Friday, March 28, 2014

My Favorite Pro Wrestlers

One of the earliest articles I wrote for this blog, was an article about The Undertaker. He is my favorite wrestler of all time, and he is the reason I ever got hooked on professional wrestling in the first place. As a younger person, in my teens, I was actually able to suspend disbelief, before I learned so much about the "inner workings" of the business, and just watch and enjoy the show for what it was. And in that sense, I totally bought that this guy was supernatural and had powers and strength that no mortal man possesses. It was that aspect of pro wrestling that made me originally love it: the fact that I actually was able to buy into the characters these people played, to forget that I knew and understood it was "fake", and just enjoy the show. And to be perfectly honest with all of you, there is a part of me that wishes I was still that way. Because to be perfectly honest, I enjoyed wrestling far more back then, than I have in many years in more recent times.

Considering that the 30th Wrestlemania event is right around the corner, even though that means a lot less now than it used to, I decided it's time to share with you some more of my wrestling fandom. And what better way to kick that off, than with a look at some of my top favorite wrestlers of all time? As with some of my other "Top Lists", the top five or so spots are pretty much set in stone, but after that it gets kind of sticky, but I'm gonna attempt it anyway. So here we go:

My fav. version of Taker, circa 1997-1998.

1. The Undertaker
    Height: 6'10"
    Weight: 300 lbs

    Finisher: Tombstone Piledriver

I already went into great length with my original Undertaker article as to why I love this character so much. But in short, he's a supernatural entity that comes back from the fuckin' dead every time he's defeated, and draws on the power of the "Dark Side" to give him supernatural strength and endurance. And he summons lightning bolts to scare his foes. What's not to like about that? In his prime, this guy shrugged off chair-shots and finishing moves alike, first with the power of his manager Paul Bearer's mysterious golden urn, and later simply by drawing upon the "Dark Side" itself. And as a little bit of my own personal lore, it just so happens that from his 1990 debut, on through the decade, the more he would defeat people, over time it just so happened that his arms got more and more covered with tattoos. I like to think of them as symbols of all the souls he's taken over the years, as one of his nicknames is "The Reaper of Wayward Souls". See why I love this guy?

For his size, he was very quick and graceful, and was able to pull off a lot of technical wrestling and high flying moves that most "big men" couldn't dream of. He had multiple reigns as world champion, and even main-evented a few Wrestlemania events, considered the pinnacle of the sport. And while I personally think he should have retired several years ago (to preserve his legacy, and his health), the fact is undeniable that he is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, and certainly one of the most distinct and memorable personalities of all time.

The Best There Was or Ever Will Be....

2. Bret "The Hitman" Hart
    Height: 6'0"
    Weight: 230 lbs. 
    Finisher: The Sharpshooter

One of his nicknames, "The Excellence of Execution", was entirely accurate when it comes to my second favorite wrestler of all time, Bret Hart. Born into wrestling royalty, son of the legendary Stu Hart, and growing up with a family who ran a wrestling promotion, and brothers who were all wrestlers, he was destined for greatness. After forming one half of one of the greatest tag teams of all time, the "Hart Foundation" with partner Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart (brother-in-law), he then went on to become one of the greatest singles wrestlers of all time. He won pretty much everything there was to win in his era, two time Tag Team Champion, two time Intercontinental Champion (beating the likes of Mr. Perfect and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper), the only two time King of the Ring tournament winner in WWF history, the co-winner of the 1994 Royal Rumble, and a five time WWF Heavyweight Champion. He also main-evented three Wrestlemania events, Wrestlemania IX and X against the great Yokozuna, and XII against Shawn Michaels.

What really matters in all of that though, is that after establishing himself as a top singles star in the WWF in 1991, in an era that saw the end of "Hulkamania" and an exodus of most of the big, muscle-men stars of the 80s, Bret Hart went on to become a world famous and respected "everyman", a "People's Champion" so to speak, long before Diamond Dallas Page or The Rock called themselves such. He was just a regular-sized guy, who won with great technical wrestling ability, and a lot of (pardon the pun) Heart. But why is he my second favorite wrestler? Because, simply put, he was arguably the most technically gifted and sound wrestler of the modern era. And because, even as a "bad guy" in 1997, he always managed to embody class, respect, and in the professional realm, uncompromising integrity. He was incredible in the ring, and while no one is perfect, he was also a great person outside of it. Make no mistake about it, for all the talk given to the likes of Shawn Michaels, Sting, the NWO, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, or even my beloved Undertaker, from 1991-1997, The Hitman was THE man of the wrestling world.

They totally reeked of awesomeness.

3. Edge
    Height: 6'5"
    Weight: 240lbs
    Finisher: Spear

For a certain span from late 1998 to mid-2001, the team of Edge and Christian were arguably the best tag team in the world. But Edge first captivated my attention when he debuted as a mysterious loner in the summer of '98, appearing through the crowd, with a long trench coat and a brooding attitude. I was interested, and became a fan, because of this early (but sadly short-lived) singles run. He was quickly inducted into the "vampire" faction known as "The Brood" with leader Gangrel and his storyline brother (real life childhood best friend) Christian. They later joined Undertaker's "Ministry of Darkness", before breaking away as fan favorites and ultimately Edge & Christian alone rising to tag team dominance. But through all of this, I was a fan, and they were my favorite tag-team for that entire duration.

From mid-2001 onward, the team splintered, and Edge broke out, much as Bret Hart had once done, as one of the top young stars of the new millennium. In fact, nearing 2003, I had high hopes of him possibly main eventing a Wrestlemania someday, and becoming the WWF Champion. Sadly, my hopes, and his career, were derailed when he suffered what could easily have been (and many years later ultimately was) a career-ending neck injury. The injury kept him out for over a year, and he wound up missing both Wrestlemania 19 and 20. I honestly feared the worst, as many new stars came and went during his recuperation. He did finally come back in 2004, and though it wasn't as the shining "good guy" star he could have been back in 2003, he did eventually become WWE Champion in 2006, and would ultimately be a multiple time world champ, even main eventing Wrestlemania 24 against The Undertaker, a dream match for me. I wasn't always a fan of many of the stupid antics they had him doing as the "Rated R Superstar", but I always remained a big Edge fan regardless, and cheered for him until his neck problems eventually forced his retirement in 2012. But when all was said and done, he had one of the most successful careers anyone has ever had, and cemented himself as one of the best ever.

Still the Best in the World.
4. CM Punk
    Height: 6'2"
    Weight: 220 lbs.
    Finisher: The Anaconda Vice

While unfamiliar with his early work in other promotions like Ring of Honor and TNA for the most part, I was certainly aware of his existence. And when this guy named CM Punk debuted for WWE programming (namely the ill-fated "ECW" show they attempted) in the summer of 2006, I was instantly sold from the beginning, for several reasons. For one, I liked that he was another quote-unquote "small guy", who wasn't bulked up, and he used skill rather than power to win. For another, he displayed a unique mix of "martial arts" type moves, along with sound technical prowess, which I've always preferred. Thirdly, his original (and only real if you ask me) finisher, the "Anaconda Vice", was one of the coolest submission holds I'd ever seen, and I've always been a big fan of wrestlers who use submission finishers. And last but not least, though I don't "make a point" of it, considering that I myself am technically "Straight Edge" (don't drink, smoke, do drugs, etc.), I appreciated and identified with that aspect of his character and real-life personality.

Long story short, Punk easily became and remained one of my top new favorite guys for years. And though it appeared at times like the "powers that be", who often seem to only give opportunities to the big, hulking muscle-men of the wrestling world, would never truly give him a chance to be "the man", Punk defied all the odds and eventually became a multi-time world champion. He even had the longest title reign since the prime of the '80s multi-year "Hulkamania" run. Through it all, much like my man Bret Hart, he stayed true to himself, and maintained his own personal integrity and respect over selling out to stay on top. And the fans, myself included, loved him for it.

Andre, holding star NFL quarterback Joe Theisman.
5. Andre the Giant
    Height: 7'4"
    Weight: 500+ lbs.
    Finisher: Any move he felt like.

Andre Rene Roussimoff, born in Grenoble France in 1946, could have had no way of knowing that he would one day grow into one of the biggest, both figuratively and literally, stars the wrestling world would ever know. I'm very sorry to say that, as I mentioned in my Undertaker article, I did not grow up watching wrestling as a kid. I wish I had, because I would have loved it, but I simply wasn't allowed. As such, I missed out on even the later part of Andre's WWF career, the part of it that most people remember, when he was getting older, fatter, and with progressively worse health. But even then, he still inspired love and fear in people, and captured the imagination of the entire world.

Probably the most infamous single moment in the long history of professional wrestling, was when Hulk Hogan slammed Andre and beat him at Wrestlemania 3 in 1987. The reason this was such a monumental occasion, is that no one had (officially) pinned Andre and beat him clean for some 15 or so years. It was a passing of the torch moment, and even though Andre would stick around for several years after, even enjoying a brief but awesome WWF Championship win over Hogan in '88, that moment signified both the true beginning of Hogan's infamy, as well as the end of Andre's long and storied career of dominance.

I wish I could have watched back then, as I would have secretly loved Andre, even if my little-kid mind probably would have been obligated to hate him as a bad guy for beating up on hero Hogan. My first real exposure to him, as with many people, actually came later in life when I finally saw the film "The Princess Bride", a film in which an ailing Andre still managed to practically steal the show, as the lovable giant "Fezzik". I think it's very unfortunate that people remember Andre at the end of his career and life though, when he had slowed down due to weight gain and increasing back pain. Because the reality is, before those issues set in, Andre had become a world famous superstar, before wrestlers were world famous, as a much more slender and athletic giant who wowed audiences the world over. He was even the first professional wrestler to grace the cover of "Sports Illustrated" magazine. For his immense size, in his prime, he was still one of the best in the ring, and the "finisher" statement above was no joke, he could and would beat people with whatever move he felt like. That isn't to say he could do it all, but for his incredible size, he could do more than a lot of wrestlers half as big. But regardless of how people remember him, the important thing is he is remembered, and he should be remembered, because he was one of the true greats.

He's the whole fuckin' show.
6. Rob Van Dam
    Height: 6'0"
    Weight: 235 lbs.
    Finisher: Five Star Frog-Splash

Much like CM Punk, I was not really familiar with RVD or his work prior to his WWF debut in 2001. I was aware of his name, and who he was, but I had never seen him wrestle, because I never watched the promotion he worked for, Extreme Championship Wrestling. But when he DID finally debut for WWF in the summer of 2001, after ECW had gone under, much like CM Punk, I was instantly a fan as soon as I saw his first match. And even though he was supposed to be a part of the "heel" WCW/ECW "Invasion" faction that was going on at the time, most of the fans agreed with me, because he was relentlessly cheered, regardless of his alignment. If you ask me, given "old school rasslin'" logic, that should have been WWF's clue to push this guy to the fuckin' moon after the Invasion angle ended in late 2001. But while they certainly gave him a spotlight, WWF (or more specifically owner Vince McMahon), has always been rather slow on the uptake when it comes to "pushing" guys that got famous outside of his company. Thus they never quite did ride with RVD the way they should have, which is insane, because he was crazy popular for years, far more so than most of the guys they DID treat as top stars at the time.

 But ignoring wrestling politics and semantics, the reasons I fell in love with RVD were, again like Punk, many. Many but far different. RVD was a "different kind of cat", if you will, who also marched to the beat of his own drum. Despite not quite being of "cruiserweight" (IE under 200 lbs.) size, RVD wrestled a fast, high-flying style, and he mixed in a bit of his own real-life martial arts abilities. His offense consisted, in short, of a fine-tuned mix of various martial arts kicks, and high flying, high impact moves. He was a human highlight real, and at least early on in his WWF run, he pulled moves out of nowhere that I had never seen before. Plus, I just liked his nonchalant attitude, and the colorful, decorative, custom-made outfits he would wear. Overall, I just liked his style, he stood out and was different in a good way. He may not be remembered by everyone as "one of the greatest of all time" like the guys above him on this list, but to me he still is.

"Well it's's time.....IT'S VADER TIME!"
 7. Vader (Big Van Vader)
    Height: 6'5"
    Weight: 450 lbs.
    Finisher: Vaderbomb

Again, having missed out on his monster run in WCW in the early-to-mid-90s, on account of not watching wrestling, I was however lucky enough that just as I was starting to get into wrestling in 1996 thanks to my friend Brandon, Vader came into the WWF. Even though he was initially a monster bully type of character, I can't really explain it but I still liked him. If you hadn't noticed from reading my articles, most of my favorite things in any given category, tend more often than not to be things that are unique and "had their own style", and it's no different with wrestlers. Vader was Vader, period. There were and are many other "big men" in the business, but none of them ever have or ever will be quite like Vader. In fact, WWF during a certain span of time, was lucky enough, in my view, to have THE four greatest "fat guy" wrestlers of all time: Yokozuna, Bam Bam Bigelow, Mable (later called Viscera), and Vader. 

When it comes to wrestling and wrestlers, in spite of my Undertaker love, I tend to prefer smaller, more technical, or athletic/high flying guys. When I do like "big guy" wrestlers, I usually like them because, like Undertaker, they are more than just a hulking behemoth, but rather they have ability and can do things that guys their size shouldn't be able to do. And that was absolutely true of Vader, who was famous for doing his "Vaderbomb" splash, as well as the occasional moonsault (backflip move) from the top rope. I loved Vader because, while he was a bully, he was a hilarious and awesome bully. He was a tough guy who was SO tough that it was charming, and even though he was supposed to be mean as hell, I think somehow his real-life teddy-bear personality tended to accidentally bleed through. He was just a likeable guy, and one hell of a character, which is why he'll always be one of my favorites.

He was rowdy, before rowdy was cool.

8. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper
     Height: 6'2"
     Weight: 230 lbs.
     Finisher: The Sleeper Hold

I won't bother going into how I also missed out on his prime as a kid. Although I do feel obligated to mention that perhaps the single biggest crime this side of the infamous "Montreal Screwjob" (look it up if you care) incident, in the history of pro wrestling, is the fact that Roddy Piper, at his height of villainy in the mid-80s, was never WWF Champion. Make no mistake about it, he was one of THE biggest stars in the world back then, and Hulk Hogan's stratospheric popularity would never have taken off the way it did, had it not been for him having such an amazing adversary as Piper. Piper wasn't huge like Hogan, but he was mean as hell, never gave up, and did whatever he had to do to win. The ultimate bad guy. He would later become a beloved fan favorite, but I just think it kind of goes without saying, that for all the great business WWF did back in the mid-80s because of their feud, it could have been that much better if Piper had somehow swindled the belt away from Hogan. That would have put it over the top, and besides that, the guy deserved it.

The reason I love Piper, is because of his attitude. Whether it was in the ring, on the mic, or in one of his movies (such as the amazing and underrated John Carpenter's "They Live"), he always did things his way, and made sure to have a smart remark ready and waiting at any given moment to go with it. He was a far better wrestler than he is often given credit for, and he certainly had every right to consider himself just as big a reason for WWF's rise to dominance as Hogan was. Love him or hate him, the "Hot Rod" always had people talking.

He had the look, he had the talent.
9. Test
    Height: 6'6"
    Weight: 285 lbs.
    Finisher: The Big Boot

Perhaps some would consider this a random and somewhat "oddball" entry to have in a Top Ten list, but hey, it's my list, so it's my top guys. And Test was one of my top guys. When it comes to big powerhouse, muscley guys, there's a reason that Test is really the only one on this list. The main reason being, that he wasn't merely a muscle guy. He was certainly a powerhouse, but unlike most big powerhouse wrestlers, he was an engine of destruction. He was fast, he was strong, and most importantly, he had arguably the most crisp (as in it really looks like he's killing people out there) style I think I've ever seen. Everything he did tended to look "real", within reason, and while a lot of "big guys" have a tendency to be slow and as I call them, "floppy" in the ring, Test wasn't. He brought everything fast and hard-hitting, and he was just awesome.

He might be the only guy on this list who won me over strictly on his in-ring ability alone. They never gave him much mic time to really get "good at talking", or portray much of a character. But who needs character, when you've got this guy who just comes out and smashes people in convincing fashion? And I don't mean just Goldberg style smashing. Most of Test's repertoire consisted of various slams, but two of his most memorable moves, were probably his two best. One of them, was a "Macho Man" homage in the form of a flying elbow off the top rope. For a 6'6", nearly 300 pound guy to leap into the air and drop a flying elbow? That's pretty awesome. And the absolute best, his finisher, was his running big boot. Now, it should be said that a LOT of tall "big man" wrestlers do a big boot as part of their move-set. Undertaker does it, Kane does it, Diesel/Kevin Nash did it, Psycho Sid, etc. etc. etc. But the thing that set Test apart from most of those guys, is what sets his version of the big boot apart as well. He didn't just throw a guy into the ropes and kind of stick his leg up in the air for them to run into, which is how the move is usually done. No, HIS big boot was more like a train-wreck, because he would usually wait in the corner for his opponent to turn around, crouched and ready to pounce, and when they did, BAM, he hit them with a full head of steam, foot right to the mush, that you'll never forget. For an industry these days well-known to feature "fake violence", Test had an ability to make you believe that he really was caving faces in. You could always hear that big boot hit, every time.

Sadly, while he was amazing, and did at one point get "pushed" as a rising star, Andrew "Test"  Martin was never given the chance to really be a top guy like I hoped he would be. He eventually retired from the business, and tragically died at only 33 years old in 2009. But though he didn't reach their heights, Test was absolutely part of that same "Great Canadian Wrestler" mold as so many others, such as Bret and Owen Hart, Edge and Christian, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, etc.

"Stand BACK, there's a Hurricane comin' through!"
10. The Hurricane
      Height: 6'0"
      Weight: 215 lbs.
      Finisher: Eye of the Hurricane

While I am a big fan of the wrestler Shane Helms (also known as Gregory Helms), because he is a fantastic, high flying and highly talented guy, I'm not sure that he alone would have made my "Top 10". BUT, he does make it, on account of the most infamous character he has portrayed in his career. In the WWF, shortly after he had come over as part of the World Championship Wrestling "Invasion" in 2001, of his own free will and completely his own idea, he transformed himself from his former pretty-boy gimmick as "Sugar" Shane Helms, into this marvelous comic book super-hero character known as "The Hurricane". Once he did this, he, much like Rob Van Dam, even though they were "bad guys", won the audience over, because his antics were hilarious, and he was just so damn fun to watch. He would speak in overly-dramatic "Super Hero Tone", and give speeches about heroism and daring-do, even though he would win matches by cheating. He originally formed a "Hurri-League" with wrestler Lance Storm and female wrestler Ivory, as well as picking up his own sidekick Molly Holly, who became "Mighty Molly", and the two of them would enter the arena in his "Hurricycle".

Eventually, after the "Invasion" was over, he "won" a spot on the WWF roster, and continued his antics as a full-blown hero to the fans. In 2003 he even had arguably the biggest stretch of his career, as he got TV wins over the likes of Ric Flair and The Rock (pictured above). Though Molly would leave his side, he would form other heroic partnerships, such as with the monster Kane, and later enormous Samoan wrestler Rosey, who became his "Super Hero In Training", S.H.I.T. for short. Rosey would eventually become a hero in his own right, and get his own costume, and they would go on to have tag team championship success. By late 2005, he left the Hurricane gimmick behind, much to my sadness, and started wrestling under his real name, Gregory Helms, as just a regular trash-talking bad guy. He briefly came back after an injury years later as The Hurricane, but he never reached his previous heights. But regardless, he was awesome, and the reason I love this character is self-evident: He's a fuckin' super hero, and a wrestler. It's like chocolate and peanut butter! He was a small, high-flying wrestler, and his in-ring talent combined with this ingenious character, made him one of my top favorite guys from late 2001-2005.

Even in Heaven, Macho Man is Champion.

There are, of course, far more wrestlers that land on my "Top Favorites" list, and as I said, forming those last few slots in a Top 10 is always rough because of who you have to leave out. But to round out the Top 20, others on the list include the likes of "Macho Man" Randy Savage (pictured above), "Mankind" Mick Foley, Christian (of Edge & Christian), Bryan Danielson (known in WWE as "Daniel Bryan"....genius name, right?), Owen Hart, Yokozuna, Ultimo Dragon, Raven, Lance Storm, and Ken Shamrock. Those guys pretty much make up the Top 20. Then of course there are even more guys that it would take too long to go into, but certain names should be mentioned, such as Chris Jericho (who was way cooler with long hair and tights), Umaga, King Mable/Viscera, Bam Bam Bigelow, Al Snow, Goldust, The British Bulldog, and "Diamond" Dallas Page.

The single greatest tag-team in wrestling history.

Lastly, while I could certainly do another whole article about my love of tag-team wrestling, and my favorite tag-teams of all time, I figured I'd at least mention some of my favorites here, as some of them count as some of my favorite wrestlers of all time, but I count them as a team, not merely singles stars.

First and foremost on that list, as you can see above, were the "Road Warriors", also known as the "Legion of Doom", Hawk pictured on the Left and Animal on the right. They were a couple of big bruisers, and similar to Test, while they didn't have a super-technical move-set, what they did do they did crisper than anybody in the business, and they genuinely looked like they were kicking the shit out of guys. They took their image and their name from Mel Gibson's star-launching classic "The Road Warrior" (Mad Max 2), and ran with it, having success in all the major promotions of the 1980s (AWA, NWA, etc.). They came to the WWF in 1992, and had a great, though sadly short-lived run, and later returned in 1997 and had a second run, which is when I fell in love with them. They are one of the most successful and dominant teams of all time, holding gold wherever they went, and they were simply one of, if not the best tag teams ever.

Some of my other top teams, would be of course Edge & Christian, the 1980s sensation the "Hart Foundation" (Bret Hart & Jim "The Anvil"), the mid-2000s WWE sensation Paul London & Bryan Kendrick (who don't receive enough dues for just how great they actually were, among other things holding the tag belts for around a year), Owen Hart & Davey Boy Smith (formerly of the 1980s team "The British Bulldogs"), Hurricane & Rosey, and "Men on a Mission", the enormous Mable (later Viscera) and his partner Mo. There are of course others, but I think those are the tops for me, as far as my personal favorites go.

A Changing of Eras, every bit as big in it's way, as Hogan vs. Andre.

So that's all folks! Stay tuned, as more retro goodness comes your way soon!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Forgotten Gems: Rolling Thunder

After an unplanned sabbatical, I now return to you all with glad tidings of classic goodness and retro mayhem. And away we go!

Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

I've described my childhood circumstances in many past articles, including the nature of my relationship with arcade games. I simply didn't get to play them very often, because my grandmother felt it was a waste of money to give me quarters for games that I'd only last a few minutes on if I were lucky. Looking at it from that perspective, you could arguably see her point. But that doesn't change the fact that arcade games and arcades in general were simply amazing back in the 80s and early-to-mid-90s. If you weren't around in those times to experience arcades as they truly were, back when they were new, exciting, and relevant, it's honestly very hard to try and really describe it to you. In many ways, while home gaming (especially my beloved NES) was amazing in it's own right, some rightly viewed the arcades as the pinnacle of gaming. How it used to work, is that arcade games would inevitably be "bigger and better", at least in terms of graphics and certain types of content, than home console or home computer games. So in some respects, arcade games back during their golden era, were the vanguard of video gaming as a whole.

As a gamer, you would go out to wherever your local arcade was, and if you weren't, like me, lucky enough to live in a big enough town that had it's own local dedicated arcade, then you went to whatever businesses where such machines could be found, whether it was local pizza joints, bowling alleys, skating rinks, bars (if you were old enough of course), or even laundry mats or gas stations/convenience stores. You would go to these places to experience the newest advancements in video game graphics or sometimes even brand new concepts in gaming. And then, as the process went, if you were lucky, some of these arcade games would eventually be "ported" (with obvious downgrades to accommodate lesser technology), to some kind of home platform that you hopefully owned or knew someone who had one.

You's still beautiful, in a simplistic sort of way.

One of my own personal favorites, that I of course rarely got to actually play, was a game called Rolling Thunder. It was at my local Pizza Hut, where so many other treasures came and went over the years, like Klax, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Double Dragon II, and Final Fight, and Pole Position II, and Ghost Pilot, and 1943, and my biggest childhood arcade crush, Street Fighter II. Rolling Thunder was a very intriguing, unusual game that for whatever reasons caught my attention, and it was one of the games I gravitated to most whenever we'd go out for pizza. One of the allures it had, I'd have to say, was the unique graphical presentation. It was a sprite based game, as almost all were in the 80s and early 90s, but as you can see above, it had a very simple, shaded, almost "pre-rendered" look, akin to an early prototype of the sort of thing games like Donkey Kong Country would pull off years later. The characters also had unusually smooth animation for the time it released (1986), and the game had a very intense, but subdued, moody soundtrack, very much "secret agent" type of fare, and the whole thing was just very novel in it's approach. I suppose the other reason this game stuck with me, is because of the "Game Over" screen: when you lost, it took you to the big screen from the title, where the boss "Maboo" (this big green fucker) would laugh at you for losing. That alone probably kept me coming back, because as a kid, this really genuinely upset me that this assclown was laughing at me, and I wanted revenge.

This asshole haunted my childhood. What a jerk.

Rolling Thunder was developed by Namco, creators of groundbreaking classics like Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Galaga. It was released in 1986, right in the midst of the "arcade boom" of that decade, and it was a different sort of game that caught people's attention. At it's core, it's a side-scrolling shooter, similar to something like Contra, but unlike Contra where you just run, shoot, and hope you don't lose too many lives per-level, Rolling Thunder was a lot more about strategy. The most immediately noticeable feature of the game when you start, is that you have limited ammo, even with the simple pistol you start with. You can't ever totally run out of ammo with the pistol, but once you "run out", you can only shoot one slow bullet at a time until you find more ammo. That alone plays into the "strategy" nature of the game.

Another main feature of the gameplay, is that the levels feature doors all over the place, and you can open pretty much any door you wish. However, it is sometimes a gamble, because certain doors have enemies that will pop out. Other doors (typically labelled "bullets") hold more bullets for you, or even a temporary upgrade to a machine gun. And there are yet other doors that you can duck inside of to avoid enemies or enemy fire, and then pop back out to blast 'em in kind. Lastly, the other major facet of gameplay, and perhaps the one thing that this game really added to the gaming spectrum (as it was emulated by several other games down the road), was the ability to jump between the ground floor and an upper floor of each level. That in itself presented more strategy to be utilized by the player, to move upstairs or down to avoid obstacles or enemies. All in all, much like the graphics and music, like I said, a very unique game unto itself.

He means it, dammit!

The basic story of the game, is that you are a secret agent called "Albatross", who works for an international group called "W.C.P.O", which stands for "World Crime Police Organization". You are on a secret mission in New York, trying to rescue a fellow agent named Leila Blitz, who has been captured by the sinister terrorist secret society known as "Geldra". Most of these "Geldra" goons are hooded baddies known as "Maskers", who frankly look kinda like prototypes for the TMNT "Foot Soldiers", as they are covered head-to-toe and come in different colors, each color having different weapons or abilities. The game has other enemies like mutant bats, ninjas, robots, etc., but the "Maskers" are the main course. Ultimately, the game plays out over two distinct parts, each having five levels, and at the end of the tenth, to save Leila, you face off with that green-faced asshole who laughed at you after every game over screen, "Maboo". So at least, I guess, the developers were nice enough to give you the possibility of catharsis: if you could actually MAKE it through this fucking game, you could shoot that son-of-a-snake right in his smirking mug, and make him pay!

As you can see in the picture above, the game got it's share of home "ports", first coming to various home computers in 1987 and 1988. Tengen, Atari's home console publishing arm that had infamous issues with Nintendo over their own less-than-scrupulous efforts to get around the NES lock-out chip that kept third party publishers from being able to put out more than five games a year on the system, put out many unlicensed (aka not officially approved by Nintendo releases) games for NES, and in 1989, one of them was Rolling Thunder. Namco didn't yet publish their own games outside of Japan, and so they contracted Tengen to do it....which of course probably wasn't the smartest move, but I digress. Nonetheless, Rolling Thunder on NES was, for all intents a purposes, a pretty strong port of the game. It didn't have the technical prowess of it's arcade original, but the core gameplay and atmosphere where still intact, and it's still pretty damn fun to play.

Leila Blitz gets her revenge!

The first game was popular enough, that in 1991, Namco made a lesser-known sequel, Rolling Thunder 2. A slightly confusing affair, as the original game was apparently supposed to take place in the 60s, but now the sequel takes place in modern times, yet the characters in both games are named Albatross and Leila. In Rolling Thunder 2, Leila is now the main character, which is a cool touch, not only letting her get her revenge, but also making her one of the first playable female protagonists in gaming. The biggest addition to the sequel, was simultaneous 2-player action (a big feature in many arcade games of the day), with Player 1 playing Leila, and Player 2 controlling Albatross. They have identical abilities, outside of their visual differences, of course. The gameplay is essentially the same fare, focused on doors and jumping between upstairs and down. However, the level designs are more varied, this time splitting the game between Florida beaches and Egyptian ruins. The "Maskers" also this time become (if not visually) a bit more "Foot Soldier"-esque, as they are now robots, whereas in the first game they were live villains. Storyline-wise, Geldra, thought destroyed for good in the first game, is back, and it's up to the heroes to stop 'em.

Our heroes, kicking ass.

The Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in the rest of the world), received a port of the game that included cut scenes and additional levels that featured new weapons and bosses. It was apparently successful enough to warrant Namco producing a third, Genesis exclusive game, Rolling Thunder 3, released only in North America in 1993. Gameplay-wise, it took a bit of a step back, once again only being single player, where part 2 was 2-players. But on the other hand, they greatly expanded the weapons format. Where the first and second games only made use of pistols and temporary machine-gun upgrades, in Rolling Thunder 3, you can choose one of 9 different "special weapons" before each stage begins, and you get two separate fire buttons, one for your regular pistol, and one for the special weapon. The special weapons, once out of ammo, can't be used for the rest of the game, thus maintain the strategic element of gameplay. Another way the game differs, is that the levels now have no time-limit: instead, if you take too long, a sniper will eventually come out and try to kill you. Story-wise, the game seems to be a companion piece to Rolling Thunder 2, where while our heroes Leila and Albatross are busy fighting the main Geldra forces in that game, in RT3, a new hero, special agent "Jay", is chasing after Geldra's "Number Two" in command, another green-faced mother-fucker named "Dread". In an era when the Super Nintendo tended to get most of the cool third party published exclusive games, Rolling Thunder 2 and 3 were an exception to the rule.

Albatross, Leila Blitz, and................Jay. Just Jay.

All in all, while I'm not as experienced with the sequels, I need to play them more, because the original Rolling Thunder will always have a special place in my gaming heart. If you've never heard of or never had a chance to play these games, find a way to do so (however that may be), because there are fun times to be had, guaranteed. And give my old pal "Maboo" a kick in the balls for me while you're at it.