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Talking BattleTanx with creative director Michael Mendheim

In the unimaginably distant future of 2001…

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After the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer failed to gain traction in the marketplace, Trip Hawkin’s company had to pivot pretty quickly into software to survive. While 3DO would be best known for polluting the video game landscape with poorly received Army Men games (and some legitimately good ones), the start they had was actually very promising. They scooped up a lot of talent and managed to land a few hits.

1998’s BattleTanx was one such game; their first on the N64. For the system, I still consider it to be top-shelf entertainment. I was happy to be able to talk to the game’s creative director, Michael Mendheim, about its creation, as it has long been a title I’ve kept close to my heart.

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Michael Mendheim is perhaps best known for the Mutant League games on Sega Genesis: Mutant League Football and Mutant League Hockey. They were developed with EA, which is where Mendheim met Trip Hawkins. Or, as Mendheim puts it, “I knew Trip Hawkins from my EA days working on the Mutant League franchise. He left EA to start the 3DO Company. When the 3DO Company transitioned from a hardware company to software development, Trip extended me an offer and I came on board as a design director for an unnamed project.”

That unnamed project was being developed under the watch of programmer Robert Zdybel. Zdybel’s name might not immediately ring any bells, but he’s an industry veteran, having worked on ports of Missile Command and Space Raiders for Atari. He also helped design Bug Hunt, which was a pack-in title for the Atari XEGS.

“Rob Zdybel is an industry legend,” Mendheim said. “I felt very out of place reviewing his project. It’s like a kid out of film school telling Martin Scorsese how to direct a film.”

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Heavy armor

“I talked in detail to Rob and the team about their project, and they had a lot of cool standalone ideas for features but had a hard time communicating their vision of what the game was going to be. To make the review harder, the game wasn’t very playable so it was difficult to understand the core mechanics, but you could move an object within an environment and that was interesting to me. My orders were to either help the team finish what they are developing or try to come up with a new concept that could use the technology already developed.”

“The product schedule to develop and complete the game was about a year. It was an ambitious schedule, and we would be 3DO’s first console game to market. There was a lot of pressure on me, and I didn’t feel comfortable rolling the dice on a project I didn’t have a clear vision of. Instead, I came up with a game concept that could work with the teams’ existing tech.”

Mendheim took inspiration from Tokyo Wars, a sit-down arcade title in which teams of tanks battled it out in the streets of Tokyo. However, this was shortly after GoldenEye hit the N64. If you weren’t around for those days, having an N64 and GoldenEye meant suddenly having three friends. It was a fun four-player game that had a myriad of modes to keep you playing through the night. I remember having a lot of difficulties finding a rental copy, as every weekend, they’d be out of stock.

“I pitched BattleTanx as — ‘Tokyo Wars meets GoldenEye.’ We could build a Tokyo Wars-style game using the existing technology already developed and have the team focus on making a fun multiplayer game. That’s how I sold the game to the development and executive teams at 3DO.”

Guided Missile

Queen Lord rescued

The inspiration is clear. Even though there’s an enjoyable single-player campaign, a lot of thought was put into multiplayer. There’s a variety of modes from classic deathmatch to capture-the-flag. There were a lot of great weapons scattered around the environment, and careful use of them could be the difference between victory and defeat. If you could get everyone together on a weekend, BattleTanx could soak up a lot of time.

“At first, the dev team was reluctant,” Mendheim. “They thought it was a silly idea – but I had them play Tokyo Wars so they could understand the mechanics. Early in development, the team wasn’t happy with the new direction and didn’t believe in it. I don’t think anyone on the team trusted me at that point, but we moved ahead on the development.”

“Our first playable is what turned the team around. The multiplayer game was a blast to play, everyone had fun, and that’s when Rob and the rest of the team started to believe in the project. When team members start to get excited and contribute ideas for cool weapons, map design, and other features, that’s when you know they are bought in. Once a team believes in a project everything starts to snowball in a positive direction and that’s what happened with BattleTanx.”

There’s a storyline to tie it all together. A deadly virus wipes out 99.9% of women; like hand sanitizer for estrogen. Without feminine nagging to guide the men of the world, countries descend into civil war, ending in a nuclear apocalypse. Then the survivors commandeer tanks and fight over the remaining women. When I was a kid, I thought this narrative was so cool. That was before a global pandemic became reality, and instead of tanks, we just ordered in a lot. Now I just think the story is hilarious.

“One reviewer said, ‘BattleTanx has the strangest story we’ve ever heard of but the gameplay is no joke.’ Would I do the same story now? Probably not without massive changes but back in the nineties… well it was still way over the top. The storyline was just a means to add a narrative to the capture the flag gameplay. I came up with an idea that a virus killed 99% of the female population of Earth, and after a nuclear apocalypse, the world was left in ruins, roving bands of gangs fight for the few remaining women who are proclaimed Queen Lords. Being a warped and deranged designer, I thought trying to capture women would be a lot more interesting for 13 to 18-year-old boys than capturing a generic flag.”

Fair enough. But why are there so many tanks lying around?

“It’s a Mad Max type of world, so the gangs are salvaging and rebuilding military armor. Look if you’re going to buy into Queen Lords then having a lot of tanks in the world isn’t that much of a stretch as far as plausibility goes.”

Fair enough.

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Unconventional Ordinance

BattleTanx was ridiculous. The tanks accelerate like they run on sugar. The weapons ranged from guided rockets, to lasers, to a damned nuke.

“The team was just trying to push things as far as they could go, and you can’t push an explosion further than a nuke,” said Mendheim. “The feasibility of this weapon all came down to how we could make it fun — keep the battle going even after a nuke was deployed and pull off what had to be the biggest and most spectacular visual effect in the entire game. Alex Werner was the engineer who created that VFX and when he showed it to me my jaw dropped. It was everything I was hoping for and more. The nuke was definitely going to make an appearance in the game. It was the cherry on the pie. Alex Werner brought so much talent and creativity to BattleTanx, without him we don’t have a hit. He was one of the team’s biggest stars.”

It’s awesome. You drop the nuke and run. Air raid sirens go off, then the game’s draw fog turns a sickly yellow-green. A blastwave rips through the entire level, crumpling buildings in its wake. They can be difficult to find in BattleTanx’s maps, but there’s a faction that actually starts with one in multiplayer. It’s a great way to start things off with a bang.

The nuke from BattleTanx. The cerebral bore from Turok 2. The laptop gun from Perfect Dark. The shrink ray from Duke Nukem 3D. The holy hand grenade from Worms (The Director’s Cut). What an era the ‘90s were! The best we seem to get these days is a grappling hook.

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Road trip

The destruction in general was perhaps the most important part. Aside from some strategically placed buildings, almost everything could be leveled. Paths could be cut straight through city blocks. Each map was based on real-world locations.

“We had levels of San Francisco’s Pier 39 (Fisherman’s Warf), State Street in Chicago, Fremont Street, Las Vegas, and Times Square, New York. I traveled to these cities and took photos which I could use to design the maps and then pass to our art director, Peter Traugot to be used for reference for the art team.”

“The city maps were designed like mazes with a multitude of buildings acting as walls, keeping the tanks contained on the street within a confined space. Since most of the buildings could be destroyed with several blasts, players would destroy buildings to open the maze and create tactical advantages against the opposing team. All multiplayer maps were designed like this, and it added strategy and tactics to the fast and furious arcade gameplay. It gave the game depth and replayability.”

Quarantine Zones

I’d be amiss to not mention the music in BattleTanx, which reminds heavily of the grittier side of Sega Genesis tunes. Crunchy guitar and synthetic beats, like in Shadowrun. The music duties are credited to Trackattack within the game, which I couldn’t find any more information on. According to Mendheim, this was Larry Millas from the band Ides of March, and Mendheim’s own wife, Robyn Mendheim. Excuse me while I fire up the soundtrack.

BattleTanx was the hit that 3DO needed to break into the console space. At the time, I saw them on the same level as Acclaim and Activision: publishers who I could actually remember the names of. While they burnt out their goodwill in later years, BattleTanx was a hell of a way to make a mark in the software market. The fact that it’s not better remembered today is a crime.

Thankfully, BattleTanx did warrant a sequel, which came in the form of BattleTanx: Global Assault, but more on that next time.

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Zoey Handley
Staff Writer - Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.