Secret operative Leila Blitz of the covert agency Rolling Thunder has been held hostage by Geldra, the criminal organization of evil super-villain Maboo, since I was 15 years old. You'd think they'd have given up and executed her by now, or swapped her for one of Maboo's captured henchmen. But no—there she is, still in the manacles, occasionally getting zapped with electricity. She won't talk, though. Leila never does.
When I was a teen, the arcade game Rolling Thunder was the coolest thing I'd ever played. The game is set in 1960, with a jazzy secret-agent soundtrack, and your code name is Albatross. (Dude!) Dressed sharply in khaki slacks and a red turtleneck, you whip out your pistol, duck behind crates, leap onto catwalks, slip into doorways, and battle it out with colorfully costumed guards, prowling panthers, ninjas who materialize out of walls, bestial mutants, giant bats, and leaping men of living flame.
The living flame guys were the best. When you shot one, he'd burst into four separate flame guys who would then leap up, arms outstretched, and fly up into the sky never to be seen again. It was as if shooting them completed some strange life cycle and now they could embrace the stars.
I've finally found my second chance to fight Geldra and rescue Leila thanks to Namco Museum 50th Anniversary, a new collection of vintage arcade games repackaged for all consoles and the PC. Namco has trotted out several different compilations over the years, but this is the largest to date: 16 games, two of which must be unlocked through high scores, all for 20 bucks.
While my personal obsession is with Rolling Thunder, there's a lot of great stuff here. Back in the day, Namco turned out key titles like Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Xevious, and more. Those are all here, plus ones I'd never even heard of, like Sky Kid, Dragon Spirit, and Mappy. The two bonus games are Pac-Mania and Galaga '88.
The nerdier among you may be thinking, "So what? I can download pirated copies of those games and play them on my computer with the free MAME emulator." Indeed, you probably have, you sad bastard. But playing these games in a window a quarter the size of your computer LCD screen is a paltry exercise compared with plopping down in the living room, firing up your stupendously enormous television, and playing Bosconian at full size. These games were made for television picture tubes, not computer monitors, and they look great. Hearing the familiar Pac-Man music blooping from your stereo system is also a delightful exercise in nostalgia.
Most of these games are immensely fun, much better than the Atari 2600 titles of their day. Galaxian remains a brutal experience, Galaga still teases us with those double ships, and Xevious haunts my dreams with that proto-techno soundtrack. But really, it's all about the Rolling Thunder.
Leila, I'm on the way.