It was 1989, a year of big changes in Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall and what seemed to be a rolling end to Communism in Eastern Europe. The Cold War seemed to be winding down. But thanks to New World Computing, it wouldn’t go out with a whimper — instead, if they had their way, it would laugh itself to death.
Nuclear War’s satirical take on the Cold War smashes together facsimiles of some of its biggest players in a stripped down face-to-face distilled into what really mattered — nukes, bombers, laser defense nets, and smiley faces. As its intro for the Amiga demonstrates, if video games were around when Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove hit theaters, this might have been a tie-in.
The game came out for MS-DOS PCs and the Commodore Amiga. The biggest difference between the two was in the lavish intro that the Amiga received — beautiful company logo and a short, animated intro paying homage to Kubrick’s dark Cold War comedy. This was developed by Eric Hyman and, as a short sabbatical from dungeons, Might & Magic’s own Jon Van Caneghem. Nuclear War, copyright-wise, goes back to 1965’s card game by Douglas Malewicki which New World Computing’s title is literally a direct descendant of. Like its 1989 digital descendant, Malewicki’s Nuclear War dared to poke fun at something no one really wanted to laugh at decades earlier, pushing the boundaries in the gaming space much like how Kubrick’s film had for cinema.
But essentially, both games looked and played relatively the same. In Nuclear War, players picked from four, AI controlled world leaders to compete against. Each one had their own curious idiosyncrasies and it didn’t take a nuclear engineer to guess just who they were based on. The manual even laid a bio out for each one.
The game was also a big box release — New World Computing liked big boxes along with a number of other devs during PC gaming’s halcyon years in retail — and came with a poster of the box cover (which was different from the ad above, showing a bikini-clad beach goer lying on a towel and getting a mushroom cloud tan instead).
There was Mikhail Gorbachef who earned that spot on his head after spilled soda was burned into it after a nuclear accident. Ronnie Reagan who has great charisma, had a monkey named Nancy, and often takes naps. Tricky Dick could “sell hamburgers to a Hindu”. Ghanji was a “spaced-out musician and herb farmer” who now leads a nuclear armed nation. Ten different leaders in all will vie for your attention — or the nukes you send their way.
Once picking the four leaders that you’ll do battle with, it’s time to get into the game which uses ye olde “word lookup” copy protection asking players for a specific word located in a specific column on a specific page. Once that’s typed in, it’s time to get down and dirty with the AI.
To say that the mechanics are accessible is an understatement. There literally is too much manual for the game which, if you like something nice to read, isn’t a bad thing since it helps fill out the humor especially in reading through the bios for each of the world leaders and for the great illustrations showing off the weapons that you can arm your tiny country with. Each weapon even has a nickname from the 10 megaton (that’s ten million pounds of TNT) warhead “affectionately called ‘Boom-Boom'” to a monster missile (called the Pacifier Missile) that can wield a 100 megaton warhead. Different sizes of warheads can also only travel on missiles (or bombers) big enough for them, but you can choose the size of whatever weapon you want to send by express mail before ending your turn if not the type of weapons being automatically built.
So now you’ve got four world leaders looking back at you from four monitors with a big one in the center of the screen showing your country. Cities are represented by icons that change depending on their population. Cities with 1-4 million people look like green tents, cottages represent cities with 10-19 million people, and big cities have 30 million people or more, and so on. These are essentially the hit points for your country and once they’re all gone, that’s it…sort of.
You’ve got a few things that you can do to tilt the odds in your favor. First is diplomacy. That’s set by clicking on the smily face icon in the corner of a leader’s monitor to pick the mood that you’re dealing with them in. An angry smiley face might be appealing to more warlike leaders but piss off ones that are bit a more peaceful, for example, and during the course of the game, their facial expressions will reflect how they feel about you in general along with a number rating. At 50, a leader is pretty neutral towards you. The lower it goes, the more annoyed they’ll be and the higher it is, the more leeway they’ll give you for doing things like building up a massive arsenal of death.
You can do an action every turn deciding on whether to “build” (which automatically constructs weapons such as warheads, missiles, bombers, and defenses that round) or “propaganda” towards a particular country which might entice a number of citizens (in the millions) to come over to yours and build up your cities. Of course, actions do have consequences — use too much propaganda against a nation and you could end up trading warheads. Build up too much of a massive arsenal, and the other world leaders might start thinking of ways to stunt your growth with a few gamma rays.
There are also strange events that can cause havoc. Earthquakes can destroy entire cities, giant weights can fall from the skies crushing them, or immigrants and defectors can flee to your country bolstering the bodies in your cities. Perhaps a new fertility drug spurs a massive population explosion.
There’s also no approval process in place — if you want to start lobbing weapons or building up a titanic arsenal, the only thing you really need to worry about is whether the other world leaders will jump in at once or one at a time. Or attack each other first. All that matters is who is left standing at the end and how many people in their country survive to determine the score at the end.
The strategy comes into play in trying to get the other leaders wipe each other out, or placate them enough via the vague smiley face icon diplomacy thing, and build up your arsenal and population. There is no “world peace” mode — it ultimately will come down to who can nuke the others into oblivion first.
And that’s pretty much the gameplay in a nutshell. It’s simple stuff and games don’t last hours which is a good thing as there isn’t a save feature in place. This was something that you can play a few minutes at a time which, admittedly, isn’t a whole lot for how much the game used to go for at retail at roughly $34 USD.
Years later, in 2006, Introversion touched on the same concept with DEFCON which added a lot more strategy to a more somber take on the topic of nuclear annihilation. Viewed years after the end of the Cold War, it’s interesting to compare the two which were so similar in gameplay but differed greatly in their approach to the same material.
Nuclear War was conceived at the tail-end of the Cold War painting it with the kind of irreverent attitude prevalent in the 80s that had tired of worrying too much about nukes and chose instead to embrace anything else that didn’t make mutually assured destruction such a dinner table conversation with its satire. DEFCON, on the other hand, quietly depressed players with its eerie audio backdrop of a sobbing woman as CPUs coldly calculated losses on their screens, relaying them with line art inspired by the scene of NORAD’s command room screens from 1983’s WarGames.
For others, it was a refreshing break from the hyper-seriousness of nuclear winters and mass extinction much like arcade takes such as Access’ Raid Over Moscow or Cinemaware’s S.D.I. had also deconstructed in their own ways. New World Computing took the seriousness, twisted it up into a knot, and dared to do something with it for a new generation of gamers. It might not be the greatest game, it might not even have justified its price at the time for how little game there really was in there, but it’s a satirical taste of the Cold War that chooses not to dwell on what everyone already knows about ICBM-enhanced tanning techniques.