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Robot Tank – Atari 2600

Robot Tank – Atari 2600


Platform: Atari 2600

Developer: Activision

Publisher: Activision

Release Date (NA): 1983

Genre: First-person Shooter

Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed by Space Invader

Do you know what an Atari is? If the answer is no, you’re lost or drunk – either way, hit “back” on your browser and go to bed.

If the answer is yes, what do you think of when someone mentions Atari games? Aiming one blip of light at another using an archaic thing know as a “joystick” — before pressing the solitary orange button this “joystick” has to offer? Or maybe you think of moving a blocky, indistinguishable character around a single-screen playfield in a contest to make a number at the top of the screen increment?

Terrifying ideas for the modern gamer, many of whom I’ve no doubt scared away with two paragraphs that may as well have been about the butter churn or the telegraph. The rest of this article is for whomever logs on to Nerd Bacon and knows that a game produced in the year 2000 is not, all things considered, all that old.

Quiet. A little too quiet. Unless you're sharp enough to spot the tank out there on the horizon, that is.

Quiet. A little too quiet. Unless you’re sharp enough to spot the tank out there on the horizon, that is.

For this one brave soul, a second question: Do you know what a first-person shooter is? You know, Doom, Halo, Half-Life …

I’ll get to the point. There’s a reasonable chance you don’t associate first-person shooters with Atari games.

All the stranger that Robot Tank, academically at the very least, fulfills this criteria. Get me not wrong, it’s no Half-Life. It’s not even a Wolfenstein 3-D. But give the 2600 a chance and, every now and again, the ol’ girl amazes you.

Help save Silicon Valley

The kind folks at Activision included in the manual a little glimpse into the future. There’s no real way to paraphrase, so:

“Greetings. As you well know, sophisticated enemy Robot Tanks are quickly advancing cross-country, firing at will and stopping at nothing. You must command your own Robot Tanks to stop their charge of chaos. Avoid being hit by enemy fire, or your Robot Tanks may be destroyed. The rebels are currently headed towards downtown Santa Clara. Only you can stop them.”             -Robot Tank manual

There you have it – in the near future, circa 1983 (which must logically be coming up any day now), Robot Tanks are going to smash the country, culminating in an attack on Downtown Santa Clara. This is particularly alarming for me – I live ten minutes away from there.

Silicon Valley is a fairly uncommon setting for a video game and no doubt a small conceit on the part of Activision, based in the Valley.

You're about to take a bullet. Could be worse. Could be raining. Oh wait ... it is.

You’re about to take a bullet. Could be worse. Could be raining. Oh wait … it is.

You are Robot Tank

You control a series of robot tanks that are the last defense between Downtown Silicon Valley and the enemy onslaught of similarly equipped robot tanks that have apparently wiped out the rest of the country on the way to the West. As you are, according to the manual, operating each robot tank from a remote location, Robot Tank essentially prefigures drone warfare, so they got that right about the future.

Each tank is dropped into an endless green field that disappears into mountains. Robot Tanks are equipped with a radar and damage sensors, visible in a bar at the bottom of the screen. The radar indicates the position of the current enemy tank, represented by a blip on the radar. One by one, enemy robot tanks buzz into the vicinity, and you’ve got to shoot them.

They do shoot back. When you hit them, they burst into a satisfying explosion of flashing pixels. When they hit you, you either explode, or they knock out one of your senses. This is where the damage indicators, displayed under the radar, come in. Damage indicators reveal the current state of your radar, treads, video feed and cannon, represented by the first letter of the each respective word.

If the enemy knocks out your treads, you slow to a snail’s pace. If they knock out your video, you can only see in momentary flashes every few seconds. If they knock out your cannon, your ability to fire is severely dampened, and if your radar’s out, obviously, you’ve got no radar.

Even by Activision standards, simply moving your tank around the playfield is a thing of beauty. As you move, your tank bobs up and down, and the terrain, represented by vaguely different shades of green, passes beneath you. The mountain skyline rotates as you turn, and you can even see the sun setting and rising behind the mountains, depending on time of day.

Just wait for the sun to come back. Seriously. You'll die.

Just wait for the sun to come back. Seriously. You’ll die.

Yes, time actually changes in the game. After the sun sets, blackness envelops the playfield, interrupted only by the sight of now dark mountain range when you fire. Enemy tanks, when they fire, light up with the round.

Nighttime battles tend to be, quite literally, a shot in the dark, and are for that reason best avoided. Experts have been known to battle through until sunrise, using the radar and a little killer instinct, but my strategy has been simply to run like hell until the sun comes back, even if it does cost you the rest of a day.

When you see the first glimmer of that sunrise, friends, you know everything is going to be OK, and it’s time to do as much killing as you can before the sun ducks back behind the mountains. You’d think that a pseudo 3-D Atari game would simply go from day to night, bright to dark — and perhaps be surprised that there are day and night at all. But no. We have dusk and dawn, and a few degrees of each. All this on Gramp’s console? What?


Sure, it's foggy and visibility is low. But it smells like victory.

Sure, it’s foggy and visibility is low. But it smells like victory.

If Robot Tank’s ability to change from day to night excites you — and face it, you’re human — you’ll probably have a seizure when you hear that weather conditions change too. Surprisingly realistic fog rolls in from time to time, which limits your visibility, and it rains sometimes, too, which affects your maneuverability, in addition to the drab overcast Californians dread even as drought dries them out (trust me, it’s ridiculous). Snow limits your mobility.

As mentioned, Robot Tank simply looks great. The mountains are rendered in multiple colors, The sunsets and sunrises are as gorgeous as cold-war era technology could deliver. When you tank is destroyed, an impressive display of white noise covers the screen as your camera goes out. Enemies scale and rotate nicely, and the effects of changing weather and daylight conditions are particularly striking. Anyone who understands what the Atari 2600 is capable of will shed a tear of joy as the field slowly darkens to black, and the night robs the playfield of all but silhouettes of mountains and the realistically monochromatic color scheme of the terrain.

This tank is about to blow up into Technicolor bliss.

This tank is about to blow up into Technicolor bliss.

Just as amazing are the effects of snow, which blankets the field and limits your mobility, or spying an enemy tank emerging from the fog — gentle reader, it’s enough to make you wish you were a gamer back in the day.

Sound effects are effective because they are relatively spare. The dull hum of your robot tank’s engine is constant, and it accelerates as you move. The sound of missiles firing is pretty cool, receiving an attack sounds devastating, and even the alert that beeps when you’ve lost a component sounds appropriate.

The Lowdown

Robot Tank was quite an achievement for 1983, but of course it won’t stack up to modern efforts. Even so, it’s easy to imagine the same basic mechanics at work well into the 16-bit era – it was so ahead of its time that until, say, the mid 1990s, a simple improvement of the resolution, overall graphics and you might have had an early Sega Genesis hit.

Written by Space Invader

Sometime in the early 1980s, in the heart of the Silicon Valley was born one Angelo. No one knew it yet, but he would grow up to become the mighty Space Invader, master of the old technology and writer of the third-person profile.

The Atari 2600 and Xbox 360 vie equally for Space Invader’s heart, but he can’t seem to choose one and settle down. Something is just so appealing to consoles that have names featuring numbers between 300 and 3000.

Little is known about Space Invader’s past, but he is rumored to drive a Buick and is said to have a tremendous singing voice.


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  1. Como trabalhamos tão somente com pratos a la carte a apresentação é muito essencial, já causa um
    impacto aos compradores enquanto prato chega na mesa.

  2. Awesome review Angelo! Truth: You are the ONLY person who ever makes me want to really give more of my attention to the Atari 2600. Do you ever get involved with the 5200 or 7800 systems? I’d be curious to hear your take on those systems as a whole.

    • Space Invader
      Space Invader says:

      Thanks NB — I believe you’re one of the few who’s almost persuaded to do so. The 7800 has some fun titles, one of which is Halloween themed and lined up for a review next month. Never got the 5200 b/c people scared me off that the Joystick is not self-centering. I know, I know, I play the Jaguar and am afraid of another controller? What?


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