What the hell… Let’s review Combat… This review is neither overdue nor actually expected I was just looking at my game shelf and thought the first six words of this review. Combat is iconic; people who’ve never even held a game controller know about Combat, it is for many people the epitome of the word videogame. Combat was the pack-in game for almost every single Atari VCS up until 1982, with the main exception being the Sears brand consoles that had Target-Fun (Air Sea Battle) as the pack-in title. This is quite literally the most common game for the 2600; every game store that sells Atari has a small stack of them sitting on the shelf, once I went to my local Pre-Played and counted how many copies they had, the total was 47 Combat carts. If you buy game lots you’ll have Combats up to your knees, just bins of them, but the real question is… Does Combat actually hold up? The game is turning 42 this year (2019), that’s older than some of the folks who frequent this forum, and is even older than myself (I jumped on the Atari train very late), but does it show it’s age? Or is it truly timeless? Let’s find out…
Despite being an overall simple looking game Combat manages to pack quite a bit into such a small amount of data. I will admit that this game is extremely simplistic, but the amount it manages to do is rather amazing. We’ll start with the first game mode, and the one everybody knows, Tank, the standard playfield is empty with no obstacles, just a red tank and a blue tank, as you move through the variations obstacles will be added to liven things up, sure the obstacles are just tan blocks but they do the job and they do it well. The plane modes Biplane, and Jet Fighter are largely the same except for the plane sprites being different, you can chose between and open playfield or one that has some mild cloud cover to hide your plane it. In different variations you can fly multiple planes at once or in the case of the friend you really don’t like the single giant plane, but I’ll get to that later. All the sprites used in Combat are simple but recognizable, you know that’s a tank, and you know that’s a plane, which is more than can be said for some games. I also have to mention the amazing innovation set forth by Atari, when you’re not playing the game it will automatically shift through a bunch of different colors to prevent screen burn which was and still is something dreaded by CRT owners, that’s some real forward thinking on Atari’s part and I feel we should all thank them for one of the earliest implementations of the screen saver.
Combat has the bare basics of sounds, which is understandable. All three modes have a different sound effect representing their engine type, for Tanks you have a real crunchy sort of grumble, for Biplanes you have a higher pitched noise that sounds like the coasting noise in Enduro, while the Jet sounds are just higher pitched white noise. A nice touch that they added was a change in pitch whenever you’re either moving in the tanks or accelerating in the planes. Another nice tough is how each player’s tank/plane uses one of the 2600’s audio channels, so the engine noises don’t remain a constant while playing. All the game modes share the same shooting and explosion noise, the shooting noise is fine but I feel that the explosion noise could have been a bit chunkier, but that’s just me.
Combat is just bursting with unique game ideas across all 27 of its game variations, though it’s fairly obvious that they spent more time on the tank modes than the plane modes. In tank modes 1,2,4,10, and 11 you have guided missiles that will follow your joystick movements allowing you to maneuver your shot across the screen to hit your opponent, something that many other games used in the future. The ever favorite Tank-Pong, games 6-9 and 12-14, has it where your shot will bounce around the maze, and in the Billiard hit mode you have to bounce your shot at least once to hit your opponent. Invisible Tank and Invisible Tank-Pong are completely self explanatory and encompass games 10-14. Biplane Mode simply has you flying around the screen shooting at your opponent; the main differences are the speed increase, automatic movement allowing for acceleration and deceleration, an open playfield that allows your shots to wrap around the screen, and the ability to hide behind view obscuring clouds. The clouds aren’t really that much to write home about and only offer fleeting cover, especially in the jet variations where your speed is increased even more. The one mode that everybody knows and hates is game 19, 1 vs. 3, where player one has to fly that stupid giant plane around that only fires one shot while player two gets three planes that each fire individually making for a very unbalanced game.
Combat is Combat, it is the eternal classic, this game started the home console market, it was the first game for millions of gamers across the world, and yes I would say that it is indeed timeless… I won’t tell you to go out and buy it because you already have a copy or twelve. Just… play it every once in a while, and try to take yourself back to Christmas 1977, 3D games were beyond mortal comprehension, home computers cost an arm a leg and several thousand dollars, the internet was two decades away, and the best thing in the world was two tanks slowly crawling across the screen.