Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Game 53: Battlezone

Wikipedia and Mobygames both regard Battlezone as an early progenitor to the FPS, and countless articles detailing the FPS describe it as if it were a milestone on the way to Wolfenstein 3D.

I must question the wisdom of this view of history. It’s easy to look at this game casually, observe that it is first person, involves shooting, and label it as an early FPS. But we typically don’t categorize tank sims from the year 2000 as FPS’s, so why treat one from 1980 this way? It has similarities with the FPS canon; you move, you rotate, you shoot projectiles down the middle of the screen, and this is all presented with a 3D perspective, even if play exists only on a flat plane. But it has crucial differences as well; you steer with tank controls (identically to the dual-sticks involved in Atari’s earlier 2D Tank, in fact), you move very slowly, there is no side-stepping, the playfield is an endless space with randomly strewn obstacles rather than anything resembling designed levels, there is only one enemy in the playfield at a time, and even the graphics are a wireframe polygonal 3D rather than the pseudo-3D raycasting seen in Wolfenstein 3D and its immediate progenitors.

Nor can I really see Battlezone as a stepping stone. The aforementioned FPS histories often name-drop Spasim and Mazewar as games before it, and MIDI Maze as a game after it. This leaves enormous gaps in a history that allegedly started in 1973. Where is the link from Mazewar to Battlezone, and what happened in the seven years in between? I have a bit of distaste for the obsession with identifying “firsts,” as it can turn into a tenuous contest to find the oldest example without consideration for relevance or importance.

A stronger claim to fame, I think, is Battlezone’s use of realtime 3D polygonal graphics. There had been some stepping stones along the way; Atari’s earlier Night Driver (and its lost predecessor Nürburgring 1) had pseudo-3D graphics by positioning and scaling lines of pylons to create the impression of speedy driving with a 3D perspective as they zoomed past your field of vision. Akalabeth had wireframe 3D graphics, but lacked realtime movement. Making them realtime and polygonal, with this level of technology, had to be done vectors.

Vector graphics were practically an Atari trademark in the early 80’s, and 3D wireframes were a natural fit for the screen technology, taking advantage of its naturally crisp lines, free from the jagged edges that plague 3D graphics to this very day, and without burdening the CPU with expensive line-draw and fill routines. A polygon consists of a number of vertices whose X,Y coordinates on the screen would need to be calculated with some complex math in order to map the points of objects in a 3D virtual space onto the 2D plane of a computer screen. With a conventional pixel-based display, the computer would then need to render the polygon by arranging pixels in a series of lines connecting the vertices to each other, often in a staircase-like pattern when diagonal lines were needed. With a vector monitor, the computer was done with the math as soon as the vertices were all calculated, as the monitor would do all the work of rendering lines from one point to another.

Atari wasn’t the first developer to make video games with vector graphics; Cinematronics did it earlier, inspiring Atari to follow, and Cinematronics had likewise used 3D polygons at least a year earlier with 1979’s Tailgunner. Nevertheless, Atari seems to have popularized the use of 3D vector graphics in video games, anticipating if not directly influencing their eventual modern, texture-mapped use. A number of 3D vector arcade games followed, before fizzling out in the mid-80's in favor of sprite and tile scaling techniques or filled polygons, which weren't possible on vector monitors. The style lived on in personal computer games for awhile, even inspiring some similar games like Spectre on the Macintosh, and continued to be used well past its obsolescence in order to evoke a retro or cyberpunk style.

With the tank viewfinder as an integral part of the original cabinet, Battlezone could also be seen as a forerunner to virtual reality. Midway’s Sea Wolf may have done something similar before with its periscope, and was more sophisticated as the periscope could be swiveled to aim your torpedoes, but Battlezone upped the immersion level by having 3D visuals through the viewfinder and separate partitions for the radar and score display. MAME tries to emulate this with a masked overlay, but it’s not really the same thing.

My best attempt felt like some luck was involved. One thing I discovered early on is that you MUST have the sound on to stand a chance. Contrary to the laws of physics, you’ll hear the enemy shots before you can see them, which is your cue to evade. This is where I found some luck to be involved; if an enemy tank shot at me from an angle, I could dodge the shot simply by moving forward or backward. But you can’t keep the tanks at an angle forever; you’ve got to line them up in your sights so you can hit them yourself. And if they happened to fire a shot when I was facing them head-on or at a narrow angle, it would be too late for me to dodge it. This only happened once during my best playthrough, and felt like luck. Baiting them into wasting a shot never seemed to work out in my favor, as I’d have to waste time dodging their shot, giving them plenty of time to recover and fire off another one as soon as I lined my tank sight up with them.

After killing a few tanks, the UFOs appear. I found it worthwhile to hunt them as soon as I could hear their distinctive whine. They don’t fight back, they’re worth 5 times as many points as a tank, and the tanks in the arena move slowly and are easy to dodge when you aren’t trying to engage them.

Scoring points that quickly led to rapid deployment of enemy missiles. Fortunately, they usually approach head-on, or zig-zag a bit before approaching from your left. By assuming any missile not coming head-on would try to hit me from the left, I managed to take out quite a few without suffering a hit. In the end, one erratic missile took me out, but I lasted awhile until then.

Finally, there are super tanks, which are utter nightmares. They’re fast, aggressive, recover from shots quickly, and were responsible for two of my deaths. I just don’t have a good strategy for dealing with them. UFO hunting when super tanks are around is, of course, a nonstarter.

Battlezone took me awhile to come to grips with, but I enjoyed it the more I stuck with it. Skill and patience are required, quick reflexes are downplayed, and the 3D polygonal visuals are ahead of their time and immersive, even in MAME. I don’t like how much luck still seems to play a part, but given this is an arcade game, it wouldn’t do for games to last indefinitely, and I’m sure players who really take the time to learn Battlezone’s patterns could reliably last far longer than I did.


  1. Before John Carmack wrote Wolfenstein 3D, he prototyped his engine with Hovertank 3D, which seems similar to Battlezone.

    Also, I think Carmack or Romero have listed Battlezone as being an influence on Wolf3D/Doom, but I can't find the quote right now...

    Then there is Battlezone II which came out in 1999, right in the height of FPS popularity. It could be that Activision started calling Battlezone one if the first FPS games in order to draw attention to Battlezone II.

    1. Not sure I agree about Hovertank 3D being similar to Battlezone. I haven't played it yet, but it looks to be first and foremost a maze runner, with Wolf3D-ish controls, and faster paced combat than Battlezone's with multiple enemies patrolling the maze, hunting you and/or the hostages. Though, that title screen does look like a lot like the Battlezone's wireframe tanks.

      A quote would be really interesting, though. Masters of Doom says that Carmack played Atari games at the arcades, and (incorrectly) implies Battlezone was the only game with a first person perspective. It's certainly possible that this was the only one available to Carmack, and further possible that it played a role in inspiring the FPS, but I'd want to see something more concrete before accepting that as a fact or even a likelihood.

      There was also Battlezone '98, also right in the height of FPS's popularity. I didn't play it all that much, but I remember it being a moderately big deal at the time, and played sort of like an FPS/RTS hybrid. That's basically what a MOBA is, right? I'm a bit out of the loop on current genres.

  2. To be honest, I haven't played much of either Hovertank or Battlezone, and what little I played was a loooong time ago. So that analysis was made based on a rather cursory impression.

    Battlezone 98 is actually what I was thinking of, not Battlezone II. I had a copy back in the day, but MOBA and Tower Defense were not yet a thing, so we just called it RTS.


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