Monday, May 26, 2014

Rolling Thunder - Taking Out Some Hoods
I re-remember a staple of my earlier arcade years.


By the mid-80s, even though I was still a few years removed from fully embracing video games as something that could be considered as a hobby, the flame was beginning to burn. My introduction to post-Atari consoles plus my basking in the new, wondrous world of the Commodore 64 and computer gaming was certainly generating a spark, but there was another source that was continuing to provide the friction: Arcades. Before a time when consoles and PCs could match their level of technology and provide experiences whose similar values would cause their obsolescence, arcades were prolific, found anywhere from the corner of a strip mall to the middle of an average street block where a GameStop now stands. Every video store had a few coin-op machines in the back room, and you could even find dedicated "arcade" sections in hotels, entertainment centers, outdoor sports parks, and even cruise ships.

I was a pretty big arcade-goer, and my small circle of friends and I were always prone to gravitate our way into the doorless, wide-open arcades found every other block on Bay Parkway or over to the subtly named establishment "More Fun" located in Caesar's Bay Bazaar. To a younger me, arcades were magical places where people crowded around large, colorful machines whose assemblage emitted a symphony of bleeping, whirring and ringing punctuated by the thunderous sounds of explosions, crashes and general violence; theirs was a hard-to-define ambiance, as if sense-assaulting casinos for kids. The average arcade unit was light years ahead of anything seen in the home-entertainment market, and these loud, towering machines played host to accessible, fast-paced games that were technically impressive, wonderfully experimental, and often genre-defining. And these experiences, though abbreviated, were all ours for the price of a quarter every few minutes. 

Even if the whole thing was merely a cleverly orchestrated scam--the progenitor to today's free-to-play-apps scene--it was all worth it for the great games, the constant exposure to newly arriving titles and their groundbreaking concepts, the social interaction with friends and strangers, and the way a trip to the arcade could always provide a glimpse into the industry's future. As I've continued to reminisce and put these memories into their proper perspective, it's become apparent that my love for the medium was born more so during my time in these noisy, cramped game rooms.

I separate my arcade-going into three eras: (a) The less-resonant early years, when I'd follow my brother into the odd Florida or Catskill Mountains arcade to play a few rounds of Pac-Man, Missile Command or Donkey Kong, mostly oblivious to what I was doing. (b) The highly memorable middle years, when friends and I would routinely partake in long sessions of Rampage, WWF Superstars, Double Dragon, Street Smart, WWF WrestleFest, Final Fight, Street Fighter II, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, NBA Jam, and the like. And (c) the "end times," when I grew increasingly disinterested in arcades whose newer titles shifted toward a select few genres (3D fighting, racing, and shooters) and games that resembled those I was already playing on our 32- and 64-bit consoles.

For me, one of the most iconic games from the middle era, and probably my first well-remembered arcade-game experience, was Rolling Thunder.


I first played Rolling Thunder in an arcade located on the ground floor of the Showboat Hotel and Casino in Altantic City, New Jersey--one of the first times my parents brought me along with them (my brother and I would usually stay home with our aunt, who would come over to our house and "responsibly" babysit us by letting us stay up late to watch syndicated re-runs of The Odd Couple, Taxi and The Honeymooners, which would become some of our favorite shows). My first impression of the instantly engaging Rolling Thunder was that it was slick-looking and fast-moving; the size of the characters and their fluid animation made it the most "real" video-game characters had ever looked.

It played great, too: The action unfolded spectacularly, with enemies pouring in from every entrance and even diving down from balconies to assault me. I liked how you could jump between floors, choosing to travel via the lower level or an upper balcony, and duck into any of the doors that littered each stage, including those specially marked doors whose entry would boost your bullet-total or supply the superior machine gun.

There was only one tune that played over the course of the two stages I traipsed about, but it was one dynamite composition, its striking James Bond-style intro giving way to lengthy piece whose steely, urgent rythym and union of cosmic-sounding percussion instruments served to intensify the action. It definitely had me swaying my head back and forth in tempo even though I was in a state of stress.


I was always attracted to games that provided interesting worlds that were conceivable yet mystically embellished, and Rolling Thunder's captured my imagination with its drab, lived-in "hideout" that featured industrial-looking ceiling fans, worn surfaces, peeled paint revealing the walls' brick base, and storage areas filled with stacked tires and boxes. What lingered with me following my first play-session was the game's art direction and particularly its hooded enemies, all of whom donned specially designed gear that came in a myriad of colors and with different mask-types, which I imagined designated their rank in addition to their obviously unique weaponry. I always had this weird fetish for uniformed characters that came available in multiple shades, whether it was the red, gray and blue Cobra-unit action figures from my G.I. Joe collection, or the many warriors of Mortal Kombat's Lin Kuei (Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, Rain, Smoke, and whatever Noob Saibot was supposed to be). You could say I was the toy companies' wet dream.


While the majority of my time playing it was done so in Atlantic City, whose hotels and Boardwalk were once home to many a game room, I would usually run into a Rolling Thunder machine in a local arcade or even Maple Lanes bowling alley, where it'd always be the recipient of my first quarter. It was definitely one of the tougher quarter-munchers, so I never got too far into it; it was one of those games where you had a health meter that was merely decoration and wouldn't suffice for more than a few seconds when a hail of bullets was flying your way. Most of the enemy attacks were one-shot kills, anyway, and direct enemy contact, though less-damaging, would add up quickly as you were bounced around like a berserk pingpong ball. It didn't help that both lives and continues were limited, which prevented me from recklessly credit-spamming my way through the game, and there was no chance, otherwise, that I could become skilled enough during these limited sessions to realistically advance past the first few stages.


The farthest I ever got was to stage 4, whose closing portion had one my favorite scenes from an arcade game: Near the exit lay the giant computerized telescreen as seen in both the title screen and the between-stage cut-scenes, wherein the game's main villain would conduct the minions' activity. I always thought it was awesome when a game's action would spill into a location previously seen in a title screen or some seemingly off-limits office space as occupied by the big boss in an animated storyline sequence. Though, what lay beyond that point would remain a mystery, since the enemy rate had by then been bumped up considerably, the switch set to "overwhelm," and I couldn't survive the storm of bullets and grenades heading directly toward my face--not to mention the extremely short time-limit, which was so strict that you couldn't dawdle for even a few seconds.

I wasn't mad about the game's insane difficulty or my inability to finish it, because it's not something I really thought about; that's not what arcade gaming was for, after all. In the case of Rolling Thunder, it was more about momentarily immersing myself in a game's intriguing world and having a quick, reflexive action experience that satisfied a certain need and was just the right length to where it wouldn't grow stale. Certainly, it never failed to do its job in setting the tone for the arcade visit on the whole, boosting my energy-level and sharpening my focus for whatever game next caught my attention.


Here's the sad part about all of this: Despite being someone who prides himself on having a great memory, I somehow forgot all about Rolling Thunder's existence in the years after which I ceased being an arcade-goer. It wasn't until 2009, when Nintendo announced the Virtual Console Arcade and Rolling Thunder as one of its first entries, that I was able to recall the game and my affinity for it. It was only one of a handful of times in my life where such an event triggered a sudden recollection and unlocked a flood of memories attached to it, like specific interactions with friends, how Rolling Thunder shaped my opinion of shooting-based action games (it made me fear them until Contra came along), and the time I rented the unremarkable NES version, which tried to straight-up duplicate its arcade counterpart and failed.


I went back to play it fairly recently thanks to MAME, now with the intent on finishing it--to finally come face-to-face with that green-faced scourge who long ago mocked each of my deaths. I never actually observed the instructions written on the arcade unit, itself, so my preparation via Gamefaqs entailed my first realization of the game's story: That is, "Rolling Thunder" is actually an undercover arm of a police organization hunting a guy named Maboo, who leads the dangerous secret society Geldra. The protagonist, Agent Albatross, has to go in to save Agent Leila, who much earlier was sent to infiltrate their headquarters but was captured. It's your typical manual-only-worthy video-game story, but you don't even need to know the specifics to catch the gist of what Rolling Thunder is going for.


What was already apparent, as I was quickly reminded of such, was the game's brutal difficulty-level for even an arcade game. I believe the word to best describe would be "unfair." You play through what you believe to be a five-stage romp (titled "The First Story") only to find that true victory is only attainable after you play through these stages a second time, Ghosts 'N Goblins-style. But it's not so simple: The stages during this second trek now feature previously unencountered hazards like timed vertical lasers that can kill you in one hit, Super Castlevania IV-style layering that has you jumping from foreground to background through gates and jail cells, and a reshuffling of enemies that has the annoying giant bats and claw-slashing imps appearing in stages where their presence wasn't originally missed. Some areas even have whole new structures, like stage 8's wooden decks as constructed over what was previously a long lava pit with only a few perilous platforms jutting out above it. Only the final level is largely unique, but that's far from good news.


Learning the timing of Rolling Thunder's stalled shooting mechanic is tough enough, but the game's biggest issue is its handling of platforming past basic balcony-hopping. That is, it's terrible at it and should have kept the action on solid ground. The twitch-based controls weren't made for platforming, and Albatross would rather walk off ledges than actually jump; when you factor in two types of jumps and the positioning of some banisters, which indicate where you can jump up to and off of balconies, you're sometimes left with a control confliction that completely wrecks your momentum when you're trying to complete several long leaps in a row. 

There's a particularly nasty sequence in stage 8 where you have to jump onto and off of a series of narrow, pixels-wide platforms while these multiplying humanoid fire creatures jump out from the lava below; included is an instance where you have to know in advance to fire a shot before jumping, which is the only way to pick off a specific fiery foe that's otherwise unavoidably positioned to suddenly emerge and lunge toward you during your flight, whence you'll be knocked into the lava.

A frustrating series of attempts aided by a few cheats led to my final encounter with the robed Madoo, who I defeated after a slugfest that I can't imagine could have been won under any other circumstances. The ending, as expected from an old game, was hardly worth the effort--nothing more than the mugs of an unaffected Albatross and Leila appearing on the giant telescreen while a bunch of hooded goons walk from station to station, sometimes looking toward the camera, confused, as if wondering, "Durrrr--is that, like, it? Do we just wait here?" No--this is the kind of game you try to finish only to attain bragging rights or if you for some reason wish to invite the loss of your sanity.


I realize that the previous four paragraphs seem to miss the point, as Rolling Thunder wasn't created to be a masterwork of game design. Consider them merely a collection of observations. In truth, I don't really care to levy hard-hitting criticism at Rolling Thunder because I have such a deep fondness and appreciation for it; I regard it as a focused, ambitious action game that's super-fun in spurts and has both a setting and character design that I'm wild about. 

It's a pure arcade experience always worthy of an enthusiast's time, but it's best experienced in limited doses or whenever you need a quick-yet-fulfilling action fix. Just as it was when I first approached its arcade cabinet so many years ago, Rolling Thunder will always be a game I prefer to revisit by punching in some credits and playing for a few minutes or at least until I run out of continues, and I'll continue to extract enjoyment out of it by those terms.

While Internet denizens will be quick to remind you that arcades aren't quite dead when you take into account Japan's still-active scene, they've been missing from North America, and more personally my life, for a long, long time. My revisiting of Rolling Thunder has made me realize just how much I miss the arcade experience and how I took the games' unreplicable values for granted. Console and PC games may have since usurped those we once played in arcades, but they didn't steal everything.


Whatever's left over is what personifies Rolling Thunder, which will continue to help carry the arcade's legacy.

2 comments:

  1. I grew up resenting the fact that I missed the lively arcade scene of the early-to-mid 1980s and as a teen and young adult would often fire up MAME to explore some of that lost legacy. Unlike having a NES or Atari collection, the heyday of the arcade isn't something that can be easily recreated.

    So I was super-excited when I learned that a group of local arcade restorers were opening a "retrocade" in the next town over with many of the most popular games from the early 80s and beyond represented. Even better, all the games are on free-play mode. Visitors pay a flat fee and can stay as long as they like. I have no idea how common these types of venues are in the country, but it's pretty neat to go in there and see people of a variety of age groups playing these old games. There's even a small group of people who play the games for high scores, and their achievements are marked on a board that everyone can look at.

    No Rolling Thunder, though. I'd actually not heard of the game before this.

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    1. My take on things (and I'm bound to repeat this in the future) is that I 'm not looking to recreate the past--it's that I regret not savoring the experiences I had. This of course goes for more than just video games.

      Had I known that I would grow to cherish them so, I might have tried to savor the moments a bit more. If anything, I figure a blog like this sends a message to the next generation: Enjoy the moment, since there may never be another like it.

      Anyway: Thanks for sharing all of these thoughts. I appreciate the feedback.

      (Also, I forgot to hit "Reply" for most of these and instead submitted seemingly standalone comments, so sorry about that.)

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