Retro Video Game of the moment: Rolling Thunder (1986)

As an 80’s kid, I got into James Bond movies that starred Roger Moore, then later Timothy Dalton* One thing I used to think about during all those repeat viewings of For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy & A View to a Kill was how awesome James Bond would be as an arcade game! Mind you, this was pre-pre- GoldenEye on the N64.

Just imagine… a super-slick spy running around with his side-arm gunning down bad guys and infiltrating complex secret villain headquarters in order to thwart global disaster…

Well, that describes to a tee what Namco’s arcade hit Rolling Thunder presented when it was released.

In this side-scrolling action thriller, you play as an agent code named Albatross, who’s a member of the WCPO (World Crime Police Organization… I know, not entirely original, but eh…). Your mission: to rescue your partner/love interest, female agent Leila Blitz, who is being held hostage by a secret society called Geldra.

In Rolling Thunder, you’ve got to rescue Leila, who’s caught in the evil clutches of the terrorist organization Geldra.

Released nearly a year prior to Sega’s similar ninja-tastic side-scroller Shinobi, Rolling Thunder boasted much of the same action of that title but with an element of espionage involved. Albatross begins the game armed with his standard-issue pistol, however throughout the game he can power up to a machine gun, which lets him fire off continuous rounds when you hold down the fire button. Each weapon carries a limited supply of bullets, so part of the strategy involves finding doors that are marked “Bullet”, which will refill your pistol ammo when entering, or “Arms” which supply and refill your machine gun. Also a cool feature is being able to enter into random doors throughout the stages, which lets Albatross hide and take cover from passing swarms of enemies as needed. Albatross can also leap to and from upper and lower levels of each stage.

Image via

The villains of Geldra are, well, rather strange for their time. Most of the henchmen are the “Maskers”… roving soldiers wearing hooded masks who wield guns, bombs, fists and other weapons. Me being 11-years old at the time and seeing my share of slavery-era dramas on TV, my first thought was “Oh snap, this dude’s taking on the Ku Klux Klan!!” however I realized they weren’t just wearing white hoods, but a variety of colors. If I were to describe the Maskers’ appearance, they remind me a lot of the headgear worn by the similarly named cartoon and toy line M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armored Strike Kommand for you 80’s rookies out there). Depending on the colors worn, some Maskers took only one shot to kill whereas others required multiple shots to dispatch, hence why the machine gun was an important power up to have in the game. The color variations also determined the weapons they used and the attack patterns they deployed (some kneeled, others jumped, etc.).

Also posing threats in the name of Geldra are various ninjas (gotta have ninjas in an 80s game!), Gelzos (mutated bats), flaming lava men (I called them Human Torches), black panthers and Blogas (primitive yellow creatures that shrieked when hit). All this action leads to a showdown with the final villain, the scary green-skinned alien head of Geldra named Maboo (I kid you not, that’s his real name!) in order to free Leila.

Wanna enjoy the entire Rolling Thunder arcade experience? Check out the videos below, or scroll down to keep reading…

The game lasts ten stages which run across two stories. Story 1 has stages, or areas, which can be skipped, however Story 2 is basically a retread of Story 1’s areas with more difficult enemies. As with most side-scrollers, remembering the patterns of enemies across each of the areas is key to victory (unless you had tons of quarters to spare, in which case feed the machine to your heart’s content!). In between each stage are cut-scenes showing the capture and torture of Leila by various Geldra goons, likely serving as further motivation to rescue her.

“FEED ME! You know you want to…”
– Rolling Thunder cabinet.

What was cool about Rolling Thunder, other than the spy theme and the variety of  villains (I relished in the idea of shooting down the rainbow-colored KKK!! Ahem,sorry…) were two factors that I checked for most in arcade games than any other… sound and graphics. Sound-wise, Rolling Thunder had some cool effects, from the grunts and groans of the vanquished Maskers to the sharp firing from Albatross’ pistol and machine gun. And the music in the background– very addictive and fitting for each stage as it kept the spy thriller vibe going throughout. As far as graphics, for 1986 Namco produced one of the greatest games in coin-ops. The rich colors in the sprites and sharp detail of the stages and characters, down to the shoulder holster that Albatross kept his pistol in, made Rolling Thunder a visual thrill for anyone just spectating. Not to mention the slick  fluid animation of the characters, from Albatross’ cool jump over the railing to the way the Maskers fell out after being shot, you can tell that tons of hours were put into the game design.

Rolling Thunder for the NES/Famicon, released by Tengen. As with most Tengen games, this was unlicensed by Nintendo.

Rolling Thunder saw various ports to home versions in the latter 80’s. In 1988, U.S. Gold released it on various home computers, including the Atari ST, Commodore 64, & Amiga, mostly in Europe. I did own a copy of the Commodore 64 version, however, and found playing it tobe an upgrade from another C64 favorite of mine, Mission Elevator. In 1989, Rolling Thunder was released by Tengen for the Nintendo Entertainment System, albeit unlicensed. The Tengen version contained new features like password saves and hidden bonuses, however it proved a decent port of the original and just as fun.

Rolling Thunder was also announced as a 1992 release for Atari’s Lynx handheld system, but was later canceled. Over the past two decades, the original arcade version has been included in several versions of Namco Museum across the Playstation, XBox, NES and PC platforms. The latest version is available as part of the Namco Arcade iOS app.

Rolling Thunder saw two sequels: The two-player cooperative Rolling Thunder 2 hit the arcades in 1991 and later on Mega Drive/Sega Genesis that same year; Rolling Thunder 3 was a Sega Genesis exclusive release in 1993.

Sure, the later years saw such video game hits as GoldenEye, the Metal Gear Solid series and later Hitman and Grand Theft Auto, but when you look at the roots of action video games, you can’t help but give a nod to the masterpiece of Rolling Thunder. If not for any other reason, Albatross made the red turtleneck sweater and holster look all the rage in 1987, if not but for a few weeks at least…

Japanese poster for Rolling Thunder

Links for more info

Wiki page:
Killer List of Videogames:
Bandai-Namco Games’ Virtual Console Arcade blog (Japanese):
World of Spectrum:


Classick Material is a big fan of 80s arcade games. He tends to blast soundtrack music from various arcade, NES, Sega and some PS One games really really loud in the car. When he’s not at home being a family man or fighting the forces of evil alongside his trusty canine sidekick Spider-Dog, he co-hosts the Cold Slither Podcast show!

*They sure took long enough to sign Remington Steele to play Bond, didn’t they? Pierce Brosnan’s window of relevance  was nearly shut by the time they got him, even though people have been clamoring since before Dalton was signed up! Thanks, Dumarest! – ed.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Shareef says:

    Used to love this game, but I don’t remember any levels past the first. I know I have it on emulator somewhere. The NES version was terrible!

  2. Howie says:

    Never got to play this one! Great write up, always love this column.

  3. Dumarest says:

    Pierce Brosnan was Remington Steele

    1. By god, how did we miss that one? Thanks, Dumarest!

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