I was seven when my father first got our Nintendo. It was ostensibly bought for Father’s Day, but really it was both for him as well as the rest of the family; myself and my two siblings. It came with Kung Fu and Super Mario Brothers, both of which were not games I particularly cared for. This didn’t stop me from playing them, mind, but I just never identified with the nameless kung-fu apprentice and the named Italian plumber.
That and the Bowser castle music scared the shit out of my seven year old self.
That may have been the end of it, but Nintendo had a very large catalog of games even that early on, and video rental stores were still a thing. My father and I would go out, pick something that seemed interesting, and play it together. If it turned out the game was single player, we would simply take turns. Both of us were into military history (I had a military Micromachine collection that was the envy of all my friends – and the bane of adult feet) so often the titles we chose were steeped in some sort of martial theme. There was 1942, with its P-39 Lightning on the cover. There was Jackal, where a lone pair of jeeps delve deep behind enemy lines to save POWs in some unknown war. And then there was Iron Tank.
In all honesty I can’t say it was the best game of the classic NES era. Ostensibly the game was about a single tank being dropped on the beaches of Normandy, and how it drove deep into Nazi Germany to destroy its high command, but all the Nazi imagery was taken out of the North American release. There were only a few songs, and to most people the constant military beat would become maddening. A skilled player could beat the game in a mere 45 minutes.
But Iron Tank had something that none of the early Nintendo games had: replayability. There were 11 possible paths to reach the final boss, and each one was unique. Even after I’d played each of those paths more than once, the fact that I could then go back to a path I hadn’t played in days somehow kept it fresh and exciting. Despite the fact I don’t think our family ever actually owned a cartridge of Iron Tank, I still managed to rack up hundreds of hours on that game with rental copies alone.
It also started a childhood tradition of playing military themed co-op games with my dad. Iron Tank was a two player game – sort of. One player would play at a time, and when they died it would switch to the second controller for their turn. It played out more like a race, with the game remembering where each player died last, and ending once one player beat the final boss. At first my father would always beat me, but as I grew I would get there first.
After that it was LHX Attack Chopper, a Genesis game which actually let both players play at the same time as pilot and gunner. Then there was M-1 Abrams Battle Tank which was basically the same except as a tank instead. But after that my father seemed to lose interest in games, and I moved on to single player titles like Jungle Strike and BattleTech, eventually expanding into non-military games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Vector Man, and by the N64 I was playing much more mainstream titles.
But I’d never stop having a love of quirky military games. N64 had Attack Choppers and BattleTanx, PS2 had Naval Ops: Commander and Warship Gunner, and even today with more contemporary titles like Call of Duty or Battlefield.
And I’d never forget those hours spent playing Iron Tank with my dad.