Robot Tank for the Atari 2600 was an incredibly innovative game for its time. Sure, it was pretty much Activision’s answer to the Battlezone arcade game, but it was also so much more than that.
Interestingly enough, this was a very early example of the first-person shooter genre, coming out way back in 1983. That’s nine years before Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and ten years before the original Doom (1993). Yes, that means that 20 years before publishing the first Call of Duty game (2003), Activision published a first-person shooter for the Atari 2600.
Granted, your character is driving a tank, but everything is seen from a first-person perspective and you shoot things. That still counts in my book.
Of course, if we’re okay calling Robot Tank a first-person shooter, it wouldn’t be fair to not extend the definition to 1980’s Battlezone as well. In fact, using this definition, I could bring up examples from the 1970s.
Even so, while Battlezone was limited by its vector look (see the below image for an example of what that looked like), Robot Tank‘s colorful look allowed it to include some mindbogglingly forward-thinking features.
First of all, it had a full-on night-and-day cycle, with a color palette that changed depending on the time of day and nights that made visibility difficult.
Secondly, it had weather effects. For example, you’d be chugging along in your tank and all of a sudden the words “Fog Alert” would flash on your screen. The next several minutes of gameplay would be shrouded in a dense fog. I’m not going to officially say that Robot Tank was the first ever game to feature weather effects, but I can’t think of an earlier example. In fact, I challenge readers to find one (and if that happens, I will gladly update this article in response).
Thirdly, there was the equivalent of “positional damage,” in which certain parts of your tank could be damaged, causing actual in-game effects. If one of your treads was damaged, your tank would slow to a crawl (and would be practically useless in the snow). If your cannon was damaged, it would become less responsive.
Mind-blowing stuff for 1983, right?
Like most games in the 1980s, Robot Tank came with a fantastic manual, chock full of bonus goodies like a letter from the President. Of course, it was a fake letter from a fake President, but being wished good luck by even a fake President was pretty cool for a young kid.
One of the best gems in this manual, however, is a thing I’ve only recently discovered: Activision’s Tank Corps. In this “legendary” program, you could send in a picture of your high score and be rewarded with a patch from Activision.
When I was a kid, I loved this game. I remember one particularly sunny summer afternoon when my friends were begging me to play outside. I, however, had to finish my game of Robot Tank, because I had beaten my high score with lives to spare. My mom told me it was okay to finish one last game, undoubtedly expecting me to survive maybe a few minutes at most.
But no. I was particularly on fire that day, racking up kills left and right. It was probably 45 minutes or so before I finally ambled out of the family room and into the sunlight. I can’t say for sure what my final score was, but I’m almost certain it would have been worthy of at least a Medal of Merit patch.
I had a secondhand version of the game, which came sans instruction manual, so this honor was a thing I was never able to claim.
And look at these bad boys:
Had my mom sewn one of these onto my jacket, I’d have been the king of my elementary school playground. If only. If only…