Despite 90s nostalgia becoming a cliche in the past few years (especially where video games are concerned), it’s worth remembering why so many people look back on those years so fondly. Back then, most of the video game genres we know today were still young and malleable enough that developers were willing to test the boundaries. It’s these experimental games, with their distinctive identities, that we often remember today. Or don’t, as is the case with Pop’n Tanks. (I have no clue what relation this game has to other Pop’n titles.)
It’s a shame, too, because something like this doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Much like how Super Smash Bros. turned fighting games into a party experience, Pop’n Tanks inverts our expectations of shooters, and to great effect. It keeps the competitive spirit, but layers atop that a playful and vivacious energy.
On its face, though, the game looks like a hybrid of shooters and fighting games. Gameplay is divided into three rounds, and whoever wins two out of three gets to move on. Two tank pilots face off in a small square arena, using whatever weapons they have to blow their opponent to pieces. They duck behind cover, try to get their opponent just where they want them, and do whatever they can to come out on top.
From these descriptions, we can see what Pop’n Tanks borrows from where. It lifts its environmental and mechanical structures from shooters, whereas its presentation and mind game aesthetic come from fighting games. As strange a fusion as this may appear, it makes sense when you start to think about it. Both of these genres puts a heavy emphasis on the player’s skills and accomplishments. Those might manifest differently between the two genres, but the outcomes/expectations are the same: be better than the competition. Triumph over everything that comes your way. Prove that you’re the better player.
Do I think Pop’n Tanks completely rejects this aesthetic? Of course not. The game is far too heavily structured and skill based for me to say that. Still, I believe that achievement isn’t as big a focus for this game as it would be elsewhere. As I played the game, I couldn’t help but note an expressive quality underpinning so much of the gameplay. I saw it everywhere I looked, from the little quirks in how each pilot controls to the layout for each level. Choices like these do a lot to lend the game an inviting tone, because with this expressive quality, acting in the game takes on an intrinsic value. For the game, what you do doesn’t matter so much as the fact that you’re doing anything at all. And it’s this valuation that allows the game to eschew both its generic traditions. Not by completely purging competition from the experience (I’ll get to that later), but by making competition redundant.
But how is the game able to craft such an expressive ethos? The cartoon aesthetic is partly to thank. Framing the game’s encounters is a cartoonish retelling of World War I, all told through very well animated anime sequences. As a bellicose general tries to conquer the world, various tank pilots get caught up in the fray. These pilots (our playable characters) frequently cross paths and decide to fight each other. However, they never fight for country or honor or anything serious like that. In fact, their reasons for fighting are very comical, like testing their strength or having a friendly fight with comrades. Even the villainous general is portrayed more as a petulant child than as a serious threat. So although they’re not the main focus of the game, these delightful story moments help contextualize the gameplay as equally delightful.
And really, it’s the gameplay we should be looking to, because that’s where the game’s expressive qualities really begin to manifest themselves. The many stages illustrate this well enough. For the most part, they’re all built from the same template. You start with a large empty square, build one main feature at the center, and populate the rest of the stage with various frills. These main features can vary from things like a dune to a courtyard to an island surrounded by lava.
While each stage has their own unique identity, I can still see a running theme in each one: they all feel like toyboxes. The stages demand your attention; they call out for it. Before you lay all these bits and baubles to play with as you please. I won’t deny that said bits and baubles also have a strategic dimension to them. But again, I see the game priding involvement not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. Look at the final level, for example: its feature is the evil general’s tank. It’s constantly moving, and constantly firing at you. It almost becomes the level itself. It forces you to do something, anything, in a way that no opponent before you has managed to. Yet I’m not so sure this boss is meant as a test of skill. It’s gigantic, and you can handle him from quite a distance. In such a context, skill takes less precedent. Expressive interaction reigns supreme.
Yet even if that didn’t hold true, Pop’n Tanks could survive on skill alone. In fact, it’s already halfway there. In addition to its more colorful elements, I picked up on a tense, competitive atmosphere. This is the kind of game where you can never take your eyes off your opponent. You’re always maneuvering around them; watching them; looking for an opportunity to blast them to bits or to hide away for a moment. Just a moment, mind you. The action in this game happens so quickly that a moment is all you’re going to get. As unforgiving as that may sound, I don’t see these revelations as contradicting the more lighthearted aspects of the game. The fights aren’t about who wins and who loses; they’re more a friendly competition than anything else. Besides, the sense of tension underpinning these fights is worth looking into for its own sake. It’s this tension that gives you an exhilarating rush of adrenaline, and it’s this tension that lends the game its competitive energy.
In fact, the more I think about Pop’n Tanks, the more I start to see the genre subverting angle as not telling the whole story. Yes, that subversion plays a very important role for the game; so much so that I can’t imagine a game like this without it. Still, it’s good to remember how well it works as a straight example of the games it’s subverting. While the competitive balance might be off, the tense and focused gameplay makes sure that never becomes a problem. Pop’n Tanks stands as a forgotten experiment that I wish more people would remember.