One year Santa brough my family the Atari Video Computer System. Santa was cool that way. It must have set him back at least $250 at Sears back when polyester was still considered hip and you could catch the disco version of the Star Wars theme on the radio.

Our unit shipped with Combat. "02 Combat" to be exact. Atari games were numbered for a while; not sure why. From memory, I believe Air / Sea Battle was "01 Air / Sea Battle". Racing, volleyball, gunslinger, sky diver, and others had numbers preceding their names. I think I had a cart that was 20-something...if the game was any good I'd remember for sure. It wasn't Adventure.

We played a lot of Combat. Hundreds of games. Standard games. Ricochet games. Invisible tank games. We gambled on matches; whole quarters were lost in the span of a single, tension-gripped game. When the tension was too much, a commander might let slip a crusty swear word and find himself grounded by the CO. Moms were like that.

I knew a kid who had an Intellivision. He was visited by the Santa from Beverly Hills, not the North Pole like the kids in my neighborhood. I had a few opportunities to revel in the wheel-controller and (in my order of preference) (1) Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, (2) Football and (3) Armor Battle. There was never enough time to properly play AD&D and I sucked at football, so we would frequently play Armor Battle. The wheel-controller took some getting used to and, once mastered, proved adequate for blowing Sherman tanks off the map. Atari Combat terrain compared unfavorably to the rich terrain of the Intellivision game -- Armor Battle provided an opportunity to use different and more complex strategies. Not Stratego complex, but more complex than Atari Combat.

The day we saw M Networks Armor Battle at the neighborhood Sears store, we called in all of our favors and plunked down the $21.00 (including 5% tax). After about 50 games (and a near-grounding for a slipped "@*&#$&"), we decided it was better than Combat, but not a million times better. Maybe 100 times better. Here's why:

  • Three hits and you were dead. No racking up kills within a set time, no end-game dances celebrating a "40 to 38" kill win over the neighbor kid. Three hits, game over. The grim reaper walked the battlefield every single game.
  • Varied terrain. Swamps and grassland would slow your tank down to a crawl (letting your opponent draw a bead on you) while roads provided turbo power. Anyone else expereince the satisfaction of escaping the third-and-death-bringing shot from your opponent by scooting down a road? I do.
  • Improved graphics. I don't need a lot of graphics, but Combat was essentially two tanks in the land of Tetris. To be fair, Armor Ambush came out a few years after Combat so developers were able to tame the massive memory, multiple processors, and clockwork of the Atari.

On the negative side:

  • Funky cartridge shape. Did Atari patent the simple rectangular cartridge design? Why else would Mattel go with a design that mated the cartridge to the Atari at the sub-atomic level? Ugh. They should have gone with the Imagic design.
  • It wasn't the Intellivision version. Intellivision owners pooh-poohed the Atari and any port made from the Intellivision. I didn't mind. The Atari had the better controller -- when you pushed up, your tank went up. The Intellivision wheel-controller had to be coaxed and convinced to do anything. The Atari joystick was from Mars, the Intellivision controller from Venus.

We ultimately ended up playing both games in neighborhood tournaments. Each cartridge present a different theater of war -- one an arid landscape from the dystopian Mad Max future, the other a lush wetland. In tournament play, both games were great.

If XBox Arcade ever gets Armor Ambush (Intellivision version), Armor Battle (Atari version), or 02 Combat, look for me out on Live looking for suckers to 'splode. I'll be listening to this while I mop up the map.