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Rolling Thunder (1986 - 1993)
Namco released three games over the course of seven years. The original arcade game was released in 1986, shortly followed by a port for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Rolling Thunder 2 hit arcades in 1990 and then later ported to the Sega Genesis. Rolling Thunder 3 is a console-exclusive, released in 1993 for the Genesis.
Rolling Thunder is the story of a spy with an incredible set of legs. He and his World Crime Police Organization cohorts fights an alien/terrorist group known as Geldra, which takes them all over the world and even into space. Eventually we learn that Gelda is interested in taking over the world using robots, but our heroes at the World Crime Police Organization aren't going to let that happen!
It's Really a Science Fiction Game
You may not spend your time traveling from planet to planet like Mass Effect or battling religious aliens creatures like Halo, but Rolling Thunder is a science fiction game through and through. These three super spies
are tasked with saving the world from an alien madman commanding an army of robots. Okay, so it's not exactly Aliens Resurrected, but it's a lot more science fiction than Moonraker.
Don't think the first game is full of sci-fi goodness? Well, you're mostly right. It's a game about saving your girlfriend from a group of hooded men. But at least there's Maboo, who throws fireballs and is green. This villain was fleshed out a bit more in Rolling Thunder 2, which featured Albatross and Leila tracking down a new mastermind named Gimdo. It turns out that Gimdo is part of the alien/terrorist network known as Geldra, and he is hoping to use his spaceship to sabotage a satellite and reign nuclear bombs on the Earth below. The third Rolling Thunder features a new character battling more robots than even Skynet is comfortable with. We never find out where these villains come from, but it's certainly not of this planet.
It Influenced Sega and Capcom
What could have been just another throwaway 8-bit action game turned into something far more memorable thanks to an inventive gameplay gimmick. Albatross is not only a superspy with a smoking hot (albeit kidnapped) partner, but he has an almost superhuman ability to jump from one story to the next. This is the defining aspect of Rolling Thunder, the ability to literally jump to another part of a stage, which must be at least nine or ten feet off the ground. On top of this, our hero is able to hide and find extra bullets in doors scattered around the levels.
One year later Sega released a game with almost exactly the same gameplay mechanic. While Joe Musashi may not find extra bullets in closets, he is able to leap to building tops and other high up locations. In 1990, Capcom released Code Name: Viper, a game so blatant in its homage that I would go as far as to call it a rip-off. You leap ten feet off the ground, battle on two layers, and find ammo/safety in doors. Both of these games have their own spin on the formula, but there's no denying that they were influenced by Namco's Rolling Thunder!
The Seal of Quality Conundrum
Did the console port of Rolling Thunder carry Nintendo's seal of quality? It turns out the answer isn't as easy as yes or no. That's because Namco's action game was licensed in one part of the world, and unlicensed everywhere else. American gamers
may remember the Tengen port, sporting the all too familiar black box and dazzling box art. Despite being developed by Namco (one of Nintendo's strongest first-party games), this Tengen release was not officially endorsed by Nintendo and lacked the seal of quality.
On the other side of the world, Japanese gamers were able to play a Nintendo-approved version of Rolling Thunder. The gameplay and visuals were the same, but for whatever reason Nintendo decided to endorse one and doom the other to obscurity. Thankfully Nintendo's plan of burying the competition didn't work and retailers across the country continued to stock Tengen games. Still, it's an interesting twist of fate that one game can be fully sanctioned by Nintendo, yet the other is denied to the party. Either way, the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System port of Rolling Thunder is definitely worth your time.
The Greatest Password System!
Of all the antiquated mechanics found in classic games, the password system is one of the most abhorrent. I still have nightmares of writing down twenty and thirty character long passwords, and then suffering through using the D-pad to type it all
over again. Thank goodness we'll never have to go back to a day where one missed digit requires you to enter the full code all over again. I get enough of that trying to redeem Xbox Live Arcade games.
But Rolling Thunder 2 made passwords fun. Instead of using arbitrary letters and numbers, Namco devised an ingenious secret message that perfectly fit the game's spy motif. You picked from a series of words to create such gems as "A Rolling Program Smashed The Genius," "A Curious Rainbow Learned the Future, "A Logical Thunder Smashed the Powder," and my favorite, "A Digital Rainbow Muffled the Secret." Oh sure, you still have to cycle through several columns of words to compose your password, but the codes are memorable and don't feel out of place with the rest of the game.
The Hero Dies in the End
Spoiler Alert: Not everything works out for our hero at the end of Rolling Thunder 3. For those not keeping track, the first Rolling Thunder was about Agent Albatross trying to rescue a female spy. In Rolling Thunder 2, Albatross and Leila go after a green-faced terrorist. They travel all around the world until finally besting Geldra. With their storyline completed, the couple decide to leave the super-secret team and spend the rest of their lives bouncing from one romantic location to the next. It's adorable.
With Albatross and Leila out of the picture, Namco needed a brand new hero for Rolling Thunder 3. Unfortunately they went with Jay, a brand new agent off on his own adventure. Taking place concurrently with the events of Rolling Thunder 2, Jay's adventure has him tracking down Dread, Geldra's second in command. Even though he eventually battles and kills the terrorist madman, Dread has one final card up his sleeve: A self-destructing bomb that gets trickered the moment his heart stops beating. And with no time to escape, Jay and the rest of the evil HQ is blown up. The game reassures us that his charred remains were never found, but that's little comfort with no follow-up sequels or fiction. At least Albatross and Leila live happily ever after.