Read the manual at AtariAge:
Atari has long been a blind spot in my gaming experience. My first exposure to the Atari 2600 system, in fact the first time I even heard the name “Atari,” was in the summer of 1990, at which point the system had been long made irrelevant. One day that summer, a friend showed me a peculiar game about tanks shooting each other. At one point the tanks became invisible. At another point, there were airplanes shooting each other instead of tanks, and at another point three normal sized airplanes fought one very large bomber. It never occurred to me that this was uglier or more primitive than my Nintendo, or that the system was nearly a decade older. It was strange, it was abstract, it was novel, and it was the first time I had any idea that there were video games played on the TV that were not Nintendo.
I hadn’t given Atari much thought for the rest of the century. I soon got a Sega Genesis, and with the big leap forward in graphics, sound, and gameplay sophistication, Atari just seemed intolerably base. The name “Atari” became synonymous with outdatedness. I don’t remember when this was, but at some point I learned of Atari’s original pack-in game, Combat, and connected the dots to that abstract Atari game I saw in 1990. But by then I was beyond caring about such archaic video games.
With emulation blossoming in the 2000’s, and with a passion for video game history emerging thanks to it, I eventually did explore the Atari 2600’s library, and even discovered some games that I really liked. I never replayed Combat, though. Games like Pitfall and Adventure can be played any time it’s convenient. Combat is 2 players only, and needs planning, organization, and having a friend who is willing to put up with games from the 70’s.
I bought the Atari Vault package on Steam, but I played Combat through MAME because I trust it to have greater accuracy, and also because it has extensive customization and built-in recording.
I found that the game looked best at an internal resolution of 352x223, a roughly 14:9 aspect ratio. This will probably be a surprise or even an anathema to anyone into this kind of nitty-gritty detail, it isn’t an authentic resolution or an authentic aspect ratio, but sprite rotation caused distortion at a “correct” 4:3 aspect ratio, with sprites’ apparent dimensions warping with the angle. With the 14:9 aspect ratio, sprites kept their original dimensions at all angles.
To do this in MAME takes a bit of math and fiddling. You have to lie about your screen’s dimensions. In MAMEUI, it’s done here (right click Atari 2600 system->properties):
3:2 works well for me on my 16:9 screen. If your screen is a different aspect ratio, the formula to calculate is:
[Actual screen aspect ratio]×223/264
For me, 16/9 × 223/264 ≅ 1.502, close enough to 3:2.
With this setup, “R” and I played a session, with the intent of trying out all 27 modes built into the cartridge. The modes are explained in the manual, and are arranged into six groups; four groups of Tank games, and two groups of fighter games.
Modes 1-5: Tank
An adaptation of Atari’s Tank arcade game, which hasn’t been emulated, and I haven’t played. Tank has actually had quite a few iterations even before the 2600’s release, and a few since, but this is the earliest to be emulated.
Like the arcade version, all of Combat’s Tank games have two tanks moving around an arena, trying to shoot each other with shells. Hitting your opponent stuns them and scores you a point, and whoever has the most points when time runs out wins. The controls are simpler; the arcade version had dual two-way levers per player for controlling the tank treads independently. Here we have a single 8-direction joystick per player, and the tanks can’t reverse, so only 5 directions are even used. There also no mines.
Mode 1 has an open arena, and shells can be “guided.” When you steer your tank, you steer the shell too. Because there’s nowhere to hide, and the tanks move much too slowly to avoid correctly guided shells, hitting your opponent is often just a matter of who fires first and doesn’t miss. Hitting your opponent once often sets them up to be easily hit again; they are stunned, spin around, and regain control with the turret facing a random direction while your turret still faces them. They have little chance to evade you, or to turn around and return fire. You can score many consecutive hits this way, but eventually, hitting your opponent close to a wall causes them to pop right through it and come out on the other side of the screen, ending the hit chain.
Even with an open arena, the physics are still pretty wonky, with tanks sometimes passing right through the walls on their own, or rapidly sliding across a side of the screen.
Modes 2 and 3 throw a few obstacles into the arena. The manual calls this an “Easy Maze.” Mode 2 still has guided shells, but mode 3 only has straight flying dumbfire shells. This difference led to a very different dynamic in each game. With guided shots, just about any spot on the map is vulnerable to fire from an open vantage point, from where it is easier for the player in the vantage point to guide shots in than it is for the entrenched tank to guide them out. But without guided shots, taking cover forces your opponent to come to you, which gives you an advantage. This made mode 3 less interesting, as the game dynamic had both of us turtling until one got bored and attacked. Your turret always faces the direction you are moving, and rotation is very slow, which means that when you move into a position where you can hit an opponent, you still need to rotate so you can hit them, but they have probably already rotated their turret towards you during your approach, and can fire at you right away. Perhaps this could have been remedied if the tank game had some way of rotating the turret independently of the tank, but that’s just not a feature of this game.
Mode 4 and 5 turn the arena into a maze resembling the one in the arcade version, though still a bit simpler and without a mine-filled sub-arena in the middle. The manual calls this a “Complex Maze.” As with modes 2 and 3, mode 4 has guided shells and mode 5 has dumbfire shells. The dynamics were about the same as before, with unguided shells in mode 5 encouraging a boring camping game. The type of shell made much more of a difference than the maze complexity did.
Modes 6-9: Tank-Pong
This was the best set of games in Combat. All Tank-Pong modes feature unguided shells that ricochet off the walls as they do in Pong. One unexpected detail was that when a shot hits a wall straight on, it bounces back not right back at you, but at an angle slightly to the right of the point of impact. Predicting where your shots will go after more than one bounce is challenging, makes the game more chaotic, and is therefore more fun.
Modes 6 and 7 have the easy and complex maze, respectively. Turtling was a viable tactic in both mazes, because banking shots out of cover is easier than banking them in. Unlike the modes with unguided shells, this didn’t bring gameplay to a halt, because banking shots in is still possible, just tricky, and doesn’t make the attacker as vulnerable as rounding corners does.
Mode 8 returns to the open arena, but this time shots only count if they ricochet off a wall before hitting your opponent. The manual calls this “Billiard Hit.”
Mode 9 has the easy maze with billiard hit rules.
Modes 10-11: Invisible Tank
A kind of frustrating Tank variant where both tanks are invisible, except when firing, getting hit, or bumping into obstacles. I wonder if Command & Conquer cribbed the Stealth Tank from this game. Shots are always guided.
Mode 10 has the open arena, and mode 11 has the easy maze. These were identical to modes 1 and 2, except for the invisibility.
Both of us had trouble keeping tracking of our own tanks. Was the intent to enable you to pull off tricky sneak attacks? It didn’t work for us, because we were never really sure where our own tanks were except when they turned visible. Maybe this could have been an interesting mode for a network game where you can see yourself but not your opponent. The maze mode made it a bit easier to predict where your opponent will go, because there aren’t as many options for them. In both modes, we felt encouraged to be aggressive in pursuing chained series of hits. If you hit your opponent once, and have them lined up for another, you want to try to fire again as soon as possible before they have a chance to disappear.
Modes 12-14: Invisible Tank-Pong
Oh come on, Atari. Invisible Tank-Pong doesn’t count as its own game! This is Tank-Pong with the invisible tank mechanic. If we’re being generous we can count Tank and Tank-Pong as two separate games, but the Invisible variants are just that, variants. As with Tank-Pong, shots are never guided. This was overall more fun than Invisible Tank, but mainly because the shots tend to bounce everywhere and somebody gets hit even if neither of you have any idea where anyone is.
Mode 12 has the easy maze. Modes 13 and 14 have the open arena and easy maze and both require billiard hits to count. These are the same as modes 6, 8, and 9, except for the invisibility.
Interestingly, none of the invisible tank modes use the complex maze. Maybe because the tanks would bump into obstacles constantly, making them visible too much?
Modes 15-20: Bi Plane
“I remember this, it’s Jet Fighter,” said R, “but the jets look more like Red Baron airplanes.”
This is pretty much just the Jet Fighter arcade game, but slower, and the controls are slightly different. The perspective is side-view rather than overhead, so here you push forward to dive, backward to climb, right to speed up and left to slow down. The perspective doesn’t change the game that much. Gravity doesn’t exist, planes never stall, and flying upside down is no different from flying right side up. All that the perspective means that the vertical and horizontal axes on your joystick are switched.
As with Jet Fighter, two planes fly across your screen, which wraps at the edges, and they try to shoot each other with missiles, and score points for hits.
The arcade version of Jet Fighter had clouds obscuring the sky in places, but they were simply physical decals placed over the monitor and not part of the video display. This aspect wasn’t emulated by DICE. Here, the clouds are part of the video display, and so they are emulated. The arcade version could be played solo against a stupid AI opponent, but here this isn’t even an option, and you must have another player, as you must in all Combat games.
The biplanes are quite a bit faster than tanks and are always moving forward, and with no walls there’s no restriction on where they can go.
I also thought the sound effect for the fighters' engine was pretty good, considering what sound hardware they had to work with.
Mode 15 has guided missiles. I’m pretty sure this isn’t historically accurate. We both tended to be pretty aggressive with firing missiles to the general vicinity of each other, knowing they could be steered with precision, even past the screen boundary and onto the other side. But unlike the sluggish tanks, the planes had a decent chance of evading guided missiles.
R noted “these missiles don’t kill, they just score points, so they’re more like paintball rounds. But they’d get in your flaps, and you’d probably die.”
Mode 16 has dumbfire missiles. I’m still pretty sure this isn’t historically accurate; bi-planes might have used them against bombers, blimps, and balloons, but not each other. We would fire these missiles less frequently than the guided ones, at closer ranges, and only when aimed carefully first.
Modes 17 and 18 finally have machine guns. Mode 18 gets rid of the clouds, but this doesn’t really make a difference. Even though the biplanes are slower than jets, they still move fast enough to pass through the small clouds quickly, and they therefore don’t obscure your position or heading long enough to matter. The rapid fire machinegun has a very short range, so dogfights became all about pursuing the opponent’s tail and trying to close in.
Mode 19 has each player control a 2-plane squadron flying in perfect formation – such a perfect formation that if one gets hit, they both spin out together. The planes are armed with guided missiles, and there are no clouds. Firing causes both planes to fire their missiles simultaneously, which also steer in perfect formation. Having a two-shot spread as well as two targets to hit essentially quadruples your chances of scoring a hit with each volley, making this a high scoring game.
Mode 20 has one player control a 3-plane squadron in formation, while another flies a really big bomber. Missiles are dumbfire, and there are no clouds. The bomber just doesn’t stand a chance; the fighters’ combined fire has a very wide spread, while the bomber is a bigger target than all three biplanes combined. The only advantage of the bomber is that it has extra-large shots, and they’re still small enough to slip in between two of the fighters, hitting neither. It's a meager advantage, and does little to make the game less lopsided.
Modes 21-27: Jet Fighter
And here we actually have Jet Fighter. None of the modes feature machine guns. R protested “real jets would not dogfight this close with missiles!”
It didn’t play all that differently from the biplanes. The controls are slightly easier to understand but functionally identical; left and right steer, up and down speed up and slow down. The faster speed meant chained hits were uncommon; after each successful hit, both players lose control for a second, the victor flies in a straight line and the victim spins out and gets knocked in a random direction. Because of the increased speed of the jets, the scoring craft has likely flown too far away from its target to be in any good position to follow up with another hit.
Modes 21-24 are all 1-on-1 rules permutations. Mode 21 has guided missiles and clouds, mode 22 unguided missiles and clouds, mode 23 guided missiles and no clouds, mode 24 unguided missiles and no clouds. The clouds made less of a difference here than they did with biplanes, if that’s even possible. Missile type did make a difference, but not as much as it did with biplanes. The fast jet speed makes guiding the guided missiles harder and evading either type easier. We still fired the guided missiles earlier and more aggressively, and for the same reasons as before.
A lot of these modes feel like filler, even more so than usual. And it’s almost a missed opportunity that there’s no stealth jet mode – unlike invisible tanks, those actually exist!
The last three modes are squadron battles. Mode 25 is 2 vs. 2 with guided missiles and clouds. Mode 26 is 3 vs. 1 (all normal sized) with guided missiles and no clouds. Mode 27 is 2 vs. 2 with unguided missiles and no clouds. Mode 26 obviously invites comparison to mode 20’s fighters vs. bomber dogfight, and even though the solo jet is now a small target, the mode is overall still slanted pretty heavily in favor of the squadron. The wide spread of the squadron’s fire is just a better advantage than the solo fighter’s smaller size, especially with guided missiles.
Overall, the Bi-Plane and Jet Fighter modes, despite taking up nearly half of the game, just weren’t much fun at all. I felt that the arcade version of Jet Fighter was lacking a compelling hook. The 13 modes dedicated to these games provided little variety. Three of the six Bi-Plane modes are made redundant by corresponding Jet Fighter modes, which are slightly more fun because of the better speed and controls but otherwise functionally identical. Of the three others, two (machineguns with and without clouds) are pretty much the same game, and the fighters vs. bomber mode is good for a laugh but that’s about it. Of the seven Jet Fighter modes, two are just cloudless variations of another two, and another two are just dumbfire variants, which makes a bigger difference than clouds but still isn’t a huge difference.
With a modern perspective, it also seems odd to me that Atari would have a “game selection” switch to enumerate between 27 predefined games, rather than provide some mechanism to turn features on and off. This could have been handled through a game configuration menu, or perhaps with additional DIP switches on the console similar to how its arcade machines had DIP switches to control gameplay variables. I imagine that the system and game were developed concurrently, and it wouldn’t have been out of the question to make changes to the console based on the needs of the game. The console did have two DIP switches, but they were used exclusively to control player handicaps. Atari would eventually go way overboard with these inflated game counts, with Atari’s Space Invaders port having a whopping 112 “games” covering every possible combination of four binary gameplay variables and seven singleplayer & multiplayer modes.
I can’t see myself revisiting this any time soon. The lack of any AI opponent really limits the opportunities to play; you must have another player in order to get any enjoyment out of this package, and that’s a major reason why it took me so long to get around to playing it. The Tank-Pong modes were the best of the lot, but there are plenty of Atari arcade multiplayer games I’d rather replay if I had company over who were amenable to archaic video games, including some of the DICE titles we played earlier.