Missing in Action is an editorial series that discusses the kinds of games that at one time were prevalent in arcades or the types of games that would make great arcade games but aren’t being made as the industry prefers light-gun, racing, standard fighting titles, etc. Previous articles have taken a look at Space Combat, Puzzle and Scrolling Fighter games. This time we’re taking a look at games that feature huge destructive machines such as tanks, planes, and mechs (the sort of thing that generally appeals to guys). Why is the arcade a prime place for such things? I think it is simple – these games are best with unique controls that make you feel like you are sitting inside one of these machines and when you sit down in a cockpit along with that, it’s something that a home experience can’t touch. Read on.
A little history…
Games with tanks and planes have been around since the mid 70’s and provided to players the most exciting development to break away from ball-and-paddle games. The Atari-owned company Kee Games created the very popular Tank, which would later inspire the pack-in game for the Atari 2600, Combat. Tank had several sequels through the years and featured a dual joystick control that would become a standard for such games where each joystick would control a tread. It also was the first game to feature solid, contiguous characters, thanks to the first use of ROM technology in a game. Perhaps the most impressive game to come from this line of games was Tank 8, a massive cabinet that allowed up to 8 players to battle it out against each other in a large arena. This would also be among the first color video games Atari also released one of the first games to feature aerial combat, called Pursuit (1974) and later Jet Fighter (1975).
1976 and 77 saw several games that featured war machines, including the popular Sea Wolf , Destroyer, Subs and M-4 among a few others. Sea Wolf would offer players a chance to peek through a realistic-looking periscope to blast targets, Subs would employ the use of dual monitors for a single game. After Space Invaders came along, most games that involved shooting something with a vehicle became space based but that didn’t stop developers from creating non-space based machine games. 1980 would be the year where such games really broke out with a number of great games(most of them vector games) that included Armor Attack, Balloon Bomber, N-Sub, Rip Off, Red Baron and of course Atari’s mega-hit BattleZone. In addition to using a dual-joystick setup for tank-like controls, the game featured a first person perspective on the battlefield and proved so good that even the US military commissioned a special edition of the game to train people on using a tank (it was called the Bradley Trainer). The concepts that BattleZone brought to the table would certainly influence other tank games down the road and to an extent, even mech games.
While Battlezone would be the most popular game of the war machine genre in the early 80’s, other titles made their mark on the scene with games such as Super Cobra, SubRoc-3D(which was the first stereoscopic 3D video game), Time Pilot, Front Line, DogFight, Mach 3 and Firefox (laserdisc games), Choplifter, MagMax(pictured), TurboSub, SkyKid, Blazer, Assault, Vindicators and many others. In the mid-80’s with the coming of age the “shmup” a number of those games used jets or helicopters but we’ll leave shmups for another time since those can take up a post all to themselves really.
As the late 80’s and early 90’s came in, technology improved to the point where games that featured tanks, planes, helicopters or mechs began to come out into their own unique genre of arcade action, whether it was through unique cabinets or graphics with 3D perspectives. This is evidenced in games like Sega’s Thunder Blade, which featured a very unique cabinet setup that made the player feel as though they really were sitting in a helicopter seat. Other helicopter simulator action games would include Steel Talons by Atari Games and Air Inferno by Taito. Sega paved the way for air combat fighters beginning with the ever popular AfterBurner, which pushed the envelope of the psuedo3D effects and a third person perspective of your vehicle along with intense gameplay. Afterburner also had a cockpit version of the game which was an even better experience for players and Sega would continue their trend with games like Air Rescue, G-LOC , Strike Fighter, Wing War and Sky Target. Sega also innovated the genre with the release of their R-360 cabinet which played enhanced versions of G-LOC and Strike Fighter (1991) and could spin the players around in any direction (literally). Namco responded to Sega’s efforts with games like Air Combat (1992) and later Air Combat 22 featured a cockpit cabinet and 3D graphics. Not many submarine games would come along during this time (or any other since) but Taito’s BattleShark brought back submarine action to the scene for a brief time and even used a periscope display, much like the classic Sea Wolf.
As 3D graphics began becoming standard in arcades, tank-style games began making a comeback, as with games like Sega’s Desert Tank (which even had a tank seat for the player to sit in and a large screen) and the competitive Tokyo Wars by Namco. Mech style gameplay would blend with tanks to be adapted to hovercraft-like machines in games like Namco’s CyberSled, Cyber Commando, and Atari Games’ T-Mek, both of which gave the player sitdown cabinets with plenty of explosive action to boot.
While mech games never became terribly common in arcades, there were a few worth mentioning. Among the first was a mech-like game from the 1st person perspective called Enforce by Taito(1989). That would use mostly 2D graphics but as mentioned with tank games taking advantage of 3D graphics, it wasn’t long before a mech concept would do so as well. Jaleco/Microprose did that with a game called B.O.T.S.S. Battle of The Solar System. It was a lot like mixing Gyruss with Mechwarrior, but far less complex than Mechwarrior would be, to work properly in an arcade environment. The joystick/throttle combination would become a standard for such games. BattleTech came along in 92 which brought true mech action to arcades and BattleTech would again come to arcades in 2005/2006 where they introduced the Tesla pod cabinet for a realistic mech-battling experience. Sega dabbled with mech’s with Virtua On and Japan has seen a number of Gundam games, including the famous dome POD game (which took a page from the Tesla cabinet).
In recent times games featuring war machines of some kind have been few and far between but we did see Mechwarrior 4 for the Tsumo motion cabinet a few years ago and the aforementioned BattleTech in 2005 or so. Most recently companies like iMOtion and Tecway Developments have created tank simulators for their hardware, Panzer Elite Action and Tank Adventure, respectively. Also Desert Gunner brought some vehicular combat back into the realm of VR gaming a couple of years ago. Aerial combat has also got some love recently with the release of Sega’s Afterburner Climax and GlobalVR’s Blazing Angels. And finally submarines have finally come back with Coastal Amusement’s remake of the classic Sea Wolf.
So why bring these games back?
As always the reason why this article is here in the first place is to show how a particular style of games has been done in arcades previously with success so the question we ask is why should games with tanks, mechs, planes and such take a back seat to the “pillars” of the arcades? I’m not asking for shovelware here as I think there is plenty of room for innovation when it comes to this genre and some of the more entertaining games I’ve played have been an arcade-style tank, plane, mech or submarine game. One area arcades have the advantage is in the cabinet experience which I have mentioned already, whether it be a cockpit or just a sitdown cabinet with specific controls for that title. The arcade can make it feel like you really are controlling a tank, plane or a mech, much more than a small controller with analog sticks can. The simulator experience is one that home consoles can’t truly match and you get that best with war machine type games than any other type of game. Granted that one area that these types of games generally lack in is “personality” – you control machines instead of a relatable character of some kind typically but they often make up for it in shallow, wanton destruction that is a lot of fun. Since originally writing this, Namco did give us Tank! Tank! Tank! which if you give that a spin, you can see what I am talking about exactly as that offers a very fun and explosive arcade experience.
Another reason is arcades were greatest when there was a variety of interesting games there, not when there was two or three genres to choose from. Of course arcades of today can still rely on older titles to make up the bulk of the “being different” class but as these games get older and older and the newer titles just stick to the same formula, arcades will loose their edge. I do not believe that the only ace in the hole arcades have ever had against home consoles was better graphics – if that was the case then why were so many games ported to the graphically inferior consoles? Because the games were fun, they were innovative and they were addictive. Games that put the player into a controllable machine have plenty of room in which to innovate, but that won’t happen if we never try.