Arcades were the stop-and-drop day-care centres of yesteryear: a place where parents could leave their children to find joy (and stranger danger) in the dark and shadows, to the din and ring of a thousand shattered game lives. In these dank money-guzzling halls I found great solace and skill while learning the merit of quick reflexes. They were hand-eye coordination gymnasiums. But more sinister were the economics at play. You see, there was a fine line between a challenging difficulty curve and an unforgiving one. Games were, first and foremost, designed to make money for the arcade owners. However, ramping up the difficulty too high would soon have a layer of dust accumulating on an ignored machine.
And then there were the times that the game company did it themselves. Enter Namco’s 1986 rage-inducing Rolling Thunder – a game that decided what the arcade world needed was realism. One bullet, dead! Two punches, dead! Three continues later, aaaaaargh! And now you know why arcade machines weighed a ton. It would be the fate of consoles to be tossed at walls to satisfy the rage-quitting gods.
You play as Albatross, a member of the World Crime Police Organization’s Rolling Thunder anti-espionage unit and... and... wow, that’ a long name. I’m getting flashbacks of Agent Coulson (may his name be remembered always) rattling off S.H.I.E.L.D.’s full title before the ADD made him stop. And what kind of a hero name is Albatross? A lone wandering bird, gliding across the oceans, bringing bad luck if killed. Perhaps that’s how he avoids getting fragged by enemy agents?
“Don’t shoot! Bad luck will follow us always if you do!”
“But Jeff, (because all henchmen are called Jeff) he’s shooting at us.”
“Fine. Just do what you want!” *storms off in a huff, gets shot by Albatross*
“Jeff, nooooo!” *commences firing… sounds of roof collapsing*
*Jeff death gurgle* “I… warned … you…”
Luckily, this game is set on land and Albatross gets to die guilt-free. And you will die. Oh my, yes. And all because you must rescue Agent Leila Blitz from Geldra – a secret society that probably got its name when someone’s cat walked over the keyboard. Geldra does have one redeeming factor: the brightest outfits I have ever witnessed. There’s so much colour you’d think it was Pride Month all the time. The outfits do denote who will shoot, punch, stealth-kill or lob a grenade at you but who cares? They’re a lovely rainbow of death.
Albatross arrives at the base and so begins our side-scrolling run and g- DEAD… Next life. Ahem, let’s start our side-scrolling assault on the halls of Geld- DEAD! Sigh. To say this game is a tad unforgiving at times is like saying the Normandy Landings were a touch noisy. This was the first time cover-based shooting was a thing and thus, no one used it. Perhaps a memo next time, for those of us unable to ‘smell’ your innovation, Namco? As I said before, two punches can kill you and a bullet is instant death. I don’t know why you even have a health bar unless it’s the game’s sadistic version of offering hope. This might explain why Albatross wears a red shirt – so they can’t see him bleed. However, considering the challenges that come up as the game progresses, Albatross should also be wearing brown trousers.
Had I known what gaming grind was at the budding age of nine, this game would be Grind incarnate. The levels require you to have either watched others get run and gunned down to learn the stage layout; be psychic or have burned a ton of silver coinage to discover all the oncoming pitfalls. All the while, you get treated to a torture montage as, at the end of each stage, you watch Agent Blitz’s capture and torment. It’s as though Geldra released a training video entitled “How Not to Agent”. The clips include her getting a beating and being strung up and electrocuted… This goes some way to explaining Eli Roth’s Hostel. Methinks he looked upon this game as his muse.
The only major equaliser is that, once per stage, you’ll find a door marked ARMS. No, it’s not the old amputees exchange counter. This is where you get to pick up a machine gun and so, the carnage beg- DEAD. Son of a b***h! Right then, the machine gun gives you a rare moment of invincibility as you mow down waves of brightly dressed henchmen. However, as with your normal handgun, bullets are not free, and woe betide the player that dry fires mid-level. For then, your death spray of white-hot lead is replaced by a single pellet of slow moving, remedial annoyance that seems to be asking permission to maim as it glides towards your now dodge-capable enemies.
Speaking of your enemies, when not under assault from the angry rainbow nation, you’ll have to contend with giant bats that swoop upon you in Transylvanian waves of doom; yellow shrieking things that were clearly the result of that brainstorming session where the dev team dropped acid; panthers that jump on you and your dreams; and lava men. The lava men are a special kind of posterior pounder as they explode when shot and then split into four smaller running burn victims. Each of these can’t wait to do the Masochism Tango on your face. Ha, happy days! And just when I thought the game couldn’t possibly take the piss any harder… it begins repeating itself. “Story 1” comprises of five stages of increasing difficulty. Then “Story 2” begins, which is THE SAME FIVE STAGES, only they’re at a higher difficulty setting! Really? And we wonder how the pointless grind of Middle-earth: Shadow of War could have come to pass. Arcades were passive loot boxes in an "Oops, you died! Better pump in some more coins" kind of way. You b*****ds!
Your only moment of respite is when you finally get to the end and battle Geldra’s leader Maboo… And with a name so stupid, he deserves every bullet to the face he got. The ending scene is amusing and sad all at once. Agent Blitz rests her smiling head on Albatross’ shoulder while he stares off into the middle distance, the expression on his face laced with PTSD and just a touch of internal screaming. Side-note: I’ve recently learned that another undocumented game feature allows you to walk back to previously raided ARMS and AMMO rooms and stock up on all the machine gun death you could possibly want. There’s only one drawback: get to the stage’s end before time runs out or you’ll die, naturally.
Difficulty for days, if you’re into that.
That machine gun cheat!
Shooting a four-man lava team in mid-flight.
Cash-mining difficulty settings.
Repetition is not level design.
Those yellow b*****ds.
Rolling Thunder falls into that category of games that were most maligned at the time and are now revered for spawning the ‘Dark Souls Difficulty’ trend in gaming. Face it, arcades did it first and for the souls that played these titles in the dark, the only rolling thunder we often felt was in our pants, post a poverty-inducing playthrough.
Comedian, Writer, Actor, Voice-artist. Host of the Urbane Myths podcast, Co-host of GeekXP's 'Release The Geek'. Opinionist Purveyor of Wanton Meanderings. And above all, Geek.
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