ROLLING THUNDER 3 / Namco / Genesis

The original Rolling Thunder burst into arcades in 1986 with unique style and gameplay. It was one of the first run-and-gun games that was effectively cover-based; the action was deliberate and methodical, requiring you to proceed carefully and make good use of crates and doors you could slide into and such to get the drop on the enemy.

The sequel killed the atmosphere, but did retain the core gameplay (albeit packing the levels with cheap hits). Rolling Thunder 3 brings back something of the original game's atmosphere, but fiddles too much with the core gameplay. It's been expanded to be more of a generic action game, and though it's still one of the more competent run-and-guns on the Genesis it represented an end to the series without ever having a truly satisfying follow-up to the original game.

The animated intro lets us know that this game takes place during the events of Rolling Thunder 2. That means agents Albatross and Leila are busy with the Mickey Mouse Gang, so we get second-stringer Agent Jay instead. Fortunately, he's basically just Albatross with a more animu haircut. Jay appropriately gets to chase down the 2nd-in-command of Geldra, the weird colorful alien/terrorist organization from the original game. Geldra is apparently rebuilding their forces out of an oil refinery in sunny So Cal (is this the first game to have a level set in Bakersfield?), but that quickly leads to an alarmingly casual shootout in the streets and in an unnamed casino in Vegas followed by what basically ends up being Where In The World Is Geldra with a hodgepodge of a few more levels in different settings.

Each level starts out with your pick of nine optional sub-weapons, which is your first warning that bad design decisions are on the horizon. At first this might seem like a nice touch, but you'll quickly discover that once a weapon is selected you can't pick it again in any future level. The big problem here is that the heavier firepower is basically mandatory for the levels with boss battles ... but you'll have no idea which levels have boss battles (they're kinda randomly scattered around) until you actually get to them.

Rolling Thunder 3 then proceeds to thrown in a bunch of stuff the game's core design was never really balanced for. Enemies are a little too aggro for cover-based action, for example. They love rushing and jumping right at you regardless of danger, and now they sometimes randomly pop out of weapons room doors after you've reloaded (something I don't ever remember happening in the original game). The grenade-chuckers can also now huck 'em sideways and even up a level at you.

The wealth of sub-weapons still makes the game somewhat easy on the whole (along with the new ability to shoot diagonally and while jumping), exception of the boss battles. Yep, they cobbled boss battles into Rolling Thunder somehow, and it goes about as poorly as you would expect. Take the first boss for example, some mechanical crab security drone thing. You're expected to run under him as he jumps at you, but you're just too damn slow for that! From watching LPs, it seems the boss strategy here is just to know which levels they are in, bring one of the most powerful guns into that level and conserve its ammo, then try to bulldoze them with it before they can move around too much.

There are also a few really simplistic motorcycle and jet ski levels that are like a basic bitch version of the ones in Battletoads. Again, total break from established Rolling Thunder precedent.

One of the nice touches of the original game was that though caution and deliberate play were rewarded, you couldn't get away with being a total cowardly plonking pussy as there was a timer running. You could see the timer, though. Rolling Thunder 3 initially appears to not have a timer, but it's actually hidden. If the game arbitrarily decides you're dawdling too long in an area, an off-screen sniper pops up and starts harassing you which makes the game virtually unplayable. The sniper pops up in some boss battles too, which just really makes them obnoxious.

I don't mean to suggest by all this that Rolling Thunder 3 is a bad game; it just does too much and it's to the overall detriment to the game. The core Rolling Thunder gameplay is there and it's not bad, but all the extra stuff weighs it down. It's a polished release from an experienced Namco team that looks nice and has some very good sound work, and big fans of the series will probably find enough here to make it worth a run.

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