The Game: Two players each control a fearsome armored fighting vehicle on a field of battle littered with obstacles. The two tanks pursue each other around the screen, trying to line up the perfect shot without also presenting a perfect target if they miss. In accordance with the laws of ballistics and mass in the universe of Saturday morning cartoons, a tank hit by enemy fire is bounced around the screen, into nearby wall or mines, spinning at a very silly velocity, and battle begins anew. (Kee Games [Atari], 1974)
Memories: In the early 1970s, arcade distribution was a closely-guarded, exclusive thing. And to an ambitious guy like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, this represented a problem. Atari wasn’t an old-school pinball outfit like D. Gottlieb & Co. or Bally, and was bucking the system just to land a deal with regional distributors across the country anyway. The distribution system – which allowed one distributor to represent Gottlieb games exclusively in his area, while a competitor would be the only game in town for Bally/Midway fare, for example – was created in the pinball era; many arcade operators would deal exclusively with a single distributor, and of course there were franchise arcades owned by companies like Bally, such as Aladdin’s Castle. It was entirely possible, and not uncommon, to see some manufacturers represented only at one or two arcades in a given area, and their rivals represented only at others. Which was fine with pinball manufacturers, but Bushnell wanted to place Atari’s video games everywhere. Read More
The Game: Two players each control a fearsome armored fighting vehicle on a field of battle littered with obstacles (or not, depending upon the agreed-upon game variation). The two tanks pursue each other around the screen, trying to line up the perfect shot without also presenting a perfect target if they miss. In accordance with the laws of ballistics and mass in the universe of Saturday morning cartoons, a tank hit by enemy fire is bounced across the screen – sometimes right off the egde of the screen and into a corresponding position on the opposite side of the field – spinning at a very silly velocity, and battle begins anew. Other variations include biplane and jet fighter dogfights. (Atari, 1977)
Memories: Chances are, anyone who’s my age who is asked to remember their first video game console will tell you it was the Atari VCS – and their first game? Naturally, the one that came with the VCS: Combat, based on the 1974 arcade hit Tank! by Kee Games.
Kee Games? Read More
The Game: War is pixellated, blocky hell on the Odyssey2! In Armored Encounter, two combatants in tanks circumnavigate a maze peppered with land mines, searching for the optimum spot from which to blow each other to kingdom come. In Sub Chase, a bomber plane and a submarine, both maneuverable in their own way, try to take each other out without blasting any non-combatant boats routinely running between them (darn that civilian shipping!). In both games, the timer is counting down for both sides to blow each other straight to hell. (Magnavox, 1978)
Memories: Armored Encounter! is a somewhat standard-issue variation on Atari’s Tank coin-op (which that company later used to launch the Atari VCS under the name of Combat), only with a vastly simpified map. Read More
The Game: You’re the commander of a small squad of robots, and your opponent – be it a second player or the computer – is commanding a similar platoon o’ droids. Your job is to avoid the enemy’s robots while you wait for your robots to reach the enemy commander. Of course, the enemy’s robots could reach you first, but that’s another story. The only control you have over your robots is to press the action button and call them toward you. The robots fight hand-to-hand, rather than shooting, and your robots may become incapacitated. You can leap into the fray and touch one of your malfunctioning robots to repair it and return it to the fight, but in so doing, you run a risk of being captured by enemy robots. (Magnavox, 1979)
Memories: This is a game about the Arnold Rimmer vision of combat.
In the Marooned episode of Red Dwarf, Rimmer says “Generals don’t smash chairs over people’s heads. They don’t smash Newcastle Brown bottles into your face and say ‘Stitch that, Jimmy.’ They’re in the nice white tent, on the top of the hill, sipping Sancerre and directing the battle. They’re men of honor!” Which is pretty much your function in this game. Read More
The Game: One or two players are at the controls of speedy ground assault vehicles which can zip around an enclosed maze of open areas and buildings with almost mouse-like speed. Heavy tanks and armed helicopters routinely appear in this maze, attempting to shoot any player vehicles they spot; the player(s) can, in turn, fire back at both of these vehicles. Caution: a damaged tank may still be able to draw a bead, so it’s best to keep firing until the tanks are completely destroyed. (Cinematronics, 1980)
Memories: However popular Atari’s vector graphics games were, the real rock-solid workhorse of that genre of gaming was the comparitively small Cinematronics. Armor Attack (whose marquee cryptically punctuates the title as “Armor… …Attack“) was no household name like Asteroids, and it may have been a mere sleeper without being a sleeper hit; the game play, for the most part, dated back to Kee Games’ Tank! from several years earlier. But it’s fondly remembered today – and made enough of a mark for a unique home version. Read More
The Game: As the pilot of a heavy tank, you wander the desolate battlefield, trying to wipe out enemy tanks and landing vehicles. (Atari, 1980)
Memories: Though the above description is exceedingly simple, Battlezone was another pillar of Atari’s stable of outstanding vector graphics games (which also included Tempest and Asteroids). With its two-stick control system, mimicking a real tank’s controls, its slowly lumbering game play, and its periscope-like screen, Battlezone was, for its day, an incredibly cool and realistic game (with a huge cabinet too). Read More
The Game: Take to the sky for some biplane battle with Baron von Richtoven himself! In a combat environment where banking too sharp can either be a daring maneuver or certain doom, your mission is to take out as many enemies as you can before you yourself accumulate too many bullet holes in the sides of your biplane. Dirigibles also make tempting targets and, for the truly daring, there are land-based tanks nestled near mountains and civilian homes. The game is over when the last of your planes is shot down. (Atari, 1980)
Memories: Emboldened by their first-person tank combat simulator Battlezone, Atari also set out to create the first ever first-person flight combat simulator. (Presumably this fascination with first-person combat sims predated Atari’s shotgun wedding with the U.S. Army that resulted in the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle Trainer.) And lest you think there’s no connection between Battlezone and Red Baron, take a close look at that cabinet – it’s exactly the same design as the Battlezone cabinet, minus the periscope-style viewer and second joystick. Read More
The Game: In probably the weakest of the Master Series games – Odyssey games which included overcomplicated board game elements, a la Quest For The Rings – you control one of the world’s superpowers, attempting to gain as much influence as possible through political and economic means and, where necessary, warfare. (Magnavox, 1980)
Memories: Well, that’s what the blurb on the box said. When you ditched the magnetic world map and markers and the colorful chips representing your nation’s influence and power, Conquest Of The World‘s video game component was, essentially, little more than an elaborate Odyssey2 version of the Atari 2600 Combat game, with added terrain and vehicular options and fewer goofy options like bouncing artillery. Read More
The Game: You control a tank – though it seems like an awfully tiny one – zipping through a maze teeming with enemies. Three color-coded keys are tucked away in a corner, and after grabbing one of these keys you must fight your way past enemy forces to open the corresponding lock. The process must be repeated until all of the keys on a given level have been used, allowing you to travel to the next portion of the maze – where more keys, more locks and more enemies await. Additionally, shooting some enemies may have an effect on your tank’s speed, causing it to move event faster through the maze (and potentially face-first into trouble) or slowing it down to the point where it’s a nearly defenseless target for the enemy. (Sega, 1981)
Memories: Somewhere between Tank! and Mouse Trap lies Pulsar, an intriguing and oddly compelling hybrid of game elements. If you missed this one in the arcade, don’t worry: you weren’t alone. Given the surfeit of maze games that were marketed to amusement operators as a cure for the epidemic of Pac-Man fever, there were a lot of games that looked like Pulsar. Besides, in 1980, cute was king, slide-and-shoot derivatives of Space Invaders were still “in,” and tank games that happened not to be Battlezone were so 1974. Read More
The Game: As the pilot of a Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, you wander the desolate battlefield, trying to wipe out enemy tanks and helictopers without accidentally firing on your own allies. (Atari, under special contract for the United States Army, 1981)
Memories: You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the arcade business who’d complain that a game was too good. But Ed Rotberg, designer of Atari’s original 3-D vector graphics tank hit Battlezone, would be the exception. His revolutionary first-person fighting game was impressive enough to attract the attention of the United States Army, and this landed him a very special job he did not want: retooling the game to the Army’s exacting specifications to turn it into a real training simulation. Read More
The Game: In a very genteel and almost inappropriately cute game about armored combat, you’re a lone footsoldier fighting your way through a platoon of enemy troops, trying to take out as many of them as you can until you find your way to a handy empty tank. (Nice of the enemy to allow your government to plant friendly tanks behind their borders, isn’t it?) But once you man your own tank, enemy tanks surround you. If one of them hits your tank, you have mere seconds to bail out before your tank blows, and you have to dodge cannon fire until you can find another friendly tank to commandeer. Finally, after crossing hazardous stretches of desert and fighting off entire battallions of enemy tanks, you’re en route to the final confrontation, a showdown with the enemy’s armored headquarters… (Taito, 1982)
Memories: Front Line was a really fun and addictive game to play, and was always one of my favorites. I didn’t ever give a thought, at the time, that this game really keeps the player’s vision of warfare from delving into the bloody or the unpleasant, and all the characters – even those octagonal, roly-poly little tanks – are really cute. Read More
The Game: Helicopters and planes are dumping paratroopers directly over your land-locked cannon. Your job is to take out both aircraft and paratroopers before the enemy can land on and slowly destroy the rows of buildings on either side of the cannon. Once enemy paratroopers raze a building to the ground, they begin doing something even deadlier: digging tunnels toward your cannon so they can destroy it from below with a giant bomb, at which time your point defense career is over. (U.S. Games, 1982)
Memories: A clever riff on a well-known game, Commando Raid avoids being just another Missile Command clone. At first glance, the element of defending six cities/buildings by covering the entire sky from a fixed position seems familiar, but the gradual enemy occupation of territory beneath the player’s cannon adds an original twist and requires some new strategy.
U.S. Games didn’t exactly make stuff that looked like Activision‘s games, but the audiovisual element of Commando Raid is more than adequate to convey all the information players need. The buildings have several stages of disrepair, from undamaged down to rubble. The sheer twitch factor as multiple incoming targets have to be dealt with is impressive for a VCS cartridge, as is the fact that the barrage of approaching enemies is accomplished with virtually none of the dreaded “flicker” that has plagued countless other games on this platform.
Seasoned Missile Commanders looking for a new posting can do a lot worse than signing up to go Commando.
The Game: You’re piloting a fighter jet on a canyon run through enemy territory. You can’t fly outside the canyon walls, so stay over the river and blast everything in sight. Well, almost everything – flying your plane on top of “FUEL” buoys instead of shooting them puts a little bit of gas in the tank, and if you run out of fuel, you might as well just swallow the next enemy bullet, because you’re goin’ down. (Activision, 1982)
Memories: As you advance through the levels and it gets more challenging, River Raid becomes the same kind of balancing act between self-preservation and going on the offensive that is a hallmark of all-time classics like Robotron. River Raid was the brainchild of Activision programmer Carol Shaw, one of the small number of women who had a vital hand in the early video game industry (such as Carla Meninsky, programmer of numerous early Atari 2600 titles, and Dona Bailey, an Atari arcade programmer who co-designed Centipede). And yet River Raid is a shoot-’em’-up that’ll challenge any hardcore joystick jock. Read More
The Game: It’s a cold warrior’s nightmare! Enemy submarines glide silently through the seas below, but the only ordnance available isn’t of the guided variety. From a destroyer on the surface of the ocean, players have to carefully drop depth charges; taking out enemy subs will depend on timing and sheer luck. Failing to take out enemy subs – and wasting depth charges – will result in a deadly sinking feeling… (Sega, 1982)
Memories: Sega‘s early attempts to break into the crowded Atari 2600 marketplace were a curious mixture of ports of the company’s arcade titles (Congo Bongo, Star Trek) and curious originals like Sub Scan, which didn’t originate in coin-op form. That’s not to say that Sub Scan has no arcade DNA, though – it’s an attempt to put a new spin on a classic quarter-grabber dating back to the ’70s. Read More
The Game: Enemy fighters arrive, wave after wave, attempting to outflank the player’s fighter jet and trap it in the path of their fire. The player can only move the jet side to side to avoid incoming fire and attempt to line up a shot on the enemy fighters. Each new wave of enemies brings new tactics, new weapons to evade… and a new batch of targets. (Thunderbolt [under license to Orca], 1983)
Memories: It’s easy to imagine the design and planning meeting for this game. It goes something like this:
“You know what my favorite part of Galaga is? The challenging stage. I hate all those other stages. They’re just there to trip me up on my way to the challenging stage. What if we made a game where the whole thing is like the challenging stage, except they occasionally shoot back at you?” Read More
The Game: As the pilot of a heavy tank, you wander the desolate battlefield, trying to wipe out enemy tanks and landing vehicles. (Atari, 1983)
Memories: Battlezone, in its arcade incarnation, was a huge, lumbering hulk of a beast with controls which were at best difficult to master (and at worst impossible), though it did sport some very good faux-3-D vector graphics. How on Earth was Atari going to turn this into a 2600 game? Read More
The Game: In a bizarre collision of two very different game play elements that would probably be considered minigames today, you’re a fearless helicopter rescue pilot for the 4077th, fishing wounded U.S. soldiers out of harm’s way during the Korean War. When the window of your helicopter no longer shows up as hollow, you’ve got a full load and must safety return the wounded to the M*A*S*H base, and then go to retrieve more wounded. An enemy tank scoots along the bottom of the screen, trying to down both your helicopter and a computer-controlled chopper or an opponent’s chopper. This does not help matters, although being shot down merely causes a delay as an emergency vehicle appears – miraculously impervious to enemy fire – to push the wreckage off the screen before a new helicopter appears. Every so often, the action suddenly switches to the operating table, where you have to retrieve projectiles from victims’ bodies without causing worse damage as you remove them, and with the clock ticking down – if you fail to complete the surgery in time, then it’s goodbye, farewell and amen to that patient. (Think of the board game Operation! here and you’ve got the idea.) (20th Century Fox Games Of The Century, 1983)
Memories: M*A*S*H could be held up as a prime example of the third party video game market right before the Crash, being two very simple (and not terribly original) games squashed together with a licensed title. But let’s give it credit for being better than, say, Chase The Chuckwagon – M*A*S*H is at least fun. Read More
The Game: You’re piloting a fighter jet on a canyon run through enemy territory. You can’t fly outside the canyon walls, so stay over the river and blast everything in sight. Well, almost everything – flying your plane on top of “FUEL” buoys instead of shooting them puts a little bit of gas in the tank, and if you run out of fuel, you might as well just swallow the next enemy bullet, because you’re goin’ down. (Activision, 1983)
Memories: Early in Activision‘s foray into publishing games for the Intellivision, the company issued a strange edict to its programmers: if it was a port of a game also released for the Atari VCS, don’t make the game look significantly different from the Atari version. River Raid is a good example of what happened once Activision abandoned that extremely odd policy. Read More