Commando Challenge remote controlled fighting tanksReview date: 19 October 2003.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
I have previously opined that the best thing any toy can have written on its packaging, from the point of view of a small boy, is "FLINGS BUGS WITH SUPER CATAPULT ACTION!"
I would now like to revise that statement.
It is possible that "Wireless Remote Control Lazer Fighting Battle Tanks!" is even better.
You get two in the box, they're remote controlled (via infra-red, not radio), they have turret traverse as well as full steerability, and not only can they shoot at each other and flash lights and make noises when they're hit, but they blow smoke when "damaged", and shoot a little commander figure into the air when they die!
All this for less than $US70 the set (actually, probably quite a bit less), plus delivery. Batteries aren't included, but they're just AAs.
A while ago, I reviewed Konami's Combat Digi-Q tanks, which are tiny little jewel-like things that're IR controlled, like the Commando Challenge tanks. The Digi-Qs are so small that they can fight a stirring four-way battle on a coffee table.
$US125 is a low price for a pair of Combat Digi-Qs. The Commando Challenge tanks are about half the price...
...and quite a lot bigger.
Their total snout-to-tail length with the gun forward is about 13 inches (33cm); their hulls alone are a bit more than 10 inches long (about 26cm).
This makes them around 1:30 scale, if you compare them with the M1A1 they're modelled after; the manufacturers claim they're 1:33.
And, as cheap toy tanks go, they're pretty accurate models. They've got a bit of moulded-in surface detail, and some cute extras, like the machine gun and crosswind sensor on top of the turret. Both of these protruding items are prime candidates for accidental removal, of course - so they're made out of rubber. Nice.
Each tank's cannon has an infra-red LED planted in the end of it - no, these tanks do not actually include any kind of laser. The box says "lazer", kids, so don't even think about a false advertising lawsuit.
Further back on the barrel, at the front of the pleasingly scale bore evacuator bulge, is a red LED that lights up when the tank fires. The tank also "kicks back" when it fires, which is cool - but it kicks back even if its turret is facing sideways, which is goofy.
There are far more expensive toy tanks that have this same problem, though.
The turret can traverse 180 degrees under remote control - from 90 degrees left to 90 degrees right. It can also elevate a bit, but you have to do that by hand. The turret's equipped with a lightly sprung clutch mechanism on its traverse drive, which clicks alarmingly if you're turning the turret by hand or trying to power-turn it too far. It seems to protect the traverse system from damage well enough, though.
The turrets have two IR sensors on top of them; one faces forwards, one backwards. The second one doubles as a reset button that "reboots" the tank back to full health.
The two receivers pretty much see all around the tank, but it is harder to shoot someone whose turret isn't facing you. And, as with the tiny Konami tanks, anything that blocks, reflects, refracts or diffuses light will do the same thing with these tanks' "shots".
On the rear deck of each tank are four red LEDs, which all light up when you turn the tank on. One LED goes out for each hit the tank takes. When they're all out, you're dead.
"Damage" has no other effects, though; unlike the Combat Digi-Qs, the Commando Challenge tanks can't be set to an advanced mode that causes them to slow down when "hurt".
This isn't the end of the LEDs on these things. Each tank also has two yellow headlamp LEDs; they glow when the tank's on, and flash when it's doing things. They're not bright enough to work as real headlamps, though.
The bigger red thing in the above picture is the smoke vent. It's got (yet another) light in it.
When a tank takes a hit, it freezes in place, traverses its turret all the way to one side, and blows some smoke.
The smoke is more of a trickle than a cloud. It's created by a heater that boils a few drops of oil, as with simple model train smokers. But hey, it is smoke.
The smoke filler hole's on the underside of the tank; it has a simple rubber cap. Each tank comes with a cute little colour-coded funnel, and a bottle containing a very small amount of extra oil. Any old light sewing machine oil should be fine as a replacement; a couple of drops should last for quite a few battles.
The tank controllers are croissant-shaped things that don't feel nearly as nice as the controller/chargers for the little Konami tanks, but they're still quite solid.
There's one fore-and-aft button to control each tank track, two "shoulder" buttons to traverse the gun, and one central button to fire. Two exposed IR LEDs send the signal.
Like the Konami tanks, these ones are controllable over normal remote control distances - the length of an ordinary room, with no trouble. Since they've got next to no chance of hitting each other at ranges beyond a couple of metres, this is fine. Because the control system's infra-red, though, you do need to keep the controller facing the tank; the Konami controllers seem to have a broader beam than the Commando Challenge ones. Sunlight will also blind the IR receivers. These aren't outdoor daytime toys.
Like all cheap toy tanks, these ones have rubber tracks. They're pretty darn solid rubber tracks, though, and they're supported by three road wheels along their length. There are four other decorative road wheels on each side, but they don't actually touch the track. This is good, because the decorative wheels don't actually turn.
(You can even buy spares if you manage to wear the tracks out.)
Oh, yes. The Commandos.
Interactive Toy Concepts' description of these little rubbery dudes as being "action figures" is, I think, a bit over the top; in and of themselves, they are capable only of the action of sitting.
Where they sit, though, is jammed into these little hot seats in the top of each tank's turret...
...and if their tank gets shot to death, the seat springs up and propels the Commando a couple of inches into the air, leaving no doubt that the final blow has been struck.
You just push the seat back down to reset it.
Cheap remote controlled toys are often severe battery vampires. Eight AAs for the model, one 9V with an expected lifespan of 100 minutes for the transmitter. That kind of thing.
I was very pleased, therefore, to note that the Commando Challenge tanks only need a total of 14 AA cells for the both of them - and that's it. No 9Vs, no button cells, no flux capacitors.
The tank battery bays have space for six AAs, but only actually take four.
The controllers only need three AAs.
Because the controllers are basically just funny looking remote controls, they don't need an on/off switch. They transmit when you press a button; they don't drain their batteries when they're not transmitting.
The tanks themselves do have a switch on the bottom panel, but they also have a power-save mode that puts them to sleep if they receive no input for five minutes.
The tanks are rated to consume three watts of power, and they'll only do that when you're playing pretty hard. I therefore think you can expect an easy three hours of play from a set of alkalines in each tank. The transmitter batteries should last considerably longer.
Playing with them
When you start driving the Commando Challenge tanks around, you notice a few good things and a few bad ones.
One good thing is that these tanks have a fair bit of pulling power. They're still not really outdoor toys, but they have no trouble turning in place on carpet, or trundling over inch-high obstacles. Many cheap tracked toys are disappointingly weedy; they'd actually be a lot more capable with tyres than they are with power-eating rubber tracks. These tanks have enough grunt to conquer normal living room terrain.
There are two trade-offs to make this possible. One is that the rubber tracks aren't very tight. This means you're less likely to break something if you suck some random object into the track and it jams, but it also means that just pirouetting on carpet can "throw" a track. The little Konami tanks have this same problem. It's the work of a moment to pop the track back on, but if you're playing with a touching-the-tank-forfeits-the-game rule, you'll want to go easy on turns.
The other tradeoff for the tanks' respectable pulling power is that they're not very fast. They cover one metre in about six seconds - around 0.6 kilometres per hour. This is only barely faster than the Konami tanks.
If their batteries lasted, the Commando Challenge tanks would cover the 30th-scale quarter-mile in about 40 minutes.
Nought point one seven metres per second is likely to be about as fast as you want these tanks to move, though, because they're pretty hard to control. The Konami tanks have proportional control, and are quite responsive; you can drive and turn at varying speeds, and they usually do what you want almost exactly as soon as you tell them to do it.
The Commando Challenge tanks have digital control - each track is turning forward, or turning backward, or stopped, and there's only one speed. The turret traverse is the same.
This wouldn't be so bad, if not for the fact that there's a small delay between telling the tank to do something and having it actually do it, and the smallest length of time these tanks will do anything for is almost a second.
Tap both drive buttons forward and you get almost a second of forward motion. Tap one forward and one back and you get almost a second of pirouette. And so on.
This makes lining up a shot on the enemy a distinctly hit-and-miss affair. Both the tank hull and the turret move so coarsely that you can pretty much forget any of the sneak-and-shoot finesse that the Konami tanks make possible. Just driving in a straight line is tricky; cheap toy tanks normally have a hard time going properly straight (generally because their little motors don't run at quite the same speed forwards as they do backwards, and they're set up so they run in opposite directions to drive both tracks the same way), and with no steering trim control and no way to finely control steering manually, you've pretty much just got to live with these tanks gently curving left or right.
To compensate for the difficulty of bringing your gun to bear, and to satisfy young Colonel Killcrazys, the Commando Challenge tanks have no ammunition limit and a high rate of fire. Mash the fire button and you can squeeze off about five shots every four seconds, and you can keep doing it until the enemy manages to shoot you, or your batteries go flat.
This doesn't mean you can use spray-and-pray tactics, because the tanks always drop everything when you shoot. Press the fire button, and if you aren't already telling the tank to do too much stuff (in which case it won't hear the fire command at all), it'll stop driving and traversing its turret, then fire and kick back, then resume whatever other instructions it's getting. You shoot while spinning.
Firing aside, though, the tanks can accept two input signals at once. If you're driving forward, you're sending two signals - forward for each track - but if you're only driving one track (doing a brake-turn, as compared with a tracks-in-opposite-directions pirouette), you can traverse the turret while you do it. This looks cool.
And now, the very worst thing about these tanks: The noise. The manufacturers say they have "Real Sound", which is technically accurate; yes, these tanks make real sounds. You do not have to just imagine sounds. The sounds they make are not very pleasant, though.
Whenever the tanks do anything, a speaker inside makes a racket. An engine-y noise when driving around or traversing, a boom noise when shooting.
Regrettably, the noise-making hardware is both pretty darn loud, and extremely low quality. The engine sound is very close to white noise.
Little kids may think the noises are great, but everyone else is likely to agree that a square of tape applied over the speaker grille on the front of the hull is a great improvement.
The hulls of the Commando Challenge tanks are held together by four simple screws. It's easy to get in there and poke around. It's a lot less easy to remove the turrets, though. Unscrewing the turret lid is no problem (there are two holes in the upper hull piece that give you access to two of the turret screws), but the wires going into the turret are too short to let you get in there properly without considerable fiddling.
Hence, you only get pictures of the stuff in the hull. Deal with it.
The rear gearbox has its own little cover. Inside, it's all cheap white nylon gears, as you'd expect. The drive sprockets have reasonably substantial nylon bearings, and a hefty steel axle; the undriven front sprockets have a steel axle too. The motors look like standard Mabuchis.
The smoker pump is driven by the same motor that traverses the turret - which is why the turret has to turn all the way to one side when the tanks get hit. The heater element inside only turns on when the tank's in I'm-hit mode; the pump works whenever you traverse the turret, but no smoke is emitted. I think all the pump does is stir the oil around on the element.
This little speaker is responsible for the awful noises. If you want blessed silence (except for the sound of the motors) then you could just snip one of its wires. You could also quite easily hack in a volume control.
You can see one of the yellow headlamp LEDs in this picture. The manufacturers didn't snip the LED leads short; instead, they intelligently used them as nice long mounting pegs, held in place with a simple plastic weld.
It's all controlled by this circuit board, a typical cheap-RC single-sided forest of discrete components, with a couple of little epoxy-blob sub-boards that're responsible for the awful sound generator.
I was impressed at how hackable the insides of these things were. Nothing important is glued in place or held with fragile plastic clips, and there's a bit of room for additions.
Robotics hobbyists, and those who just can't leave gadgets well enough alone, may find quite rich pickings here.
The Commando Challenge tanks are meant to support up to four player action, if you buy two sets. There's no "channel" switch on the tanks or controllers, though; two green or two beige tanks can't operate at the same time.
The missing piece of the puzzle here is that there's a second, different Commando Challenge set, with one grey tank and one that's... some other colour. Practically nobody seems to have seen this second set in the wild; if you can't buy it, you can't play with four people. Combat Digi-Qs support up to four player action, and have switchable channels, so any four random Digi-Qs can fight.
Interactive Toy Concepts also make a selection of Robot Challenge toys, which work basically the same way as the tanks and are supposed to be able to fight them. This is plausible; if the standard tank set uses channels 1 and 2 and the standard robot set uses channels 3 and 4, there's no problem.
The simple double sided instruction sheet (downloadable from here) that comes with the tanks explains how to operate them quite well, but says nothing about the four player mode.
I would like you to buy the Commando Challenge tanks from m'verygoodfriends at Backyard Artillery. They've got a whole page full of tanks, and I would be very pleased if you bought at least a couple of each. This is, of course, because if people follow the above affiliate links and then buy some stuff, I'll get a cut of the action.
Backyard Artillery used to charge $US69 for the Commando Challenge set; they've now dropped their price to only $US59.
Shipping isn't included, but it's pretty reasonable, considering the tanks come in a 17 by 25 by 44cm (6.75 by 10 by 17.25 inch) box (secured with a remarkable number of sturdy twist-ties, the laborious unfastening of which will drive tank-mad youngsters to distraction).
Shipping within the contiguous USA is $US8.45; air mail delivery to Australia's only $US19.95.
It would be remiss of me, however, not to mention that US buyers (at least) can pay a bit less again for these things, if they shop around.
As I write this, Sears have the tanks for $US49.99, and they're not the only ones at that price point.
(Wow - it's now more than five years since I wrote this piece, and Sears still stock the tanks! Here's the current product page.)
If you're not in the USA, though, you're out of luck; I don't think any of the fifty buck brigade ship outside the States.
If you can buy Commando Challenge tanks where you live, then you should at least check to see if you can get them cheaper than Backyard Artillery are selling them. The manufacturers have a little distributors page that may lead non-USAnians to a local dealer.
At their reduced $US59 price, though, Backyard Artillery are definitely in the running for non-US buyers. If you're outside the USA and just want to place an order right now, though, Click here to peruse their tank-y offerings.
I'm impressed with the engineering that's gone into these tanks.
It's one thing to make a super-cool toy that does all sorts of amazing things but costs so much that practically no children will ever get to play with it. It's quite another thing to make a toy that has an impressive list of genuinely fun features, and which people can actually afford to buy.
The good old multi-function, single-motor Furby is a great example of this kind of toy, and so are the Commando Challenge tanks.
They're far from perfect. Slow, noisy, tricky to control, and de facto only a two player game, since the second set of tanks seems to be perpetually unavailable. If they cost as much as the Combat Digi-Qs, they'd be a pretty ordinary product, despite their much more impressive size, light and sound show and little flying soldiers.
Even at $US69 plus shipping, they're really quite amazing; at around $US60 or even $US50, they're a steal.
Review Commando Challenge tanks kindly provided by Interactive Toy Concepts.