Rolling Thunder (NES) Review – One of the ’80’s Best Games!

I just finished this game yesterday and wrote this up today.  Sorry about the delay on finishing the formatting improvements for the PS1 summaries list, but I will do that soon.  Playing Rolling Thunder took precedence!  It’s an amazing game, and quite likely my favorite game by Namco.  It’s probably either this, Galaga, or Pac-Man.

Game Information

  • Title: Rolling Thunder
  • Released: 1989 (US & Japan)
  • Developer: Namco
  • Publisher: Tengen (US); Namco (Japan) [Note: I have the US version]
  • Review Written: March 4, 2015
REVIEW


The Japanese cover looks a lot like the game.


Of course in the US the hero is made to look a lot more bulked-up.

BACKGROUND INFO & STORY

I finally beat this game a few days ago, and it feels great! Rolling Thunder was one of my favorite games of the ’80s, but it’s a very difficult game. Yes, despite its often nearly unfair difficulty I love Rolling Thunder, it’s an incredible game and a bit of an under-rated classic. I actually already got halfway through Hard mode, which I didn’t know existed until I finished this game on Normal yesterday; you get the password for it after beating the game on normal. Of course I have to challenge it. This is a super-frustrating game and you must memorize every inch of it to survive, and pull off those button presses PERFECTLY to not die, but I love it!

I bought the NES version of Rolling Thunder a few years ago and got to level three out of the games’ ten levels before giving up. I started playing this game again a few weeks ago, after picking up Rolling Thunder 2 again and deciding that while it’s great, I like the first game more, so I should play this game as well. I’m actually at the last level of Rolling Thunder 2 now, and will get back to finish that… but now I’m playing Rolling Thunder 1 in Hard instead. Yeah, I like this game a lot, as frustratingly hard as it is. The first Rolling Thunder game is my favorte one in the series; each of the two sequels isn’t quite as good as the one before it, though Rolling Thunder 2 is a lot better than the third game.

Rolling Thunder is a mid 1980s Namco arcade game which got a NES port later in the decade, published by Namco in Japan and Tengen in the US. You play as Albatross, a secret agent, and have to, of course, rescue the kidnapped woman; Leila, another agent, was captured by the evil Geldra organization and you have to save her. So yeah, the story is awful, “rescue the girl” is one of the worst plots possible. There are even dumb little cutscenes between levels with fanservicey shots of Leila suffering to encourage you to save her. Fortunately it makes up for it with great gameplay. The game has a Cold War spy-movie look to it, maybe 1960s or something like that. The NES version is graphically downgraded from the arcade, but it holds up quite well. There have been changes to levels, and some bits have been simplified because of NES sprite limits, but things have been spread out a bit, so the end result is at least as hard as the arcade game and might be even harder overall. Arcade and NES longplay playthroughs are about the same length in time.

To make the game possible to finish, fortuantely Rolling Thunder does have a password save system. You’ll get a password after every other level in Normal, and after every level in Hard. I was pretty happy to see the passwords every level in Hard, it’s a nice addition! Most levels also have a midway checkpoint, but levels 5 and 10 do not, you’ll have to beat those two in one try. There are 10 levels in the game. So, yes, this means that if you die at the final boss it’s all the way back to the beginning of level 10, and in Normal, if that’s your last continue, it’s back to level 9. Fortunately, after a lot of practice level 9 is actually not too difficult, I got through it without too much trouble. It was level 10, and the last part of it in particular, that’s the trick.

As it is an arcade port, Rolling Thunder has a points system. Killing enemies gets points, and you get a point bonus at the end of each level based on your time. You get one extra life at 30,000 points, and a second at 75,000. I imagine there are more past that. Lives are useful most of the time because game over sends you back to the title screen and thus the last point you can continue from a password, while if you reached the level checkpoint in a level with a checkpoint you will start from there for as long as your lives last.


The beginning. Note the upper and lower platforms, and one of many doors.

CONTROLS

Rolling Thunder is one of those games where everything is very predictable and super hard. Any one bullet will kill you, and get sent back when you die. Albatross does have two hit points, but bullets take away two, while touching any enemy takes off one. There are no health recharges during levels, only if you beat a stage, so if you touch any enemy once you’ll need to avoid that happening again until the end of the level. The sequels do have some health recharge or increase powerups in some doors, but not this one; it’s a memorizer through and through. Play the game, die, learn where the enemies are, and try to do it right next time. Ammo is limited, so only shoot when you need to, wasting bullets means you might run out, and there is no backup attack, you’re just a sitting duck. Again the sequels ease up here and give you melee attacks. I never actually ran out of ammo while playing the game in the last few weeks, but it is possible if you don’t go in every ammo door or waste lots of ammo. You can only shoot straight ahead in a line, and not up, down, or any other direction.

Albatross does not control like Mario; your movements are more realistic, apart from how high you can jump, and more limited. Left and right move left and right, up looks up (needed to to platforms above you), down ducks (you cannot move while ducking, but can shoot), B jumps, and A shoots. The controls are very responsive, even touchy, and take time to get used to. You can only do one thing at any time, so if you hit the shoot button, you cannot duck immediately, you have to wait until the shot finishes and let go of the fire button before you will be able to duck, by which point you’re probably dead. Try again. You will jump upwards if you hit jump, forwards with the direction Albatross is currently facing plus jump, and jump higher and onto a platform above you if you hold up and then hit jump. To jump forward you hit forward and then jump a moment later, but get the tap of forward off versus the tap of jump and you’ll walk off the platform if you’re at the edge. This can get very frustrating sometimes. You can’t control your guy, Albatross, in the air, so you need to jump from the correct point in order to land where you want. To jump or shoot the other way you’ll need to turn around first, which takes time.

One vital strategy to learn is how to fire both ways while ducking without standing up. Press the dpad diagonally down in the way you are facing, roll to diagonal in the other way, then press fire a few times. Albatross will fire once in the way he is facing, wasting a shot if no one is there, before flipping and shooting the other way. It’s clumsy, but works, though the sequels improve this quite a bit, as in those games you can just turn around while ducking by hitting the opposite diagonal down direction.


The back of the boxes (this and the other one, below) show several of the types of environments Albatross will face.

LEVEL DESIGN

Rolling Thunder has an iconic level design style. Clearly somewhat inspired by Elevator Action but zoomed in, Rolling Thunder is a side-scrolling 2d platform-action game. Most areas have either one or two levels of platforms, with ground below and platforms often above. Occasional sections have boxes, walls, or other rarer obstacles that block your way and force you to go over them or go to the other level to proceed. There are also a few sections with a background area behind metal grille walls that you can go to, to go around some obstacles and such. Most levels stroll to the right only, but once a As in Elevator Action, Rolling Thunder’s levels are full of doors. Enemies often come out of doors, there are powerups behind doors (these are usually, but not always, marked with signs), and you can hide behind doors in order to stay out of the way of enemy fire. You are invulnerable when behind a door, even if enemies are there too they can’t hurt you. It’s kind of amusing when an enemy enters the same door you’re behind; nothing happens. Levels are varied in length, which is nice. The game has somewhat limited graphical variety, but this is the NES so that is somewhat to be expected, and anyway I don’t midn this all that much; you are invading an evil organization’s base, so it makes sense that the game has a consistent visual theme.

In addition to coming out of doors, enemies also will come onto the screen from the sides or top. All enemies appear when you reach certain points on the screen, and whether you are on the upper or lower platforms will affect which enemies appear. So, you can memorize where enemies will appear from with practice. However, beccause of the sprite limit on the NES, you cannot be sure that every enemy will appear. I had to just learn all the possibilities, and try to figure out what movements would get the enemies I wanted for some of the trickier segments. This game is very unfair, there are segments where you just have to wait for the enemies to move out of the way before you can progress. Trying to get certain enemies to not appear by having too many other enemies on screen can work at times, though.

Because you die in one shot, and many enemies shoot at you, jumping and ducking are vital for survival. The controls are a factor here. Most enemies will shoot at normal height so you can duck under their fire and hopefully shoot them, but learn which enemies duck and shoot low, they can make your life difficult at times! I died innumerable times because of slightly messing up my button timing. Remember, Albatross only can move or jump in the direction he is facing, and you have to get that button timing right in order to jump where you want. Getting to the exact pixel you need to jump from can be tricky because of the need to tap forward with jump. Often you have to jump from the VERY edge of a platform, anywhere else and you’ll jump over that block in front of you and into the bullets on the other side instead of on top of the block as you need to. It’s very finicky and frustrating, but you get used to it, or quit. And I think a lot of people quit on this game, it’s not mentioned as one of the great arcade or NES games nearly as often as I feel it should be.

Most of Rolling Thunder doesn’t have instant-death pits, but there are some, and also some instant-death laser traps in the second half of the game that you will have to learn the timing for. The death pits, over pits of lava, are in levels 4 and 8. You really need to master memorizing how far each jump will take you to get through these, and jump from just the right place to land on the next platform! And the fire-bat enemies in these areas can be tricky, too. Watch out for their comeback after you shoot them! You can shoot that too for additional points. The segment in level 8 is particularly hard. Rolling Thunder 2 does have a part over death pits in one level, but it’s not quite as hard as the segment in level 8 of the first game, and they entirely got rid of the parts where you have to jump onto boxes from exactly the right pixel on the very edge of the box below it. I kind of like that, but I do appreciate the challenge of the first game. It’s probably kind of weird to miss those super-evil jumps, but… I kind of do. Heh. The third game has no jumping puzzle sections over instant-death pits at all, which makes it even easier; as I said in my review of that game I do find that one definitely a bit disappointing level design-wise. At least the second game is still a challenge, even if it’s not quite as much of one as the first. Rolling Thunder is a very hard game, and beating the game on an actual cartridge and not in an emulator with savestates took effort, but it was really worth it. The password system really is a huge, huge help, save systems make games so much better.

Rolling Thunder is mostly a great game, but it is kind of disappointing that the second half of the game is mostly a copy of the first half — four of the five levels from levels 6 to 10 are copies of levels from the first half of the game with some changes here and there, and a few new areas (levels 8 and 10 particularly have large new segments at the end versus levels 3 and 5). The only all-new level in the second half is level 9, which replaces level 4 and is quite different from it. Rolling Thunders 2 and 3 actually are all original stages to the end. This means that if you beat this game on both difficulties, and you have to beat normal in order to get the password to start on hard, you’ll play most of the levels four times. It does get a bit repetitive.


For enemies in the screenshots, note the grenade guy, monkey-man, pumas, and regular yellow and blue guy.

ENEMIES

There are only a handful of enemy types in this game, and most of them are recolors of the same hooded Geldra henchman guy. The colors are nice because you know how each type is going to behave at a glance. In Normal, some enemies will shoot at you and others won’t, and the colors say which are which, and also how many shots it’ll take to kill an enemy. In hard all enemies shoot at you, which makes things tougher, but the number and placement of enemies is identical to before. For enemy types, the blue and yellow guys take two shots but won’t shoot at you in Normal, the purple guys die in one hit but will always shoot, the yellow guys take 3 shots, white four, white and another color two and they will shoot at you and also duck behind boxes, green and brown two and they will shoot but won’t duck, grey guys will throw grenades at you, and some more. It’d be nice if you could use grenades too, but no. Grenades kill in one hit of course, just like bullets. (In Rolling Thunder 2, grenades do only one hit of damage, not two.)

Beyond the numerous henchmen, there are also several types of animal foes. Geldra has fire-bats, pumas (or some other large cat like that), jumping monkey-men, and flying birdlike creatures. All four die in one hit, mostly (the fire-bats are sort of an exception). The monkey-men will come at you from the ground or air, and jump around back and forth. Try to kill them as soon as possible. The birds can be tough to kill if they’re in the air, so try to either kill them before they take off, if they start on the ground, or find a door to hide behind, and shoot them after they dive at you. Fire-bats seem to die when you shoot them, but will then fly up out of the ground into the sky at a diagonal angle. You can either avoid this or shoot it. And the big cats will jump at you; you can only shoot them when they are in the air or are tensing to jump, your shots will go over them while they’re just walking on the ground. They will jump at you when you approach them, thankfully. The animal enemies don’t always appear, but can make some areas tough, particularly when you need to deal with flying enemies, considering that you can only shoot straight and not up.

At the end of the game, you face Geldra himself, in a room full of enemies with a cool Art Deco design and the word “GELDRA” spelled out in the background and Leila chained up in the background. This room is VERY tricky, and memorizing and avoiding the start locations of every one of the numerous foes who drop from various points on the ceiling took many, many plays of levels 9 and 10; remember, every death in that room sends you back to the start of the level, and on Normal, game over and it’s level 9 again. The game has only one true boss, Geldra himself. Amusingly enough, I actually beat him the very first time I managed to get through the waves of regular enemies and face Geldra himself! That was pretty awesome. He’s tough, but just have enough ammo and fire high and low a lot and you should get through. Having enough ammo is definitely important though, that last room takes up a lot of it.

The last kind of obstacle that can kill you re those death pits and laser traps. Death pits are obvious, just learn the jumps and don’t fall in them. Laser traps only appear in the second half of the game, at certain points in some levels. Level 9 is particularly full of them. These take perfectly timed jumps or movement to get through without getting killed. Because of how hard level 10 is, though, and that passwords in Normal are only every other level, eventually I got pretty good at beating level 9 while usually not getting hit by the lasers.


Geldra’s laughing face greets you when you go to the title screen.  His name may be kind of funny, but his game is hard.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND

Graphically, Rolling Thunder has, as I said before, very limited variety. There are ten levels, but only six of them are entirely unique, four of the levels from the second half are mostly rehashes. And many of the levels look similar, as well, in similar Geldra-base environments. There is also a level in a cave, and a few of those bits over fire-pits, but this game doesn’t have the most variety. I do think that the look works, though, and again, Geldra is an evil organization, why not have a consistent look to your base? There is an obvious graphical downgrade from the arcade game, but for the NES it looks good enough.

For music, the game has even less variety. There are only a couple of songs in this game which repeat endlessly, so get used to them. Most levels have the same music. Fortunately it’s decent, but more music would be nice. Different music in each level would have been great. The Japanese version of this game has enhanced audio with a chip that uses the Famicom cart’s additional audio lines, but they had to remove that for the US version, so the audio on a FC with that version is probably better. I have the US version.

CONCLUSION

Rolling Thunder is one great game! This is a fantastic arcade classic, and the NES version of the game is almost as great as the arcade original. The graphics of course not as good as the arcade game, but it still looks fine, and all the enemies and obstacles from the arcade game are here. NES flicker issues actually help here, because you can get enemies to not appear if there are already too many enemies on screen, quite helpful at times. In order to take down Geldra and his thugs you’ll need all the help you can get. Albatross controls tightly and the controls are touchy, and you’ll need to get your button presses just right, but it does get easier with practice. This game is all about memorizing levels and then executing the perfect path through the stage. It is very, very rewarding when you finally get a level right and beat it! It just wouldn’t have been the same if I’d used an emulator and savestates, the risk of being sent back if I died made me take the game more seriously, and it deserves that respect. And after a while I did eventually beat the game, so it is possible with effort. Now all I have to do is try to beat levels 6 through 10 of the hard mode… but I will try, and hopefully eventually beat the whole thing.

In conclusion, Rolling Thunder is fantastic, a great version of an arcade classic that is just as good as the arcade game, and I would definitely put it on my list of my favorite NES games. The game has a few issues, such as repetitive graphics and music and some control issues that could have been improved on, but they don’t hurt it much overall. I give the game an A grade. As far as scores go, it’s in the top ten of NES games that I actually own on cartridge.

VIDEO

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btfRSbSqyhs Here is a good longplay of the NES game.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUrTqXtdINw For comparison, this is the arcade original.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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2 Responses to Rolling Thunder (NES) Review – One of the ’80’s Best Games!

  1. Eric Bykowski says:

    Dude…my brother and I have been playing this game in at least 3 hour increments and have been stuck on level 10 this entire time.
    He goes home tomorrow and if we dont beat it we will be devastated.

  2. Eric Bykowski says:

    Dude…my brother and I have been playing this game in at least 3 hour increments for the last 3 days and have been stuck on level 10 this entire time.
    He goes home tomorrow and if we dont beat it we will be devastated.

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