Released only in Japan (like so many games on this blog) during the tail end of the Playstation’s life, Pop’n Tanks is a quirky little one-off title that takes the terrifying premise of life-and-death tank warfare and turns it in to an adorable all-ages arena battler.
The game was published by Enix and developed by Symbio - don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them before now, as this is the only game they’ve ever publicly put their name to. They’re currently known as Symbio Systems, and looking at their official website it appears that after Pop’n Tanks they turned their hand to more “invisible” development, working to produce software for other companies and their products. That may not sound very rock’n’roll, but on the other hand they’ve actually survived the last fifteen years which is more than can be said for an awful lot of other developers who released games in 1999.
The chunky designs, uncluttered textures, and fenced-in arenas all work well within the Playstation’s limitations, and the overall effect is of a bright and sunny action game with bags of character. It’s certainly not on the visual level of games like Vagrant Story (what is?), but there are some neat little touches such as animated water textures that help bring an already vibrant game to life.
The arenas you wage colourful warfare in are a varied lot with their own lumps, bumps, and buildings to duck behind for a bit of cover. Fortunately tedious games of cat-and-mouse are avoided thanks to the ability to blow up just about anything in your field of vision, and as destroyed buildings occasionally house extra special ammo crates or recovery items there are many split-second decisions to be made that encourage players to dash across open terrain and generally play in an engaging and active manner.
“Tank controls” usually brings to mind a certain zombie-based game series, and is often used in a derogatory manner. Nobody likes tank controls (or so I’m told). So it’s good news all round then to learn that Pop’n Tanks control scheme is relatively un-tank-like and makes for a fast and fluid experience; with players whizzing around the battlefield and firing off a cheeky shot to the side as they speed off towards a health pickup.
Damage-dealing in these armoured tussles comes in two main varieties – standard shots and special attacks. Standard shots come from a pool of ammo represented by little yellow bullets underneath your health bar, once this has been emptied there’s a short delay while your driver automatically refreshes your unlimited supplies. Special attacks are far more limited, with only two available at the start of a round and these can only be restocked using ammo crates found inside destroyed buildings. The reason for this restriction is that these attacks are far more damaging than your usual firepower, although to keep things balanced they’re much harder to actually hit your opponent with.
While the execution’s a little out of the ordinary having tanks shooting at things isn’t really an unexpected turn of events, so as is appropriate for a game with tanks shaped like desserts and incredibly cute drivers Pop’n Tanks adds another move to your not-Bonaparte's arsenal, a little bunny-hop style jump that will temporarily stun your opponent as well as squishing them flat in a satisfying manner – although it should be used with care as missing will leave you vulnerable to counterattacks.
As if the sheer joy of racing around and blowing up everything in sight wasn’t enough to hold your interest, Symbio were gracious enough to include a variety of modes to accommodate all your tank-busting moods, from Story Mode’s more straightforward arcade tournament style to Tank World’s in-depth customisation, as well as Quick Battle/Customs Battle modes for those times when you just want to blow things up in brightly-coloured death machines. Split screen versus scuffles are available in the Quick Battle and Custom Battle modes, meaning anyone lucky enough to rope in a second player can enjoy fights with both the pre-made characters as well as pitting their hard-won custom World Tank creations against each other too.
Sometimes we want games to transcend their medium and become art. Sometimes we want games to tell us a story we’ll still be talking about in years to come. Pop’n Tanks does neither of those things. What Pop’n Tanks does do, and do very well, is be damned good fun - careening about the place and blowing things up is always a pleasurable experience, and the bright-n-breezy style is inviting and encouraging. It doesn’t require knowing or practising anything particularly tricky before you starting feeling in control or doing well, and the game is balanced well enough that losses against either another player or the CPU always feel down to a lack of skill rather than poor vehicle choice or getting caught by a cheap attack. Even better for the import-curious is that there’s not an awful lot of Japanese text in the game, meaning I can happily recommend Pop’n Tanks to anyone looking for an exciting and accessible Playstation experience.