Though no one in 1987 could have guessed that the Cold War would flame out only four years later in 1991 with the final, gasping end of the Soviet Union, it didn’t keep the entertainment industry from fantasizing on what would have happened if it had turned hot. One of the biggest fantasies to emerge from the 80s was Ronald Reagan’s Space Defense Initiative, SDI, or as it was nicknamed, “Star Wars.”
It was proposed in ’83 as a means to tweak the concept of mutually assured destruction holding both superpowers at bay by giving the United States a defensive edge making the USSR’s offensive missile strategy obsolete. All of their rockets would be useless if the US could shoot them down from the ground or from space with a ‘missile shield.’
SDI would involve things like lasers and and killer satellites — the kind of stuff that would remain “Star Wars” long after the Cold War had ended and which Hollywood would poke plenty of fun at with films such as 1985’s Spies Like Us. Even games like Milton Bradley’s 1986 board game, Fortress America, had envisioned an invasion of the US which had to defend itself using both conventional forces and a laser array.
That’s where game developers like Cosmi would also come in. Cosmi was founded in the opening years of the PC revolution in ’82, though they seemed to keep a much lower profile than contemporaries such as SSI and Origin with a smaller selection of simple, cheap titles with a few notable hits like Forbidden Forest in ’83 and their Super Huey series. Despite support for the Atari 7800 with Super Huey UH-IX, Cosmi seemed to have sat out the console revolution, but they’re still around and are now focused on mobile titles and value focused software under the ValuSoft label.
Cosmi earned points for some unique ideas though the execution of a few of them weren’t quite as exciting as the premise. Their “Chernobyl simulator” in ’87 was interesting as a unique topic to build a simulation around though not quite as fun. The same can also be said for DEF CON 5 which also appeared in the same year capitalizing on Ronnie Raygun’s SDI dreams.
DEF CON 5’s title takes after the US designation for “defense readiness condition” (DEFCON). At 5, everything’s hunky dory. At 1, it’s time to break out the million-SPF tanning lotion. It was also a radically different game for Paul Norman who was responsible for the iconic Forbidden Forest and Super Huey but fell squarely into his itch to create simulations around topics that people could only wonder about such as with Chernobyl.
Things start out pretty utilitarian in the same way Activision’s Hacker series would in giving the player the bare necessities and letting them figure everything out on their own. The difference is that Cosmi’s DEF CON 5 never quite manages to find the right balance between overwhelming the player with too much information and the in-game tools with which to experiment and figure things out without getting bored in the process.
The manual is rife with enough acronyms and abbreviations to make the US military blush in filling the gaps of where SDI’s classified and redacted fantasy ended and Paul Norman’s game began crammed with ‘authentic’ instructions detailing the network of defense components making up the United States’ first and last line of defense from GCLs (Ground-based chemical lasers) to ASMs (Anti-Space-Mine-Robots).
While it does a superb job in giving the player more than enough fluff to envision themselves as a remote operator whose PC is keyed into a defense network as a redundancy measure, procedures and steps dealing with in-game situations are absolutely lacking. It’s like staring at a disassembled stereo and reading something that sounds like a sales brochure other than actual instructions. If the KGB had somehow assassinated all of the experienced SDI operators in the world leaving the new hire brought in just yesterday (you) in charge with no clue on what to do, this is what it manages to successfully simulate right from the start.
The system will do absolutely nothing, for example, except count time like a glorified clock if you don’t step through the procedure on how to actually hook into the defense network. DEFCON doesn’t even change unless that happens which is kind of bizarre. The USSR’s dreams of mutually assured destruction go undreamt without you actually turning the key.
The way SDI is setup here is that it turns your PC into a vital link capable of controlling the entire system. There’s a code that needs to be punched in to start the system, setting the time in military notation, and then finally tying into a nearby microlink station. After that, there are brief in-game instructions (that you need to find on your own using the controls) that do a good job in describing what has to be done than in being instructive.
Still, the subject matter was fascinating stuff especially during the Cold War’s heyday despite the pieces never quite falling together as well as one of SSI’s military sims or a good CRPG. Aside from the C64 version in ’87, it was also ported over to DOS. It would also be brought over to the Amiga in ’88. But after that, like many of Cosmi’s titles, it would find itself wandering the tubes as another part of the shady world of abandonware.
Years later, the Cold War continued to inspire new games from Westwood’s Red Alert series for Command & Conquer to Introversion’s RTS take in 2006 appropriately named DEFCON whose sobering and distilled treatment of WW3 strategy as seen through the lens of WarGames simulates what Cosmi’s title tried to do with its hardcore approach to simulation. Cosmi’s title had almost done the same thing years earlier and would have been about as fun if it didn’t try too hard at being as hard to approach as the “real” thing.