Peter Hirschberg, the Eminent Archon of retro arcade games (he runs his own 60-machine arcade!) and an iPhone game developer, takes a crack at recreating primitive tank games like Spectre and Battlezone with Vector Tanks. This game certainly succeeds at recreating that early first-person shooter atmosphere, and it can also have that addictive coin-op effect that makes you want to keep trying to up your high score. We started out not liking it very much, but it grew on us after playing for a while.
Hirschberg clearly knows his Retro’”perhaps better than anyone else we know of’”and he’s poured all of that knowledge and skill into making Vector Tanks super-authentic. The green, red and blue line graphics look like they’ve been lifted right out of the early 1980s; the landscape is littered with transparent Platonic solids, and the ground is contoured with lines, too. At the same time, the developer took a few small liberties to modernize the animation. When you blow up a rival vehicle, it’ll explode into blocky polygon pieces and particles, and shooting your cannon causes your screen to bob up and down with recoil. It all looks really good, and the perfectly pitched retro effects are great, too.
The gameplay seems simple, but it takes a lot of practice to get ahold of the controls. Touch strips on the right- and left-hand sides of the screen serve as virtual levers controlling their respective tank treads, so that smearing your left thumb down and right thumb up causes your tank to quickly rotate to the left, and vice versa. Gamers who don’t have previous experience with tank controls may be in for a frustrating adaptation.
Vector Tanks doesn’t leave much margin for control error, either. It takes several seconds to reload your main gun after you fire it, so you’d better be 100% sure you’re not going to miss an enemy tank before shooting. The problem is that it’s tough to tell whether you’ve got a good shot lined up, particularly when the enemy is at distance, and it’s even harder to see if an incoming shot is going to kill you, or just barely miss. After a while, you’ll learn not to take chances in either case.
Luckily, there are some powerups to even the odds, including a shield that protects you against enemy fire (but not from the land mines scattered across the map!), a rapid-fire gun, and a nuke with a huge blast radius. Odds are that you’ll get hooked on Vector Tanks when you finally manage to find some of these powerups and put together a string of kills. It took us a good 15-20 games to really figure out what we were doing, but as soon as we hit that threshold, our high score started going up by whole orders of magnitude. It’s too bad that you have to work your magic over the course of a single play session, due to the curious lack of a save state.
But those early arcade games didn’t save either, and there is something to be said for real endurance runs of the kind offered by Vector Tanks. This is a game that asks a lot of the player, but once you build up the requisite skills, it’ll get its hooks into you and you’ll keep coming back for more. We recommend it.
Editor’s note, 3/10/09: The original review stated that Vector Tanks lacks a pause function. This is incorrect; if you don’t touch the screen for approximately five seconds, the game will pause. STP regrets the error.