While they’ve fallen a bit out of fashion in more recent years, tanks have been an important part of the gaming landscape pretty much since its dawn. (Then, of course, they trundled right over said landscape, flattened it and blew it up.)
Indeed, one of the earliest competitive games — Atari’s Combat for 2600, released in 1977 — is most well known for its highly enjoyable two-player tank battles, though the game’s myriad modes also incorporated a variety of other vehicles.
Namco got in on the tank battle action in 1980 with its arcade title Tank Battalion, subsequently followed up by spinoff title Battle City for Famicom in 1985. Then, finally, we come to 1991’s Tank Force, the game that we’re concerned with today — and an underappreciated arcade title that is well worth your time to check out.
Tank Force, like its predecessor Tank Battalion, distinguishes itself from Combat by both being friendly to solo players and also having a different focus. Rather than battling another player, it’s up to you (and perhaps a friend) to fend off incoming waves of enemy tanks and vehicles who appear from various entrances around the top of the screen. Clear a “quota” of enemies and you advance to the next level; allow the enemies to break down the walls of your base at the bottom of the screen and invade, and your game is immediately over.
This might sound like a rather conventional sort of top-down shoot ’em up, but Tank Force does a number of things to distinguish itself from similar titles, as well as drawing inspiration from Namco’s earlier titles.
For example, the fact the game is set in single-screen, maze-like arrangements is rather reminiscent of Pac-Man, requiring you to carefully plan out your movements so you can get the drop on your enemies without making yourself vulnerable to them.
At the same time, the game draws inspiration from Dig Dug by making much of the level destructible, meaning that both you and your enemies can blast a path through obstacles and attempt to use this to your advantage. Like in Dig Dug, you ideally want to put yourself in a position where you have a good vantage point, but enemies have limited ways to get to you.
The levels are enjoyably varied, with backgrounds, level layouts and music gradually changing as you progress through the game. You’ll begin by facing nothing but ordinary tanks that fire in front of themselves and move around rather erratically, but as you progress you’ll come across more and more different enemy types, including high-speed jeeps, heavily armoured tanks that take several hits to destroy and even bosses.
In some ways, each level can be considered a kind of “shooting puzzle” in which you need to find the best possible places to put your tank in order to destroy your enemies with maximum efficiency. Since your vehicle isn’t very manoeuvrable and can only fire a limited number of shots at a time in one of four directions, you can’t rely on being able to quickly dodge incoming shots. You can, however, shoot down standard tank shells, though enemies that are resistant to this approach start putting in an appearance before long, meaning you ideally want to be able to strike their flank rather than taking them head-on.
That isn’t to say this is a game you can simply memorise and blast through with a bit of practice, however; there are a number of random elements that keep things interesting. For one, the behaviour of the enemy tanks is, at times, unpredictable; they move according to rudimentary AI rather than simply following a path. For another, you’ll occasionally get the chance to grab power-ups of various types that range from simple score or life increases to tank upgrades. Each of the latter type are different in various ways; making your tank smaller makes it faster but requires you fire a little more accurately; getting dual cannons on your tank makes it immensely powerful but carries the risk of making you overconfident; and getting four-way shots on your tank means you don’t have to worry about which direction you’re facing, but you still have to keep an eye on where the enemy is shooting at you from.
And then, of course, if you add a second player to the mix, things get even more unpredictable; while you can’t outright destroy each other, shooting your rival will knock them back a bit, perhaps throwing their aim off or knocking them into harm’s way. And while the game is technically “cooperative” in that you’re both working together for a common goal, the game encourages competition by allowing whoever scored the most points in a stage to “conquer” that hex on the game’s overall progress map. At the end of the game, you get a chance to compare both overall score (which resets every time you continue) and the number of conquered stages (which does not), providing an interesting metagame to the whole experience if you’re playing with a friend.
Tank Force is an excellent example of good arcade game design. It’s simple to understand and addictive, plus the “conquering” mechanic means there are a number of different ways to enjoy it. Those who want to go for a one-credit solo clear are free to do so, but there’s definitely a very different (and highly enjoyable) appeal factor to competing with a friend to see who can assert their dominance the most.
From a more moment to moment perspective, the game has a good balance of “risk versus reward” gameplay; often, grabbing a power-up will require you to put yourself in danger, and as previously noted, getting overconfident with one of the more powerful upgrades can quickly lead to your downfall!
It’s a bit of a shame this isn’t one of Namco’s more well-known titles, because it’s a ton of fun that would have been great to enjoy with a friend around the TV on the SNES or Mega Drive back in the day. Still, while it never got a home port when it was “relevant” in the arcades, we can at least enjoy it now either via the Wii’s Virtual Console service or as part of the Namco Museum collection for Nintendo Switch.
And I recommend you do just that, particularly if you feel your life has been woefully bereft of trundling around slowly and causing huge explosions recently. Tank Force has very much become a new favourite, and it makes me wonder what other arcade gems from the early ’90s I’ve missed out on over the years!
Screenshots from Nintendo Switch version.
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