Let’s talk about the war we were promised, and the combat we actually got.
This information seems to be lost to the general consciousness, but Combat was the game that was packaged with every Atari 2600 from 1977-1982. Considering that some consoles don’t even last a whole five years, this makes Combat one of the most “packed-in” titles in gaming history. If you had an Atari, the uncontested winner of its console generation(citation needed), you had a copy of Combat. This means that, since my grandfather owned an Atari, he had a copy of Combat. And this also means that my grandfather and his most persistent player 2, a Wee Goggle Bob, played Combat. We played Combat a lot.
Don’t worry, we didn’t just play Combat because it was there, we played Combat because it was fun. For anyone that missed out on gaming prior to the NES (or an NES emulator), Combat is an exclusively two-player experience. It is fundamentally a sequel to Pong, but, rather than a pair of paddles bouncing a ball around, you are presented with a duo of combat-ready vehicles. Your options are tanks, biplanes, or jets, but the goal of every match is the same: obliterate your opponent. Each of the vehicles control slightly differently, so there are techniques that will work with a tank but not a plane, however it all still comes back to the simple aim of putting as many bullets in your rival as possible. There are also variations available, so you can play with such modifiers as intermittently invisible tanks, or bouncing bullets. In a weird way, it seems like some of these modes are precursors to the “mods” and “cheats” that would eventually bleed into all sorts of competitive games. Or maybe it was the precursor to DLC that would offer additional “silly” options for gameplay? Or was it all little more than an excuse to claim that Combat was a lot more complicated than it ever could be? Whatever! What’s important is that it all worked, and Combat was beloved by players far and wide.
And, to venture back into the autobiographical realm, Combat was probably my first videogame, and definitely the first game I remember playing with someone else. My grandfather and I combatted often on the Atari, and I distinctly recall being downright disappointed with the rest of my family and their complete lack of combat skills. My grandfather was marginally retired, but still running a guest house at the time, so he wasn’t available as a second player continuously (though it was his Atari, so that generally helped his attendance). So could I play Combat against my mother? Father? Grandmother(s)? Nope! Simply playing with them was frustrating, as they all acted as if the control paddle was some manner of foreign object, and so much as aiming that tank was a herculean task. Were they feigning their own ignorance so as to accommodate for the fact that they were entering combat with a toddler? Maybe. But, as someone who has played videogames with my elders as recently as last year, it is entirely possible they were not in any way faking their ineptitude. But my grandfather! Now there was a guy who could provide some good combat. Sometimes I would win, sometimes he would win, but, even when I lost, I felt like I learned something. I am moderately certain I learned basic geometric principles from him banking ricochet shots (credit where it is due: my father may have done the same with pool around this time period, too), and I may have learned basic spatial relations by playing with invisible tanks. While the rest of my family would always languish in their maladroitness, my grandfather was a Combat master.
And, in my wee toddler brain, I calculated the reason for this: my grandfather had been to war. My grandfather was a veteran of World War 2. So, naturally he knows how to steer a tank or fly a plane. Logically, he knows how to win at Combat. My grandfather, unlike the rest of my family, was a warrior. And, since I was good at Combat at such a young age, I knew that, one day, I would fight in some upcoming global war, too.
Spoilers: that didn’t happen.
And, in fact, it didn’t happen for my grandfather, either. My grandfather is a veteran of World War 2, and he served in the Navy on an aircraft carrier. My child mind latched onto “aircraft”, and I imagined him flying through the skies, having dogfights with the Red Baron (yes, I imagined my grandfather was Snoopy). However, as I grew older, I learned my grandfather’s real job in World War 2 was the maintenance of those flying fighters. Does this mean my grandfather was some kind of coward in the midst of a gigantic war? Hell no, as he was floating around the Pacific with full knowledge that he could be obliterated at any moment. My grandfather was the veteran of a combat zone, and his life was in danger at all times (well, maybe he had a few days off), but he was not someone that was steering a tank or biplane. He wasn’t Rambo, James Bond, or some other murderous hero, but he was a veteran of war all the same. He fought in World War 2, and he more precisely fought with a wrench.
In later years, the irony of the situation occurred to me: my grandfather didn’t have a leg up on the rest of the family when it came to Combat because he had experience in combat, he was proficient at Combat because he was an engineer.
And it is a small surprise to me that I did wind up following in my grandfather’s “warrior” footsteps. I have never participated in a war, World or otherwise. For years, my grandmother fretted over a potential draft that never came (because she knew I was a simpering nerd). Despite being the exact right age opposite September 11 and the start of the Forever War, I never enlisted, was never drafted, and lived my life generally objecting to war in all forms (the only war I ever genuinely approved of was Yu-Gi-Oh! The Duelists of the Roses, because Seto Kaiba had to be stopped). But have I seen combat? Yes. I have fought viruses, hacking attempts, and terrible Windows UIs for the last few decades. I’ve been solving problems for people in the cyber world since I was in sixth grade, and, where my grandfather once wielded a wrench, I hold a keyboard. Am I comparing myself to a war veteran for such? Well, only technically, but I know there’s a huge gulf between keeping a plane running and seeing that a computer can boot into safe mode. However, my ultimate goal is the same: I am making people’s lives better. Every time I help someone access their important files again, or revive a child’s laptop so their parents don’t have to drop a mint just because Little Timmy discovered porn (and its attendant malware), I am making the world a better place. I might not be fighting the good fight for peace, love, and the American way, but I am at least improving the peace of mind of people, one glorified abacus at a time.
And, in a way, that all started with Combat, too.
In his later years, I more or less interviewed my grandfather on the subject of his participation in World War 2. He, ultimately, felt bad for a lot of his involvement in WW2, particularly his youthful racism toward the Japanese forces and their people. He was saddened that he spent so long holding on to a hatred that was drilled into him by propaganda and a general fear of the unknown. But one thing he was happy about was that he never saw actual mano a mano (or at least pistola a pistola) fighting. He had a clear conscious that, at the very least, he was not personally, 100% responsible for the death of another human being. He was a veteran, and he knew others that had been down that road, but he could only be happy that, thanks to his engineering knowledge and (ultimately) random chance, he wasn’t relegated to the same fate. My grandfather was good at Combat because of things he learned while “in combat”, but not the Combat that was portrayed by Atari.
And, perhaps inspired by his grandfather and his combat expertise, someone else in the family followed in his footsteps. This descendant never saw real combat, but did carry on the tradition of engineering, of solving problems and helping people with a tool, and not a gun. And who knows how many people have been helped? Who knows how many people lead happier lives now simply because of one man’s grandson being inspired to follow the path of engineering? Not to get too sentimental (too late), but the simple choice of playing the same videogame over and over again with a child had some far-reaching ramifications.
It may not have led to the combat that child expected, but this simulated Combat did lead to some good entering this world.
FGC #544 Combat
- System: Atari 2600, and then every blessed Atari thing that ever existed. Well, actually, I don’t think this was on the Jaguar. But it probably tried!
- Number of players: Two. And absolutely two, for the record, as there are no AI opponents available.
- Well defined players: Since this game requires two players, all combat seen in this article comes from footage of my fiancée and me battling. She would like to publicly note that she was capable of winning despite the obvious handicap of playing against someone who first played the game when they were a toddler. Or is that an advantage?
- Favorite Vehicle: The tanks are classic, but your average biplane makes you feel like a flying ace, so that’s the winner. There is no world where a simple jet feels quite as cool.
- Worst Vehicle: Whoever designed “one giant plane versus three little planes” was a damned masochist. Or is that supposed to be easy mode for whoever gets to control the little planes? Regardless, it is no fun attempting to steer a gigantic, terrible zeppelin while gnats continually tear you to shreds.
- Did you know? I’ve always been disappointed that submarines weren’t involved in Combat, but there has only ever actually been one underwater submarine battle in history, and it was during World War 2. So I guess it makes sense that subs weren’t included.
- Would I play again: I feel like Combat is an often overlooked important part of videogame history… but it’s a pain to control in modern times. If I want tank controls, I’ll make myself a Jill Sandwich, and stay away from the combat.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… BANGAI-O! SPIRITS! LET’S WATCH A DS EXPLODE! PLEASE LOOK FORWARD TO IT!