Rolling Thunder 3 (Genesis) Review – The Flaws of a Still-Good Sequel to a Classic

  • Title: Rolling Thunder 3
  • Platform: Sega Genesis
  • Developer & Publisher: Namco
  • Release: 1993 (US-exclusive title)

Rolling Thunder is a side-scrolling action series from Namco.  The original Rolling Thunder released in arcades in the late ’80s, and it was amazing!  The game feels like a slow-paced run&gun inspired by Elevator Action, but I think any Rolling Thunder game is far better than anything from that in my opinion slightly boring series.  This game, Rolling Thunder 3, isn’t quite as good as its forbears, but it’s still a good game.  I should start with the first game, though, for those who don’t know it.


Rolling Thunder (NES) title screen

The first Rolling Thunder was a true classic.  The game is a modern spy-movie type game, inspired by James Bond and the like, and you play as special agent “Albatross” who has to slaughter his way through an army of evil cultists as he tries to rescue his female partner “Leila”.  So yes, it’s a rescue-the-girl game.  The cultists all wear hoods, which makes them look more menacing.  You have limited ammo, and if you run out are in deep trouble, so conserve, and only shoot when you have to.  If you run out of bullets, that’s it; you have no melee attack.  Rolling Thunder is a strategic shooter, essentially.  You need to duck, jump, or jump between platform levels to avoid fire, while shooting precisely to take out the enemies.  Some doors (see the Elevator Action element above) have weapon recharges in them, or rarely health ups.  You have eight hit points, but getting hit takes away half of it, and getting shot pretty much kills you, so watch out.  Die and it’s back to the last checkpoint.  It’s unforgiving, and a bit slow paced as you carefully edge forward and take out the enemies, but it’s a fantastic game.  I first played it back in the ’90s in the arcades, and while I couldn’t get very far, I liked the game a lot.  The game also has a pretty good NES port which adds in a badly needed password save system.  It was released on other platforms as well.

 Rolling Thunder 2 (Genesis) gameplay

Rolling Thunder 2 (Genesis) gameplay

Rolling Thunder got two sequels before the series sadly stopped.  I didn’t play either sequel until within the last decade, but the second game was released in arcades and on the Genesis, and it’s a great game.  It lets you play as either Albatross or Leila, adds bosses to the series, is just as hard as the original, and has a two player co-op mode, which is great to have.  The level designs don’t feel quite as good to me as those in the original game do, but it’s still great.  The third and last one here, which this review is for, was released for the Genesis only.  This is the only console-exclusive game in the series.  Overall though it’s a great series, and I wish that it’d come back; make a new (still side scrolling of course) digital-download Rolling Thunder game, Namco!  It’d be great.

 Rolling Thunder 3 Title Screen

Rolling Thunder 3 Title Screen

Now, on to Rolling Thunder 3.  This time you play as Jay, another special agent for the same group as Albatross, and you’re out to beat the evil villain Dread and destroy his sinister organization.  Your mission apparently is happening at the same time as Rolling Thunder 2, which is why Albatross and Leila are unavailable.  There’s also a woman who is the usual female voice in your ear character; as I said above you can play as her with a password, but she has no story, just the levels, and plays identically to Jay (though that I would expect; Albatross and Leila played the same in the second game, too).

Overall, while Rolling Thunder 3 is a good to great game, I think that it’s disappointing and the worst of the three games for multiple reasons.  First, the game is easier than either previous title.  On Normal difficulty the final boss of this game is very challenging, but the rest of the game before that really isn’t so bad, once you spend a little time memorizing it.  Second, the great co-op mode from the second game is gone for no reason.  And on that note, by default, and in the story, you only play as a male agent again this time; there is a female one to play as, but only through a special password, and she has no story.  It’s better than nothing though.  The game also gives you a special weapon in each level (except for level 9), which might sound good, but really it’s maybe a bit too much much firepower for a game that is supposed to be more about thought and careful action than it is about running around guns-a-blazing.  Rolling Thunder 3 also has less interesting level designs than the previous titles, except for the final bosses’ final form easier bosses than Rolling Thunder 2 (the first one didn’t have bosses, remember), However, the game does have mostly great gameplay, the diagonal firing ability is great and was a very welcome addition, despite the flaws the game is plenty of fun if you’re a fan of the series, it’s is the only Rolling Thunder game with actual cutscenes between levels that tell a continuing, if generic, spy action movie plot, and it has some decent and varied graphics and sound too, so anyone who likes this series at all should definitely play Rolling Thunder 3.  Just don’t expect it to be as good as the previous two games.

As the list above suggests, the most important thing to know about Rolling Thunder 3 is that it’s a consolized game.  The story scenes between levels, changing locations, simpler level designs, heavier weapons in your arsenal, and more all add up to simplifying and consolizing the series.  The special weapons are emblematic of that change, I think.    You can choose from nine different weapons before each stage, or you can choose to not take one with you, and if you choose a weapon before a level, you can’t use it again in the rest of the game, unless it appears in a door as a pickup.  So, you need to conserve your weapon choices, and have the right one left for the final level, for instance (I recommend the Bazooka!).  It’s an interesting mechanic, but the special weapons in general aren’t needed, and give you a feeling of power that doesn’t really fit with the Rolling Thunder series’ theme.  A bazooka, in Rolling Thunder?  Really?  Sure, the weapons have limited ammo and you are rewarded a bit for not taking one, as you can then use any for the final stage and also you do have a knife weapon if you don’t have a special weapon equipped (it does two bullets worth of damage per hit) and also if you go into a special weapon ammo refill room without one you’ll instead get healed (or have 1 added hit point added, if you have full health), and that’s great.  Really, I think this game is the most fun when played without special weapons, except for that bazooka to help against the final boss.  Take them if you want, but they’re not needed.

An early level in Rolling Thunder 3

An early level in Rolling Thunder 3

In terms of length and level designs, the game isn’t any longer than the first two games; on the contrary, thanks to its lower difficulty level, it’s shorter, and even without that, it’s not that long.  Rolling Thunder 3 has ten levels, three of which are somewhat short special stages, and most of the rest are straightforward.  When compared to the previous games, and the first game particularly, in terms of level designs and weapons Rolling Thunder 3 tries to make things simpler and more actioney.  Level designs here are not as complex as they often were in the first game.  Levels just go to the right, or occasionally up or down a single screen at set points.  There are no large areas multiple screens tall for you to go through, as the first game had from the beginning.  Don’t expect anything like that big staircase in the first level of Rolling Thunder, either.  That’s disappointing.  There aren’t even interesting set-pieces like the sections with all those tires in Rolling Thunder 1!  There are some nice scenes to be sure, like that one time that enemies jump at you from a helicopter, or the explosive gas tanks, but those are in the first two levels,… and then nothing like either one happens again for the rest of the game.  Yeah, this game is like that.  That level with the gas tanks you can blow up also has a very bland design; it’s mostly just walking to the right and shooting, simple as that.  The later levels get harder, and there are almost always two platform levels later on, but the game just doesn’t have those unique level design challenges like the ones that fill the first game from the first level on.  No, Namco, having every level take place in a different place, often with a different set of (similar) enemies, doesn’t excuse how bland the levels are once you take off the new paint jobs.

This game has many fewer doors than the previous games, too, so when you see a door, there’s an odds-on chance that something is actually behind it.  The level designs this time really are too simple and bland.  Most of the time you’re just on a one or two level sideways path.  The only variation is in the environment — and this game has many, as befitting its action-movie theme, as every level has a new setting — and in which areas have that second level of platforms and which don’t.  While playing this game it’s easy to forget this problem, as the game is fun and simple, but play this and then the first or second ones, and the problem becomes apparent.  There was plenty of imagination here in the settings, but not much in the level designs.

Compounding that issue are the three special stages, which are levels 3, 6, and 9.  In the first one you are on a motorcycle, the second on a jetski, and the last in a hijacked airplane.  The first two are isometric, not side-scrolling, and they’re simple but fun.  Don’t expect much challenge, but they are entertaining diversions.  That airplane level is a real pain, though.  You aren’t allowed a special weapon in this level, and there are no alternate levels of play either; it’s just one long flat floor.  There’s no way to hide here.  As a result it’s somewhat frustrating, and doesn’t feel like something with any place in a Rolling Thunder game, either.  At least the level isn’t too long; still, use the knife a lot, or you’ll run out of bullets.  Learning that is the key to the stage.

Scene from the intro

There are some good things about Rolling Thunder 3, though.  Most obviously, as I said above, this is still Rolling Thunder at its core.  They put in too much actioney stuff, but the Rolling Thunder core is still here, and it’s a lot of fun.  First, that diagonal firing ability is just great to have.  It’s no replacement for the co-op mode in the second game, but still, it makes things more fun in single player mode, for sure.  Also, the game may be easier than the first two games, but there is an unlockable Hard mode you get after you beat the game the first time, and given how crazy-difficult the first two games get, making a somewhat easier Rolling Thunder game isn’t all bad.  I mean, I can actually beat this one… it’s satisfying to finish a game.  Also, that final boss was a fun challenge.  Sure, it took me dozens of tries, several days, and innumerable replays of the final level (yes, I got pretty good at it) before I finally got past him, but once I did it was quite satisfying.  I only wish that the game had more unpredictable challenges like that one, but it doesn’t; the first three bosses, and the first form of the final boss, have basic patterns that should be easy to learn.  Either that, or you can just beat them by moving in and attacking until they lose, it varies from boss to boss.  Still, at least the final form was hard.

Also, the levels which are more traditionally Rolling Thunder in style, like levels 8 and 10, are both moderately challenging, and are quite fun to try to master.  At first they seem tough, and level 10’s boss is, but other than that, with practice I learned how to get through them without too much trouble.  Memorization is of course key, but that’s par for the course in this kind of game, and I don’t mind it.  It’s unfortunate that the game takes so long to get good, and that the levels stay bland in layout and design, but at least they do manage to get more fun as you go along even if the floor layouts never match the original title.  And finally, the graphics are nice, the music is good, and the story, if simplistic and generic, is solid for the genre.   The ending is fitting for the genre as well.  I only wish that the female character had an ending, but ah well.  I like that they added cutscenes to the game; they’re decently done, and don’t go on for too long.

Overall, Rolling Thunder 3 is a very good game that I quite enjoyed playing through.  I’ll probably come back to it and try it at least partway through on the Hard mode, too.  However, it’s just not nearly as good as either of its predecessors, and overall, as a Rolling Thunder game it’s a moderate disappointment.  Still, it’s sad that the series ended with this game; it’s a great series, and deserved to continue.  Ah well, at least there were three good games.  Overall, definitely play this game, but consider it an intro to Rolling Thunder, and move on to its superior predecessors after spending some time with it.  I’m not sure what score I’d give this game, it’s honestly hard… a B or B-, probably, maybe a C if I was being hard on it, but choosing one rating is tough.  On the one hand it’s fairly good as a standalone game, but on the other hand, it’s moderately disappointing compared to the incredible original game.  That makes it tough to precisely score.  Anyway though, overall, Rolling Thunder 3 is a good, but not great, game.  I liked it a lot, but I would have liked it even more if it’d been more like the original.  I guess I give it a B; I do really, really love the original.  Make a Rolling Thunder game again, Namco!  A 2d one would be great.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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