Rolling Thunder is an arcade game from the ’80s. Like most games of its kind it is very simple, has very clear goals, and tries rather hard to murder the player in hopes of collecting more quarters. But within the boundaries of such a game, RT works very hard to provide an aesthetic to both visuals and gameplay, a super-smooth secret agent tone that comes through even in this moderately standard shooter.
The thing that Rolling Thunder does best is tightly integrated into both animations and gameplay. The player is literally forced to be cool; there’s no running in this game, but you can walk at a calm speed as though you are absolutely in control of the situation. Sometimes you’re not, but you’ll move and look like you are, with Albatross’ fluid walking animation. Your ammunition is limited, forcing you to use about the amount of bullets it actually takes to kill enemies instead of firing haphazardly. You’ll probably find yourself ducking for many of the shots you fire, at first because certain enemies require it, but later because it just feels cooler.
All movements are absolutely brilliantly animated; from walking, to walking up and down stairs, to jumping between the two main levels in most of the playing fields and grappling over rails, to a slow and painful fall to Albatross’ knees after getting shot; the game is a pleasure to look at. All of the important pieces of the action have very nice animations, and everything else is no more or less complex than it needs to be. The game’s structure is rather simple, but flawlessly executed, and gameplay feels really smooth and exciting without being overly complex.
One of the more intriguing decisions in the game is what happens when you die; there is the classic gross green alien laughing at you, but more importantly, after the player has used six credits, the arcade game will reset progress and land you in the first level to start all over. This increases the difficulty of the game dramatically, and gives you a very strict amount of lives to finish the game with. Such a design decision is far different than many street brawlers wherein enough coins will let a player see the ending regardless of skill level; here, developing one’s skills is absolutely necessary, which plays nicely with the rest of the game’s secret agent mindset. To finish the game, you must play it well, just as the game forces you to stroll through levels, it also forces you to be genuinely good at completing them. This is neat, because it makes finishing the game a challenge even today, ignoring save states and other such luxuries brought about by emulators.
Rolling Thunder is an instant classic the moment you play it. It has awesome gameplay, it’s pleasing to look at, the soundtrack is solid, and the enemies are quite varied and get much crazier as one progresses. Seeing the next innovation is excellent motivation to progress farther with the limited continues offered, as well as the inarguable challenge created by such a limitation. It’s of a much higher quality than many arcade games, while working with the same sorts of limitations.