Atari was definitely an innovator in the new entertainment arena known as the "arcade", and Rolling Thunder was certainly a good example, as arcades had entered only their second decade of existence by the 1980s...heck, so much an innovation this game was, that I don't even know what listing to put it under, as it could go under the classification of Action, Shooting, or Platformer (somewhat). But sometimes putting something under a category can be a pain anyway, so who really cares?
In this very original game, you are an agent on a mission whose covert group goes under the codename of Rolling Thunder. In one of the earliest games with cinematic cutscenes (which I'll get to), you must infiltrate an enemy base and rescue the yummy-looking damsel in distress (it's pretty much always the way in a game, unless you're Lara Croft or Samus of Metroid fame, although this damsel in particular turns out to actually be a fellow agent) if you can.
If you accept this assignment, you must also endure a weird fashion show from
hell, since the bad guys, who don't show their faces (which might be a good
thing, due to a certain ugly green guy who pops up at the end, whom I'll explain
later), wear colorful, almost KKK-like hoods over their heads... actually, at
times during the game, when several of them are onscreen, they give a salute or
a "power" gesture of some sort, which I'm sure some people without a life
probably came up with some kind of story or meaning behind it all (which, if you
think you know what it is, I hope we never get stuck on an elevator together).
In this game, you control your agent by moving and jumping through scrolling screens while shooting bad guys. There are all kinds of different levels along the way, as well as all kinds of obstacles that you can duck behind or into to take shelter in as the colorfully-clad bad dudes shoot at you, like tires and boxes (and too bad you can't knock over an occasional stack of boxes to take out some of your adversaries with, as those pointy hoods bother me, for some reason...)
Like Doom several years later, where you begin each new game with a crappy little pistol, you start off with a rather blah gun, but it gets the job done, at least, but at times, you can go into rooms scattered through the levels to upgrade to a more butt-kicking piece of arsenal: a machine gun! These spray several bullets at once, which, as you get further along into the game, bad guys start taking multiple hits before they keel over and die (like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz movie...hey, maybe that's where this green guy comes from at the end, he's one of her kids or something), so extra shots are required at times...just don't run out of ammo, or it's back to your original crummy gun until you can acquire more bullets for your much improved, "I've gone postal"-type weapon.
Your character can also take a couple of punches before losing a life, which is shown by an Energy meter (plus there's also an ammo meter), which is helpful when you run across some doors throughout the game marked with ammo and weapons (that I mentioned earlier) that you can go in and out of to add to your ammunition stash. However, these doors can also be a hindrance, since enemies can also pop in and out of nearby doors as well, and if they touch you, well, there goes a notch from your life meter. (It's too bad there isn't a way to slam a door open right into the faces of your foes, which you could pretend they were annoying Jehovah's Witnesses.)
This is a very cool, ambitious game, since it's very long-playing, and requires many quarters to get through; it's not a game where it's a screen of invaders to blast, a maze of dots to clear, etc., and that's it. You get all kinds of different obstacles to take cover behind, various enemies that take multiple strategies to finish off (those fast-moving dog things in the later stages are a real pain; play dead! Good boy!), different-looking levels, and even secret doors that have ammo and all that aren't marked, so it's worth it from time to time to open up a door here and there that isn't marked to hopefully replenish some ammo. The controls also respond fairly well and there's cool James Bond-type music that plays throughout the game, which makes sense with it's secret agent set-up, since you have weird-looking adversaries (like Jaws in the Bond films was reeeeeal normal-looking, for instance), cool weapons and a babe to rescue.
Some of the aspects of the game are weird, though, like, at times, there are bad guys below you, and you're on a staircase, which they could very easily reach up and knock some of your energy away, but for some reason they apparently can't see you; what the heck? As long as you don't cross a certain marker at the base of the steps, you're fine, but the moment you do, the enemies come after you. Ok, whatever...maybe at that point in the game, for some reason, the guys' hoods are difficult to see through. (Maybe they got them from K-Mart and the eyeholes don't line up?)
However, there are brief cinematic interludes in between waves, showing the babe you must rescue (which most zit-faced teenage geek gameplayers aren't going to have a girlfriend anytime soon in real life that looks anything like her), which are very cool, which was very new back then in the arcades, plus when you don't reach the end (I'm pretty sure there IS one, but it'd take lots of quarters for continuances for most players to get to), the head enemy, a green, pointy-eared guy (I guess?), laughs at you, making you want to blow a hole in the screen with one of those nifty guns you find along the way in the game...laugh at THAT, pal! "Can you fear me now?"
The only bummer about this game is that it didn't have much of a life after the arcades: a sequel of Rolling Thunder 2 came out, although it reportedly was a Japan-only release, and a few ports made it to home video game systems, like Rolling Thunder 3 for the Genesis [and the NES has a version of RT - Ed.], but that was a disappointment for me, since I never made it to the end on the arcade game, but I beat this version in only a few days! Even though it made a nice homage to the original on the first level, and none of the levels looked the same (like on the original), as one level put you on a plane and all, it was too easy, and it had THE most boring cinemas I had ever seen, even with the addition of dialogue, which I don't think the original had any! (Hopefully Rolling Thunder 2 for the same system was better.) In some of the cinemas, your character will give you clues as to what's coming up next in the game, but you can just ignore them and make it through anyway without much of a problem, as long as you're fairly decent at video games.
Like they say, just go play the original, it's better, as per usual. :)
And I would have ranked this game higher if it wasn't for the difficulty
level, but oh well...stupid laughing green things at the end of a game make me
upset, for some reason.