What makes a video game memorable? Sometimes, it's gameplay innovation. Sometimes, it's imaginative environments and ingenious level design. And sometimes, it's the storyline. Namco's Rolling Thunder doesn't really offer any of these. On its surface, the game is a typical sidescroller. You play as Agent Albatross, the top agent of a secret peacekeeping organization known as Rolling Thunder. Your mission? Fight your way through generic caves and warehouses until you rescue Agent Leila, your coworker and possible fuck buddy. So why bring it up? Why bring up a game with unimpressive action and a plot stolen right out of Ian Fleming's playbook? Well, Rolling Thunder actually does offer up some interesting albeit under-utilized game mechanics. But that's not why people discuss this game. No, Rolling Thunder's place in video game history is secured for an entirely reason: you get to fight the Ku Klux Klan. Well, more or less.
By 1986, the Klan's efficacy had substantially eroded. While there were still some fantastically racist people in the world, white society as a whole had become much more tolerant. In order to survive, the KKK needed to evolve. If they were to continue their persecution of black people, they would need an ally. Fortune smiled upon the Klan that year, because they found two. First, they found Maboo. Maboo was an alien mastermind whose unnecessarily white extraterrestrial skin imbued him with a strong disdain for the darker races. Their second ally was far more surprising. While it was unfashionable to hate African Americans in the 80s, it was was still cool to hate the gays. Even God hated queers back then, that's why he gave them all AIDS. So in attempt to reduce the number of hate crimes committed against them, gay rights activists teamed up with the KKK. The decision was purely pragmatic, but it had definite benefits for both sides. The Klan is known for two things. The first one is obviously racism. The second one is latent homosexuality. Aside from sodomy, I can't think of anything gayer than a bunch of guys playing dress-up in the middle of the woods. Thus, the gays were able seduce more than a few of those lousy rednecks. And since everyone knows that gay men excel at fashion design, the Klan was able to score colorful new uniforms for free. With fabulous new outfits and a new plan of white supremacy through world domination, the KKK was poised to rise again. Then their PR firm suggested that a name change might be in order, so GELDRA was born. It is never revealed what GELDRA stands for, or if it's even an acronym, but I like to think it stands for Gay/Extraterrestrial/Lazy Drunken Redneck Alliance.
GELDRA's scheming did not go unnoticed, however. The Rolling Thunder Agency found out about their plan and sent in their best female agent, Leila, to assassinate Maboo and topple the organization. Since homos can't smell pussy, Agent Leila should have been able to enter GELDRA's headquarters undetected. But queers can smell cheap perfume, so she was captured. This put Rolling Thunder's director of operations in an embarrassing position. If word of Leila's capture got out, it would jeopardize all of the gender equality initiatives that he had fought so hard to institute at the agency. On top of that, this failure would surely give The Shadowy Council the ammunition they needed to finally put an end to Rolling Thunder's age-old "One Agent Per Mission, No Matter What The Odds" policy. The Director needed someone who could rescue Leila and crush GELDRA before anyone caught wind of his mistake. Someone who could complete the mission in under 25 minutes of gameplay. Someone skilled. Someone with a penis. Enter Agent Albatross.
Of course, none of this is explained to Johnny Gamer at any point before or after he throws a quarter into the Rolling Thunder arcade machine. It wasn't until console ports of Rolling Thunder came out that little Johnny would finally learn that Redshirt Greypants had a name or why he was fighting the Gay KKK. Then again, it's not like the plot really matters. The game's interface is so simple that no background information is required to play it. In addition to basic directional controls, you have two buttons: jump and fire. As you shoot your way through the game, you can evade enemy attacks by crouching, hiding behind doors, and jumping between higher and lower platforms. And if you wish to survive, you're gonna have to do just that. Since he's not a Bad Dude, Agent Albatross can't take much damage; physical attacks will take off four of your eight life points. And those bullets may look like badminton shuttlecocks, but they will kill you outright. So if you want to play like you're John Rambo, play like First Blood Rambo, not First Blood Part II Rambo.
Much like freedom, the bullets in Rolling Thunder aren't free. Actually, they are free; they're just not infinite. In order to keep killing Klansmen, Albatross must find bullet rooms and arms rooms. Bullet rooms contain ammo for your standard pistol while entering an arms room will give you the use of a machine gun. The only difference between the machine gun and the pistol is that the machine gun fires bullets faster. It's great for clearing out a tough spot, but since you can't fucking toggle between the pistol and the machine gun, it usually isn't all that helpful. Of course, one has to wonder why GELDRA has carefully labeled munitions rooms located in easily accessible areas where *anyone* can walk into them. You also have to wonder why GELDRA has machine guns when no one in their entire fucking organization uses one. Oh well, that's not really your problem. But running out of bullets is. If you run out of ammo for your pistol, you are semi-fucked. Your gun will magically still be able to shoot, but you will only be able to have one bullet on the screen at a time and it will crawl at a snail's pace. You should still be able to get past a few basic baddies with the slug bullets, but if you suddenly find that you have five or six guys coming at ya, you're kinda screwed. And while you actually might make it out that situation alive, you absolutely cannot beat the game's final boss without real ammo. So play smart. Or don't, see if I care. In addition to the weapon rooms, each level contains dozens of unmarked doors that bad guys will periodically emerge from. If you ever find yourself in a tough spot, you can use one to temporarily take cover. But if you stay in there too long, GELDRA agents will start swarming around the door and you'll be totally screwed.
The game's first level, as featured in the six screenshots above, takes place inside some sort of warehouse. As you battle your way past tires, sandbags, and shipping crates, you are introduced to the two main types of GELDRA cronies: hoods and goggles. Hoods are the hooded men who look like Klansmen. They take one hit to kill. Goggles are guys who wear safety goggles over their masks. In addition to resembling Moltar from Space Ghost, they take two hits to kill. I have no fucking clue how safety goggles could possibly double your resistance to bullets, but apparently they do. Hoods and goggles come in a variety of colors and one is slightly different: some can fire guns, some can throw grenades, some can shoot while ducking, and some are more cunning than others. The most basic versions of these enemies are purple hoods and yellow goggles, both of whom are dumb as shit. Even though these guys clearly have side arms, they never have the presence of mind to use them. Since these guys are your primary opposition in the first area, it should be fairly easy, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. Although the half-retarded Klansmen don't present much of a problem, you have a much more serious threat to deal with: the clock. There are actually two versions of this game, both of which are fairly frustrating. In the original version, you are given 180 seconds to beat a level. I think the game is hard enough that it didn't need a timer, but Namco saw things differently. Soon after releasing Rolling Thunder, Namco issued a new version where you only get 150 seconds to beat a level. They also took out some munitions rooms and changed the enemy placement around a little. If you die in either version, you will restart the level with a full timer either from the beginning or the halfway point if you reach it. For this review I have chosen to use the harder version of the game. What possible purpose does this serve? Simple, the harder version has half-assed cut scenes added in. Yes, for all your extra trouble, Namco rewards you with a brief scene of the GELDRA control room, a mysterious place where everyone loves to dance. By the way, that freaky bald guy in the blue is the game's final boss, Maboo. Through GELDRA's giant computer screen, you'll be treated to brief scenes detailing Leila's capture and torture. And if you had any doubt that Maboo's henchmen are supposed to look like Klansmen, this cut scene should dispel it. It should also strengthen your resolve to save Leila. With her soft brown eyes and low-cut shirt, she's totally fuckable. And if you save her life, she'll pretty much have to put out. With that in mind, let's head off to Level 2...
Level 2 is pretty much just more of the same. It's another warehouse filled with hooded morons trying to kill you. The numbers of enemies who actually shoot at you and lob grenades increases, but that's pretty much it. Oh, there's more staircases. So very many staircases. This level doesn't get interesting until the very end...
HOLY FUCKING SHIT, THAT GUY JUST APPEARED OUT OF NOWHERE! At the very end of Level 2, GELDRA reveals one of their secret weapons, The Ninja Klansmen! These fuckers appear out of nowhere and don't trigger until you're in close proximity. And if that wasn't annoying enough, they wear ugly monochromatic outfits. Once you slay them, you'll be able to walk through a completely open doorway and complete the level. With all the random doors scattered throughout the game, you might be wondering why the level exits are so poorly protected. In the original game design, the exits were covered by a big metal door with several deadbolts and there was an additional animation where you'd get to watch Agent Albatross open the door. But before the game went into production, someone at Namco realized that these doors would be extremely dangerous in the event that a rapid evacuation was necessary. After an intense discussion, the programmers decided that they didn't want to send the wrong message about fire safety and the doors were removed entirely.
Level 3 takes place either in a cave or the woods, can't quite tell. On the one hand, the there are rock walls in the background and stalactites hang from the ceiling. On the hand, there are tree stumps everywhere and grass covers the ground. I'm wasn't quite sure if this level was a forest or a cave but after taking into account the oil drums scattered throughout the level, I finally out what it's supposed to be: totally contrived. As if the level design were not confounding enough, we're also introduced two new enemies in this level. First, there are giant yellow imps that jump around frenetically and kill you in one hit. Jaundiced genetic experiments are pretty bizarre, but things continue get even weirder when BLACK PANTHERS show up and attempt to maul you. I have no idea why black panthers would agree to work with the KKK, but I guess they must be getting paid handsomely for their trouble. It is at this point that the game officially stops making any sense.
This level introduces one of the games most interesting and underdeveloped mechanics: multiple layers. At the very end of the level, there is an open panther cage. In order for the panthers and Agent Albatross to hurt each other, they must be on the same layer. So either they must enter the foreground or Agent Albatross must enter the cage. Of course, moving between layers could also be used to evade enemies too. This was a very novel concept in 1986 and its potential has never been fully explored. It was used to some effect in Super Mario World, but it was barely used there either. Maybe someday we'll see it used heavily on the PSP or DS, but I wouldn't hold my breath. In other news, Agent Leila is being crucified.
Level 4 continues the game's descent into total nonsense by introducing giant bats and lava people into the mix. The giant bats are fast and unpredictable, making them the single most annoying enemy in the game. The lava people aren't far behind though, as they split into two new lava people when you shoot them. The new copies do not split in half as well, but I suspect that this is more due to hardware limitations than any sense of decency on Namco's part. This game is a fair indication that decency isn't Namco's strong suit.
While Agent Albatross is wrapping up Level 4, Leila is still busy dying for our sins. That, or she's receiving shock therapy. Either way, she's clearly not having a very good time. You better hurry the fuck up and save her!
Level 5 cuts the shit and brings us back to another bland metallic facility. After fighting imps and giant bats, it's a very welcome change. Instead of animals and mutants, you're back to fighting henchmen, lots and lots of henchmen. Aside from that, this level doesn't differ all that much from the first two levels.
Oh my god, it's that supercomputer from the title screen! This could be the end of the game... but it's not. If you were expecting to confront Maboo and save Leila, prepare to be disappointed. It would seem that this supercomputer is just a decoy. As Maboo taunts you from the giant monitor, it becomes quite clear the game is not quite over. Something that is not quite as clear is why Maboo appears to be white from a distance but he's green when you see him up close. As it turns out, the game is only halfway done; there are still five more levels to fight through. These five levels are pretty much the same as the first five levels, only harder. Here's a brief review of the differences:
More bad guys!
Assuming that you don't get bored of killing evil men in garish costumes or get frustrated because the game is too hard, you'll eventually make it to the tenth and final level of Rolling Thunder. Level 10 is a lot like Level 5, right down to the giant supercomputer. Only this time, it would appear that you've found GELDRA's *actual* headquarters. Does that mean the game might actually end? Yes it does. Come on, I just fucking told you this was the last level like a minute ago. Try to keep up, OK?
Just past the GELDRA control room, you will find Maboo waiting for you in what appears to be makeshift chapel. At this point, it becomes clearly why Maboo has captured Leila: it was cheaper than buying a Jesus statue. And you thought I was kidding before when I said Leila had been crucified. Up until this point, the game has been fairly realistic. Sure there have been some weird enemies, but most enemies die after taking one or two bullets. There are only three exceptions in the entire game. First, there are yellow and white Ninja Klansmen who take three and four hits respectively. Then there is Maboo. Maboo can withstand about 25 shots before he finally dies. To make matters worse, he KNOWS he can take a lot of hits. As a result, Maboo's attack strategy involves running straight at you. So if you are to survive, you're gonna have to work that jump button like there's no tomorrow. And you better have plenty of bullets too, because you absolutely cannot beat this freaky bastard with the retardo bullets. If you manage to take him down, the game is over. And this time, it's over for real...
For all your troubles, all you get is a lousy fucking congratulatory message and a picture of Agent Albatross and Agent Leila. Albatross seems to resemble a young Sean Connery during gameplay, but in this shot he looks like a ten-year-old boy. I can't believe I just spent the better part of an hour playing a game where the hero is a total fucking pussy. Oh well. Judging by her coy smile, Leila is going to fuck him anyway. After all the shit we went through, it's the least she can do.
Although it does get rather repetitive and annoyingly difficult, Rolling Thunder is a great game for anyone who's ever wanted to kill a Klan member, a Black Panther, an illegal alien, a laser, or a bullshit yellow monster. The backgrounds are somewhat lacking, but the character animations are amazingly well done. The game has a fairly respectable legacy too. Not only did Rolling Thunder spawn two sequels, but classic games such as Shinobi and Code Name: Viper borrowed heavily from it as well. Along with titles such as Contra and Castlevania, Rolling Thunder is easily one of the top ten games that I'd like to see get made it into a movie. Sure, it will always be remembered as "you know, that game where you fight a faggoty KKK rip-off", but so what? If that's not a strong selling point, then I don't know what is. If you hate masked racists or if you like watching women get electrocuted, then this game is for you. But you don't have to take MY word for it...
Posted by: Syd Lexia