The History Of Battlezone
Et Rotberg, Mike Arkin and Jason Kingsley reveal why Atari’s tanky arcade blaster has continually evolved over the years
the stark green on black, gorgeously defined lines of its vector graphics and simple, straightforward action sums up Atari’s 1980 arcade hit Battlezone well enough, however it’s that viewing portal that people really remember. A periscope on the front of the machine the player had to press their eyes to in order to see what they were up against, both bringing a proto-virtual reality experience to the masses decades ago, while also making Battlezone a much more immersive, unique, and memorable experience in the fledgling arcade scene.
“I was against the viewfinder,” Ed Rotberg, primary designer on Battlezone, tells us. “The game was not really designed around this feature. I’m pretty sure the idea came from Morgan Hoff, and we argued about it constantly… I felt it blocked the view not only of people waiting in line to play, but also blocked the view of passersby who would not [be interested in] a game they could not easily see.” Morgan was the project director on Battlezone, while this was Ed’s second ever game at Atari. The viewfinder stayed.
While Ed might have been against it, others bought in to the illusion it created with gusto. Many have brought it up as a seminal moment for the development of their love of gaming, including Rebellion cofounder – and current gatekeeper of the Battlezone licence – Jason Kingsley, OBE: “Thinking about the original Battlezone takes me back to the arcades I played it in,” he says. “The darkness filled with flashes of neon, bleeps and bloops and the smell and smoke of cigarettes – that’s what arcades were like back in the Eighties!
“But right at the forefront of my memory,” he continues, “is putting my eyes up against the iconic visor of that cabinet, and how that genuinely made me feel I was right there in this black and green wireframe world, sat in the cockpit of my tank. It was a very unique game, and very ahead
of its time, I’d say.” It’s fair to say memories of the original game are couched somewhat in at the very least ‘a bit of nostalgia’, mind – the whole package was undoubtedly ahead of its time, as Jason says, but the in-game action was little more than a case of shooting the single enemy that had appeared on the map before they shot you.
Ed is quick to point this out, that Atari’s game wasn’t a huge step when it came to what it did.
No, Battlezone was a huge accomplishment, and something very genuinely fondly remembered, because of how it did it. There were simple reasons behind its creation, as Ed explains, “The concept came out of one of the company’s brainstorming sessions. We had the vector generator and decided it was time to do a first person game using it.”
And it’s safe to say Battlezone wasn’t made with the intention of changing the world through its artistry… and yet, there was a definite flourish going on behind the scenes, with a dev team putting in some real graft to make a game like no other.
“At first, I was trying to get the 3D engine running, so it was a lot of basic coding,”
Ed continues. “During that time I ended up running a Vector Generator ‘disassembler’ so I could view the
VG commands symbolically and speed up debugging. Once the framework was up, there was interface code for the ‘Math Box’ to write, and code optimisations. Then it was getting into the game design and testing — a very iterative process.” As things progressed, so did the debugging, and as the debugging and continued coding progressed, so did internal interest in Battlezone. “There were a lot of employees walking into the lab to play the prototype,” Ed says. “And therefore a lot of having to kick them off the game so I could work on it. It was pretty much like bringing up any arcade game on new hardware. We’d had the VG for a while, but the Math Box integration was new, as well as a new PC board with new audio including using the Pokey chip.” From all of this – all this coding and debugging, learning new technologies and finding out ways to implement them with an 8-bit microprocessor – came another world; a phase shift for arcade gaming that took the straightforward, relatable fun we already knew and introduced an element of immersion never before seen. It had a hand in pumping out a new aesthetic, too, as Jason explains: “Not only did Battlezone shape gaming but it’s shaped our appreciation of what the cyberworld is like!
“Think about how it influenced Tron and how that in turn influenced things like Blade Runner, that sense of neon and glow and virtual realities. I think it’s inextricably linked to all that. The idea of light against dark is fundamentally important. I don’t know if it was a design choice at the time or if it was driven by necessity of the hardware in that a screen defaults to being dark. But I think the aesthetic has kind of echoed through that culture.”
ed’s personal memory of choice for Battlezone, though, comes from a much simpler angle – things going boom.
“My favourite element in the game was actually the explosion when you blew up a tank,” he says. “While Battlezone did real 3D maths, the code was optimised to only do rotations in 2D. Trying to get the explosion pieces to look like they were tumbling with rotations in arbitrary axis was a trick – they really only rotated in 2D,” but with some vertical axis jiggery pokery, the game was able to fool us all into thinking those evil enemy tanks were actually exploding all over the place. Who knew?
Battlezone was a huge success in the world of the arcade, and by the dawn of the home computer revolution we started to see ports popping up
“there were employees walking into the lab to play the prototype” Ed Rotberg
on every format you could think of. Oddly, Atari’s own version for the 2600 was a bit of a mess – and it made the cardinal sin of ditching the vector graphics (admittedly for tech reasons). Other formats did see more faithful recreations of the source material, though, and over the decade following 1983 Battlezone was released in no less than eight different varietals.
When you weren’t able to pick up an official version of Battlezone – like, say, if you had an
Amiga – there were more than enough alternatives on offer. With the original being such a seminal moment in gaming history, the result was inevitable copycat titles for two simple reasons: one, Battlezone was successful. Two, it inspired young developers to make something of their own. This resulted in a smorgasbord of vector graphic tank games, of first-person vehicular combat titles, of arena-based blasters trying not to use the words ‘battle’ or ‘zone’ too liberally in their names.
Thanks to the fact Battlezone was an innovater – and just because it was a bit long in the tooth by the late Eighties/early Nineties – a lot of these clones managed to outdo the original, or at the very least beat the genuine version of the game to release.
The home conversions actually continued to arrive for well over a decade, with the Game Boy, for example, not getting its first taste of Battlezone until a dual-game cartridge release alongside Super Breakout in 1996. But it was the year before that where we saw the first huge evolution of the now very much overdone formula for the game – and it was once again an Atari device pushing the innovation, with the Lynx hosting the most unique game in the series: Battlezone 2000.
Developed by Handmade Software, the game you slid into your console and played would surprise few – an updated version of the original arcade game, featuring more types of tanks and weaponry, as well as specific goals in each level and the ability to customise your tank’s loadout. It was fine. Good, even. But if it were that alone, the port would have been consigned to history.
As it turns out – and as anyone who’s entered a particular cheat code knows – that wasn’t the case.
It turns out Battlezone 2000 was originally a very different game indeed; a title of intense complexity and inventiveness, the sort of thing we can safely refer to as ‘ahead of its time’ these days without looking foolish. The ‘true’
Battlezone 2000 featured 2,000 levels, multiple different environments, more enemies than just tanks, a focus on systems management, and solid – not wireframe – 3D graphics alongside 2D sprites. It was completely differently to the original Battlezone. And that’s why it was hidden.
It has to go down as one of the biggest Easter eggs in gaming history – the ‘true’ game hidden behind the ‘safe’ port, forced into hiding thanks to a publisher fearing players would find what the developers had made far too complex. They weren’t wrong, mind, as Battlezone 2000 is intense, difficult to get to grips with and the kind of thing only a sadist would put up with getting their head around.
But, while it was certainly consigned to the forgotten pile for a while after its release, the ideas – the thought of doing something a bit different with the licence – stuck around.
18 years after Battlezone shook up the world of arcade gaming and helped establish a fledgling first-person shooter genre, it came back. But this wasn’t another stab at an arcade great, nor another step further into the world of virtual reality. Instead, Battlezone 98, as it’s colloquially known, went in an entirely different direction to what had come before – and it was all the better for it.
Activision had tasked one of its internal development teams with creating a brand-new
treal-time strategy game in 3D – at the time the Battlezone name wasn’t a consideration, as Activision didn’t even own the rights. “All of the tech development was really focused on the 3D RTS idea and coming up with the right ideas to make that work,” explains Mike Arkin, producer on Battlezone 98. “At Activision we’d have a very long preproduction where we were trying out ideas and developing the user interface, which was important for the game. During that preproduction period it all looked very different; it was more like Eighties fighter jets on the moon! Imagine F-86 Sabres painted chrome with stars and bars on the wings, hovering around on the moon…”
owards the end of this extended preproduction period, though, Activision did acquire the licensing rights to Battlezone and looked for a project to attach the name to. Mike and his team’s game fit the bill quite nicely. “We started to recalibrate around a different look and feel with more emphasis on tanks to fit the Battlezone name more,” he says. “We redesigned the tanks and we modified the radar scope to look more like the arcade radar, but they are very different games.“
The simple fact was, while Battlezone was a beloved arcade classic and the sort of game that had pushed people to become game developers,
Activision didn’t want a retread of that ground. Even if Battlezone 98 was initially conceived as its own thing with the name slapped on towards the end of its gestation period, it was still part of a treasured lineage. “It was one of my favourite arcade games and I have great memories of playing it,” Mike admits. “But that’s really it. The honest truth is the original arcade game wasn’t a huge factor when we were working on Battlezone 98.”
What set Battlezone 98 aside from genre stablemates was how it mixed 3D RTS elements with first-person direct control. In that respect it certainly kept the spirit of Battlezone alive, allowing players to control… well, tanks on a battlefield. But the complexity – unit and building management, resource gathering and defending your territory – made it something far more memorable than might have been expected for a game that had its name foisted upon it later into its development.
“I think it broadened the gameplay, changing the game from a very condensed chunk of virtual reality to a strategy game,” Jason says of his love for Battlezone 98. “Offering a more expansive scope with more components and longevity. Basically, in the original Battlezone if you’re shot you die, you’ve got a certain amount of lives, and if those lives run out it’s game over and you start again. To expand on that while still retaining a link to the original game, all while creating this kind of unique hybrid of shooter and strategy genres is no mean feat. It’s no surprise the game still has such passionate fans, some 20 years on.“
Mike makes no bones about his pride to have been involved in the creation of a true original: “What a great experience it was, and what a great time it was for PC gaming,” he says. “Activision had just shipped Mechwarrior 2 and Interstate ‘76 was in development, just around the corner from the Battlezone team. This was the beginning of the age of modern PC games with textured 3D, and Battlezone was a totally new invention. We were creating a kind of game that really didn’t exist before and the team knew it.”
Battlezone 98 was followed by a couple of addon packs, with features from a cancelled project – known as Imperial Insurrection – inserted in bits and pieces into both Battle Grounds and the Red Odyssey, the two expansions also arriving in 1998. A full sequel arrived in 1999, with Battlezone II: Combat Commander, which – among other things – introduced an entire new faction in the shape of the alien Scions and pushed the focus of the action far more in the direction of the RTS part of its genre blend. You can still get involved in passionate online arguments these days about which of the two FPS/ RTS games is the best, such is the depth of division that has risen over the years.
In what some would call ‘an odd move’, a spin-off of Activision’s Battlezone games arrived on the N64 in 2000. Battlezone: Rise Of The Black Dogs was a decent, inevitably somewhat dumbed down, version of the PC games, offering players the chance to take part in straightforward arcade combat of the more complex RTS style of play. While control issues reared their head – complexity and pads tend not to mix too well – it was a functional and sometimes enjoyable entry
“it was One Of My favourite arcade games” Mike Arkin