Old Gamers Never Die: ‘M1 Tank Platoon’ Classic Game Review

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

M1 Tank Platoon

Developer: MPS Labs

Publisher: MicroProse Software

Released: October 1989

Genre: Real-time Tactical/Tank Simulator

Setting: Late Cold War (1989-1991); Hypothetical World War III invasion of West Germany

No. of Players: 1 (Human vs. AI)

Reissued by: Interplay Entertainment

Available on: Steam and Epic

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The obverse side of the M1 Tank Platoon packaging. Image Credit: Moby Games

“Stand To!” An Overview of M1 Tank Platoon

Give credit where it is due! (C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

US Tank Platoons have four M1s. Four soldiers operate each. That’s four tanks, sixteen men. And you control the whole shooting match. – from the packaging blurb, M1 Tank Platoon

In the fall of 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Maryland-based MicroProse Software released M1 Tank Platoon, a tactical-level simulation of armored warfare in the context of a conventional war between NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Created by MicroProse’s in-house developers, MPS Labs, M1 Tank Platoon was programmed for various platforms, including the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and MS-DOS, which was synonymous with the IBM PC system.[1]

Video Credit; Chris Klein on YouTube.

As the game’s title implies, M1 Tank Platoon puts the player in the role of a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s Armor branch during the late 1980s/early 1990s. The Reagan Administration’s push to modernize the Army’s warfighting capabilities is well underway, and various new systems, including the M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank (MBT), the M2/M3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle/Cavalry Fighting Vehicle, the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (M270 MLRS), and the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship are entering service in West Germany-based U.S. Army, Europe (USAREUR).  

As a newly-minted O-1 (or “butterbar”) in M1 Tank Platoon, you command – of course – a platoon of M1A1 Abrams MBTs. At the time the game was published, the M1A1 was just coming “online” and replacing the original M1 Abrams. Among many upgrades, the M1A1 now had a more powerful main gun – a 120 mm L/44 smoothbore cannon that replaced the M1’s 105 mm L/52 rifled cannon. Carrying a load of 40 rounds (20 armor-piercing sabot, 20 high explosive antitank or HEAT) – 15 less rounds than the original M1 Abrams – and protected by Chobham armor designed to counter Soviet-made rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), HEAT rounds, and antitank missiles like the AT-3 Sagger or the AT-4 Spandrel, the M1A1 was designed to engage enemy armored vehicles at long range.

Each M1A1 has a crew of four – tank commander (TC), gunner, driver, and loader – and M1 Tank Platoon allows a player to jump into the role of the three most important, relegating the loader to the AI. Depending on an individual’s preferences, players could take on just the role of the TC and let the other “crew members” do their jobs, or they could just go to the various stations in the tank – the gunner’s position, the TC’s cupola, or the driver’s compartment – and take over manually.

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse/Interplay Entertainment

Because the player is the most junior of officers, he or she (many women also enjoy wargames) can only command the tank platoon directly throughout the game. However, in Single Engagements and Campaigns, Battalion HQ will authorize the player to call for artillery fire, observation helicopters, and air support from A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support jets and AH-64 Apache gunships. And depending on circumstances and availability of friendly forces, the player can give orders to attached infantry, recon, and tank platoons equipped with the older M60A3 Patton tank.

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse/Interplay Entertainment

“Lock and Load!” Types of Mission in M1 Tank Platoon

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse/Interplay Entertainment. Image Credit: Moby Games

Like in many military-themed games from MicroProse, M1 Tank Platoon has three distinct types of mission for players – Training, Single Engagements, and the Campaign

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

Training

There are two types of mission in Training mode, Static Gunnery Training and Mobile Gunnery Training.

Both missions take place at the fictional “Narfenauer Gunnery Range” somewhere in West Germany. This is a stereotypical rendition of a 1980s USAREUR gunnery range, and a player must drive his tank – or platoon – in a counterclockwise circuit of this range, firing at mockups of Russian/Soviet/Warsaw Pact vehicles, ranging from the lowly Ural 375D general-purpose truck to the T-80 MBT.

Reading (the manual) is fundamental. (C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment
The gunnery range at “Nafernauer.” (C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

Here, players can, by reading the game manual, learn how to “fight” their tank and give orders to the platoon from the vehicle or the tactical map. They can practice firing the Abrams’ primary weapon and the two machine guns – one mounted on the TC’s cupola, the other mounted co-axially with the main gun – and learn how to use terrain to their advantage.

In Mobile Gunnery Training, you are at the same Narfenauer range, only this time you are facing a company-sized Red force of Soviet combat vehicles moving in a northeast-to-southwest axis. You must destroy all of the simulated enemies before they reach the objective marked as Blue 1. The simulated enemy does not shoot back.

Your CO will brief you on which types of missions you’ll go. (C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

In Single Engagements, there are six types of battles that you will fight in. They are:

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment
  • Blitzkrieg
  • Meeting Engagement
  • Hasty Attack
  • Assault
  • Defend Position
  • Rearguard Action
Well, that’s what I call applying the HEAT!

In Single Engagement mode, the game generates a random mission from the selected type and chooses the season – M1 Tank Platoon can be set either in Winter or Summer conditions – and the time of day. M1 Tank Platoon also chooses from one of 16,000 maps, selects the support units – if any – available to you, and the location of Blue 1 and Red 2. The only option players can choose other than Mission Type is the Difficulty Level, which increases the quality of the enemy’s equipment mix and training levels/expertise. Obviously, the higher the Difficulty Level, the tougher/smarter/faster-to-react the Soviet forces will be.

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse/Interplay Entertainment
(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

And make no mistake; even at Second Line Troops level – the “easiest” on M1 Tank Platoon – players can’t afford to get overconfident. Even a rookie with a T-55 main battle tank can kill you just as dead as a skilled veteran with a brand-new T-72 or T-80 MBT if you’re reckless and inattentive while in battle.

The four difficulty levels, from lowest to highest, are:

  • Second Line Troops
  • First Line Troops
  • Veterans
  • Guards (elite)

Finally, once players have fought different variants of the six Single Engagements at different difficulty levels, they are ready to take on the Campaign.

Unlike in Silent Service II, Red Storm Rising, and other games which include a Campaign mode, M1 Tank Platoon is not a story-centered simulation with a definitive plot and set of characters. We are never told what caused the war or when in the 1980s and 1990s M1 Tank Platoon is set.

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

Instead, the Campaign starts with the player’s platoon in a Defend Position mission in which the platoon (and whatever random unit the game attaches to help) must fight off a larger Soviet/Warsaw Pact force. Depending on the outcome of that mission, the game then segues into another battle, perhaps a Hasty Attack or Meeting Engagement that reflects the player’s ability to conduct offensive operations. Since each battle’s results have an effect on future operations, whoever is winning – NATO or the Warsaw Pact – switches from defensive to offensive missions, and the losing side is less likely to marshal its best troops or equipment.

The roster screen. (C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse/Interplay Entertainment

Players and their platoons do not have avatars. The only U.S. Army character the player sees in M1 Tank Platoon is the Battalion Commander at the pre-mission and post-mission briefings. However, the soldiers – including the player character – appear on the unit roster. Each one has a skill rating that affects how well or poorly he does his job, but if the crew member is not killed in battle, that skill rating improves once he earns a promotion or a decoration at the end of each battle.

Players can, like their real-life counterparts in the Army – transfer crew members from one M1A1 Abrams to another and assign them to either the same job or a new one, provided that the soldiers are of equal rank. According to the manual, there’s a hierarchy of command on each tank, starting with the tank commander, then the gunner, then the driver, and on down to the loader. You can’t have a private first class as, say, a gunner and a sergeant as a loader on the same tank.

Transferring personnel from one tank to another also comes with a cost; the crew members who are reassigned get a drop in their efficiency rating, reflecting the effects of having to learn a new job and meshing with their new TC and other crew members.

The smoldering remains of a Soviet tank platoon glow in the darkness of a West German night. (C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

Of course, M1 Tank Platoon simulates land combat, and even the M1A1 Abrams is far from invincible. The player’s tanks will often suffer damage in battle, and even if the tank survives a serious hit, some crew members often get killed. In some situations, the Russians get lucky and destroy an Abrams or two, especially if a player is reckless and runs into a stronger than expected enemy during a battle. The game, therefore, simulates replacements of KIA crew and/or destroyed tanks after each battle in a Campaign.

My Take

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

M1 Tank Platoon is one of two “tank simulation” games that I played in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s; the other one was Abrams Battle Tank by Electronic Arts, which was also from 1989 but is not a simulation of modern tank warfare.[2]

Where most of the early PC tank “simulations” were variations on the “one tank operates on its own against entire enemy regiments” trope in which you drove an armored vehicle and blasted away merrily with your cannon at tank shaped targets, M1 Tank Platoon was the first serious attempt to give a solo player a basic idea of what modern armored land combat might be like in a near-future (the early 1990s from MicroProse’s perspective) war between NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in West Germany.

Keeping in mind that M1 Tank Platoon was created for 16-bit computers that had less computing power than 21st Century PCs or even smartphones, it was – and still is – a remarkably good game of its genre. Where games such as Abrams Battle Tank stuck to the “one-tank army” stereotype where the designers added visual representations of friendly forces just for show, M1 Tank Platoon tried to give players what the title and the packaging blurb promised; You were not merely a single tank commander but a platoon leader, with four tanks and 16 lives – including your own – in your hands.

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse/Interplay Entertainment

Sure, even in 1989 – or in my case, 1991, which is when I started playing the game regularly – the graphics were woefully unconvincing. They were better than Battlezone, the Atari game of far-future tank warfare in a science fiction setting, yeah. But the American tanks and other visible on-screen assets are rudimentary depictions done in early 3D style, and the Soviet stuff, whether it’s on the map or on th battlefield, is always painted red and gray. (Probably a compromise that designer Arnold Hendrick came up with to deal with possible “friendly fire” incidents in those 16-bit, 64 K worth of RAM days of the Computer Age.)

So, let’s get the negative stuff out of the way. The gameplay graphics are not the best I’ve ever seen, and the sound is ridiculously tinny and so, so 1980s! Younger gamers who are familiar with the graphics and sound design of games such as Cold Waters or Ultimate General: Civil War will probably just shake their heads and mutter, “How did our parents’ generation survive the Eighties?”

However, M1 Tank Platoon was a great game in its heyday despite the clunky graphics and tinny soundtrack of limited sound effects.

Why?

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Software/Interplay Entertainment

Because the creative team, led by Arnold Hendricks, Scott Spanburg, Darrell Dennies, Max Remington III, and Ken Lagace, supported by other MicroProse staffers and co-founders Bill Stealey and Sid Meier, did their best to make M1 Tank Platoon realistic and factually accurate, but not at the expense of playability and a satisfying gaming experience.

The game manual is also an important part of the M1 Tank Platoon experience. Not only is it a good How-to-Play-the-Game instruction manual, but like most of the MicroProse game manuals I’ve read and used in my 35 years as a computer user, it is full of information and insights into the M1 Tank Platoon game’s topic – modern armored land combat in the late 20th Century. Both the game and manual are based on extensive research on NATO and Warsaw Pact weapons systems, Russian and American military doctrines, and the inner workings of the M1A1 Abrams MBT.

(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Sofrware/Interplay Entertainment
(C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Sofrware/Interplay Entertainment

M1 Tank Platoon was also created with input from civilians and retired military personnel with a background in armored warfare. It even listed Lt. Col. William Gregor, U.S. Army, as its technical advisor. So even though the game was released when the M1A1 had not seen combat – it would see its first action in Operation Desert Storm less than two years after MicroProse published M1 Tank Platoon – and some details on its performance and capabilities were left out, this is about as close as gamers could get to using modern armor short of joining the U.S. Army’s Armor branch in person.

Interplay Entertainment acquired the rights to M1 Tank Platoon several years ago and reissued it via Steam and Epic Games in 2020. Of course, they kept all of the original graphics and sound “as is,” so younger gamers who are not familiar with 1980s games might be put off by the “old school” look and feel to the game.

For old grognards like me, who cut our wargaming teeth on games such as F-15 Strike Eagle II, Silent Service II, and M1 Tank Platoon, finding this gem of Cold War era simulation on Steam warmed the cockles of my American heart. I like the fact that it works exactly as it did when I played it as a younger adult – you can play a game session and it will save your data, which means you can play the entire Campaign in increments rather in one marathon session.

Interplay also reissued the 1998 sequel, M1 Tank Platoon on Steam and Epic Games; each one costs $9.99 separately, but if you buy the bundle with both versions – which, sadly, I did not do – it will only set you back $14.99.

The view from the gunsight on thermal mode. (C) 1989, 2020 MicroProse Sofrware/Interplay Entertainment

Well, it looks like the Soviets are about to cross the Inner German Border, and they don’t plan to stop till they reach the west bank of the Rhine River, so I have some T-72s to hunt. Wish me luck, and I’ll catch you on the sunny side of things!


[1] The one platform that M1 Tank Platoon did not have a version for was, unsurprisingly, the Apple II family. (I also do not see any reference to Macintosh versions.) At the time M1 Tank Platoon was released, I owned – thanks to my dad’s brother Sixto – a two-year-old Apple IIe with a color monitor. MicroProse made quite a few Apple II versions of games in its catalog, and I owned some – the three games of the Command Series, plus NATO Commander, Silent Service, and F-15 Strike Eagle. I loved my Apple because it was easy to use and did not require command-line prompts to “boot up” programs, but as time passed and I saw that MicroProse was not releasing Apple versions of its newer games – say, like F-15 Strike Eagle II or Red Storm Rising – I started thinking that maybe I should have asked for an IBM PC instead.

[2] Here’s what one reviewer quoted in Moby Games has to say about Abrams Main Battle Tank: Abrams Main Battle Tank is entertaining as a game. It offers excitement and a chance to destroy the nefarious enemy hordes. However, a simulation, it is not. Doctrine, professionalism and employment of armor are all lacking. As long as one recognizes that this is a game, there is no harm done. Nevertheless, do not think that one can achieve viable insights into armor tactics in the contemporary combat environment. Abrams Battle Tank succeeds as something more than an arcade-type game. It does require planning and careful execution; however, it is not a simulation and should not be treated as such.” Moby Games, Abrams Main Battle Tank entry

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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