In the year of our Lord, 2016, Atlus is known for 2 things. First, for being currently the foremost developer keeping the Japanese RPG, or JRPG, alive in the west. Second, for having been purchased by Sega, and having been, thus far, largely left alone to do what they do so well. Prior to becoming a go-to RPG powerhouse, however, Atlus dabbled in a number of different genres. They’ve published puzzle games, platformers, beat-em-ups, and a number of other games. Keep in mind, some of these games were developed in-house by Atlus, and some were not. One such example of an early game that may have had some bearing (or not) on the RPG direction Atlus would eventually settle into is Cosmo Tank, developed by Asuka Technologies. Curiously, Cosmo Tank is the only game attributed to the studio, and it’s a shame, because while Cosmo Tank is flawed, it hints at what could have been, and shows that, in the right hands, the Game Boy can do impressive things.
Occasionally, developers fall into the trap of trying to bite off more than they can chew. Sometimes they take on a license that is too big and venerable for them to do anything meaningful with it, or perhaps they try to take on a genre with which they have no experience, only to fail because they didn’t study the source material. In this instance, it’s because Asuka Technologies tried to tackle too many genres at once. Truly good developers can design games to cross genre boundaries and be successful. Asuka Technologies shows that they have the chops, but they don’t quite get the job done.
The basic premise of Comso Tank is thus: you are the lone operator of a superior battle machine, the “cosmo tank”, as it were, and your mission is to go after Gregor, a typical mad scientist type who has seen his genius outclass everyone else, and has decided that it’s better for him to rule the universe, rather than allow the plebes to have freedom. Something like that, anyway. It’s not made entirely clear at the start of the game why you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re literally thrown onto a planet with your tank and told to “Destroy the life cores of each planet.” Kind of a raw deal, given that you aren’t given much information, or much to work with.
The 3 modes of gameplay are “QUEST-MODE”, the main story mode of the game, “TRAINING-MODE” where you can practice one of the gameplay types across multiple levels, so you can learn enemy patterns, and “VS-MODE” for 2 players. This, of course, requires a 2nd copy of Cosmo Tank, another player with a Game Boy, and a Link Cable. Sadly, I don’t have any of these prerequisites, so this review will focus almost exclusively on the meat and potatoes of the cart, which is the QUEST-MODE. Suffice to say, TRAINING-MODE is fun for a few minutes, but as I’ll explain through this review, it gets old quickly. Rather, most of your time will likely be spent in the main story campaign.
The first type of gameplay you’ll take on is an overhead, free-range shooting section. You’ll control the tank and go in any of the 8 directions on the map, with a basic laser cannon and a couple smart bombs at your disposal. Enemies will seemingly assault you from every side, with alarming frequency, so you had best be on your toes. You start with a relatively small life/armor bar, so take more than 2 or 3 hits, and you’re done for. As you destroy enemies, some will reveal a multitude of power-ups you can collect. Small capsules are smart bombs, which will destroy all small enemies on screen, and damage larger ones. You can stock up to 10 of those. “P” capsules are for powering up your tank. However, in order to gain a power level, you have to collect 10 of them. Doing so upgrades your laser to a double-shot laser. Doing so a 2nd time upgrades to a sort of energy ball that waves back and forth. Small “L” chips refill a single bar of tank armor, and the larger “L” capsule refills a much larger portion of your tank’s armor. For each enemy you destroy, you receive experience points. Small enemies grant 1 point, larger enemies usually grant 2 or 3. For each 100 points you earn, you level up, and your tank’s armor bar becomes larger. The tank can be leveled up to 6 levels, effectively doubling the amount of hits you can take from like enemies.
In the overhead sections, you drive around the map, blasting enemies, looking for what to do. There are small bases on each map that serve different purposes. Some bases will give you information about your objective, some refill your life, and some provide upgrades to your tank. Each of the main planets past the first one has a different upgrade, and though you can select the levels to traverse to past the initial planet, some planets aren’t really passable until you have a certain upgrade. As you travel around the overhead maps, your goal should be to destroy enemies and level up your tank as much as possible. In additional to the bases, you will also discover caverns and tunnels that you’ll need to enter.
Inside the caverns and tunnels is the 2nd type of gameplay introduced here. Rather than the overhead free-roaming shooter style, the game switches instead to a first-person dungeon crawler type of game. Your only moves are to either move forward, or to turn left or right. As you explore each cavern, you may find yourself suddenly in an enemy encounter, with the enemy shooting at you, and moving either left or right, around your tank. The radar shows you that the enemy can move around you, and you can swivel your tank’s cannon around to fight the enemy. In this battle style, enemy projectiles only hurt you if they collide with your ship in a relatively head-on manner. So if an enemy is off to one side or another, and they’re firing straight ahead, but the shot isn’t hitting your tank in roughly the middle third of the view, you won’t take damage. This becomes a critical strategic element throughout the game. Once the enemy is destroyed, your tank cannon swivels back to its previous cardinal position, and you continue to wander through the cavern.
In the tunnels, your goal will be to take out the “Life Core” of each base, which is a fancy way of saying you fight a boss. In addition to these life core boss encounters, you also have to take out a Control Tower, and often smaller life core units which are stationary and just fire away at you. Once you destroy the Life Core, you’ll get access to a map of the cavern (basically after your need for it has expired), and you’ll get a brief sense of where you may need to go to find the exit. Also, destroying a Life Core means your health will be refilled, which is always a plus. Upon finding the exit, you’ll be thrust once more into the top-down perspective so you can find the next objective, which is usually either another tunnel to explore, or if you’ve rooted them all out, finding the base where you can get off the rock you’re on and travel to another planet.
This brings about gameplay type 3: the vertical scrolling shoot-em-up. As a fan of shmups, the prospect of a shooter inside an existing game intrigues and usually excites me. Here, however, it’s just your tank transforming into a spaceship, Guardian Legend-style, and flying from the planet you just conquered to the next one you choose on the selection screen. The shooter levels are pretty basic and nondescript, with the same weapon you had in the overhead stages available at your disposal to take out enemies, as well as the same stock of smart bombs. Enemy waves and patterns are pretty boring, though they do come quickly, so be on your guard. There’s not much to these levels, however, and they lack variety.
As I mentioned earlier, the game isn’t entirely linear, because you can choose which planet to go to after you complete the objectives on Planet Desa. This is a tad misleading, however, because some items are required to progress very far. For instance, you can’t progress across spots in the overhead sections where the ground is mostly water without the “Hover Unit” which you’ll acquire from Planet Monoa, and you need the “Shield Unit”, obtained from Planet Gadam in order to drive over places where the ground looks “broken”. So while there’s some freedom to go and grind for experience and “P” capsules to power up your ship, assuming you did so on Planet Desa already, chances are, you’ll already be at full power and such an act will be redundant. I will say, you’ll stand little chance of success if you try to go after Planet DN-1 without the other upgrades, however, especially the “Pulse Unit” from Planet Aquel, which allows you to charge up your main shot to a powerful energy ball. This becomes essential for boss encounters later on.
There are a couple additional mechanics thrown in for good measure. One is on Planet Aquel, with a secondary boss fight. Taking the form of the overhead tank sections, you fight a large lobster-like creature that throws duel boomerangs at you. Assuming your main laser is fully powered up, you can make quick work of him, though his pattern does take a bit to discover. It’s similar to the other overhead tank sections, except that you’re confined to a single screen, there’s no background, and it’s literally just a dark screen with you and the boss. It’s the most “normal” action game boss encounter in the game. In addition, once you’ve completed all 5 planets, a 6th planet, Gidoro, opens up, and at the end of the shoot-em-up sequence, you get to fight the Planet Gidoro itself, which is sort of a giant scarab beetle thing that shoots at you as you attempt to shoot at it while dodging its onslaught.
Graphically, the game is quite good, especially for such an early title. Having been released not much more than a year after the Game Boy’s release, the sprite design is quite good, with a cool tank design, a nice heads-up display for the first person sections, nicely done terrain graphics that make excellent use of the Game Boy’s limited 4-shades of green, and overall, the enemy designs are detailed and nice to look at. The tank has a satisfying “shudder” effect signifying its size and tank-like movement, as well as when it takes damage, and there’s a cool explosion effect when you destroy the falling meteors on Gadam or in the shooter portions. The larger Life Core bosses are all interesting, and the graphics convey, as much as is possible on the platform, that sense of depth you need in the first person areas.
In the audio department, the game is also strong. The music is generally fitting in the game, with a nice upbeat tune playing during the overhead sections, complete with a nice little bridge riff that makes you think the song is going to completely rock out for a bit, then settling back into the groove. Music in the caverns is more atmospheric, with different themes, depending on whether you’re tackling a primary cave with the full Life Core, or just a smaller cavern with a Control Tower, and the shooter sections have their own theme as well. There are short little tunes that play when you go into a base, and when certain objectives are met. Sound effects are generally good as well, with better overall sound design than the usual fare you might expect from an early Game Boy title.
By this point in the review, some of you reading may be wondering, with all that I’ve described, how can this not be the greatest Game Boy game of 1990? I can answer that with a single word: execution. The scope of this game’s design is impressive. With everything Asuka Technologies attempted to do, it’s easy to take this game’s size and scope and see it as a win. However, none of the elements in the game are fully realized, and end up being a bit half-baked. The overhead sections play fine, but the limited enemy patterns and endless waves coming at you is a cheap mechanic that substitutes for better designed enemy encounters. Some of the enemy wave patterns are cheap, and will inevitably result in taking damage. Yes, you can get “L” chips and “L” capsules to refill, and there are bases where you can refill life, but practically forcing you to take damage due to a combination of endless enemies and sluggish, awkward tank movement is hardly good design. The first person sections are better, with the kind of atmospheric, sparse design you want, fewer enemy encounters and all, but the mazes are a bit pedestrian, and the non-boss Life Cores and Control Towers are completely devoid of any challenge due to the “middle 1/3” hitbox I mentioned earlier. Shoot and dodge, shoot and dodge, ad infinitum, until the core is destroyed. It seems more like an empty sub-boss fight than if it was just a stationary object for you to destroy. The shooter portions are also pretty sparse and underwhelming. They don’t have interesting enemy patterns, and aside from the cool meteor explosion effects I mentioned, are hardly noteworthy, especially since there’s only 1 of them, just prior to Planet Gidoro, that culminates in a boss battle.
In addition to the stunning mediocrity of each gameplay type’s implementation, there are also additional flaws that weigh the experience down. If you die in either the overhead or first person sections, you lose all your weapon and health upgrades. Despite the fact that you have to grind to achieve these upgrades, one death and it’s back to square one, much like a shoot-em-up game from the same era. Because of the possibility of taking damage during a Life Core encounter, your best bet is to go grinding in the overhead area to get back to full health and laser upgrades, because otherwise, even the smaller life core and control tower fights will take a long time, because you’ll be pelting those units with the weakest cannon in the game. Another oddity – your laser maxes out at Level 3, but you can still collect up to 9 “P” capsules above that, though it has no additional effect to your weapon’s power. It’s unfortunately that the development team didn’t see fit to make weapon and/or health upgrades stay with you after a couple planets, so you’re not back to a beginner power level when you die.
There are enough objectives to complete in this game that the lack of a save or password system hurts it quite a bit. If you sat down to play through this game, you could probably do the whole thing in a little under an hour, assuming you know all the tricks, but as a portable game, especially one that has you grinding for power-ups, with as much as there is to do to complete each planet, it would have been nice to have a password system, at a bare minimum, so you could play through a planet, complete its objectives, and then have that password to go back to. If this were a NES game, it would be less an issue, but as a portable experience, that should have been part of the design concept. If that wasn’t enough, there’s no way to pause the game during boss encounters, either in first-person, or during the “lobster” sequence, or during the first-person enemy encounters. Once you’re engaged in those battles, it’s all or nothing. This is a relatively fatal flaw in my estimation, because you’re talking about a game designed for a portable system that may need to be paused at any time, due to the times when one might be playing a game like this. It’s a rather egregious omission that just puts the sour cherry on top of the bitter sundae.
Despite the game’s flaws, it has its fans. I read through a couple reviews that highly praised the game for its use of multiple styles, excellent graphics, and sound design. I can’t fault those sentiments, because I echo them. But when you cross genres like this, and none of the elements you present are fleshed out enough to feel fully realized, it lowers the excitement and hampers the overall experience. Add the additional design flaws/omissions, and the entire package comes out half-baked. Had Asuka developed this for the NES, and added the other elements and refined it somewhat, I think it could have been a game that is as fondly remembered as something like Blaster Master. There’s so much potential here, but it’s unfortunately squandered by the game’s inherent shortcomings. Having said all that, there’s fun to be had here, and if you can pick it up for $5 or less like I did, you might still get a kick out of it. Don’t get suckered into paying much for it, however, because the final product probably isn’t worth laying out much cash in order to experience.
Originally posted on the official Game Boy Guru blog: