatross will succeed against all the odds, but in thinking that you have fallen victim to Rolling Thunder's cruellest joke: that health bar is about as meaningful as the message in a fortune cookie. Bumping into an enemy takes half your health bar. Getting shot kills you outright. I think I would have preferred it if a hit just made all Albatross' clothes fall off except his boxer shorts, that's a classic that never gets old. And speaking of Ghosts 'n' Goblins...
Once you reach the big TV, Maboo appears on the screen and, infuriatingly, not nearby where I can shoot him to death. Rolling Thunder then introduces its own take on the "beloved" arcade "gameplay feature" - the second loop. Yes, you have to do the whole game again, only now the stages have been remixed slightly and everything is much, much more difficult than it was before.
For example, the tyre fort from the first loop now has three times as many enemies and an assortment of deadly lasers, lasers that you will become agonisingly familiar with if you choose to carry on with the game. Somewhere between the first and second loop Maboo became totally sold on the deadly power of ceiling-mounted lasers, and as such they appear roughly every three feet from here on out.
It's a shame that the second loop of Rolling Thunder becomes so brutally difficult, because most of the first half of the game is a exciting arcade adventure that has a lot to recommend it: great graphics (especially for the time,) a good soundtrack and challenging but fun gameplay that gets a lot of mileage from the simple mechanics of shooting, jumping and flipping between different background heights. You're probably fed up of hearing me complain about over-difficult games at this point, and it's true that I am kinda bad at videogames, but Rolling Thunder's increased challenge rankles not only because it's making playing the game less fun but because there's nothing interesting about it. There are no new enemies, and you're mostly travelling through the same stages you've already seen except now they're more frustrating to negotiate and the whole thing end up being boring, the ultimate sin for any videogame.
Things reach a jaw-clenching, joystick-snapping nadir with this platforming section, and if it had been any earlier in the game I'd have taken one look at it and said "you know what, screw this" and played something else. Maybe there's a certain pattern to it that I just wasn't getting, and I'm sure there's a small group of people out there for whom navigating Albatross over a series of platforms that might as well be buttered knitting needles is a simple task, but for me life is too short to give up the required amount of time and effort to get that good at Rolling Thunder.
Oh look, a new background! Geldra is trying to spook me with their spooky ghost troopers, but I cannot be spooked, not after I spent so long save-stating my way past those lava platforms. I'm all spooked out. I've reached a level of glib emotional detachment, so if Rolling Thunder was attempting to make me feel like James Bond then mission accomplished.
"Freeze, Maboo! You're under arrest for crimes against interior design! Also kidnapping. Probably some other terrorist stuff, too."
Enraged by Albatross' arrival in his sanctum sanctorum, Maboo rushes at his enemy with all the hostility and menace a wizened gremlinoid in a dressing gown can manage. This final encounter can go one of two ways: if you have a machine gun, you can stand at one end of the room and hold down the trigger, and Maboo will be dead before he ever reaches you. If you only have the pistol, well, good luck. You have to jump over Maboo as he dashes - a move with a very tight requirement on the timing - then shoot him a few times, repeating the process until one of you dies.
Leila is saved, and once she's down from her crucifix her head takes on a much more normal set of proportions. Albatross, on the other hand, looks a bit like Ed Milliband, the poor sod. Even in victory the miserable git can't crack a smile - he must know that out there, somewhere, the remnants of Geldra are watching the whole thing on another of their oversized televisions. They told the taxman it was a business expense, but really they're waiting to clock off so they can settle down with a laserdisc of Blade Runner and a big bag of popcorn seasoned with the blood of their enemies.
To borrow an overused football cliché, Rolling Thunder is a game of two halves. The first half is a fun, slick adventure that makes the most of a limited set of gameplay mechanics with an admirable sense of style. The second half is like trying to thread a needle while someone stands behind you flicking your earlobes. This makes for an easy recommendation, then: play the first loop and then do something less aggravating, like trying to change people's opinions in a internet comments section. If it makes you feel any better about not finishing Rolling Thunder, you can do it while wearing a red turtleneck, if you like.