Rolling Thunder is a classic Namco title with good reason. Its slower pace, methodical gameplay and learnable patterns make it an obvious precursor to the stealth games of today.
Its 1990 sequel offers more of the same in many ways — but with considerably enhanced visuals, refined mechanics and presentation and an all-new option to enjoy the game with two players simultaneously.
It’s not nearly as well known as its predecessor, but it’s a great game in its own right. And, conveniently, it’s part of the Namco Museum collection on Nintendo Switch!
While the original Rolling Thunder was set in 1968 — and put across a pretty convincing impression of this through its comic book/pulp fiction stylings and endearingly cheesy music — the newer game is set in the ’90s.
Taking the lead this time around is Leila Blitz, the “damsel in distress” from the original game; previous protagonist Albatross, meanwhile, takes the second player slot if two are playing simultaneously. Both have equal capabilities despite the differences in their appearance, and Leila should be applauded for doing a spectacular job of kicking ass while wearing an extremely formidable looking pair of heels.
As before, this is a slow-paced side-scroller that rewards patience and observation rather than running in blasting blindly. Once again, you have limited ammunition and enemies appear in learnable, predictable locations around the level.
There’s a strong emphasis on taking cover to avoid ranged attacks and careful manoeuvring to get yourself into tactically advantageous positions; while both Leila and Albatross have the agility to leap from ground level to an upper balcony without breaking a sweat, firing while jumping or falling is a skill that still eludes both of them, so you need to bear this in mind while negotiating the levels.
Probably the most striking thing about Rolling Thunder 2 over its predecessor is the upgrade and overhaul its visuals have had. Now running on Namco’s 16-bit System 2 hardware rather than the 8-bit System 86 board of the original, the increase in graphical detail and colour depth is impressive, and the added detail doesn’t obfuscate what is going on in any way.
The bright, comic-book colour scheme of the original persists, with colour-coded enemies indicating at a glance how they will move and attack as well as how many shots they’ll need to take down, but this time around the more powerful hardware allows for more detailed, colourful backgrounds alongside the bright sprites. The first stage unfolds in a Florida seaside resort, for example, with the vibrant blue sky practically allowing you to feel the heat, and the action then moves inside an opulent mansion, with rich shades of red and gold doing wonders to create an atmosphere of decadence.
The sound hasn’t had quite the same level of upgrade, making use of the same Yamaha YM2151 sound chip as its predecessor, but this is fine; its eight-channel FM synthesis provides an iconic sound, and Rolling Thunder 2 features some excellent compositions to accompany the action. These were composed by Ayako Saso, who also contributed to the original Ridge Racer’s soundtrack before moving on to work for Capcom on the Street Fighter EX series and Mega Man Network Transmission.
Saso’s music evokes feelings of light-hearted ’80s action movies (think Beverly Hills Cop and its ilk) rather than ’60s spy shows… though there is more than a touch of Mission: Impossible in one or two of the tracks. This is entirely in keeping with the tone that Rolling Thunder 2 is going for; while it’s clear the main narrative has you dealing with a dangerous terrorist threat, if this was a movie both Leila and Albatross would be dropping one-liners at every opportunity, and doubtless also engaging in some sort of buddy cop will-they-won’t-they romance during brief moments of downtime.
Gameplay-wise, Rolling Thunder 2 handles much like its predecessor, though there have been a couple of refinements to the interface in particular. Probably most notable among these is the fact that the life meter is no longer misleading, consisting of two blocks instead of the original eight; like in the original game, both Leila and Albatross can take up to two melee hits before expiring, but will die immediately if hit by a bullet or explosion.
With the game’s two-player cooperative option in mind, entering a doorway that houses collectible ammunition or a machine-gun powerup now also shows how much ammunition is in the room, quickly transferring it to the player’s inventory over the course of a second or two. It’s possible to abort this process early and allow the other player to take the remainder — though in practice the speed at which this happens means that someone usually gets short-changed. Communication is key in co-op games like this, remember. That and giving each other a dead arm when screwing each other over, or perhaps claiming that your “controller wasn’t working properly”.
In single player, Rolling Thunder 2 is hard. While there are checkpoints in the levels, there’s no continue function, so if you cark it too many times — and you will — you have to start all the way over from the beginning again. If you have a second player in tow, however, so long as you don’t both die at the same time, you can continue credit-feeding your way through to the end, suggesting that the game was perhaps designed with this way of playing in mind. Still, if you’re serious about your arcade games, you probably want to take aim for a single-player one-credit clear anyway… right?
Rolling Thunder 2 is a great game from Namco’s back catalogue, and a stiff challenge for anyone who feels like they mastered the original game. Plus Leila is exceedingly hot, and the importance of this sort of thing in keeping people invested in games over the long term should not be underestimated!
Now, time for just one more run… maybe this time I can actually make it through that damn mansion!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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