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Game Review: Iron Tank (NES)

Iron Tank (1988, SNK) is a mostly-forgotten title for the NES, but deserves more recognition than it’s gotten. I think of it as a spiritual companion to the other great NES WWII Shooter, Capcom’s 1943.

Many of its features were successful in other popular games, but it has enough of its own unique strengths that it can stand up proudly as an innovative game with an experience you will find similar to many other games, but still feeling original and well done, not generic or derivative:

  • Radio communications screen for narrative elements (Bionic Commando, Metal Gear). The radio will sometimes give you warning about upcoming challenges, or some mission background to explain why you’re here and what you need to do. This is mostly inessential because the mission is always “Stay alive, destroy enemies, and advance, and destroy a boss.” but it still gives the game a story of sorts. Often the radio message will be “too late” advice, warning you to be careful about a challenge you just got through. Toward the end, the enemy starts broadcasting to you, threatening/begging out of desperation to get you to turn back. This boosts your ego, and is a neat reward for the player.
  • Configurable power up system (many NES games featured this, but Iron Tank’s is unique in its implementation, but perhaps could be described as a combination of Mega Man and 1943.) Your main gun has four different types of power boosts — Long range, Rapid fire, Armor Piercing, and Bomb shells — which you refill through pickups.The pickups are odd in that they are letters which sometimes don’t have an obvious relationship to the power boost they represent. L = Long Range (ok, fair); V = Rapid (velocity?); F = Armor piercing (huh?); B = Bomb Shells (right). Rather than remain enabled until expended or a timer runs out, you can enable/disable them on a sub-screen as needed. This means there’s strategy to the game — you can save up your power and use it when you hit a really tough spot in the game. Managing your power-up resources is critical to winning. Knowing when you need them, and deciding what you need at a given time, and balancing that against the yet unknown challenges that lie even further ahead makes for a cerebral game that layers on top of the action game. There are times when an obvious approach of using power-ups isn’t really necessary, because a subtler strategy will enable you to get by with a stock configured tank, and it often pays off to take the harder challenge now, conserving the power boosts for an even more difficult challenge later.
  • The most interesting power-up mechanic is the [R]efuel tank, which gives you a secondary life bar that extends your primary life bar — but only if you choose to have it enabled. Another interesting thing is that you can both shoot and run over foot soldiers — and the game seems to encourage you to run them over, as doing so gives you a tiny but vital boost to your main energy.
  • Infinite continues, and a password save feature, allowing the game to be longer than would otherwise be practical to beat in one sitting, and not punishing the player too severely for not being able to make it through the challenging parts of the game, and allowing therefore for those parts of the game to be even more challenging.

Basic gameplay

There’s a very good “Let’s Play” series on YouTube, if you aren’t familiar or need to get reacquainted. You are Iron Snake, commander of the Iron Tank, invading Normandy and liberating Europe from an implied but unnamed Nazi occupation. And by “liberate” I definitely mean “blow the hell out of.” Actually, there are occasional resistance fighters and POWs who you’ll rescue throughout the game, as well.

Controls

Controls are often a weak point in games featuring tanks. Not so in Iron Tank. Your tank features an aimable turret, which allows you move and aim independently. The way this was implemented on the standard NES gamepad was effective — hold button B and the D-pad controls the turret. This takes a little getting used to, but is very effective and you can be quite nimble with practice. Being able to aim to the side or diagonal and strafe is an important tactic, and makes the game more realistic and more fun.

Graphics

There is a huge variety of tile-based backgrounds, for simulating the European countryside, cities, docks, airplane hangers, the Normandy beach, cliffs, trees, roads, paths, rail tracks, fortresses, you name it. Even for the 8-bit NES, these are a little rough in spots, though never truly bad, and the variety makes up for it.

Music

The music in Iron Tank is really first rate. It is heroic and epic, evokes both the military marches and the WWII era, adds drama and tension, and provides cues to when more challenging areas are up ahead. Most of the music is in the lower and mid octaves, which gives it a characteristic unlike most other background music on the NES, while seeming suitable for a game about tanks.

Enemies

There really isn’t anything in Iron Tank sophisticated enough to call AI. The enemies all move in basic, simple patterns and pre-set routes, but a lot of variety makes the game challenging. Some tanks sit still, others chase you, while others seem to stand off at a distance and duck and feint, and still others will enter, make a quick attack, and then retreat before you can retaliate.

There’s also a great variety of enemies: infantry, officers, tanks, train guns, fortresses, turrets, and boss tanks called “Think Tanks”. I guess they’re hard enough that you need to think about how to defeat them? You even do battle with airplanes and submarines. Of course tanks are the star of the game, and there is a satisfying variety of enemy tanks, different styles of light, medium, and heavy, which vary in their speed, armor, and armament. Some are barely any threat to you, while others necessitate caution.

This variety of enemies invites a variety of tactics, which keeps the game fresh and challenging. The key tactic is avoiding being in range of the enemy cannons, flanking the enemy’s turret when you can, or when that isn’t possible, waiting for a pause in their fire and placing a well-timed shot to take them out. You can also sometimes use your long range shots to safely take out enemies before they’re able to engage you with their own armaments. Individually, their cannon fire is usually not too hard to dodge, being limited to 8 directions, resulting in predictable pie slices of safe zone. It’s not too hard to take out enemy tanks when they don’t outnumber you too badly and there’s plenty of room to maneuver. Sometimes moving slowly and cautiously, taking out the enemies one at a time, picking apart their defenses is the best approach, other times it’s better to just run for it.

Terrain

Some terrain is more open than others, however. The variety of terrain matches the variety of enemies and enemy tactics, and itself influences the tactics that will be most effective in a given area. Although the game is 2D, there are simulated ledges, cliffs, and rooftops where placed guns can harass you, sometimes out of your own reach unless you have some power boosts enabled. There are walls and buildings and natural barriers that can constrain your movements, but provide cover in return. Water likewise blocks your path, but leaves you exposed to fire.

There are wooded areas where the tree canopy foregrounds partially obscure the action beneath them. The NES didn’t have a capability of alpha channel, but they still made the forest sprites partially see-through, so that when you go under them, you can see the unobstructed part of your tank (or lurking enemies) through them. This is really cool.

Insta-kill anti-tank landmines will block your progress along otherwise open and inviting pathways. They blink, being invisible half the time, so can be difficult to spot.

Destructible terrain

While not dynamically destructible, there are enough buildings and walls that you can blow up to uncover secrets or alternate paths that it’s worth mentioning. Being in a tank and not being able to destroy these things just wouldn’t feel right.

Multi-path map

I don’t know of any other NES game that did this, so Iron Tank deserves special recognition for this design. At several points in the game, you’ll encounter road signs that point out a fork in the road. Depending on which path you take, you’ll proceed to a different level, with different terrain and enemies. One path might be more difficult, but you have no way of knowing before you make your choice. This means that in order to experience every bit of the game, you’ll need to play through it multiple times.

Map x-wrapping

Instead of having an edge, the map wraps on the x-axis. There are certain places on the map where there are no side walls, and you are unbounded in your horizontal direction, but in these locales, the map wraps around. While not exactly realistic, it does make for some potentially useful tactics, as you can return to an area by continuing in one direction, without needing to double back.

Overall

Iron Tank is a solid effort from SNK. The game integrates a lot of the features and design elements of successful NES classics, and does it well. While mainly an action game, the story elements provided by the radio communiques and the configurable power-ups give an element of strategy almost like a proto-RPG. It’s one of my favorite lesser-known games on the NES.

See Also

If you liked this game, you’ll want to check out 1943, Guerrilla War, Commando, Jackal, Heavy Barrel and Ikari Warriors. All have a similar WWII/war theme and vertical scrolling shooter gameplay.

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