Retronauts Weaves a Funky Spy Groove with Rolling Thunder

Retronauts Weaves a Funky Spy Groove with Rolling Thunder

Look back at Namco's stylish espionage action game, which was retro even when it was new.

We've spent a lot of time talking about the history of Metal Gear in the lead-up to last week's blockbuster-sized finale for the series. What we haven't talked much about, however, is the series' pre-history.

1987's Metal Gear revolutioned the concept of espionage action, emphasizing stealth and evasion over pure action. While it wasn't the first game to try its hand at stealth mechanics, it was certainly the first to do it so well and with such extensive depth.

It was also, arguably, the first to combine the seemingly obvious pairing of spies and sneaking, which perhaps had the most to do with its impact. Up until Metal Gear arrived, spy-themed games tended to be standard action games at a slightly slower, more intense pace — as in Namco's Rolling Thunder, which arrived in arcades in 1985 and felt like a slower-paced counterpart to contemporaneous games like Ghosts 'N Goblins and Super Mario Bros.

Rolling Thunder may not have played much like we expect from stealth games these days, but it sure looked the part. In an era where games were all about facing into the future with sci-fi themes or taking a more fanciful approach with fantasy, Rolling Thunder looked back into the past to the secret agent themes of the 1960s.

Secret agent Albatross may as well have been a sprite rip of Steve McQueen from Bullitt. And his garishly garbed foes felt a little bit like a throwback to the set designs of '60s television as well, when the advent of color caused production artists to go crazy with hues — remember all the red or purple areas of the Enterprise on Star Trek? Rolling Thunder may not have proven to be as enduring as Metal Gear, but it was still pretty great, and this week's Retronauts Micro looks back at the formula behind its success. Certainly the game did well enought that we saw a number of remarkably similar works over the following decade, including Sega's Shinobi franchise and even the sequel to Elevator Action, whose original entry essentially did Rolling Thunder's spy action thing before Rolling Thunder did.

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Episode Description

Jeremy looks back on Namco's clasic arcade action game Rolling Thunder, the quintessential old-school take on "spy action" before Metal Gear redefined the genre to mean "stealth."

The music in this episode comes from the Rolling Thunder trilogy: Rolling Thunder and Rolling Thunder 2 in the arcade, and Rolling Thunder 3 for Sega Genesis. The middle enty of the three had the least inspired music of the series — the funky '60 beats come directly from the original game, and the chill electronic grooves in the middle of the episode from Rolling Thunder 3 — but even Rolling Thunder 2 had its moments. Rolling Thunder's tracks were crafted by Junko Ozawa (the only staff credit I've ever been able to find for the arcade original), while the sequel's compositions came to us courtesy of Ayako Saso... meaning, interestingly enough, that the entire series' beats were created by women, despite the fact that Rolling Thunder is a game so manly they sent it a razor on its 18th birthday.

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