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 was a crafty move by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to control some of his competition – by creating it. When Pong hit it big in arcades, Bushnell watched helplessly as countless other arcade manufacturers sprang up and duplicated his baby. Growing bitter about how much money has was losing to other companies’ retitled (but virtually identical) Pong machines, Bushnell dubbed these other companies the Jackals, and vowed to stay one step ahead of them. But as Atari signed exclusive contracts with amusement vendors in various regions, it was inevitable that competing vendors would go with whoever else would sell them arcade games – and thus Bushnell’s attempt to lock down distributors merely gave the Jackals the means to thrive.
Bushnell decided, then, to fund a “secret subsidiary,” a company which would also make games identical to Atari’s coin-op hits, but whose money would flow back into Atari’s own coffers. He set up his friend and neighbor, Joe Keenan, as the president of Kee and even loaned him some of Atari’s top game-designing talent – while maintaining a public pretense of having lost his best employees to a competitor. This, too, backfired eventually – when Kee introduced Tank!, it began to outgrow Atari…and Keenan was a better manager of finances than the free-wheeling Bushnell. Eventually, two companies merged, with Keenan becoming the president of Atari, and Bushnell loosened his vendor exclusivity, having learned a lesson that nearly drove him out of business.
Combat is a very close approximation of the original Tank!, adding color to the tanks, maze and background, and simplifying the original game’s double-joystick controls. Combat also includes such humorous variations as Tank Pong and Invisible Tank, a game in which tanks can be seen only when standing still or firing. Despite the now-unimpressive graphics displayed by the game’s 2K of code, Combat still retains a place on the shelf – not just for historical value, but as one of the all-time great VCS party games.