Toy Story 3: Rise of the Machines[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at AndNow and Appaloosa Interactive’s Tiny Tank, released in 1999 for the Sony PlayStation.]

This is all your fault, Gex

It’s not clear when the mascot wars started. Some claim that Sonic kicked off everything in 1991, while others will tell you that the push to create marketable, kid-friendly game characters is as old as Pac-Man.

But whenever the trend started, it certainly hadn’t ended by the late ‘90s, when the success of company-defining faces like Parappa and Crash Bandicoot gave rise to a cavalcade of generic crocodiles, skateboarding skunks, clownish street kids, slingshot-wielding Dennis the Menace rip-offs, and even a cuddly version of the Jersey Devil. All were swiftly forgotten. Perhaps that’s what led AndNow and Appaloosa Interactive to mock the whole idea with an action-shooter called Tiny Tank. It was also swiftly forgotten.

Tiny Tank is, at first glance, an appealing game. In a setup that satirizes Cold War propaganda and adorable corporate-made shills, the irascible title tank becomes the mouthpiece for a military-industrial firm that eventually gives rise to an army of world-conquering war machines. The game's fake-commercial cutscenes, which recall the tone of Pixar movie previews more than the typical canned game intro, find Tiny and an off-camera announcer bickering over his public image, complete with bleeped-out swearing and corny ‘50s-style jingles.

And when the game’s first stage kicks in, it’s almost as entertaining to control Tiny. In spite of the aptly tank-like play scheme, he’s able to roll, strafe, jump, hover, and mount five different weapons at once, including smaller (and cuter) customizable mini-tanks. And, in keeping with the game's sense of satire, the soundtrack is interspersed with wryly amusing radio broadcasts from Tiny’s nemesis, Mutank.

tinytank1.jpgStill better than Steel Reign and Shellshock combined

Things don’t begin to fall apart until the second level. From there, it becomes increasingly obvious that the stage designs are standard issue, and that Tiny isn’t well suited to jumping challenges or quick evasion, both of which the game demands. Worse yet, the hardware can’t quite handle everything that AndNow and Appaloosa wanted, and the surroundings frequently explode into a mess of spastic polygons. Nor does it help that Tiny isn’t nearly as funny in the game as he is in the attached fake-ad rehearsals. Without anyone to play off of, he simply spouts a series of one-liners about Nirvana lyrics, that falling-and-not-being-able-to-get-up commercial, and other topics that were embarrassingly dated even back in 1999.

As a final blow against any long-lived popularity, Tiny Tank struggled even to arrive at stores. Though it was originally scheduled for an early 1999 release from MGM Interactive (whose efforts as a PlayStation publisher also brought us the god-awful Machine Hunter), they dropped the game and turned it over to Sony’s American branch, which tossed Tiny Tank out six months later. The game’s advertising was no help.

While the in-game Tiny is chirpy and vaguely upbeat, magazine spots saw an enraged Tiny bursting through a page while exclaiming “Who the %#&@ you callin’ tiny?!” and generally just not caring who he pissed off. Another oddity: the game was promoted with the subtitle "Up Your Arsenal," but the phrase appears nowhere on its actual packaging.

more like tiny STANKBecause tank games sell

In all fairness to some long-disbanded marketing team, Tiny was a hard sell from the start. While he stands out as an amusing reaction to the likes of Rascal and Bubsy, he could only go so far in the gaming industry. Too profane and subtle for children but too simple for older gamers, Tiny really wasn’t noticed by many, beyond the Official PlayStation Magazine critic who threatened to write a review consisting entirely of “SHUT THE &*!@ UP!” after hearing too much of Tiny’s in-game banter.

It’s hard to say how Tiny would’ve fared as a gaming icon, even if his game had been well-designed and consistently funny. Would it have merited a sequel? Would it have amassed a cult of deluded fans to gush about Tiny Tank from every angle and on every message board? Would we see Tiny Tank toys and bedsheets and board games and pencil-top erasers? Probably not, but considering how his first outing went, it’s flattering enough when someone remembers Tiny Tank at all.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]