From Basic Training To Plastic Combat | Journeying Through 3DO’s Army Men, Part I
The idea of playing every video game from one franchise is an idea not unheard of. Plenty of people have played through iconic video game franchises, but for as far as I’ve searched on the internet, none have played through The 3DO Company’s flagship series, Army Men (aside from maybe Dan Teasdale, who played every game of the series in one day for Extra Life)
If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, Army Men was the game that launched a franchise, a franchise that caused a video game company’s president to throw a fit to games journalists if they reviewed his company’s games in an unfashionable light. I’ll elaborate more on that when we get to Portal Runner.
Army Men isn’t a beloved franchise nor a franchise a lot of people would consider as their favorite. Yet the number of games they launched would make it seem as such: There are more Army Men games than there are numbered Final Fantasy games.
Fascinated by this fact and The 3DO Company in general, I decided a few months ago to play through every single Army Men game in 2019. There’s exactly 23 Army Men games*. And I’m going to witness every single one of them to the end.
*My one exception is Army Men III, as it is a fan-made project and will be treated as apocryphal
Understanding Army Men requires a small understanding of The 3DO Company. Once upon a time in Redwood, California, a man named Trip Hawkins (that is his actual name, yes) founded a company you might have heard of called Electronic Arts. He also had a hand in a small sports series titled John Madden Football.
Before EA though, Trip worked at Apple before it became a huge company, and naturally he had an inclination towards hardware and wanted to create the first 32-bit console that could also run games with 3D graphics. After a decade of running EA, he left to form another company to achieve that goal, and in 1993 the 3DO Company released the first 32-bit video game console. It cost $699 (that’s $1200 in today’s money) at launch.
There’s multiple reasons why the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer failed in spectacular fashion which I will not get into right away. The one thing I want you to note here is that it was the start of 3DO moving into software. Which leads us to Army Men.
Army Men was born out of interesting circumstances. I couldn’t find any sources that listed what the inspiration was for Army Men (I assume that someone at 3DO had seen the bits of Toy Story with Sarge and the plastic soldiers in them and decided to pitch something like that to Trip Hawkins or whatever), but one thing that is for sure is this: Germany had stringent censorship on content in games. Depicting human violence in video games was frowned upon there, so some games had to create new assets for this reason. 3DO had already come up with the idea of plastic soldiers, so why not further develop it and save yourself the trouble or creating more sets of art for your game?
“The Germans are extremely uptight about realistic violence, so Command & Conquer, for instance, changed all its units into robots and changed some of the cut scenes. But we didn’t want to have to do two versions, and very early on in the design process we’d been planning things out with little plastic army men, so we suddenly realized that this was what everyone always likens a game like this to anyway!” — Chris Wilson, Next Generation Magazine Issue 23 (November 1996)
During the time of Army Men’s production, 3DO was also busy working another console titled the M2. Their most prominent collaborator was Matsushita (better known as Panasonic), and the M2 was intended to herald 64-bit consoles the way the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, for better or worse, heralded 32-bit consoles.
3DO was in an interesting, if not weird spot during the time they were developing Army Men. In spite of the failure of their first console, 3DO marched on undeterred, working on promising new hardware that was going to surpass the PlayStation, the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Saturn. They were also in the process of creating an exciting new game about plastic soldiers. Things were on the upswing at 3DO, so what could go wrong?
FRESH FROM BASIC TRAINING: ARMY MEN (1998)
Army Men is a real-time tactics game where you control a green plastic soldier named Sarge and undertake missions given to you by the Green Army. The Green Army is at war with the Tan Army. Other forces such as the Grey and Blue Army are also in play, but are much less visible. The Blue Army plays both sides, while there is also the Gray Army, who along with the Tan are developing some devious, world-altering tech which Sarge is tasked to find out about throughout the game.
I may be sabotaging the rest of this piece, but I will cut to the chase here: Army Men is not a good game. It’s an isometric real time tactics game, you control a squad at points, have abilities and such, but for its time it is a slapdash real time tactics game.
You control Sarge with either WASD or the arrow keys and can aim his weapon with the mouse. There’s a reticle you can use to see where Sarge is pointing his rifle, but you can never use the mouse to freely move it around the screen. It only moves in an invisible radius around Sarge, and moving the mouse left and right is how you use that reticle. It makes shooting harder, which makes sense when you’re targeting someone at long range but I doubt that was the intent behind the decision to have this type of control scheme implemented. The fact that I have to explain a control scheme for a tactics game should make it clear that the controls are ill-suited for a PC to the point that this is the first time I’ve played this kind of game almost entirely with a keyboard.
Now when it comes to playing Army Men as a tactical game, it becomes evident that it is not up to the task at all. There’s useful abilities like reconnaissance, airstrikes and a paratroop drop which all do what you expect, although Paratroop Drop is the least useful and that’s because the squad component in Army Men is half-baked, to be generous.
When you’re assigned a squad (Which usually consist of about 2–3 other soldiers), you can issue commands to attack a specific spot, defend a specific spot or just follow you around. You have no individual control over the squad, indicators of their health nor can you provide aid to them. They’re just faceless pawns that are kind of there to shoot and then subsequently die. It’s quite grim all things considered.
Now when it comes time to take your squad out into the field in Army Men, you are completely at the mercy of the squad AI. If all of them don’t bunch up and get flattened by an enemy vehicle or a mortar strike, you then hope they don’t get stuck in geometry during a firefight (which also happens frequently even as Sarge), and if that doesn’t happen and your squad has a person equipped with a bazooka, you then hope that the bazookaman doesn’t stand in front of a tree when he fires and inevitably get himself or another person killed. It’s more babysitting a bunch of doofus plastic soldiers than it is giving them commands that help both you and them.
All of that is just how the fundamental gameplay aspect of Army Men operates. Its implementation into missions is a wholly different thing. There’s straightforward ‘Destroy / kill enemy / acquire item’ missions, which are mostly doable despite the things I mentioned above, and then there’s escort and defense missions.
Several missions in Army Men require you to escort a unit or defend a point on the map. Everything bad about how Army Men plays is multiplied by several factors when you have to accomplish these missions. When you’re escorting a unit from point A to point B or defending them, enemies swarm from almost everywhere and often you are faced with dealing with one or two tanks, by yourself, and if you have not found a sufficient anti-tank weapon before (These type of missions sometimes start with only a semi-automatic rifle and nothing else), then you’ll find it’s time to kiss your sweet plastic butt goodbye.
And if you manage to survive about 90% of the way, somehow be able to whip around and knock down Tan soldiers with precision despite the controls, if you get run over by your own half-track near the rendezvous point, you’ll have to restart that entire section. Checkpoints activate every third of a mission. There is no manual save system.
War is hell.
Art of Plastic War
As for the plot, there’s not much in the way of interesting material, good or bad. Army Men is about the Green Army’s plight against the Tan Army, who are building some advanced technology that could alter the course of the conflict (The politics of what led to this conflict are not exactly explored nor is it a bad thing they didn’t). Sarge is our main character in this story, who apparently is the leader of the Green Military (I guess the rank of Sergeant is the ceiling for Army progression in this universe?) While the worldbuilding is sparse in Army Men, there are some interesting bits such as in one mission — a homage to the 1970 war/heist movie Kelly’s Heroes — you’re blowing a hole open in a Tan Army bank to steal large amounts of the Army Men universe’s currency. What is their currency you might ask? Well it’s plastic. The same thing they are made of. The whole economy in Army Men is driven by their own flesh.
And while Sarge is the purported leader of the Green Army, he receives and follows a lot of orders from a man named ‘HQ’, who is never named nor seems to have any personality at all. He’s just there to give you orders and is one of the few characters in the game with voiced lines aside from Sarge’s wry tongue whenever he picks up an item.
Which brings me to the audio. All I can say about Army Men’s audio is that it’s…there. About half an hour in I joked to myself that there probably was only four voice actors for the entire game and all of them were regular 3DO employees. That turned out to not be true as there are three people credited with having lent their voices to Army Men and two worked at 3DO in some other capacity. By my count there were also about two or three pieces of unique music playing throughout the game.
While the writing or sound work does not exactly supply compelling reasons to look past poorly executed mechanics and game design to see the game through to the end, they also didn’t do themselves any favors in the visual aspect. Studio 3DO spent at least two years making Army Men and it looks really bad, even for that era of 2D games. Here’s Army Men:
And here’s another real time tactics game that came out within three months of it (Commandos):
I should also take this time to mention that for a game about plastic soldiers, none of them are actually miniaturized toy soldiers, nor do they take place in everyday locations with everyday objects that are much larger in scale. All of Army Men takes place in familiar, real world locations like the Desert, Bayou and Woodlands where the soldiers are depicted as if they’re regular scale humans. There’s also a baffling limited palette in Army Men consisting of beige, green and gray. The game doesn’t have a lot going for it visually, and I’m not sure what part of mid-to-late 90s computer hardware limited their color selection to the point that the minimap icons are barely discernible and a lot of elements blend into each other and are difficult to make out.
When you get to the end of Army Men, you are shown the fruits of your, Sarge and the Tan Army’s labor: discovering a portal to another dimension, a dimension where Sarge and Tan Army leader General Plastro discover they are actually miniaturized soldiers (finally) in the human world. Where do they go with this new development? We’ll find out in Army Men II, I guess.*
*I have actually played all of Army Men II and was originally going to include it in this review but that would mean adding another 1,000 words to a piece about Army Men
I will say that the old style of review of breaking games down into Gameplay, Graphics, Sound, Value and Reviewer’s Tilt™ is not how I’d write about games in this day and age, but I’d be remiss to say it wasn’t without its purpose.
In early 1996, when Army Men had just started showing up in screenshots for gaming magazines, 3DO exited the hardware space. They had spent years developing and talking up their M2 console to magazines, claiming it would be more powerful than the PlayStation, Sega Saturn and but they were also hemorrhaging a lot of money because of it. That year they sold the technology rights of the M2 to Panasonic for a cool $100 million. Panasonic took over development and release of the M2, and the 3DO Company happily sat back with millions of dollars in their coffers and shifted their focus to making games.
Midway through 1997, with Sony continuing to gain significant presence in the console space and additional competition with the launch of the N64, Panasonic canceled the M2. Several games that were completed or nearly complete never came out or came out for other systems (This being the case with the horror game D2 and the Sega Dreamcast). After a year-long delay, Army Men finally came out in April of 1998.
This is pure speculation on my end, but with what I’ve written about how the first Army Men game looks, how the UI is built, how it was a real time tactics game that felt like it was meant for a controller and how it felt like it wasn’t made with PC in mind, it’s possible they were making Army Men for the M2 and when the console was canceled, they scrambled to port whatever they’d already built over to the PC and then gladly used whatever money was remaining from the M2 deal to fund the five years of Army Men games.
Army Men, to me, is a fascinating series. Not because it had revolutionary ideas for strategy or action games, compelling artwork or cutting-edge technology (It had none of those). It’s a series that was possibly the byproduct of a console that never was, and it’s a series born out of money gained from the console that never was.
It’s easy to make a bad game, but it’s not easy to make bad games and stay in business for the next five years. For better or worse, this is the franchise everyone remembers The 3DO Company for, and by my count I still have 22 of them left to play.
All footage and screenshots captured by me unless otherwise noted.
Sarge Is Dead! Artwork by @ayapizza