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Retro video game review: Battletank (NES)

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NES Battle Tank video game

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It is perhaps a little sad that Garry Kitchen's Wikipedia page is so scant, especially compared to his contemporary peers like David Crane, since Kitchen was responsible for the design and implementation of several games, including such fun romps as Keystone Kapers on Atari 2600. He was a passionate designer of the 8-bit era, with a legacy that still ripples into the modern era of gaming.

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One of his titles for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was Battle Tank, an armored warfare simulation for one player to enjoy that was released in 1990. With Kitchen's intense eye for design precision on hand, how would his fingerprints be seen in the final product?

Gameplay

In Battle Tank, the player is charged with controlling an M1 tank tasked with rescuing a NATO Commanding Officer. Throughout ten missions, there will be enemy craft to contend with, along with stationary targets such as fuel depots and strongholds. Fortunately, the M1 is a rather well-armed piece of machinery.

The control scheme does an admirable job of allowing the player a number of options at any given moment. Holding down the B button allows adjustments to the throttle by pressing Up or Down, while just pressing Up or Down without holding B alters the angle of the forward gun. Pressing A fires the gun, while pressing Select while cycle through the selection of available weaponry, of which all can be seen clearly on-screen from the cockpit. Intuitively, Left and Right handle steering, although this does mean having to juggle both movement and aiming at the same time.

If that bit of multi-tasking were not enough, the player must contend with a handful of different ways the game can end. Dying by artillery blast is obvious, sure, but how about the minefield or two that seem to be placed across every mission? Mercifully, the mines are visible and can be avoided.

However, much worse is the issue of fuel. Yep, Battle Tank is another game in the grand tradition of NES titles that force the player to keep track of their fuel, despite the fact that this really does not add any sense of fulfillment, enjoyment, or real difficulty. Yeah, it adds challenge, but cheaply and without a corresponding reward for overcoming (there are, for example, no bonus points for extra fuel). The gasoline kingpins seem downright stingy with their allotment per level, and even tracking gas leaves the player somewhat stranded if he or she realizes that the tank is running low.

Another demerit against Battle Tank is the absence of any sort of save or password system. While the difficulty itself is not an issue, though it may only appeal to the "hardcore" retro crowd, it truly would have been a boon to have a method in place to grant the player the prize of mere continuation from a prior point reached. Alas, no such grace is given.

But, hey, there are a couple really neat design touches here and there where Kitchen's influence can be seen. The map screen, accessed by pressing Start, is glorious in its line-art simplicity. Watch how the protagonist tank icon moves; this means that the player can actually steer and throttle while viewing the map screen, enabling efficient progress toward a goal.

Furthermore, the different weapons truly do feel differently between each other. The Wire weapon is a death-from-afar enigma; the 150MM cannon is a heavy, lobbing, tricky-to-use weapon of mass destruction; the .50 caliber machine gun is a wonderful little killing device, with the added realism wrinkle of overheating after prolonged use; and the smokescreen is, uh, seemingly as harmful as it is useful, maybe to be used as a panic button only.

Controlling the tank itself can be frustrating, too; but hey, tank controls.

Graphics

Battle Tank's dedicated to a fully formed simulation is more in its detailed text and descriptions than in its pixel depictions. Enemy tanks and helicopters are recognizable for what they are, but all of the action is squeezed into less than half the screen, since the cockpit has to necessarily display so much information to the player at all times.

The game is plagued with squares. Tanks quickly turn into blank squares as they gain distance away, marks on the map are nondescript blocks, rounds pump out of guns as four-sided nothingness, and the landscape is dotted with what could be bits of sand or strangely exacting pebbles.

The landscape does change in color and tone from mission to mission, though, which is a cool touch. The "Game Over" screen is detailed, even animated, which is intriguing. All its graphic elements put together, Battle Tank puts on a competent show, but its powerhouse ingredients are more in its feel and design than its artistry. Then again, is war supposed to be pretty?

Sound

There is some music, and it is okay, although slightly uncomfortable in its resemblance to the Simpsons games on NES. There are some sound effects, and they are all right, although simplistic and brutal in execution. Let us just say that Battle Tank will be best enjoyed, in an auditory sense, by the type of person who likes the steady hum of a washing machine, or the grinding buzz of the Atari 2600. Fans of complex composition and emotive tonal aptitude best sit this one out.

Overall

The smoke bomb looks like a big turd.

Also: Battle Tank is the sort of game that misses the forest for the trees, to speak proverbially. A lot of the detail work is really cool; like the animation of the tank treads moving, or the way the crosshairs narrow into a sure shot. The audiovisual kineticism of blowing up an enemy vehicle is viscerally satisfying.

So, then, why is there no save/password feature? With such great combat mechanics in place, why bother with managing fuel? Seriously though: If "simulation style" and "arcade style" are at opposite ends of the game design spectrum, Battle Tank really could have benefited from traveling a couple notches closer to an arcade experience. After all, if you really wanted to make this as much of a full-on simulation as possible, you might as well also make the player have to eat food regularly, drive for hours at a time to get to the next stronghold, deal with the glare of errant sunbeams, watch the porthole gradually grow dirtier until it demands cleaning, etc.

Kitchen had a passionate hand in gaming at one time, but one can easily theorize that the reason his games never quite caught on with the mainstream crowd is that he demanded players to appreciate his vision at the cost of sacrificing some fun. "Yes, Mr. Kitchen," one would have to say, "I really dig the military industrial complex voice of the writing in the Smoke 'Em Out section of the instruction booklet, and am so glad that so much time was clearly spent perfecting that, rather than asking why the programmers can draw three separate frames of animation for the mouth of the soldier on the Game Over screen yet could not do anything for the Smoke weapon but form a giant poop mass that falls from the sky in one fetid, stale descending sprite."

It is probably a bit telling that the game is clearly labeled "Battle Tank," two words, on its box; but in the instruction manual, along with the title screen, the terms are smooshed together as one. Why the unnecessary inconsistency? Even if it is a minor issue, it still belies cracks in the armor of this particular Tank project.

In other words, the potential for greatness may have been squandered by an unfortunate lack of resources, a smidge of ego, or a combination of factors. Whatever perspective you take, Battle Tank obviously has some neat flourishes, but is also obviously not as fantastic as the top-shelf 8-bit titles of its time. It is fun, but not everlastingly so.

Overall rating: 3/5 stars.

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