Saturday, December 31, 2016

Rediscovered Classics: Rolling Thunder 2 (Arcade)

I have a confession to make to you, my fellow enthusiasts: I've never played Rolling Thunder 2, the sequel to one of my favorite arcade games of all time.

I can come up with no coherent-sounding explanation for how this happened--how it was that our paths never crossed. I'm unable to articulate how disappointed I am with myself for having missed it. All I can do, once again, is credit a long-lasting regret to my younger self's penchant for being oblivious to the world around him. I can look back on myself and honestly assess that my interests had simply become too narrow. This is a sad fact because I consider Rolling Thunder to be a fundamental component of my development as a gaming enthusiast, and it's likely that I would have been all over a sequel bearing its name had I known it to exist. And yet it's true that I never made physical contact with a Rolling Thunder 2 arcade machine. Hell--I don't even recall ever seeing one, though I can't rule out the possibility that this was more symptomatic of my worsening case of tunnel vision; that is, I'm sure that there were a few Rolling Thunder 2 machines present, but I likely missed them because my eyes were trained to seek out only current favorites like WWF Superstars, Street Smart and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

For all these years, my exposure to the game has been limited to the bits and pieces of information I've gleaned from screenshots and the odd Youtube video. Viewing it in this manner was intentional; I saw it as the best route for getting a sense of what Rolling Thunder 2 was about without having too much of the game spoiled for me, since it was my plan to one day discover for myself the wideness of its scope and how it compared to its treasured predecessor. But as it so happened, I just never got around to playing it; I could never muster the enthusiasm or the motivation needed to download the files and give it a shot.

Frankly, though the sampling size was small, I didn't think that the game looked terribly exciting. I'd used spurious evidence to convince myself that it was somehow a downgrade over the original--that its change in art direction represented the abandoning of a core value (a dark, dreary setting) and that its generic-looking enemy cast was a sign that the designers were phoning in the effort. I wasn't in any great rush to play what I perceived to be a second-rate retread.

Well, enough of that idiotic line of thinking, I say. It's best left in the past. The fact is that I'm no longer the person I was even five years ago. The 2016 version of me has need for preconceived notions. He sees no reasonable justification for continuing to overlook the classics. So let us choose now to commence with a project that has been a long time in planning.

The opportunity to wash away past regrets lies before me.

The time to play Rolling Thunder 2 has finally arrived.

So here it is--my first real interaction with Rolling Thunder 2

Really, I'm no longer concerned with the matter of its quality as compared to its predecessor. I just want to experience it--see how it evolved the original's concepts. That's the beauty of being able to play old arcade games in a home setting: You can work your way through them at a more leisurely pace and take the time to better appreciate their use of technology, their creativity, and their aesthetic values--the amazing artwork and music you likely couldn't gauge in full in that frenzied, cacophonous arcade setting. And if it turns out that Rolling Thunder 2, in addition, offers a compelling gameplay experience, then that would be icing on the cake!

Rolling Thunder 2's an immediate contrast to the original in that immediately hits us with an intro scene. Rolling Thunder was more direct to the point, the weight of its story more promptly communicated by that memorable title screen wherein all of those hooded goons could be seen operating a supercomputer's terminals and generally scheming about.

Here's what we learn: In the year 199X, many countries' orbiting satellites were mysteriously destroyed, apparently by enemy spacecraft. The flow of information was cut off and the world fell into chaos. The WCPO (World Crime Police Organization) investigates the matter and discovers that a "diabolical" plot has been hatched. Not surprisingly, they find that our old pals at Geldra are behind the attacks. The sinister gang has resurfaced following its defeat at the hands of Albatross, the series' suave protagonist. Thus the WCPO's special espionage unit, Rolling Thunder, must start the fight anew.

It's a predictable plot (evil organization from a preceding title returns again with a new plan to conquer the world), sure, but who cares? I don't need deep stories in my old-school action games; I'd rather that games of its nature provide me a story's background and leave the rest to my imagination.

The most jarring change is that our hero abandons his red shirt-gray pants ensemble in favor of a more blue-collar look--Albatross' new attire consisting of a white button-down shirt, red tie and brown suit pants. Also, he now sports a brown mane where formerly his hair was black. I'm all for consistency in a character's portrayal, so I'm a bit bothered by this revised look. It makes me wonder: Is the reimagined art style a byproduct of a new director taking the helm, or is it that a returning creative team sought to differentiate a derivative work using visual separation as a means to that end? (GameFAQs and the like have no information about the original's designers, so I can't say for sure.)

As advertised on the title screen, Albatross is joined by a pistol-toting female counterpart whose name escapes me. Though, her inclusion isn't news to me; I've always been aware that the game had two playable characters. Still, I hadn't seen enough of the game in motion to gauge whether or not theirs were distinct play-styles. 

I really like the title screen's accompanying ditty. It carries that classic James Bond-esque spy-movie vibe, which Rolling Thunder did well to project. Its presence eases my fear that the game's aesthetic attributes might stray too far away from the established template.

After inserting a coin (or tapping the "5" key, in this case), I'm given the choice to select between one of the two available characters (there's no fancy character-select screen). Here I find that our female partner is named Leila. Strangely, Albatross isn't the lead character; rather, I have to hit the "second-player" button if I want to start the game in control of him. For the sake of getting a more-complete experience, I think I'll alternate between them; I'll complete the first stage with Albatross, the familiar protagonist, and then switch to Leila after voluntarily depleting my stock. I'll focus on mastering the mechanics and attaining a high score via learned survivablity at a later date when I can play the game without interruption.

I'm going to attempt to beat Rolling Thunder 2 as legitimately as possible, though I'll have no qualms about resorting to unscrupulous means if the game starts to skew toward impossible. You never know with these old games.

And woah, there--I didn't know that the game featured two-player co-op! (Both characters were present onscreen when the action commenced, likely as a result of my careless fiddling around with the number keys during the character-selection process.) I had no idea that this was the case! Everything I saw in those videos suggested that it was purely a single-player experience, but here they are, Albatross and Leila, standing together! Dammit, man--now I'm even more regretful that I missed the chance to play it back in the day when I always had the accompaniment of a friend during arcade visits. What a lost opportunity.

Oh well--what's gone is gone. There's no point in continuing to beat myself up over a history I can't change.

So let's get started with Round 1.

We start our mission within the sandy confines of some beachfront property. The tone is immediately set by the game's use of a classic arcade-game standby: The moment we start moving forward, a truck mounted by enemy soldiers whizzes by, its roof serving as their jumping-off point. What we have here is a visual conceit meant to impress the player while bluntly establishing the rules of the game. It's the designers' way of saying, "You're playing an arcade game now, console punk, so you best start paying close attention!" I love it when they do things like that.

The action early on entails engaging enemies as they emerge from the doors and outer extremities of two-story buildings--standard Rolling Thunder action, really. Later on, I have to tread upon the roofs of parked trucks and exchange gunfire with foes who have taken cover in their large chimney pipes (the equivalent to the tire stacks in the original). Unless I want my legs taken out, it's necessary that I, too, duck into one of these pipes and pick off the enemies as they poke their heads out. These scenarios alternate to form the entire first stage, its length shorter than I expected. That aside, Rolling Thunder 2 closely follows the blueprint.

In terms of animation and visual scale, it very much reminds me of its progenitor, which was a technological marvel by 1986 standards. In that regard, Rolling Thunder 2, while not a giant leap forward, is an attractive-looking game. As a 1990 release, it probably didn't measure up graphically to new benchmark titles like Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, no, but I'm sure that it still managed to exhibit enough visual panache to garner the average arcade-goer's attention. I think it looks pretty great: Its graphics are sharply drawn, rich with color, and shaded in a way that creates a convincing sense of spatiality. Equal attention has been given to the finely detailed backgrounds, their scrolling layers working in harmony to provide the setting further depth. The original Rolling Thunder, though I prefer its grittier art direction, is admittedly flat-looking in comparison.

A nice detail is that you can see what's inside the buildings--their wall textures and furnishings--whenever you enter their doors, where in the original there was only blackness. This one little touch lends the game so much personality.

I can't say that Rolling Thunder 2's opening-stage theme is any match for its predecessor's exceptional introductory piece in how it so thoroughly captures me--its utterly rhythmic strains always managing to absorb me whole, get my head swaying from side to side as I intensely immerse myself in the action--but it's nonetheless a pretty catchy tune, its swing-and-jump jazz tones eliciting their fair share of head-swaying. It grew on me more and more as the stage progressed.

The game's sound design, overall, is highly reminiscent of Rolling Thunder's. Its music, all the same, is about creating rhythm and driving the action's tempo. Also, I'd swear that its sound effects were ripped directly from Rolling Thunder. That's how closely related the two games are in this category.

The controls and mechanics function the same as I remember. You can shoot while standing or crouching and fire rapidly while locked to either position. You hold up and press jump for greater vertical distance, the higher leaps allowing for the access of balconies and the stages' upper levels. You can slip into doors to find temporary safety or access those specially designated to stock up on ammo or upgrade to the superior machine gun. If you don't prioritize stockpiling ammo, you're likely to deplete your supply and wind up stuck with an insufficient, barely functional one-shot pistol that will reload only when a previously fired bullet has left the screen.

As expected, you don't suffer damage if you collide with enemies; rather, the hero is harmlessly repelled backwards (save for instances where there's the potential for him or her to be sent hurtling into a bottomless pit) or otherwise inconveniently juggled between sandwiching enemies. The only difference I find is that the game supplies me much less in the way of health--a paltry two units of energy compared to the original's eight. However, I'm certain that this is merely a cosmetic change--that the heroes' pain threshold won't allow them to survive more than two connected punches or a single projectile strike.

The game's approach to enemy design is about identical. The finely animated enemy grunts, which I can only describe as robotic bipedal panthers, are uniform in appearance, and their outfits comes in a variety of color schemes. They're a rather slick-looking bunch, yes, but not as instantly memorable as their forerunners; frankly, no enemy cast could ever supplant the original's array of multi-colored hooded goons, theirs the quintessence that will forever help to form my indelible mental images of the Rolling Thunder brand.

The basic grunts function predictably: They throw punches when standing in proximity; fire pairs of shots when standing at a distance, either high or low depending on their color; and toss down bombs when positioned directly overhead. The second enemy type, I'm happy to inform you, bears more of a resemblance to the hooded goons of the past; those from their class are more likely to take cover behind or within stage obstacles and suddenly spring up to open fire. Two shots are required to take down these bulkier specimens. Their very presence adds an appreciated hint of visual comparability between the games' enemy casts.

Following a short trek and a half-dozen deaths, I arrive at the beachfront's outer limits. And man they're really stingy with the time-limit; I was moving at a fairly brisk pace and still barely made it. At least they're still nice enough to supply me three lives and an occasional checkpoint.

When I've finished clearing the stage, I'm awarded bonus points for each bullet left in my gun and every second of time remaining.

And, well, all of this checks out so far. Rolling Thunder 2 appears to be very much faithful to its predecessor. I'm not surprised that this is the case; honestly, I wasn't expecting it to be a radical departure. However, I'm anxious to see if Rolling Thunder 2 makes even the slightest attempt to evolve the formula going forward. I won't count on it happening, since too many of the sequels I've played recently have failed to meet that expectation, but I'll remain hopeful that it'll find a way to distinguish its action.

Round 2 takes us indoors, to the innards of what I assume is that resort seen in the distance at the end of Round 1. Our surroundings are formed by a series of carpeted, wood-paneled rooms whose visual arrangement brings to mind images of the those tattered corridors from the original's opening area. I let the enemies knock me off so that I can play through it with Leila.

Disappointingly, I discover that there are no real differences between Leila and Albatross. She's basically a sprite-swap, her only differentiating characteristic a unique set of sound samples. Knowing this, I no longer feel the urgent need to alternate between them. However, I'm going to continue to do so, anyway, for novelty's sake. I mean, sure--Leila's are but superficial alterations, but her distinctive physical attributes, alone, might be enough to keep the action feeling fresh.

The music continues to boast some seriously stylish jazz flair, its finger-snapping strains so far proving to be the driving force behind the game's uniquely developing personality. In this regard, Rolling Thunder 2 is trying very hard to distance itself from its predecessor in terms of tonal conveyance, which I find somewhat disappointing, yet I have to admit that what it's doing is working. Its snazzy themes do well to infuse stages with the a type of rhythmic energy that succeeds in keeping me invested. That's to say I'm really digging the soundtrack!

There's some neat visual trickery on display here. Most memorable is a picture of a fish that slides away to reveal two chutes through which a pair of enemies unexpectedly drop as I move past it. There's also a newly introduced foe--an electrically charged terror donning a cosmonaut suit; he frequently generates an enveloping electrical field that acts as an impenetrable shield, the sight of which screams "tactically avoid!" I'm nervous about even moving to within his vicinity. Also, the window to score a hit is so seemingly narrow that I'm not sure it's worth wasting the bullets. It might take too many shots, anyway. For now, I think it's best that I completely circumvent him via the balcony above.

Soon the stage takes a vertical shift up into a more-mechanical-looking area, where I encounter more of the same. From there, we scroll back down and to the left through an area that looks to be under construction, the gaps in the framework serving as a portal through which we can view the nighttime scene whose backdrop features an imagination-stirring futuristic cityscape. If anything, Rolling Thunder 2 is packed with interesting imagery. The action here entails strategically dropping down from balconies.

And, as was bound to happen, the difficulty has quickly began to ramp up. Most annoying is the recurring event wherein an enemy charges in from behind and fires off a shot before I'm even cognizant of his presence; and when I do spy an enemy's appearance, it feels like the natural response to immediately return fire, which always proves to be a mistake, since the act of shooting locks the hero into place and leaves him or her with no recourse for avoiding the incoming bullets. Also, enemies who drop in from chutes fire almost instantly, which renders the idea of traveling near them particularly worrisome. There's a lot of wisdom to be attained through trial and error here--it helps to have advanced knowledge of the places from which enemies are programmed to spawn and how to best avoid them. And avoidance, you'll find, will be the most effective tactic, since your ammo supply is too precious to instead waste it recklessly spamming shots in anticipation of enemies' arrival.

We now move on to Round 3, which takes place in an enemy outpost--what appears to be a space-age industrial zone, the pod-like construction of its buildings further solidifying the game's overarching sci-fi theme. The stage's music is equally cosmic, its composition saturated with whimsy--at least at the start; it eventually develops a strain of melancholia, the piece suddenly betraying the expectation I had for its direction at the start and instead creating a surprisingly reflective atmosphere. It's definitely an instant favorite. 

I can't help but note the oddly surreal feeling of dissonance conjured by the music's chill vibes when contrasted against the intense violence happening everywhere onscreen. There's something nostalgic about it, like the game is seeking form by pooling information from the different corners of my memory and using it to render a scene that encompasses everything I've grown to love about the unreality of video games.

I don't know how to describe what that means, nor can I explain why any of it matters, but it's these types of moments that are most likely to shape my enduring memories of Rolling Thunder 2.

Really, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about anymore. But keep reading anyway, please.

Walking into a cosmonaut's electrical field, I discover, results in the loss of a single health unit. Knowing this somewhat diminishes my fear of colliding with one of them, though I still plan to go out of my way to avoid engaging those from their class. What's cool is that all other enemies will instantly die if they enter into a cosmonaut's electrical field. I'll use that to my advantage where I can.

Round 3 sees the debut of another new enemy--an iron-masked scuba diver that spits out a cloud of poisonous bubbles; the toxic cluster continues to slowly ascend upward until leaving the screen, the lingering hazard sometimes working to effectively prevent the hero from safely moving forward. You can actually shoot the individual bubbles and meticulously eliminate the threat, but there's no point in expending that many bullets when it takes the same amount of time to simply wait the cluster out.

The game's difficulty has grown unforgiving at this point. I've had to restart this stage at least eight times, which is more than double the number of attempts I made in the previous stages. That's a worrying sign--enough to remind me that I am, in fact, playing a deviously designed arcade game.

There's an interesting mechanic introduced in the stage's latter half: In order to navigate around tall stacks of boxes, you have to wait for habitable pods to swing over to your side of the screen and then jump up to them. Naturally, the pesky enemies placed on the obstacles' far side will be tossing bombs at you the whole time. You have to negotiate your way up and around a series of these shifting pods and sometimes additionally deal with packs of enemies as they emerge from the chutes seen planted into several spots on the ground; it's typical that enemies start appearing in overwhelming numbers during these sequences, so it makes sense to spend as little time as possible on the ground level and hastily maneuver your way up to the comparatively scarcely-populated pods.

At the stage's end, you have to survive the ambush of a virtual tsunami of enemy grunts as they pour out from all of the available the doorways.

Troubling difficulty-spike aside, this was a fun stage. It did a lot for me in terms of pleasing aesthetics and interesting mechanics. None of it amounts to a transcendent experience--something that I'd say breaks the formula's oppressive mold--but I appreciate how the designers attempted to innovate within narrowly defined parameters.

Round 4 places us in another one of Geldra's metallic strongholds. It looks to be some sort of manufacturing plant. The floors and walls are adorned with many a chute, which makes me nervous. The game does, after all, exhibit the aptitude for having enemies pop in from out of nowhere and fire before I can react. This could get messy.

But first the game hits me with a pleasant surprise: As I was ascending the stage's first vertical section, I had to give pause as the stage's typically jazzy musical accompaniment suddenly introduced a few nostalgic strains of Rolling Thunder's unmistakable Round 1 theme! Though its presence was fleeting, its succinctly delivered message of reverence was much appreciated. Good play, Mr. Composer.

There's another cool little graphical effect on display toward the end of the stage's first area: The background's dominating image, a rail tunnel that stretches into the distance, is drawn with enough visual depth to create the illusion of a navigable 3D space. Once all of the surrounding enemies are cleared out, a conveniently-balconied shuttle zips in from the tunnel's far reaches and provides the platform necessary for me to proceed up a vertical corridor. The way the visual is presented reminds me of environments seen in the background of Armored Armadillo's stage in Mega Man X--specifically those mysterious mine shafts I would gaze at and so wonder about. For Rolling Thunder 2, this amounts to what's likely to remain another indelible memory.

The stage continues along these lines, becoming something of an endurance run. In the next section--whose background is populated by a central computer room, its monitors displaying a number of shadowy images including what I assume to be Geldra's wicked leader--enemies begin pouring out from doors and the screen's boundaries in numbers so great that the pure might of their assemblage exceeds my ability to realistically counter them. It takes me more than a few attempts before I'm able to cheaply push through the crowd by feverishly hopping over the enemies' heads while hoping not to get shot. I didn't realize until then that I could avoid punches simply by crouching; this'll prove to be a useful tactic when a large group has me pinned in a corner. You know--as long as none of those crouch-and-fire grunts appear on the screen's opposite end during that time.

Still, we're not done here yet. Now the action shifts downward, our further progression dependent on our ability to execute balcony drops while cagily dodging enemy fire. Helpfully placed crates provide shielding in those moments where I'm not immediately able to drop down (because, say, there's a box placed directly below me).

From here, the action spills into a domed area where high- and low-firing grunts continue to quickly dart in from either screen edge and put my reflexes to the ultimate test. This was quite the grind--I wasn't able to endure the madness until I memorized the spawn points of just about every enemy in the area. Many lives were expended.

This was another good stage--the game's best so far. Some creative design choices and a few cool graphical tricks made the difference.

Round 5 takes us to ... Egypt?! The background is dominated by sandy dunes and impressively rendered images of pyramids, so this must be the case, right? In light of our lack of definitive evidence, let's just call it the game's standard desert stage. For a Rolling Thunder game, though, this is quite the notable departure; it's normally the case that the games' environments are strictly technological/mechanical in design. 

The stage's musical theme, not surprisingly, has an Egyptian flair to it.

Appropriately, we meet a new enemy in the form of a bipedal armadillo; it suddenly emerges from a sand geyser and begins lashing its claws. When I move to a distance, it curls up and darts at me with a rolling attack that shockingly doesn't kill me in one hit. Since this is yet another foe that infrequently reveals its vulnerable point, I see no point in wasting any time or ammo engaging it; it's better that I simply leapfrog it and leave it in the dust.

From a level-design standpoint, this stage is a reprisal of Rolling Thunder's Round 5, wherein certain access points allow you to jump between two separate planes. Here we're able to move between the netting that separates the front and back areas of the ancient ruins found all throughout the stage. In some instances, it's required that we do this if we hope to negotiate our way around solid walls and other obstacles. I'm finding that it's way too easy to avoid combat altogether if I tactically hop between planes; it helps that the background layers are virtually uninhabited.

Though, things get a bit tricky as we reach the stage's assumed midpoint, whence groups of enemies begin occupying either plane and I start losing track of who's where. The armadillos are particularly obnoxious in how they dart in suddenly and trap me in the ruins' posterior passages. They make life so much more difficult when they're paired with other enemy types, whose threat is consequently amplified. (The giant Sphinx that scrolls into view during these sequences provides us further evidence that we're in a certain Eastern transcontinental country.)

After navigating our way across some sandy hills, within which some grunts were taking cover within inconveniently carved apertures, we arrive in the ruins' comparatively flat section where we're immediately assailed by a camouflaged hooded foe that suddenly emerges from a hieroglyphics-displaying background structure. Only one, ey? Does this suggest that the camouflaged enemy type will be sparsely used? I hope so, because I remember these guys causing me fits in Rolling Thunder.

Next up is a decoratively rendered stretch of land whose consistent theme entails ducking into large clay pots and exchanging fire with the gun-toting and bomb-throwing enemies who are likewise taking cover. What makes these types of areas dangerous is that your bullets can't connect with enemies who are positioned half a step lower, so it's likely that you'll get shot in the leg before you even realize as much. Knowing this, I adopt a tactic of diving on top of holed-up enemies, be they placed in pots or narrow gaps, and abusing the collisions' invulnerability periods to cheaply knock them off while I'm being bounced around in their tiny spaces. 

Don't judge me, man. I mean, the game, itself, isn't exactly playing fair!

Still, my effort did entail a prolonged period of trial and error wherein I had to meticulously inch forward and focus on learning the timing for evading the simultaneous barrages of bombs and bullets. As it were, this area in particular was a source of multiple deaths and a handful of Game Overs, which was irksome because getting back to this problem area required the reiterative, tedious retreading of the stage's lengthy opening sequences. Successfully navigating across the potted hellscape allows me access to the stage's endpoint, where I finish up by eliminating a pack of geyser-spawned armadillos (or one armadillo after I'd scrolled the others off the screen. Tee-hee).

I like what this stage did in its early portion; the plane-jumping mechanic was well-implemented and finely exploited (whereas, sadly, it was used to only a limited degree in Rolling Thunder), and I enjoyed what it brought to the game in terms of variety, a little of which goes a long way. The rest of the stage was overall annoying and kind of unfair in spots. I'm not suggesting that the game had been anything short of cruel before then, but now it's loudly advertising its intention to finish me off as quickly as possible. Or, as it would have desired to do back in the day, make haste in gobbling up what's left of my quarters.

We continue our Egyptian tour in Round 6, which plays out in an ancient temple. The stage theme's ominous tone suggests that we're going to be in for a rough time. Is this a sign that we're nearing the end of the game?

Its initial sequence tasks us with jumping from one static pillar to the next; this represents the game's first real test of the characters' maneuverability and platforming skills. Of course, I get a bit anxious and waste my first two lives carelessly diving into the abyss like a dolt

We briefly break from the platforming-hopping action and proceed along some solid ground upon which we battle a few foes and take advantage of an ammo-refill door. What follows is another platforming challenge wherein we have to hop across a series of undulating platforms while under duress from bomb-throwing grunts and their ilk. Really, it's nothing too difficult.

Beyond the platforming section is a twisting corridor loaded with more of those suddenly-emerging camouflaged enemies, which now come in a variety of colors (red, blue, violet and purple). They're a bit more durable than their immediately-perceivable comrades; the purple specimen in particular is able to absorb six or more bullets before succumbing. That in mind, outrunning them might be my best option; it depends on how many enemies are waiting for me up ahead.

The tunnel beyond features more of the same, but this time it mixes in some standard grunts. They pour in from everywhere and in great numbers, so it indeed makes sense for me to conserve my ammo in the early sections. And, well, that's about it. From there, it's a straight path to the stage's end, where resistance is limited.

It was a good stage while it lasted. Nice background graphics. Simple but creative application of platforming. Great stage theme (its heroic-sounding guitar solo near the piece's end was goosebumps-inducing material). If only it weren't so abbreviated. Maybe there's more to this stage in the second loop?

The environmental details of Round 7 suggest that we're in an underground armory, the tanks, jets and iron girders comprising its main visual. The action at the start plays out in classic Rolling Thunder fashion, but then the game hits us with something new: a section where we ride a two-level elevator down a shaft while fending off enemies as they emerge from the sides. Imagine playing a more-intense version of Elevator Action.

It's important to recognize which enemy types are appearing so you know when to shift between levels. For example: The grunts wearing white jumpsuits tend to kneel and fire as soon as they emerge, so you'll be directly in the line of fire if you're on the elevator's top level. As your bullets are likely to sail over their heads from that position, it makes sense to drop down. The ammo doors placed on the sides provide you opportunity to jump off and reload, but you'll have to reboard the elevator before you're scrolled off the screen, the penalty for which is death.

There are no further surprises. From here the stage continues to alternate between standard Rolling Thunder sections and vertical elevator sequences. It's another simple but effective twist on the formula--a shooting-gallery style of action that works to keep me alert and engaged. Still, I have two problems with these sequences: (1) In the midst of all of this scrolling animation and the surrounding visual noise, it's sometimes difficult to spot the enemies' bullets, which leads to instances where I don't know what killed me. And (2) the hero's hit-detection is rather indiscernible when he or she is moving vertically. I mean, I've been killed by bullets that were clearly passing beneath my shoes. I'm fearful that these complications will be magnified in crazier sequences ahead.

The rest of the elevator sequences were indeed rough but not as unmanageable as I feared. The last of these elevators carries me up to the stage's final area, which is comparably straightforward; though, its fractured construction is likely to cause headaches, since it requires that I jump between stations, clearing troublesome gaps, as enemies pop out from doors and chutes and attempt to knock me into the abyss. It's not a lengthy area, no, but there is plenty of opportunity for instant death.

The stage concludes shortly after. That's surprising to me, actually. I was expecting a boss to appear, since the stage's atmosphere has an air of finality to it. This game is turning out to be much longer than I expected.

Round 8's environments are aesthetically similar to Round 7's, though the contaminated liquid seen flowing below suggests that we've moved to a waste-disposal area. The music--its bass composed of sharply pitched recurring C notes--is concerningly sinister-sounding. It tells me that this has to be the final stage.

Its action looks to be fairly standard, though there's the added element of having to remember not to accidentally drop down into the toxic liquid.

The dreary cesspit bleeds into a typically rendered metallic compound. The music suddenly turns funky as we head toward a computerized command center whose arrangement and color scheme remind me of the final stage of Rolling Thunder. Have we come full-circle here?

This area is comprised of a long hallway wherein all sorts of enemies begin pouring in from both sides of the screen--most of them firing off shots that become obscured by the surrounding mob. Being repeatedly picked off by bullets I can't see or reliably react to starts to get really aggravating. Also, I'm unable to tank my way through, so I have no choice but to resort to the strategy of slowly inching forward and picking off each enemy as it appears. This tactic is highly effective, sure, yet it forces me to expend ammo; my concern is that I'm going to run out of bullets before I reach the next area.

Up ahead is another of those elevator sequences, and holy hell is it one of the most infuriating things I've ever experienced in video games. There's no upper level to this elevator, so your maneuverability is painfully limited as are your means for dealing with the enemies that are appearing simultaneously on either side of the screen and firing off shots at the exact same time. Even if you're able to reliably turn and shoot instantly, it might not be enough thanks to the frame-perfect timing required; instead, it's likely that you'll repeatedly find yourself in a position where enemy bullets, which are fired two in succession, are incoming and it seems that your only option is to jump them. The problem is that you can't jump the bullets as they're spaced; you're already dead at that point. So you have no choice but to somehow take out the enemies before they can fire. It can be done, yes, but you have to hope that everything lines up. I'm too embarrassed to tell you how many times I died trying to get past this part.

Also, let me say that the game's returning me to the stage's starting point every time I die is ridiculously unfair. I wouldn't have tolerated that type of design choice were I in an actual arcade setting. I mean, I realize that Rolling Thunder 2 was made with two players in mind, but come on.

When I arrive at my destination, I move left and spot the boss as he nonchalantly strolls away from the scene. From what I can tell, he's a G.I. Joe-lookin' cybernetic soldier with an electricity-generating claw arm (picture Destro wearing Lex Luthor's warsuit). I'm guessing that this is Geldra's new leader.

When we meet up at the stage's endpoint, he immediately points his claw in my direction and fires a green laser that twists through the air before returning to its source. I'm dead before I can even fully gauge what's happening. And I can't believe it: The game sends me all the way back to the starting point! That's insane. What mentally stable player would want to subject him- or herself to that elevator sequence again--just to get back to the boss and glean the tiniest morsel of information about a battle that likely won't be fully comprehended until the attempt-total reaches double digits? I'm tempted to use invincibility and save-states.

On my fourth attempt, I figure out that it's best to hang near the opposite end of the screen and move in after the laser has ebbed, at which point I can sneak in some shots. The strategy only works if the laser currently fired isn't one of those that stretches two screens in length; once I've been forced to move that far over, I can't get back within range of the boss before he fires off another laser. Even then, I can't make it here with a sufficient amount of ammo, and soon I'm left with an entirely inadequate slow-firing pistol; in such a scenario, I'm lucky if I can score a single hit. And no--you can't leap over a laser, even if you use a high jump, so choosing to stick close to the boss is a recipe for death.

There's no way I'm doing this over and over again. There isn't enough time, there aren't enough bullets, and there's absolutely no incentive for me to continue putting myself through this torture. So I give in and resort to save-scumming my way through the stage so that I can make it here with a healthy supply of bullets. And still it takes me a dozen attempts to destroy the boss. I would have had an emotional breakdown had I ventured to clear this final stage legitimately.

My reward for victory is a one-screen ending whose text promises me that I'm about to be praised for my efforts, yet this turns out to be a horrible lie. The credits start rolling before anyone can show up and even pat me on the head. Fine, then.

And then I discover that there is no second loop. With its staff roll having terminated, the game has come to a decisive finish. There's nothing more to see. You know what, though? I'm fine with that. Rolling Thunder 2 sufficiently made its point in the eight stages it put up for exhibit. A few structural alterations weren't going to enhance the experience in any way.

I don't know what else to say. That final stage was brutal even by arcade standards. It's left me mentally drained and utterly speechless. The absurdity on display at the end there was almost enough to sour me on the entire experience. So I'm going to have to collect myself--get my mind in check--before I can fairly assess what I've seen in Rolling Thunder 2.

I'm going to have to wait a while--maybe a day or two--before offering some final thoughts.

Final Thoughts

So I've had time now to consider Rolling Thunder 2 as a whole. The process of gathering my thoughts was helped along by my replaying of the game, which allowed me the opportunity to apply some of my newfound knowledge. As a result, I had a much easier time with the final boss, who I was able to overwhelm when I managed to reach him with an ample supply of ammunition (legitimately so, yes). Oh, the endgame portion was still maddeningly frustrating, yes, but not as impossible as I originally thought. I felt as though I owed the game a second shot wherein I could experience it from a place of reasonability; it was too good to be judged by the person who left angry. 

Still, as I was putting together these final thoughts, I was finding that it was impossible for me to judge any aspect of the game without comparing it to its nearest analog in Rolling Thunder. Rolling Thunder 2 is simply too similar to escape such a fate. Now, I wouldn't go as far as to say that the two games are identical, no, but it's clear that Rolling Thunder 2 is little more than an expansion of its predecessor, which is disappointing considering that the latter was released four years prior. And while it's true that Rolling Thunder 2 is the technologically superior product, that in itself isn't enough to break the mold. For it to stand alone would have required that it expand its scope--defy convention--and work to become a symbol of modernity; instead, it was forced to settle for less because its creators chose to strictly adhere to the original's aged blueprint.

Rolling Thunder 2 finds itself shackled by its progenitor's legacy. It may be true that it trumps the original work in terms of creativity and interesting level design, but these aren't qualities so distinguishing that I could grant Rolling Thunder 2 the status of transcendent; in reality, it's unable to escape from the gravitation field as generated by Rolling Thunder's nostalgic resonance.

That's been the recurring theme with my comparisons: Rolling Thunder 2 is a much prettier-looking game--its technical advancements allowing for it to display graphics that boast both a greater degree polish and an unmatched feeling of depth--yet none of its stages feature decor that I'd call as visually memorable as Rolling Thunder's tattered, teal-colored corridors and mysteriously carved caverns. Its enemy cast is more varied--dozens of vibrantly colored, attractively-designed baddies filling the screen at all times--but none of its representatives do anything to make me forget the inimitable, indelibly etched hooded goons whose quintessence so helped to shape my enduring mental images of Rolling Thunder. Its soundtrack is filled with excellent tunes--the wonderfully composed stage themes coming in a surprisingly diverse array of flavors--yet not a single one can replicate the empowering influence or nostalgic conveyance of Rolling Thunder's peerless opener.

But I can't deny that I really like Rolling Thunder 2. It has a lot going for it. It's bound by formula, yes, but it has a lot more fun with level design and particularly the application of some impressive graphical trickery. Despite my lamenting that it shirks the the original's much-preferred desolate, claustrophobic aesthetic, I have to give it credit for how it aims to render a diverse set of well-drawn, visually appealing environments; it uses layering and parallax scrolling to great effect, theirs the palette upon which the game's cool-looking background graphics are etched. Its music and sound design are top-notch. And its balcony-hopping, quick-firing action is as satisfying as ever. It does what any high-tier arcade game is supposed to do. It doesn't possess the drive to supplant Rolling Thunder, no, but it's worth playing all the same. I can see myself returning to it in the future in any of those scenarios wherein I have ten to twenty minutes to fill and the moment calls for some instantly engaging arcade fun. That's the beauty of arcade games: You don't have to finish them to extract fulfillment.

I should note that I'm aware of the Genesis version and its exclusive Rolling Thunder sequel, both of which I plan to dig up in the future.

So has playing Rolling Thunder 2 in 2016 made me feel as though I missed something big back in 1990? Well, I don't think I can provide a fair answer for that. This is a game that was built with cooperative multiplayer in mind; had I encountered it when I was a more socially engaged youth--when I always had a friend by my side--it might have stood a chance of standing out as something special. I mean, two-player Rolling Thunder? That would have been a huge draw for us! We're talking "go-to game" potential here. If only I'd been more adventurous.

As a solo experience? I'm not sure how I would have felt about it back then. It's possible that I would have slotted it as a flashy retread, though I might have felt inclined to overlook its derivative qualities when immersed in an arcade setting that was made for playing big, loud action games. "Who cares if it's too similar?" I'd have thought. "For what it offers, this game will always be worth a quarter or two."

People might ask, "So, then, what's the appeal of playing old arcade games in modern times?" They might wonder why anyone would want to waste time drudging his or her way through punishing, super-difficult--sometimes deliberately unfair--arcade games that were designed as though they were never meant to be completed. To them I'd speak of understanding. I'd maintain that games like Rolling Thunder 2 should be explored for the reasons stated in this piece's intro: Just to see them. To witness them in action--observe what they do with technology. Get a sense of how they influenced the future of game development. Hell--there were things happening in these technological marvels that we wouldn't even see replicated in the 16-bit games we'd be playing years later. And you'll know exactly why this is important once you start tearing into these games.

If you're a passionate enthusiast, it makes all the sense in the world to thoroughly explore arcade games. If, say, you're a fan of a series that was born in the arcades, you can play the founding title and garner appreciation for how the series' mechanics and aesthetic attributes were formed and developed. You can appreciate the amazing artwork that you probably neglected to gauge during those intense arcade sessions. You can listen to that unmistakably distinct arcade music--that good ol' metallic synth--and drink in the outstanding tunes you probably didn't hear when you were immersed in a cacophonous setting whose noise was likely overwhelming your senses. You can play these games from the comfort of your quiet den, where the connection can be made to feel so much more interpersonal. You can savor them. Absorb their vibes. Find out what you were missing.

"Why is it worth indulging in arcade history?" you ask.

The answer to that is "games like Rolling Thunder 2."

No comments:

Post a Comment