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Level 1
Rolling Thunder (Level 1)
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on March 18, 2010   |   Episode 5 (Show Archive)  


Welcome to Level 1. Every Thursday we are going to look at a random game's very first level. It doesn't matter what kind of game it is or what system it's for, we're here to dissect the game's first level and see what it tells us about the rest of the game. I promise you an eye-opening experience in each episode! This week we're taking a look at one of my favorite spy games as a kid. It's Rolling Thunder, the influential 2D action game known for its high-jumping characters. Even though the odds are stacked against us and we don't know where we're going, I think that if we try really hard we can bust our way through Rolling Thunder's first level!

Rolling Thunder (Namco)
[ Release: 1986 - Console: Nintendo Entertainment System/Arcade ]
Rolling Thunder (NES) Cover
In this spy-versus-spy game, you take control of Albatross, a member of Interpol's "Rolling Thunder" espionage unit. One of your best female agents (the awesomely named Leila Blitz) has been kidnapped and it's up to you to shoot your way through a bunch of New York-based levels in an effort to take down the "Maskers" and save the lovely Leila. Although you are alone on this mission, you have come prepared. As a secret agent you have pinpoint gun-firing accuracy, something that will come in handy when the "Maskers" won't listen to reason. Best of all, you have been equipped with a super jumping ability. Either that or our hero has a Superman-like ability to defy gravity. Either way, you jump really high and shoot straight as an arrow ... whatever that means.

Although it's nothing more than a generic 2D action game, Rolling Thunder managed to develop quite a following. Soon after this game hit arcades we saw other 2D titles with surprisingly similar control schemes, including Sega's Shinobi and Capcom's Codename: Viper. Namco eventually released two 16-bit sequels on the Genesis. Even with the interesting premise and huge sales, Namco ended the series in the mid-1990s. We have heard nothing from this series since the release of Rolling Thunder III, and Namco doesn't seem interested in resurrecting this action title. But who cares about hoping for a Rolling Thunder IV when we can push start and check out the first level of the first Rolling Thunder game?

Enemy Compound: Apparently Rolling Thunder doesn't believe in starting slow and picking up speed, which is somewhat ironic given its name. Instead of giving us any kind of build up, Rolling Thunder throws us right into the mix from the very first stage. There's no mission where you catch a flight to the enemy compound or one of those pesky
Altered Beast - Rise From Your Grave
Rolling Thunder - Enemy Compound
stories that tells us what's going on. No, it doesn't have any of that. Instead we jump head first into the enemy compound, which is, surprise surprise, full of bad guys in colorful hoods. Seriously, you couldn't have given me a training mission first? I guess it's straight to the cooker for us.

As I enter the enemy compound I am immediately attacked by a group of blue soldiers. I can't make out who they are (as they are fully masked), but they all appear to be dressed in the same way. Thankfully the compound is full of extra rooms I can duck
Altered Beast - The Blue Dog
Rolling Thunder - Enemy Compound
into at any time. It's also worth mentioning that this compound has two levels, an upstairs and a downstairs. Don't worry about me, though, because I am able to leap entire stories with a single bound. Don't ask me how I do it, that's a spy secret that I'll take to my grave.

While I duck into the many doors and kill all of the guards, I can't help but notice the light blue motif this compound has going on. It's rare to see an evil mastermind who not only kills innocent people, but also has an eye for paint. Unfortunately he doesn't have the same talent for decorations, as
Altered Beast - Two players battle the graveyard's monsters!
Rolling Thunder - Tire & Sandbag Warehouse
we'll discover when we go down the stairs. Either way, I like how bright and cheery this compound is. It almost makes me forget about the non-stop ultra violence taking place all around me.

Tire & Sandbag Warehouse: As I jump down stairs I am inundated with sandbags and stacked tires. Even though the enemy compound is nowhere near water, he seems to be ready for a flood of Biblical proportions. I'm reminded about how much fun this room would have been if I was an eight year old boy. I can imagine playing with all of the other masked children in the tires and have large-scale sandbag fights. Hey look, the masked goons want to play. Here we have
Altered Beast - From Human to Wolf!
Rolling Thunder - Tire & Sandbag Warehouse
two guards hiding in a large stack of tires. You can barely see the tops of their hoods, but thankfully I know they're there. I jump past them and continue on my way over the piles of sandbags. Seriously, who needs this many sandbags?

Compound Basement: On the way to the excite I duck into the compound's basement. Although this area is significantly darker and scarier, I'm delighted to see a return to blue paint. But don't get too excited, because this is a dark blue. Oooh, ominous. I decide to ignore the decor and focus on killing the gun-wielding psychopaths in front of me. I'm thankful that there's no end-level boss, as getting through all of these persistent (and reappearing) guards are starting to bum me out. I duck into a bullet room that gives me a machine gun. As
Altered Beast - Boss Aggar!
Rolling Thunder - Compound Basement
I exit I pull the trigger and hope for the best. Thankfully the hail of slow-moving bullets was enough to get me to the exit sign. I may not be out of the compound yet, but at least I made it through level one.

What Have We Learned Today? Today we learned that you can shave off a lot of time by not explaining what's going on or how anybody got to where they are. Just imagine if movies started doing this. You can cut Titanic into no more than 30 minutes if you start it at the moment the boat hits the iceberg. Or what about Slumdog Millionaire? Imagine how short that movie could have been if they had just cut to the part when the Indian boy was answering the final question. And I'm sure you can do that to Transformers 2. On second thought, you can just cut the whole
Rolling Thunder cinema
Why we fight!
thing out and be better for it. I think Rolling Thunder has the right idea. It's a shame that more video games aren't taking this approach. Who needs all that set up in Heavy Rain when you can just skip ahead and find out who the Origami Killer is? I'm telling you, Rolling Thunder was definitely on to something.

What Did We Miss? After clearing out the enemy compound, our hero journeys into creepy caves, fights his way out of underground lairs, plugs his nose for the swamps, jumps over a bunch of boxes at the docks and even navigates through a series of prison cells. It's a harrowing adventure that will take him all over
Rolling Thunder graphic novel
This cover art displays every significant plot point in Rolling Thunder!
the world. And once you've visited all of those areas, Rolling Thunder makes you do it all over again. Only this time around the levels go from baby blue to a dark green. That's right, this game is nothing more than a pallet swap. So that's what we missed out on.

A Letter from the Developers of Codename Viper: "Dear Rolling Thunder, I'm sorry I ripped you off when developing Codename: Viper for the Nintendo Entertainment System. You have to understand, it's not my fault. I only had a short amount of time to come up with the concept, but instead of working I was spending too much time playing you at my local arcades. I was the master of you, nobody could top my high score. And then one day I realized that I had a deadline to meat and no original ideas. So I did what anybody would ... I took everything that I loved about you and turned it into a game about drug dealers. I know it was a blatant carbon copy, but you have to admit that we did it better. At least we don't make you play through the levels again and again and again. But I'm getting off point, I really just want to apologize for being a designer who lacks any original thoughts. I really shouldn't even be in this industry. I suck. Yours truly, Capcom."


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