Game critics have a funny way of wanting to put everything into easy to understand sub-genres. Your favorite Gradius sequel isn't just an action game; it's a shoot-em-up. Street Fighter II is a fighting game, while Final Fight is a brawler. And Secret of Mana is an action adventure game, not a turn-based role-playing game.
But not every game can be neatly explained in one of these descriptive sub-genres. What do you do with a game like Rolling Thunder? At first glance the game looks like nothing more than a side-scrolling shooter, nothing more than a slower paced Contra or Midnight Resistance. But look closer. Simply calling the game a shooter completely misses the best part of the game, a gimmick that was stolen by everybody from Sega to Capcom. Rolling Thunder isn't just a shooter; it's a shooter that allows you to literally leap from one floor to another to command two fronts in the on-going fight against crime. So what kind of game is Rolling Thunder? A 2D leap and gun shooter ... I guess.
Classifications aside, Rolling Thunder is a traditional side-scrolling action game where you walk (slowly) from left to right shooting anybody that gets in your way. The levels are split up into two different layers, one on top and one below. At any point you can jump up or down, allowing you to dodge enemy attacks and plan your attacks. This simple addition to the run and gun genre was enough to catch the eye of other game developers, as you see this gameplay nod used in both Shinobi and Code Name: Viper.
This Nintendo Entertainment System port comes to us from the good folks at Tengen, best known for their unlicensed 8-bit games and a bitchin' version of Tetris. Although the graphics have been stripped down to fit on the NES cartridge, the basic gameplay and level structure is there.
You play Albatross, a member of Interpol's "Rolling Thunder" espionage unit. Your job is to rescue a fellow agent, an inappropriately dressed woman by the name of Leila Blitz. She's being held in New York by a secret society known as Geldra. Of course, these story elements are only here to give you a reason to walk around and shoot hooded villains.
As I mentioned before, the game allows you to fight on two different levels at any given time. As you walk through the levels you will occasionally see levels above you; all you have to do is push up on the D-pad and the jump button and you'll find your super spy leaping 15 feet into the air and landing on the ground above. But don't get too comfortable on that second level, because all of the enemies you left below can jump too.
Outside of having a weird superhuman leaping ability, Albatross also knows how to open up and hide in doors. Scattered throughout each level are a series of doors; some that house enemies, some that have weapons and some that will give you extra time. It's important to spend some time exploring these doors as you go from area to area. Best of all, if you see an enemy coming and you don't have the time to get off a good shot, then you can hold the up button and remain in the door indefinitely.
Unfortunately these are the only two things that set this Rolling Thunder port apart from the other action games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Outside of being able to leap high up into the air and hide in behind a door, there's really nothing special about this spy. He has limited moves, can't shoot in the air and has absolutely no control over how far he jumps. Couple this with the fact the NES port has sluggish control problems and you have a so-so port of an otherwise amazing (albeit dated) arcade game.
The nice thing about this Rolling Thunder port is that it doesn't skimp on the levels. Tengen comes to the plate with some twenty different levels. At first you'll be impressed at all of the different types of levels. You'll see indoor areas, warehouses, caves and more. However, as you keep playing through the game you'll realize that what's really happening is that you're visiting different locales over and over again. Thankfully these familiar levels now house brand new enemy types, including mutant monkey-things and cougars.
The graphics and sound are fine for a Nintendo Entertainment System game, but they certainly aren't as strong as their arcade counterpart. The good news is that you'll hardly notice the downsized graphics while you're shooting up bad guys and trying to avoid grenades. There's more than enough action here to make you forget all about the decrease in quality.
All in all, Rolling Thunder is a solid port of a great arcade game. While Tengen does manage to get the feel of the original game right, I can't help but notice all of the corners that were cut in the making of this 8-bit home game. Some of the cheap deaths and archaic design decisions ultimately bring the score down, but not enough to keep me from having a relatively good time playing through Rolling Thunder.