Proper “spy games” are something I don’t feel like we see a lot of any more, perhaps since fascination with the concept waned somewhat with the end of the Cold War.
That said, there are tons of awesome “spy games” from back in the day that we can still enjoy, and Rolling Thunder, a 1986 arcade game from Namco, included on the Nintendo Switch version of Namco Museum, is a great example.
Initially appearing to be a fairly straightforward, early example of “run and gun” gameplay, spending a little more time with Rolling Thunder reveals a tightly designed game that shows first impressions aren’t always entirely accurate.
In Rolling Thunder, you take on the role of an agent called Albatross as he attempts to infiltrate a secret organisation known as Geldra in order to rescue a comrade known as Leila Blitz. Geldra is clearly intended to be interpreted as a cult-like organisation; the majority of its henchmen, known as “Maskers”, wear coloured hoods to obscure their faces entirely, and as you progress through the game you start to discover more monstrous enemies, clearly the result of some kind of genetic experimentation.
The basic gameplay is simple. You have a fire button and a jump button, and you have to make your way from the left side of the level to the right. So far so “run and gun”, but what makes Rolling Thunder stand out from the games it superficially appears to resemble is the pacing: rather than rewarding going in all guns blazing, this is a game that rewards a more careful, methodical approach — at times even feeling like an early example of a “stealth” game more than anything else.
A slower approach is emphasised by some deliberately stiff controls that prevent you from responding to situations at high speed. You can’t fire while jumping, for example, nor can you fire upwards. It’s also difficult to change direction while crouching down, meaning getting surrounded by enemies is extremely dangerous, and while you can enter doors in the background to collect extra ammunition and a more powerful machine gun weapon, if you time this badly so you walk back out of the door while an enemy is waiting outside for you, you’re going to have a bad time.
The slow pace is further emphasised by the fact the character animation depicts Albatross as walking rather than running, and the poses while he jumps, falls and flips over guard rails to move between different floors are all designed to make him look cool rather than be practical. This could all have been terribly infuriating if the game was designed in such a way that it constantly threw enemies at you, but it’s not; it features a combination of predictable, learnable enemy placements in each level coupled with semi-randomised enemies appearing from doorways. After a playthrough or two, you very much get used to the “rhythm” of the game, and it’s quite unlike anything else.
A “spray and pray” approach is discouraged by the fact you have limited ammunition in your pistol (and machine gun, if you find it). However, you’re not left completely defenceless if you run out of bullets; you have a backup weapon that allows you to fire one single, slow-moving bullet at a time — a callback to Namco’s earlier shoot ’em ups such as Galaga where you could only fire a limited number of shots at once — and it’s very much still possible to clear a level armed with this; you just have to be a lot more careful.
There are a couple of baffling design decisions along the way, most notably the use of a life bar. The presentation of this suggests you might have eight “hit points” before you lose a life; however, in execution, you’re never able to take more than two hits before keeling over dead in a rather melodramatic manner, and getting clipped by a bullet or other projectile weapon will kill you instantly. It’s a little misleading when you first play the game, but much like the overall feel and “rhythm” of how things unfold, it’s something you quickly become accustomed to. Don’t try and brute-force your way through, in other words!
The whole game is given a rather 1960s-style comic book feel through a combination of its setting, the monstrous villain, and the excellent music, the latter of which makes excellent use of the system’s Yamaha YM2151 FM chip for some highly distinctive, catchy and genre-appropriate music coupled with some crunchy, early examples of digitised sound for the grunts and screams of defeated enemies and gunfire.
In many ways, it feels quite a lot like many American shareware PC games of the early ’90s were inspired by Rolling Thunder’s aesthetic. The bright colours and jazzy FM soundtrack of something like Apogee’s Bio Menace are a particularly noticeable example — the gameplay is quite similar in some ways, too, albeit with more platforming — but even something like Id Software’s 1992 classic Wolfenstein 3D, a game which played a major role in defining the first-person shooter genre, could be argued to have links back to Rolling Thunder in terms of both its presentation and “comic book” feel. Both games feature a lone protagonist going up against an evil organisation that is later revealed to be playing with “supernatural” influences; both reward somewhat methodical, careful play; and both combine unobtrusive FM synthesised music with stylised digital sounds.
Whether or not Rolling Thunder actually did have an influence on these games — whether consciously or subconsciously — is a matter for only the creators of those works to know. But suffice to say for now that Rolling Thunder itself is a solid and highly enjoyable game in its own right. It’s an interesting example of a relatively early arcade game that isn’t non-stop, fast-paced action — while you still need decent reflexes to survive the various situations in which you’ll find yourself, it’s a more “mature” game in many ways that rewards careful observation, accuracy and timing rather than being able to respond quickly. It’s a game that rewards patience and defensive play rather than non-stop aggressiveness, and that makes it particularly interesting to look at from a modern perspective — especially taking into account the continual ebbing and flowing of the stealth genre’s popularity.
Also there’s a much less well-known sequel, but more on that another day…
More about Rolling Thunder
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