Iron Soldier was probably the Jaguar’s best bet for delivering on its promise that “64-bit” actually meant something. I remember this being the most common demo reel on any electronics store that had Jag gameplay running, and when set against direct competition like StarFox, it was indeed impressive. It even surpassed the graphics of many PC tank and flight sims, showcasing a respectable draw distance and resolution with comparative tons of buildings and enemies. Unfortunately for Atari, graphics were evolving at a breakneck pace. Releasing in 1994, Iron Soldier was a game that couldn’t appear on competing consoles in 1993, but one unprepared for the PlayStation’s imminent arrival on Western shores.
You play as the pilot of a stolen prototype mech, running jobs for the resistance in your typical cyberpunk future. The Iron Fist Corporation has the power of an army at their disposal, and you’ll be gunning down attack choppers, crushing tanks beneath your iron feet, and occasionally, fighting enemy mechs along the way. There are 16 missions in total, which come in groups of four. You’re free to choose your next mission within each group, but there definitely seems like a gradual increase in difficulty if you follow them in order. Progress is saved to the cart only after beating a set of four.
The first thing Iron Soldier does well is getting across a real sense of size and heft. Your view (and implied, the ground) shakes with each thundering step, and plentiful surrounding buildings give a real sense of scale. Tanks and gunships are appropriately small by comparison, and I enjoyed the feeling of power as you crush tanks like bugs or swat away pesky helos with gunfire. Best of all, every building or structure can be destroyed. Granted, these buildings aren’t very elaborate to begin with – and crumble into giant, disappearing cubes – but still, stray rockets or your intentional actions can change the environment around you. The fact that it does this while keeping frame rate drops rare is even more impressive.
Your arsenal is unlocked as you proceed through the missions. You start with metal fists and a comically oversized AK-47, before soon acquiring barrel-sized hand grenades, rocket launchers, railguns and a enormous chainsaw. Final levels give you access to a powerful remote missile you actually steer into the target from a third-person view. Missions are laid out so that you’re usually unlocking a helpful weapon in a previous level, such as grenades before taking on cargo ships, or chain guns before taking on rocket-firing foes.
Levels get surprisingly active. Ground enemies and defenses seem static and pre-placed. You’ll see tanks and turrets spin to life at the furthest distance they can be seen, and no more will appear once you’ve cleared them out. However, air units will spawn forever. You can watch helicopters come in from the distance in groups, with later levels adding bombers and attack planes. These serve to keep you moving and will absolutely wear you down if you dawdle. I counted around 14 aircraft in the sky at once before I succumbed to all the gunfire, and the fact that the game can pack so many into the level without significantly dropping frames is very impressive.
The D-Pad controls looking up and down and turning the mech left and right. Hold A to raise or lower the throttle with the D-Pad. You set the forward velocity and the mech stomps ahead on its own. Holding A alone for a second will bring you to a stop. You can also reverse, though not quickly. B shoots whatever weapon you have equipped, and the number pad instantly selects new ordinance. The mech works on a system of hardpoints, and you can pick your loadout between missions out of what’s been unlocked. Equipping two of an item (like rockets or guns) will just double your ammo.
It wouldn’t hurt to spend time shooting down the buildup of choppers and tanks, as even the weakest ones can still chip away at your health. Stopping, however, is generally a bad idea. This is where you’re encouraged to put the mech into an advanced movement mode. By pressing the 2 key, you unlock the torso to rotate independent of the legs, while holding C resets your view. Ideally, you point the mech in the direction you need to go, set the velocity, then unlock the torso and gun down whatever you can on the way. It’s also the only way to strafe gun emplacements, letting you move faster than they can track you. Unfortunately, there’s no indicator of where your legs are headed, so you’re likely to run into a building eventually.
By far, the biggest barrier to completing missions is having no idea where to go. Your radar shows no indication of your objective. Reading the briefing is critical, as the level ends immediately after capturing or destroying your goal. However, that briefing is no more than a paragraph, and gives little information about where your objective actually is. An early mission tells you you’ll be going after boats – well, gotta walk around the shore aimlessly until you find them. Another tells you a supply depot is guarded by four towers, but nothing about the direction it’s in relative to your start. You have to wander around until you find it. There were many missions where I questioned if I was hitting the right target, but to its credit, none where I could never figure it out.
Destroying buildings is generally the key to your success. As said, the ground forces seem static, and they’re usually involved in (or the subject of) your mission. As long as you can keep the helos off your back, you can divert from your task and seek out supplies. These are hidden inside buildings, with the manual listing which buildings are likely to hold which powerup. Knock down some factories to get repair kits. Trash warehouses for ammo. You will always have your metal fists, regardless of loadout, and they do a satisfying job of smashing buildings into blocks – despite (I believe) the buildings being staffed by the same people the resistance is trying to free. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
There are three difficulty levels, with the code to a fourth hidden one given to you after beating Hard. Normal difficulty is easy enough, and you can take a lot of cannon hits without serious concern. Rockets do enough damage to get your attention, and later levels upgrade the standard helos and tanks to start carrying them. Missions seem designed to be beaten in two or three minutes, but you can stay as long as you want, provided you have buildings to topple for supplies. Hard ups the ante a bit, as you’re now taking enough damage that you won’t have much leeway in finding supplies. I wouldn’t exactly call Normal or Easy “casual,” but you can loiter longer than you can in Hard, and it feels less like you’re able to complete missions at your own pace.
Where this falls apart is missions with soft timers. No mission ever has a countdown running on screen, but six of them do require you to complete objectives before those objectives are gone – either trucks or boats driving away, or a building or convoy gets destroyed. You can’t afford to spend much time away from the objectives, so pounding buildings for supplies becomes much more difficult. This is also where ammo limits for the stronger weapons (mostly rockets) start to kick you in the teeth, and can lead to a real death spiral as you waste time desperately looking for ammo while your health likewise drains.
Enemy mechs are also full-time sons of bitches. They’re rare and incredibly powerful, both of which fit the lore, but you will have to face them in five of the levels. They are always as well equipped as you are and seem to have many more hit points. Any mech will at least sport rockets, and can bring a lot of hurt if charged at directly. One of the most effective ways to handle them is up close with the chain cutter, but they have a retaliatory punch that can knock off surprising amounts of health. Use forward and reverse to stick and move, or strafe them with a railgun if you have it available.
This is where those four-level blocks start to hurt, and they seem to know it – the last set of four is the only one that lets you save after each level. But you’ll have to get there first. You only get three continues, so you’re going to need to beat the mech levels or the timed levels with lives to spare. If you run out of continues, you absolutely can reload the save and try again – you’ll never lose progress, but you don’t beat all four levels, you’ll never make progress either. I understand it’s part of the challenge, and I’ll even acknowledge it’s a more fair system than many others, but try reminding me of that when I’m wandering around a cityscape looking for moving trucks with no help from the radar and… ooops, ran out of time on my last continue.
These points keep Iron Soldier from being more than just a rental, but there’s still not a lot of staying power here. You can challenge yourself with increasing difficulties, but these controls don’t allow for any new tactics or smarter approaches. Without time limits on most of the levels, you can turn them into a sandbox if you want – stomping around, trying to knock down every building, checking out the out-of-the-way residential areas or industrial parks. There’s just not much reason to do it.
On release and for a long time after, Iron Soldier was part of the “must-have” trinity of Alien vs Predator and Tempest 2000. Jag emulation has come a long way since I started writing these reviews, but this remains one of the few that you need the real deal hardware to run. However, now that the other two of those three can be emulated, it’s much harder to say this is worth buying a Jaguar for alone. It’s an impressive arcade-style title, with plenty of challenge and the most fun of the Jaguar’s many semi-open polygon world titles. But today, just as was the case back then, it’s not enough to be a system seller.
Expansive levels, often with different districts of buildings. Many enemies and structures on screen at once, with a relatively stable framerate. Simple, but functional controls. Good variety across the 16 levels.
Missions can be pretty short, extra challenge is the only incentive to replay. Easily swarmed and overwhelmed at higher difficulties. Limited information on the HUD and no help in finding objectives. Simple controls don’t allow for much strategy.