The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.
It’s museum day here at The Well-Red Mage!
Facing facts is an important part of adulthood, right? Right. So let’s do that right now. The only reason you’re reading this is that you are interested in gaming history. Or, maybe you’re bored. Perhaps you just like the sound of my imaginary voice (like a mix of Ed Mcmahon, Vin Scully, and Patrick Stewart). Mayhap you are thinking about getting this game for yourself, which is unlikely, but okay I guess there are several potential reasons why you’re reading this. Just know that this is going to be all about appreciating the rich and varied heritage that gaming has developed over the generations. This is about the classic games, well, one in particular. It may not be as flashy or important as some others then or now, but maybe you’ll pick up some neat history tidbits along the way.
Therefore, let us examine exhibit double-A: an artifact from a lost age of arcades and neon lights, vector displays, coin-op cabinets, and antiquated control schemes, shameless alliteration in a realm not yet touched by even Nintendo’s first home console. In this primordial soup we colloquially call the early 80s, only a few enduring icons survived the wild. Big names have since come and gone. Only a few have remained like so many blasted and weathered pillars of Ozymandias peppered by the sands of time and the capricious winds of whim.
In less purpley language, Armor Attack was a top-down shoot ’em up originally released by Cinematronics in the arcades of 1980. At this, the turn of the decade, a developer named Tim Skelly designed Rip-Off, the first video game to feature two-player co-op in the arcades. Skelly has as his second claim to fame a game called Reactor, which he developed after leaving Cinematronics for Gottlieb.
With Reactor, Skelly wrangled into his contract that his credit had to appear on the game’s title screen. Where developers previously had to sneak their names into their games through code and secrets and Easter eggs, Reactor was the first arcade video game to feature its designer’s name front and center in-game. Tim Skelly paved the way for future gaming architects to get the recognition they deserve for their hard work.
If you were to ask me, developers owe a lot to pioneers like Skelly. He is, to some degree, responsible for our associating series and games like Tetris, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario, Shadow of the Colossus, Grim Fandango, Smash Bros., and Civilization with their creators Alexey Pajitnov, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto, Fumito Ueda, Tim Schafer, Masahiro Sakurai, and Sid Meier, respectively, and not the publishers and manufacturers. Yes, even Phil Fish (FEZ) could achieve the kind of infamy he did thanks in some part to the work of Tim Skelly identifying games with their authors.
Plus, this picture:
Tim Skelly was a developer who, it seems to me, appreciated the unique speed and ghostly imagery that he featured in his vector games (Star Hawk, Sundance, Warrior, War of the Worlds). His works are dominated by vector graphics. Among his other projects, he created the labyrinthine military adventure, Armor Attack. This may not be his most historically significant game, or even one that registered as more than a shimmering blip in 1980, but it remains a lot of fun to play.
Well, in short bursts. Really, this is an arcade game, after all.
I don’t have access to an Armor Attack cabinet, but what I do have is the 1982 port for the Vectrex! If you’re not sure what the Vectrex even is, allow me to elucidate: it is the world’s only vector display home console. For more information on this unique relic, which was essentially a tube tv vector touchscreen with a 3D peripheral, you can check out my Vectrex Hardware Inklings examination.
Armor Attack puts the player behind the wheel of a jeep (jeeps for two players) armed with a simple projectile and the ability to move around a map crowded with buildings and the alleys between them. Enemies appear from off-screen and converge upon the player. To survive, the player must defeat enemy vehicles and rack up points.
Enemy tanks crawl slowly but can surprise you with sneaky shots around corners. An enemy helicopter occasionally appears overhead and moves in tricky diagonal patterns before firing missiles. It’s inherently simple as there is only one screen (and the layout of the buildings do not change as the game goes on due to the restrictions of its color overlay), but the challenge and fun of it come from the somewhat unpredictable movements of hostile forces.
As an arcade port, Armor Attack on the Vectrex relies on its points system to give you some structure for measuring success or failure. Beating your previous high score doesn’t have the same potency it perhaps once did. What about beating a perfect stranger’s score from the late ’80s? This was in the back of the Armor Attack manual I got.
The 8-bit Review
In the arcade, the computer only drew the moving objects of the player-controlled jeeps, the tanks, and the helicopter, as well as the projectiles traded around and their explosions. The Vectrex version draws the actual shapes of the buildings, though, which takes some pressure off of the overlays to convey the boundaries of the game world.
Like the arcade cabinet, the Vectrex displays monochromatic lines of shimmering white on a black screen. Color could only be obtained through the use of plastic overlays. It’s a mixed effect, though. The overlay gives you color but it muddiness some of the sharpness and clarity of the vector graphics. On their own, they are ghostly and ethereal in their inky black ocean but with an overlay, they appear much more blurred. The light shining through the plastic cheapens them to some degree, in my opinion.Still, the vector art suffers from no slowdown or flicker (in person, not in photography). It runs at a consistent pace, emphasizing the player’s agility. It was far crisper than pixel graphics could be displayed at the time and as such the burning edges and vertices of light still look incredible today, especially considering minimalism has made a resurgence in many a game’s visual philosophy in our time.
By this score of a 5 out of 10, I mean to convey entirely that Armor Attack’s sound design is average. Pac-Man had only just begun to play with cute little ditties longer than a second or two just a couple of years before this Vectrex Armor Attack. Beside chirps and beeps, actual music wasn’t commonplace in this era of gaming.
That said, Armor Attack does feature a percussive track on its preliminary screens. This is nothing more than a short series of rapid beats on a digital drum, such as is associated with a military march. It’s appropriate, though normative for its time and not too inspired.
You and a friend can dive in for some simultaneous co-op to navigate the ruined streets between the game’s buildings and play cat and mouse with the enemy vehicles. I wish I could say I’ve played multiplayer on this game, though, but I don’t have two Vectrex controllers. It seems to me it’d be easy to plan attacks with a buddy.
As an early overhead-perspective shooter, Armor Attack functions much like the famous Asteroids, or Mine Storm on the same vector system: the joystick operates the pivot of your vehicle and the other buttons allow you to move forward and fire in the direction you’re facing. This is a control scheme I’ve bumped into in many games from the ’80s but it has thankfully been updated and replaced by more maneuverable ideas. Playing it again, the jeep felt heavy and cumbersome under my hands. Because it was.
This is a definitive example, in my opinion, of an improvement made upon retro games by modernity. Games have come a long way and while we may most often think of improvements in graphics, control schemes have seen dramatic changes, too.
Armor Attack requires an extra step of thought to properly angle your jeep to get the correct shots off. I found the most success chasing down my enemies and firing at them relentlessly, rather than camping in the middle and launching my volleys at them as they came to me. Getting over the hurdle of the antiquated controls, the thrust and fire buttons are reminiscent of arcade cabinets and as familiar as ever to those who grew up with them.
There is a rotate left and rotate right button on the Vectrex controller, but I think I’d have to be a madman to use those. I found I was better off with the joystick.
Far from a bullet hell, your jeep has a slow rate of fire (only two of your projectiles are allowed on screen at once). This means you’ll have to be careful about your marksmanship rather than fire willy-nilly at anything that moves. Although your jeep is fast, it is easy to find yourself surrounded or outmaneuvered and at a loss to shoot down two hostiles since the turning mechanics are so slow.
Still, it is not a game with obvious sections (stages or levels) where difficulty increases. It was hard for me to even detect when and where the experience got harder yet I couldn’t keep up the same game for long than 15 minutes.
Because there are no variations between in-game rounds, the game has little replay value. Since the buildings are drawn into the overlays, they layout of the game field never changes. The only difference between each run is the behavior of the enemy tanks and helicopters, which never seemed to me to be reliably the same. Occasionally it felt as if I was being hunted methodically. Other times it seemed like the hostiles were moving in random patterns. I’m not sure what the overall scheme is here for enemy movement but it is at least subtley impressive that there’s a large degree of dissimilarity in enemy behavior. I was reminded again of Pac-Man, that masterpiece, what with its odd-ball, complex enemy behavior.
Okay, so a couple things: this is a port, this game lifts its control scheme from several other games, the shooter was a popular genre in games at the time, its vector display graphics are bizarre now but even these were commonplace in the arcades then. However, Armor Attack came from a developer who almost exclusively designed vector games. As a port, it appears to be extremely faithful and really it could only ever be perfectly so on the Vectrex with its unique vector display. Armor Attack is an interesting artifact of days gone by, but even then, it’s not the most intriguing example of its kin what with its lack of replay value, power ups, or enemy variety (behavior aside).
My Personal Grade: 5/10
I have always been fascinated by history when it is told in stories rather than in dates and numbers and contextless names. Words like “Vectrex” and “Tim Skelly” and “Armor Attack” may not mean a whole lot to many millions alive today but being able to understand this era of gaming with its ghostly lines just a little bit more, and being able to hold it in my hands, is a feeling that connects me back to gaming’s ornate past, before even my own birth. It’s like unearthing a fossil or finding an arrowhead or meeting someone who knows what Tumblepop is.
I wish everyone could have a chance to play the Vectrex, but odds of that are pretty slim. If you’re ever in the area, hit me up! Otherwise, I hope you’ve enjoyed stepping into my time machine. Don’t forget to shut the door on your way out. Tim Skelly might escape.
Aggregated Score: 5.5
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