This is this site's 5th birthday special, so before we get stuck in, let's get personal for just a second.

How did I find out about Iron Tank when the NES wasn't as big in Europe, and this game's still hard to find over here?

The secret lies in a book I bought second-hand from the local library.

This is Jeff Rovin's How to Win at Nintendo Games 2.

Mr. Rovin, who's still around and writing for Tom Clancy (no, really) cranked out an inordinate amount of these cheap guide books (you'll find a good, rose-tinted-glasses-free overview on tsr's NES Archive) and despite the fact that it's just massive chunks of text (and often bad advice) and this particular copy is really tatty and beaten-up, I can't help but be a little attached to it. It's been a permanent fixture of my bookshelf for a while. Although we did have a NES (which we eventually sold for- not kidding- Aladdin on the Mega Drive) it wasn't as big in Europe as it was in the States, and so for us, a lot of games fell through the cracks. I acquired this book long after its release- just as I was starting to get into retro gaming, really- at a local library that was getting rid of some of its stock. By sheer luck, it happened to be full of games I'd never played as they were either unreleased over here like Seicross and Zanac, or had smaller European releases.

It sounds silly, but because this was slightly pre-internet (in my house, at least), I had to imagine what most of these games looked like, and of all 31 games covered, it was the descriptions for two games in particular- City Connection and the subject of today's discussion, Iron Tank- that caught my imagination and stuck with me the most. These two did come out in Europe, but in very limited quantities (City Connection is one of the rarest games over here!) so naturally, I'd never heard of them at all, or even seen them. When emulation became more common, the games in this book were some of the first I looked for, and while titles like Magmax weren't as good as advertised, City Connection and Iron Tank became firm favourites of mine.

With that trip down memory lane out of the way, let's talk Iron Tank.

Well... Not yet. First we have to go to 1985, with the release of SNK's first rotary joystick arcade game. The rotary joysticks were made famous by Ikari Warriors, allowing players to move in one direction but aim their weapons in another without the use of dual joysticks, but 1985's T.N.K. III (released in Japan as T.A.N.K.) used a more rudimentary, dial-style controller first. However, it's actually a lot more player-friendly, as while the Ikari games (especially Victory Road) can feel downright mean with their one-hit kills and insurmountable odds, T.N.K. III fares better as you actually have a health meter you can fill up, and the dial is only used to aim your turret for its powerful cannon shots, leaving the machine gun to shoot in the direction you're moving. It's easily one of the best rotary joystick games out there, with its varied level design and satisfying 'feel' to the gameplay, but while the Ikari games got quick NES ports (courtesy of Micronics, sadly), T.N.K. III had to settle with home computer ports for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64...

Until 1988, that is, when the game was adapted as Iron Tank: The Invasion of Normandy for the NES.

The plot is revisionist history nonsense. Here's the intro from the game itself:

And for added insight, here's the plot from the manual, verbatim:

The Date: June 5, 1944. The United Forces are preparing for their final assault on the Normandy Coast. The Mission: Establish a beachhead, break through the front lines, and infiltrate and destroy enemy headquarters.
To spearhead the invasion, they have chosen Paul, from Command Unit 88 - a secret unit known as "Iron Snake." An experienced combat veteran with special forces training, Paul has been called a Man of Iron.
But to succeed in his mission, Paul will need the full firepower of the United Forces' mightiest fighting juggernaut: the Iron Tank!

For those keeping score at home, Paul is the US name of Ralf from Ikari Warriors, before he appeared in The King of Fighters and Ralf became the standard... So that means the Japanese version of the game (called Great Tank) has the protagonist called Colonel Ralf. As Ralf's King of Fighters' profile mentions one of his prized items is a medal he got from the President (which he does at the end of T.N.K. III), I'm pretty certain that makes this game canon! What isn't canon is that this opening spiel has nothing to do with the actual mission of Iron Tank, as we'll find out, and the game itself also has almost nothing to do with World War II. If you played this game and skipped the intro, you'd only realise it was loosely based on WWII by the end (and if you were playing the Japanese version, which has some graphical differences). If you're hoping to brush up on your history with this one, then forget it.

Now, when I say it's adapted from T.N.K. III, it's the same game on a basic level- blast through the enemy forces in your high-powered tank and blow their secret weapon to bits- but the maps have been totally overhauled and various new bits and bobs, mostly stuff only possible on home consoles, are added to improve the experience. Let's start with the controls- as an adaptation of a rotary joystick/dial game, Iron Tank does a very good job of it. B fires your tank's machine guns and A fires its powerful cannon shells (these will be your primary form of attack), but if you hold B while moving, the tank's turret will swivel to the left or right to try and face the direction you're moving. This is a lot better than the 's-l-o-w-l-y swivel your character around' system seen in the Micronics NES port of Ikari Warriors, and lets you pull off some neat tricks, mostly 'flicking' the turret to the left or right quickly to get it where you want it aimed. Also, obviously, this means you can lock your cannon in a particular direction and move freely.

As for the new stuff, aside from the new maps the main additions are evident on the sub-screen seen above, accessed by pressing Select. You've now got a rudimentary map that shows you possible routes through the game and the locations of boss battles, a radio for communicating with HQ and the various P.O.W.s you'll rescue along the way, and switches for weapons and your reserve fuel. Unlike T.N.K. III where power-ups were activated instantly, in Iron Tank you can collect lettered upgrade icons and switch them on and off to your liking on this sub-screen, and with the exception of the ? item, you can combine upgrades. However, you only get so much ammo with them, and once their meter's empty, you'd better find some more icons to top 'em up. Using the right combination of upgrades can be the difference between making it through a firefight and getting blown up, so use them wisely. The items are...

E - Energy/Fuel
Adds to your Energy Gauge.

R - Reserve Energy/Fuel
Equip this, and it'll refill
your Energy Gauge when emptied.

V - Rapid Firing
Hold the A button for rapid cannon fire.

B - Explosive
Doubles damage done by cannon fire.

F - Armour Piercing
Cannon fire pierces through enemies
and certain objects.

L - Long Range
Cannon fire reach extended
to edge of screen.

'Possibly enemy's new bomb'- when used, kills everything on-screen.
Each ? icon you pick up lets you use it once.

Picking up any weapon icon refills your energy meter by one notch.

Oh... And there's also these guys:

They're the P.O.W.s.
Most of them just thank you, others have important intel to share.
Make sure you pick 'em up.

Also important is learning what kinds of enemy tanks will attack you. While there's plenty of other enemies in the game, like infantry, bombers, landmines, ships, and the odd gigantic enemy battleship, the tanks will be your main adversary and there's more variations of them than any other foe. There's four different kinds, to be exact, so learning the differences between them is important, as it'll help you determine what weapons to equip. I'll be referring to them by the names given in the manual, and reintroduce them as we meet them, but try to learn the names- in order of danger level, the enemy tanks are...

1 HP
Machine Gun

1 HP

2 HP

Becks Haus
2 HP
Spread Cannon

(1 HP is equal to one standard cannon shot.)

There's the basics, so we're just about ready to roll out. However... This may be a lot easier than the likes of Victory Road and King of the Monsters 2, but do not be fooled- Iron Tank is a fairly tough game. There's plenty of obstacles to fight your way past, including one-hit-kill land mines, giant war fortresses and an entire battalion of tanks waiting to do you in. What's more, the game has multiple routes throughout, so you'd better believe this is going to be a very long article. Luckily, the game has a password system to let you pick up where you left off, and we'll be dishing those out at appropriate points... Although, as we'll find out, the passwords aren't actually that useful, and you're better off starting a fresh run of the game rather than continuing from a particular spot after switching the game off. You'll be using the game's generous infinite continues, trust me.

It's time to show them Nazis what our tank can do- let's play Iron Tank: The Invasion of Normandy!

We begin operations on the next page. Go get 'em, Iron Snake!