Everyone remembers the first game they played on a new console or computer, and that was typically the pack-in game. When I was lucky enough to receive a Sega Mega Drive for Christmas, the standard pack-in game was Altered Beast, and yes, that was the title that demonstrated the exciting new times of 16-bit console gaming to me. But that didn’t last long, maybe all of ten minutes and mostly because it just didn’t interest me. Fortunately, my parents had thought of this and they had purchased another game for me to play that Christmas morning, one that kept me occupied well into the new year: M1 Abrams Battle Tank.
Ported from the PC by Realtime Games Software (who were already renowned for their classic title, Carrier Command from which M1 Abrams Battle Tank used the graphical engine), M1 Abrams Battle tank was a title that I knew nothing about until tearing off the wrapping. True, it had been out on PC for a couple of years but back then, my gaming was restricted to an Amstrad CPC464 and I was still a few months away from my savings goal for an Amiga 500. I thought this was the best thing I’d seen on any machine (how naive, I know) but looking back, and giving the cart a dust off and plugging it in, it made me realise what a game it still is.
You in charge of a single M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, fighting a Soviet invasion of West Germany single-handed. Whilst you can switch crew positions in the game, (gunner, driver, commander and cupola), you pretty much stay in the gunner’s seat as, outside of that, there is not much you can do, with only a few additional menu options and a map available in the commander’s position.
From the introductory animation and slightly iffy rendition of Holst’s Mars, you are dropped into the main menu screen. One point to note here is that if you enter a cheat code on the introductory screen, you can get an invincibility mode alongside infinite ammunition. Here, you are asked if you want to fight the whole campaign of eight missions or select one on its own. After a briefing from a grumpy looking senior officer, you get to choose your ammunition load out. You have three types to choose from, HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank), suitable for most tanks, light armoured vehicles and personnel, Sabot, suitable for tanks and light armour, and AX, a mythical do it all round that can also handle helicopters. You are limited to forty rounds in total, though you also have a machine gun to add a bit of flavour.
Starting a mission, you get to see what was so impressive at the time: the graphics. Stop sniggering at the back, this is a valid point. Consider the time this titles was released: the 8-bit machines could just about get away with wire-frame 3D, the Amiga and ST were pretty much neck and neck, and only the Archimedes version of Elite really stunned, so the Mega Drive, powered by the same Motorola 68000 processor as the much more expensive Amiga and ST, giving this level of performance, well, it amazed me at the time.
Time, of course, has not been kind. The graphics are basic compared to even those a couple of years later and certainly pale in comparison to the likes of the SVP powered graphics of Virtua Racing, but for the majority of the time, they move quite quickly, though with many objects on-screen, the frame rate drops like a stone. Still, they are bright and colourful and give enough definition so that you can make out what objects are supposed to be. You may have to squint a bit as distant objects are literally just dots until they get closer and the limited colour palette is noticeable. If you switch views to the driver or commander, you do get a slight boost in speed but as I noted before, you can’t really do much in those positions.
Music is limited to the introductory animation and the in-game sound effects are decent but not spectacular. The drone of the tank’s engine can get very, very annoying if you pay attention to it but during in-game action, you tend not to notice it.
Given its background, the control set up for the three button Mega Drive pad is well thought out. A is your select option, B is used for target selection and lock, whilst C brings up a position sensitive menu to change ammunition types, crew positions, fire off smoke countermeasures and activate thermal vision and the like. With only a little bit of practice, you find yourself switching through the options at speed. This is good as missile fire only gives you a second or so to fire off smoke to deflect the incoming projectile.
Gameplay is a mixed bag. The game itself lacks any real sense of realism, at least on the Novice difficulty setting. At the time of release, on PC anyway, the game was praised for its realism. Then again, at the time, it probably was as realistic as you could get for the technology. The Hard mode, however, is just too much and even back in the day, I stayed well away from that unless I really fancied a challenge. The limited ammunition supply does make you pick and choose your engagements well but you will find yourself travelling back to base for re-supply and repair in pretty short order during most missions. That can make some of the larger ones more of a chore and that invincibility cheat gains in appeal if you want to do the Campaign mode on anything other than Novice. Having said that, the missions are quite well scripted and thought out, making you plan ahead and experiment trying to find the best strategy. Go about a mission in the wrong order, however, can lead to you finding yourself very dead, very quickly. Having said that, it is never unfair to the player and when you do die, it’s pretty much your own fault. A comment must also be made here about the Soviet FST-1 super tank that occupies the later missions. Double hard in armour and hitting power, this enemy will ruin your day very, very quickly and it’s probably best to run away as quickly as you can, or at least head back to base for repair and resupply.
For all that, I think this is still an enjoyable game. There is a challenge for all abilities and it will take you a few attempts to get through the eight missions. That helps with re-playability but I do wish there had have been more as once you have finished the campaign, that’s pretty much it. I think M1 Abrams Main Battle is still a fun title to this day and, replaying it over the course of a week, it brought back many good memories of the early days of owning a Mega Drive. Simplistic compared to many later titles, it is still fun and engaging and well worth some of your time if the title appeals to you.
Decent for its time, and still worth a go today.