Cinemaware set out to dominate the eyeballs and imaginations of players with movie-like graphics and cinematics filling the moments in between shots of gameplay. Disks were labeled “reels” and were referred to as such in the instructions. Lavish intros, music, and cut scenes added atmospheric touches to their titles whether they were set in medieval times as in the case of their debut title, Defender of the Crown in ’86, or the Nazi-busting Rocket Ranger in ’88. Or a fanciful take on Ronald Reagan’s Space Defense Initiative, or SDI, conjured up at the height of the Cold War during the 80s.
A little history: SDI was supposed to be America’s ultimate defensive weapon, a collection of high-tech widgets on the ground and in space working in concert to pew pew nukes that even winked at George Washington in the wrong way. What use were the USSR’s missiles if we had lasers and satellites that could shoot them down? It’s no wonder Reagan would later earn the nickname “Ronnie Raygun.”
Granted, even a number of scientists charged with developing the technology thought the most dramatic pieces were nothing but a pipe dream whose only tangible contribution was in nicknaming SDI “Star Wars.” A lot of the promises it made are still the stuff of sci-fi even today, but a number of other pieces that proved to be a lot more viable than killer satellites did trickle down into other programs.
But you won’t find space-based F-59 fighters or NORAD defense bunkers in orbit, even by 2017 when the game actually takes place (and during which the Soviet Union had never fallen). In Cinemaware’s S.D.I., KGB extremists have taken over bases, missile silos, and other military facilities in the USSR and are threatening to attack unless the US gives up — wait for it — S.D.I. and are trying to force the Kremlin to capitulate to their coup.
Of course, both the US and Kremlin refuse giving the KGB the excuse they need to flip out and launch space fighters to bring down our satellite defenses paving the way for missiles to come in and give instant tans to the American public and spark WW3.
There’s even a lovely “damsel in distress” who just happens to be the Soviet commander doing her best to resist the KGB coup in her own space station on the other side of the world as the legitimate Soviet government in the Kremlin desperately tries to hold onto power. This was a game that wanted to blend romance, high stakes, fast action, and sumptuous graphics taking players on a movie-like sleigh ride into the jaws of WW3 unless they can stop it. But was it good?
It certainly looked great but as far as it played, it was something of a mixed bag depending on the platform you played it on. It debuted in ’86 on the Atari ST and then was later ported over to the Amiga and DOS-based machines in ’87 with varying levels of quality. Back then, platform parity wasn’t so much of a sticking point as it has become today between consoles and PCs. It wasn’t unusual to see incredibly huge differences between ports as each one played up the strengths of whatever system they were brought to.
Just look at the visual differences between the Amiga version and the DOS one:
Gameplay kicked off after the intro with our hero, Sloan McCormick, standing at attention at the command center overlooking several screens. The game could be controlled with either the keyboard or joystick and it was up to you to decide what to do first. Different screens opened up different options — there was a scanner for threats, one for lasing incoming missiles over the United States, and another to show the status of your satellite network. Clicking on the commander sent him down the elevator shaft into the launch bay and out into space to do battle with Soviet space fighters.
When satellites get damaged, flying around out there also gives you the opportunity to magically repair them (as long as you remember to bring up the repair reticle, target, and then fire at them initiating a kind of ‘healing beam’ effect) filling in the gaps of your defensive network. If you don’t, then it’s time to head back to the space station and prepare to defend US cities from incoming missiles. After that’s done, it’s back out into space.
Shooting bad guys in space is tempered by how much your surprisingly durable fighter can take and how much energy you’ve got left. Components can also get damaged, such as your lasers, turning you into a giant, flying target. Even your sensor radar can get knocked out blinding you to the location of the satellites and your home station which is a really bad spot to be in because returning to the space station via the docking procedure is the only way to fix your ship — and to not die out in space by running out of fuel.
The problem is that flying around in space is something of a mixed bag. You can control your speed and have a shield for protection, but you don’t have to worry about burning up in the atmosphere — at least I didn’t despite nosing down and hitting the hard limit for the floor. You also don’t get any missiles which is a weird omission to make, but the Soviet XB3 fighters tend to swarm together in bunches making things somewhat easier to manage. This arcadey part of the game is actually not too bad though it can get pretty overwhelming in a hurry.
Occasionally, the Soviet renegades will do two things — launch additional fighters into space or launch an ICBM strike.
DOS users actually get something of a bonus here with an exclusive feature. When the renegades decide to launch Soviet fighters from the surface, you can bring up a map of Russia to target specific bases or talk to the Soviet commander for intel on eliminating potential targets. You can only target two cities at any one time before the clock runs out, and then a short cinematic plays out to show how successful your guess was. Neither the Amiga or Atari ST versions seem to have this feature.
Things really get heated when ICBMs are launched though there are also differences here in between the versions. With the DOS version, you can either trust SDI defense to your second-in-command or try to handle shooting them down yourself in another mini-game. In the Atari ST and Amiga versions, it was all up to you with no one to hand things off to.
There were also subtle differences between the versions within this mini-game, too. The Atari ST version, for example, lobbed a wave of ICBMs at the US, but the missiles didn’t duck and weave as much as they did on the DOS version’s targeting screen which only threw one ICBM at a time at the player.
Surviving that, it’s rinse and repeat everything above. Later, the renegades will attempt to attack your space station which you’ll need to defend by hopping into your F-59 or the friendly Soviet station under the command of until the finale which I didn’t get a chance to arrive at and which sounds like it could’ve been the best part of the game.
According to a review by Computer Gaming World, eventually, players will need to rescue their Soviet counterpart in what is described as a time-limited mission when you dock with her space station. There, players will need to fight through three stages, one of which is a first-person shooting gallery, to defeat all of the Soviet renegades in your way. Take too long, and she dies. Succeed, and you get to relive the scene on the box cover of the two embracing as the good guys finally win after a little mopping up.
S.D.I. was given a pass by CGW though a few fans have also voiced their impressions on it as the least impressive of Cinemaware’s titles both because of the insane difficulty and generally repetitive gameplay. The visuals, however, were given top marks — except perhaps for the DOS version of the game — for both the Atari ST and Amiga version. The Atari ST version, in particular, looks fantastic although the Amiga edges it out in both sound and visuals with a few new touches. Unfortunately, like a number of Cinemaware’s other titles, S.D.I. never really found a second life on digital download services or as a remake.
As an interesting side note, according to MobyGames’ trivia entry for S.D.I., the game ended up on Germany’s “Index” or BPjS (BPjM today) list in 1987 which attached legal restrictions to the game in addition to whatever rating it was given. Essentially, it would have been illegal for the game to have been advertised to the public in any form making it purchasable “by request” or under the counter only. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the kind of censorship that Raid Over Moscow potentially faced in Finland in 1985 demonstrating how particularly sensitive Cold War topics in titles such as these were to the political climate of the time. Ironically in Finland’s case, the controversy over Raid Over Moscow (which avoided being banned in the end) spurred it into being a top selling game for the C64 there.
S.D.I. had some interesting ideas that were swamped by repetition, all-too-frustrating docking controls, and gameplay that didn’t seem as deep as that found in Cinemaware’s other titles like Defender of the Crown’s conquest mode or Rocket Ranger’s resource management battles taking place across the world.
It looked good on at least two platforms living up to the Cinemaware standard, though the essential elements of the gameplay followed through all three versions with slight tweaks between each (and the addition of bonus material for DOS users). It might not have been the hottest ticket in town compared to its peers, but as a piece of Cold War inspired entertainment riding on the big budgeted thrill of Reagan’s take on Star Wars, it certainly looked good while trying to fill the part.