Updated: Dec 29, 2021
The arcade version of the classic run and gun game, Rolling Thunder, was developed and released by Namco in 1986 and is absolutely one of my all time favourite games of all time.
The aim is to get through ten levels, split into two stories (five levels per story) and take down terrorist organisation Geldra leader Maboo. The levels in Story 2 are expanded and increasingly fiendish versions of the levels in Story 1 (as if Story 1 wasn't tough enough already). The character the player controls is codenamed Albatross.
Even though we're focusing on Area 1 Story 1, I think a general overview of the all the levels in the game is worth it in this case so you get an idea of what to expect going forward.
Story 1, Area 1 starts off in a corridor like environment with doors, bannisters and second story platforms that Albatross can jump onto. Some of these doors are marked with a bullet or MG sign. By going inside these doors, Albatross collects bullets and automatic rifles respectively. He'll need them too, as he only has two bars of heath. Bumping or bouncing off enemies drains one bar. Getting shot drains them both. Moral of the story? Don't get shot. The corridor like environment gives way to an underground bunker type area with strategically placed sand bags and columns of rubber tyres.
Area 2 is a sort of warehouse area, stacked with large crates and boxes. Area 3 is a cavern type area replete with goblins (no really) and panthers.
Area 4 initially continues the cavern type theme with giant bats (no, again, really) to contend with. Soon, however, it becomes a fully fledged lava level with devious platforms to jump across and lava men (yep...) to contend with.
Area 5 is a control room type level, brimming with enemy agents. Getting past all of them will be tough...
Once you get past all five areas, Story 2 begins in earnest. The same basic principles as above apply, but the levels become fiendishly difficult, with extra obstacles, enemies and traps to contend with. No-one said being a secret agent was easy...
Anyway, now that we got that due diligence out of the way, let's focus on the home versions that followed over the next couple of years; the C64 and Speccy conversions we're looking at in this article were handled by Tiertex and published by US Gold; the NES version was released by Namco themselves, with Tengen providing a localised version of the game in North America.
The franchise was popular enough to spawn an arcade sequel in 1991 that was also developed by Namco. The gameplay remained intact from the first game (if it ain't broke, don't fix it) but added a two player mode (players can take control of Albatross or Leila this time around as they take on terror organisation Geldra once again). The graphics were improved and the locations made more diverse. A Genesis/Megadrive port followed the same year, and added even more content in the form of extra levels and even bosses.
Namco revived the series again in 1993 by releasing Rolling Thunder 3 direct to the Genesis (the second sequel only released in North America). Development duties were handed off to Now Production with Namco acting only as a publisher. This instalment retains the same run and gun gameplay from previous instalments but adds several new ideas. For example players can now choose a special weapon at the start of each stage. The aim of this game is to guide new protagonist, Jay, through his own Geldra adventure.
For this comparison, I have chosen the arcade, C64, ZX Spectrum and NES versions of the first game, Rolling Thunder. Below, then, are a series of screenshots, showcasing each version in turn. First up, the Commodore 64.
The C64 port is definitely the victim of Tiertex's poor workmanship, The game just doesn't look good. The sprites are small and blocky, the colour palette is muted, and for some reason Albatross walks with a sort of galloping movement that looks strange. Also, the bullets he fires look like darts shot out of a peashooter. In addition, the music consists mainly of bleeps and bloops, mixed in with MIDI sounding version of the soundtrack (not cool for a machine that boasts the SID sound chip).
The level itself is also a pared down, compromised version of the original, and some sections are removed altogether in what I can only assume is a memory saving measure. I'll give a couple of examples. Halfway through the level is a series of large steps that lead down into the bunker area. These steps are barely present in the C64 version. Also missing is the section with the stacks of rubber tyres and enemies popping out of them. So the game goes directly from the steps to the end of level area with the sandbags.
Additionally, the C64 version doesn't capture the fun and frenetic gameplay of the original; it's just a bit too slow and clunky, although I do have to admit that the controls aren't totally unresponsive, so the game is at least playable on some level. It just doesn't do a good job of approximating the original. Of course, I understand that it's not really fair to compare an 8-bit version to the obviously superior hardware of the arcade.
The ZX Spectrum port is also a compromised version of the arcade original. Part of that is due to the limitations of the Speccy's hardware, part of that is due to Tiertex's handling of the conversion. On the plus side, the sprites are bigger than in the C64 version (albeit monochrome in true Speccy fashion), and the areas remain mostly intact, so no sections were removed like in the C64 conversion. In fact, out of all the 8-bit home versions, the Speccy version is the only one to keep the bannisters on the upper balcony seen in the arcade original. However, that's not to say that there are no omissions in the Spectrum version. To give an example, the large bats in Story 1 Area 4 are missing (and some might say, good riddance).
On the downside, the Speccy version has no music or soundtrack. What it does have are low res sound effects. More egregious, the gameplay is not fun at all. For one, the scrolling is choppy. Secondly, the controls are unresponsive and don't capture the feel of the original arcade game. In fact, more often than not, you'll find yourself pressing the fire button several times before Albatross actually fires his weapon. These things didn't bother me as a kid, but they stand out like a sore thumb now. It's a shame because with tighter, more responsive controls, this version could have been the definitive home computer version of Rolling Thunder.
Arc System Works
Now we're getting to the good stuff. The NES port of Rolling Thunder goes a long way towards capturing the feel of the arcade original. The sprites are big and the graphics look bright and colourful. Better still, apart from the understandably pared down graphics for its 8 bit console release, I did not notice any discernible omissions or cutbacks in Area 1. The only weirdness here is that the colours of some of the Geldra agents don't match their arcade counterparts. To be fair, this is something that affects the C64 version as well (the Speccy's monochrome sprites of course have no colour). The music is pretty good, even if the sound effects are perfunctory.
The best thing about the NES version is the way it approximates the speed and smoothness of the original. This version should be sought out by both NES fans and fans of Rolling Thunder in general. Luckily, it's available as part of Namco Museum Archive Vol. 2 collection on the Nintendo Switch. This collection also includes other luminaries such as Battle City and Legacy of the Wizard, so I recommend seeking it out when it goes on sale.
And so we get to the arcade original. What's there to say about this game that hasn't been said already? The graphics are great for the time, the soundtrack is brilliant and captures the mood of the gameplay, which is fast, fun and frenetic, a true run and gun game. On top of that, the game is easy to pick up but hard to master (getting through all ten stages is very challenging, but that's the idea - keep pumping in those quarters, boys).
If there's something to nit-pick (and isn't there always), I would argue that the platforming isn't quite on par with the rest of the experience. I found myself jumping to my death in Area 4 (lava level) more times than I should have, due to a lack of precision in the mechanic. It's not too egregious in the level we're focusing on, apart from when trying to jump over the tyres towards the end; more often than not I would jump directly upwards instead of forwards like intended. As an aside, I found the jumping to be less annoying (and so more responsive) in the version found in the Namco Museum Arcade Pac collection on the Switch as opposed to the version I tested via the MAME emulator. That could just be my imagination, though.
That little gripe aside, the game is very addictive and almost dares you to keep pushing past your last best attempt. Rolling Thunder is one of my favourite games of all time and a true classic in any videogaming era. Luckily, the arcade version is available as part of the aforementioned Namco Museum Arcade Pac collection on Nintendo Switch (although Namco have released it on various compilations over the years). So there's no reason not to seek it out when it goes on sale.
And that is my brief comparison of the C64, Speccy, NES and Arcade versions of Rolling Thunder. After all that, which version should you play? It's hard to give a definitive answer given that I have focused on Area 1 Story 1 exclusively. At the same time, I think playing through the first level gives a pretty good indictor of what's to come in future, busier levels. With that in mind, this is the order in which I would play them:
If you're going to play only one version, make it the arcade, as that's the gold standard. Only the NES home conversion comes close to capturing the fast paced nature of the original, so if you have to play a home conversion, that's definitely the one to pick up. Then it's a toss up between the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum versions. The former has better playability, but judging by at least the first level, features heavily compromised stages compared to most other versions. The latter features more arcade faithful stages but the controls are unresponsive. So pick your poison I guess.
Please don't take this as a be all end all list. As videogamers we all have different tastes. In end, I recommend playing the version you like the most and are most comfortable with.
We're almost done with this comparison, I promise. Before we go, though, I've compiled a list of images of the loading/title screens (see below). Just click on an image to zoom in on all the images in that particular row. Where no image exists, this has been replaced with an N/A.
And that is it, end of the article. I hope you have enjoyed reading and that you'll try Rolling Thunder on at least one of the platforms it's available on. Do let me know which version is your personal favourite and why.
Oh, one more thing. If you'd like to know more, I also made a video that directly compares and contrasts all four versions. You can watch it here:
Bitchute - https://www.bitchute.com/video/vi1Mt1PsHt8R/
That really is all for now. Speak soon!