Cold War Kids’ Games: A Little Background
I was born in the early 1960s. Thus, I was a “Cold War kid” and lived through almost 30 years of tensions between the United States – my home country – and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), aka the Soviets, aka Russia. My formative years coincided with the Vietnam War, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, détente, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, the ascent to power of Ronald Reagan, and the long decline of the Soviet empire that ended not with a Third World War in Central Europe but with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In previous Old Gamers Never Die posts I’ve talked about how many of my generation (late Baby Boom and early Gen X) used Cold War-turns-hot games, novels, TV dramas, and movies to deal in some way with our fears of nuclear annihilation. I don’t remember being obsessed with the thought of perishing in a nuclear Armageddon with the Russians; I worried about it occasionally when tensions rose – as they did when the Soviets shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 in September of 1983 – or when ABC aired Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After, but by and large I just went about my life, attended college, and wondered if I’d ever get laid.
I think, looking back at the 1980s and early 1990s, that as time passed and the Soviet Union under Gorbachev seemed less threatening and more willing to ease tensions with us in the West, I began to treat all the Cold War-turned-hot stuff I consumed, whether it was Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising – which to this day is my favorite work by the late author – or computer games like F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter 2.0, Red Storm Rising, or M1 Tank Platoon as realistic science fiction. Dystopian sci-fi, to be sure, but after 1990 I no longer played those games or read those novels thinking, Holy shit! When World War III comes, this is how some of it is gonna go down!
What is M1 Tank Platoon About?
M1 Tank Platoon was published by the original Hunt Valley, MD version of MicroProse in 1989. I did not often go to computer-related stores (like Babbage’s in the International Mall) that much, but I did get MicroProse’s catalog by mail, so that’s how I found out about M1 Tank Platoon originally. At the time, I knew that the chances of a conventional war with the Soviets were infinitesimally small, and because I didn’t read the catalog’s game description too closely, I assumed – wrongly – that M1 Tank Platoon would not only have a set-in-West Germany NATO vs. Warsaw Pact scenario at its core, but that it might, like F-117A Stealth Fighter, feature other Major Regional Conflicts in other parts of the world, including the Middle East, Korea, or Cuba.
I don’t remember what year, exactly, I purchased M1 Tank Platoon. It must have been after the fall of the Soviet Union because I was still in that “game sharing” arrangement I had with my friend Raci before I owned a MS-DOS PC of my own. I do remember feeling a bit disappointed that no, M1 Tank Platoon would not include scenarios that featured confrontations with Saddam Hussein – Desert Shield/Desert Storm had not occurred when the game was in development – or with Fidel Castro. It was purely a U.S. versus Warsaw Pact affair.
“On the Way” – Into the Thick of Battle with M1 Tank Platoon
As the name suggests, M1 Tank Platoon is both a user-friendly vehicle simulator and a small-unit tactical level command simulation. At the core, you’re in command of a platoon of M1A1 main battle tanks, each one with a crew of four for a total of sixteen “trackheads.” Additionally, you also have attached units under your command; sometimes you’ll be working with a two-vehicle section of cavalry scouts in M3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles and a OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter.
On other occasions, a platoon of older M60 Patton tanks will support you, usually, the M60A3 model that was still in service when MicroProse made M1 Tank Platoon.
You also have access to artillery support and/or close air support from AH-64A Apache helicopter gunships or A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack jets. For realism and game balance, you don’t always have the same assets, especially in Campaign mode.
The one thing that is constant throughout M1 Tank Platoon is the model of tanks in your unit: MicroProse’s team equips you with the M1A1 Abrams, which is the second version of that MBT and is equipped with a 120mm main gun, an upgrade from the basic M1, which had a 105mm main gun.
Unlike other “tank simulations” of the period, M1 Tank Platoon was more than an arcade-style game where you drive one tank and blast away at tank-shaped objects till you either killed everything in sight or the law of averages caught up with you and your one-tank army was destroyed.
In M1 Tank Platoon, you oversaw your tank and could “jump” into the three most active roles – tank commander (TC), gunner, or driver. You could also “jump” into any of the other three tanks, thus transferring the leadership of your platoon from one Abrams to another. You could – if you wanted to – let your AI gunner fire without your manual intervention if “his” skills were good enough.
Of course, M1 Tank Platoon was very much a late 1980s game, so you never see your crew rendered as anything but names on the platoon roster. But you could give promotions and decorations – two of each category – after each battle. And because the enemy did fire back at you to achieve his missions, your tanks could be damaged or destroyed, and you could lose some of your soldiers, too.
As I mentioned earlier, M1 Tank Platoon is also an effective way to learn about armored warfare at the tactical level without having to enlist in the U.S. Army or go to the Armor School at Ft. Knox in Kentucky. When you play M1 Tank Platoon, you will learn how to use terrain – especially hills and other rough terrains – to set up ambushes and give the simulated Soviet/Warsaw Pact invaders all kinds of nasty surprises.
As a result of playing M1 Tank Platoon – and hopefully reading the game manual – you will add terms such as “reverse slope,” “hull-down position,” “sabot,” “HEAT,” “meeting engagement,” “MLRS,” “Frogfoot,” “Hind,” and “defilade” into your lexicon of military terminology. Who knows, maybe it will bring out the inner George S. Patton that you never knew you had!
The graphics and sound effects, naturally, did not age well. To a gamer born in the 1990s and early 2000s, M1 Tank Platoon may not be visually (or aurally) appealing. However, the game was made at a time when computers had Intel 386 central processor units (CPUs) and had, at most, 128K of random access memory (RAM). So, naturally, those early efforts to render 3D objects for PCs with VGA or SVGA monitors look downright primitive. Ditto for the sounds of the game. There’s no synthesized speech in the game – what little dialogue there is in “battles” is rendered in text only, and even then, it’s informational stuff such as “Sabot round loaded” or – when you fire your main gun – “On the way!”
Nowadays, this game would probably feature visuals worthy of a feature film a la Fury set in a World War III that took place in the Eighties or a more accurate version of Courage Under Fire, with a cast of professional actors playing the members of your platoon and with awesome footage of real and CGI main battle tanks slugging it out in Central Europe. And we have PCs that can handle games of this complexity and realism.
Heck, in the 1990s – in 1998, to be precise – MicroProse followed up M1 Tank Platoon with (you guessed it – M1 Tank Platoon II, which not only added a lot of features (such as multiplayer functionality and vastly improved graphics) but also allowed players to fight battles in either a NATO-Russia war in Europe or in Desert Storm against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. You could even choose to be an Army or a Marine tanker.
M1 Tank Platoon II, alas, does not have a cast of actors or Hollywood-level graphics, but at least it’s not as rudimentary-looking as its older MicroProse sibling.
Well, Dear Reader, this post is running a bit long, and it’s not intended to be a review, so I will just close by saying that if you want to get M1 Tank Platoon or its 1998 sequel, they’re both on Steam and – I think – Epic Games. (On Steam you can either buy each title for $9.99 or in a “bundle” for $14.98.) I recommend keeping an open mind about the graphics on the original, and for Pete’s sake, read the manual!