Combat: End Boss

The level 30 boss turns out to be a sort of flying saucer deal, a big rotating octagon that rises up from a pit in the center of a large room, then sinks again. It alternates between doing two things when it rises: spawning a bunch of assorted tanks and autobombs, and firing those big sweeping lasers from four guns on its periphery — and reversing its direction of rotation while it’s firing them, to make things more difficult. You can destroy the lasers with a great deal of effort, and on one try I even managed to destroy two, but, interestingly, doing so is actually counterproductive. The same lasers destroy any enemy tanks they hit, so disabling them means more tanks hanging around through a complete cycle. You have a lot more to fear from the tanks than from the regular and predictable lasers, so the lasers are really your friends — just the sort of friend you don’t want to hug. And ultimately, all you really have to destroy is the saucer’s central dome, which is briefly level with your guns on its way up and down. The best way to deal with this whole thing, I found, was to basically ignore the tanks and just keep circle-strafing around the pit as fast as you can to make it hard for anything to hit you.

I had to play through this bit several times before I got it right, and every time I did so, I had to play the preceding nine levels first. As usual, I could only bring myself to play one session at a time, rather than start from level 21 again immediately, but being so close to finishing the game off made me keep coming back. You get good at the levels with a little practice; you start to remember the layouts and anticipate what you need to do, and so you rush about with efficiency and confidence. On my final attempt, I even got the Iron Man bonus on level 21 — a score bonus, of enough points for me to snag an extra life, for passing a level without getting hit even once.

Similarly, each pass at level 30 taught me a little more about how to go about it. In fact, only the very first time I reached level 30, with too few lives and no idea of what to expect, did I actually run out of lives and end the game there. On subsequent tries, I managed to slog through it with heavy losses, finishing the level and reaching the real end boss, which was a bit of surprise the first time it happened.

Your final foe is small and agile — well, still about twice the size of your own tank, but small for a boss. It’s hard to aim at, because it does the same thing I was doing on the previous level: circling around quickly, making it difficult to know how much to lead it with your aim, occasionally getting behind the camera so you don’t know which way to turn. It would probably still be a pretty easy fight, though, if it weren’t for one thing: the time limit. You have 60 seconds to beat it or lose. In effect, the game has given up trying to kill you. By getting this far, you’ve proved that you know how to play carefully and conserve your health, and so it throws a different limitation at you. Moreover, it’s a limitation that requires a more or less opposite approach. Where the correct approach for most bosses is caution, this one requires courage. You need to take it down as quickly as possible, and that means getting right up close to it and blasting it as much as you can, heedless of the damage it’s doing to you. Your biggest advantage over it is that you can only lose one hit point at a time, and go through a brief period of flashing invulnerability every time you do.

Combat got poor reviews when it came out, but, while it isn’t the best of the around-the-year-2000 classic-game remakes — that would be Frogger — I found it to be a fairly satisfying experience. It is, in a way, retro-futuristic. Usually that term means the sci-fi visions of the future from the 1950s or earlier, but what I mean here is that it’s the sort of videogame envisioned in 80s sci-fi, from Tron to Zot!. As such, it’s appropriate that it uses so many elements from 80s scrolling shooters: bosses with destructible weapons, power-ups that spread your fire in three directions, etc. Translating stuff like that into 3D was always a challenge, and Combat handles it better than a lot of games of the period — mainly by keeping the action mostly bound to a plane.

Combat: Bosses

I still haven’t reached Combat‘s thirtieth and presumably final level. I think I’ve got up to level 29, but that one’s a real killer. Since all I likely have ahead of me is the end boss, let’s take a look at the other bosses I’ve encountered so far.

The first one you encounter is a spinning octagonal lump that bounces around inside a large square arena. It periodically extends four symmetrically-arranged arms radially until they hit the edge, then sweeps them around for a while, forcing you to circle around with them if you don’t want to get hurt. Each arm ends in a clearly-shootable pod, which explodes, destroying the arm, after a little persistence — the easiest approach is to follow one along an edge so you can keep it lined up with your gun. After all four arms are gone, they’re replaced with guns, which you also have to destroy one by one. It’s pretty straightforward.

Level 10 puts us in a sort of maze — not a complicated one, but large, in the sense that the hallways are wide and long. An armored contraption shaped sort of like a minibus patrols this maze, shooting barrages of unusually large bullets and moving far faster than you can go without a speed boost powerup (of which there are several to be found). Fighting it involves shooting from a distance and running away a lot — the temptation is to face off squarely against it, because that works on most enemies, but it’s just the wrong approach here. This is the boss that guards the first automatic save point, and I remember having a very difficult time of it at first, because I couldn’t tell if I was damaging it or not. Unlike the previous boss, it had no obvious vulnerable spots, and no isolated weapon bits to shoot off. All I could do is keep on pelting it and hope that I was having an effect.

The third boss is actually two, a pair of modestly-oversized tanks running on concentric tracks around a solid obstacle, circling faster than your tank can move. The floor drops away on either side of the tracks, as well as between them; there are only a few spots where you can stand with no danger of being run over, and if you just sit motionless on one of those spots, you’ll just get shot instead. However, killing either one of the two tanks means that you can move to its track and safely dodge fire from the other. This is one of the less-satisfying boss levels, mainly because it was so hard to avoid getting hurt that it didn’t seem worth bothering, but also in part because the enemies here just don’t seem as impressive as the others.

The fourth boss is essentially a very big turret, sitting in the void, stationary but rotating to face you as you move around on a U-shaped ledge. It has multiple guns, some firing multiple sprays of scattering bullets, some firing bombs that do splash damage, and apparently some firing souped-up jets, themselves capable of shooting at you. (This last touch was proabably necessary to keep the fight from getting monotonous. Without the jets, the focus of the action would always be on the turret, whether aiming at it or dodging it.) Mainly you pass this stuff by just constantly keeping in motion, which is a good idea in most situations anyway. After the last of the conventional guns goes down, the turret’s outer casing falls off to reveal the last line of defense: a sweeping beam weapon. Just like in a whole bunch of vertical-scrolling shooters, it takes a little while to power up, and then fires continuously for long enough to corner you if you didn’t rush to the other side when you heard the about-to-fire-beam-weapon audio cue.

Level 25 puts you in an open arena with a few unnavigable holes. The boss, however, it puts outside this arena. Just as the level 20 boss was a very large turret, this boss is a very large jet. It goes through a cycle of several attack patterns: zooming across the battlefield to ram you, summoning smaller jets, firing its scatter-guns, laying a line of bombs, using the same sort of sweeping beam as in the end of level 20. The scatter-guns can be destroyed individually, but this just knocks that attack out of the cycle. The peculiar thing is that it’s only shootable at certain moments in its routine. It only descends to tank-level when the attack it’s attempting makes it necessary.

My guess is that the final boss will be a massive tank, because the ending is the time to reiterate the game’s main theme, especially if you’ve been going with variations for a while. But that doesn’t tell me much about what the fight will be like. Because really, when you come down to it, the main thing that distinguishes the boss fights in this game from each other isn’t the bosses so much as the terrain, and the boss’s relation to it. That’s the thing that determines how the player can respond to them, whether it’s possible to dodge or hide, etc.

Combat: Third Batch

I described the look of Combat as Tron-like, but the first two batches of levels are relatively subdued about it. The floors are concrete-textured and the walls look a bit like painted metal, just laid out in a blatantly non-representational way and floating in space. Starting at level 21, however, the game takes on an even more self-consciously artificial tone: the environment is all flat black with faint grid lines, brightly-colored edges and occasional stripes, like neon lights. I wish I had a screenshot to share — the game is resistant to the usual ways of producing them, probably consuming all keyboard input before the OS gets it. At any rate, it’s a striking look, reminiscent of wireframe models, but also basically a look we’ve seen before, in Tron and elsewhere.

The third batch also ramps up the difficulty a great deal. I managed to get through level 20 on the same day that I got through level 10, but progress through the remainder is slower, and requires more adaptation to special situations. But before I describe them, I should describe the types of enemy.

Before level 21, there were basically four categories of enemies. The most basic ones are missile-like things that spawn, launch themselves at you in a straight line, and explode when they hit a wall or when you shoot them. Next, there are jet-like things that glide about within a plane and can go off the edge without falling; they try to damage you by bumping into you, but tend to go zooming past if you keep moving. Like the missiles, they can be destroyed with a single hit. These two types form the main grunt forces of the game. Next level up, and relatively rare, are the enemy tanks, which come in various varieties, some faster, some with greater firepower, some with more hit points. And finally there are stationary turrets, which are best taken out from a long distance.

Level 21’s high concept is that it’s highly constrained. You’re in a small arena where multiple waves of jets spawn and must be dealt with from close up. After the first few waves, they’re joined by a new type of enemy, a roving bomb that homes in on you and damages you if you’re too close when you destroy it. This quickly becomes the most annoying type of enemy in the game, the sort of thing that you’d genocide if you were playing Nethack.

There’s one level based on the concept of lack of railings. Throughout the game, some areas have low walls around them that your tank bounces off of, and others just let you drop off into the void. So there’s really nothing new in the level I’m describing, except its eagerness to make you fall. There are infinitely-respawning roving bomb units that you can only get past by moving quickly, but they’re located on narrow catwalks where moving quickly is dangerous. Also, it’s on this level that we learn that the explosions from the bombs are capable of pushing you short distances.

If I sound like I’m griping, let me offset it by describing one level I quite like. It’s all one big open space, except for a walled-off room in the middle where the exit portal spawns after you’ve survived long enough. In this room, dozens of those jets are spawning all the time, along with an occasional tank. There are power-ups scattered about, including the one that lets you fire three shots at a time in different directions, the one that makes your shots bounce off walls (which can be used in conjunction with the three-at-a-time one), and, most importantly, the one that grants you temporary invulnerability. The power-ups are so crucial, and time out so quickly, that you’re constantly seeking more of them, which means you spend your time zooming all around, sometimes invulnerable. It’s a nicely chaotic battle, a big adrenalin surge in a very adrenalin-oriented game. This game got poor reviews, but here, it satisfies.

Combat: Progress and Regress

I finally made some permanent progress in Combat (2001 Infogrames remake). There was none in my previous two sessions. This game doesn’t have a save/load mechanism, and to a player starting from the beginning (and who hasn’t read the manual thoroughly), it’s not at all clear that there’s any saved state between sessions at all. In fact, beating the first ten levels (including two boss fights) permanently opens up a passage in the starting area (like the passages that let you access the different worlds in the original Quake) that lets you skip to level 11 in the future, and likewise beating level 20 lets you skip to level 21. But there’s no recognition of this in the game itself, no notification of any kind. Only after your game ends (presumably in defeat) and you start a new game do you see that you don’t have to start over from level 1 again. And you’re probably not going to see it immediately. You’re probably not eager to launch into a new session immediately, given that you’ve just got through 10 levels in a single session, something that takes about a half an hour and leaves your hands wrecked, and that you don’t know the first time that you won’t have to start over from level 1 again.

It didn’t come as a surprise to me this time, though, because I remember getting past level 10 in my original attempts at this game, years ago. And in fact now that I’ve gotten that far, I’ve also managed to keep going and breach the second checkpoint — apparently I’ve learned the basic skills needed by the game, and will probably finish it soon. (The main necessary skill, it seems, is assessing when you need to stand and clear the room of enemies and when you need to just make a break for the exit. Either approach is imperative sometimes.) But also, I’m kind of cheesing out. The options menu lets you choose whether you start with three or five lives, and whether your shields at full can withstand three or five hits. Both settings default to 3, and I’ve turned them both up to 5. Without this, I would be starting over from the beginning a lot more, and enjoying the game less (even if I would also be keenly honing my tank-battle skills in the process). But then, a more typical modern game would be giving me infinite lives, or, equivalently, a save/load feature, so all I’m really doing by selecting the easier options is bringing the game closer to being in line with today’s expectations.

Mind you, lives were already retro in 2001, when this game was released. Functionally, their purpose is to make the player start over from the beginning every once in a while and thus extend gameplay — a goal somewhat undermined by the checkpoints every 10 levels. But extending gameplay by making it more repetitive was more excusable in the old days, when games were fewer and shipped on less capacious media. The weird thing is that, although this is of course a deliberately retro game, the game it seeks to evoke isn’t that kind of retro. The concepts I’m describing here are completely outside of Atari Combat‘s ludic vocabulary. In this context, limited lives are both retro and whatever the opposite of “retro” is. They fit comfortably in neither time.

Combat: The Luxury of Style

The 2001 remake of Combat could have easily gone another way: attempted realism. Given the theme of tanks, the developers could have tried to make a tank simulator. Any commercial remake would have had to expand greatly on the original in order to justify the price they intended to charge for it, and going for a detailed depiction of realistic military hardware would be one way to do that.

But they didn’t. They instead chose to make it about videogame tanks, blatantly unreal things that exist nowhere outside of software, gliding around on a sequence of floating platforms and ramps that have no history, serve no purpose but to host tank battles. These tanks don’t even have treads. They’re hovercraft, essentially, zipping along on some kind of glowing antigravity engines. This means that they’re capable of strafing left and right — often a useful technique, I’m finding, as it lets you dodge fire from an enemy you’re facing and at the same time saturate the area in the general direction of said enemy with bullets. (The bullets themselves are essentially sparklers.) You can’t aim your gun independent of the direction you’re facing, but at least you can face in a different direction than you’re moving. Not just by strafing, either: you can build up momentum and then spin around without affecting your trajectory. Sometimes the game feels more like Spacewar or Asteroids than Combat.

There’s a bit of a paradox here. The original Combat, and the arcade game it was based on, were, presumably, designed to give an experience that was the closest thing to a realistic tank battle that their programmers could create on the hardware at hand. The end result was highly stylized, but it was stylized by necessity. It isn’t until you have hardware that’s capable of a more realistic simulation that it becomes possible to choose a stylized approach, and this makes the stylization more conspicuous, even though in absolute terms it’s less extreme than in the original. I recall observing something similar with respect to the King’s Quest series.


I recently read Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam, a book about the Atari 2600, with a particular focus on how the games written for it were affected by the limitations and affordances of its rather odd hardware design. I highly recommend it to anyone who reads this blog. The Atari 2600 was my childhood console, and reading about it made me nostalgic enough to pull out a game written specifically to prey on this very nostalgia.

The original Combat was the first cartridge to be bundled with the 2600, and, along with Pong, one of the two games that the platform was specifically designed around. Apparently it was an adaptation and extension of an arcade game called Tank, although the cartridge also featured airplane modes. It was a 2D shooter that required two players — there was no expectation of computer-controlled opponents in those days. Matches lasted exactly two minutes and 16 seconds — I have no idea why they chose that specific number — at the end of which whoever got the most hits on the other guy won. Some playfields had obstacles that blocked movement and fire, others were completely open. It was all very simple and abstract: the tanks were single-colored and blocky, the walls even moreso.

But that’s not what I’m playing. I’m playing the 2001 remake, part of the wave of “classic” game remakes that hit the stores around that time. And of all the remakes I’ve played, this is probably the one that has the least to do with the game it’s based on. It’s a single-player level-based 3D shooter, where the goal on each level is to reach an exit point. The designers kept the tanks (and ditched the airplanes), they adapted the simple abstractness into a sort of Tron-like stylization, and they kept the complete lack of backstory (a laudable decision, and one made by too few of these remakes). Everything else about the original, they just ignored.

And honestly, if it had been up to me, I’d probably have made similar decisions. I suppose that Team Fortress 2 has proved that pure time-limited PvP combat is still viable, if you’re willing to spend years honing it. But this game was made with the constraint of trying to be recognizable as Combat, and that must be difficult for a modern game. Even the most formulaic adaptation possible (which this one is pretty close to being) has to add an awful lot. Heck, a formulaic adaptation has to add more than a clever one, because the original was made with a mindset so far-removed from where the game industry eventually wound up going. I’ve joked before that the general formula for the remakes churned out during this period was to just support 3D acceleration in some way and add power-ups, but the original Combat doesn’t just lack 3D and power-ups, it lacks basic concepts like levels, and lives, and an ending.