Not to be confused with Cinemaware’s S.D.I. which initially came out in 1986 (and whose lawyers might sue for ‘marketplace confusion’ today), 1987’s SDI was an action-packed arcade game released by Sega capitalizing on Ronald Reagan’s idea for the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Back in 1983, then-President Reagan proposed a high-tech solution to end the standoff that MAD (mutually assured destruction) was responsible for. In short, if two or more nations duke it out with nukes, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that no one will be left standing at the end.
SDI hoped to create a “winning” solution in enabling the United States to blast hostile missiles in flight before they could flash fry anyone, creating the possibility that someone could be left standing at the end. It was pure Cold War thinking.
It was also nicknamed “Star Wars” because the initiative involved things like lasers and giant reflectors in space — stuff we don’t even have today — in creating the ultimate “missile shield”. Scientists said at the time it would be years before any of it could even leave the theoretical stages of research, but the nickname stuck, money flowed in, and so did a body of work (and a nervous Soviet Union) that fantasized over its potential. Decades later, we still don’t have laser reflectors floating in space, but the US does have a ton of research on missile defensive systems as a spinoff from the smaller, less ambitious, things that did work.
Sega’s arcade game took the crazy, sci-fi route with SDI.
Somehow, an enemy nation has secretly weaponized space with moon bases, killer satellites, missiles, and other dangers, launching a sneak attack. You, as a lowly defense satellite commander, are in charge of this updated homage to Atari’s Missile Command which takes place across eleven stages of deadly chaos either alone or with a friend. Depending on the settings for the cab you were playing on, you could or couldn’t continue after losing all of your lives — and this was a tough game.
It used both a joystick and a trackball — the ‘stick was used to fly the satellite around the screen and the trackball was used to independently move the aiming cursor. The firing button was located on top of the ‘stick and like Missile Command, your bullets created destructive explosions to destroy targets with.
Stages were split in half — an “offensive”, side-scrolling phase with missiles, satellites, power-ups, and whatever else the enemy wanted to throw at players against the backdrop of space. The flyer touted that “…unlike the conventional arcade machine, where avoiding the hostile forces and their armament is the major factor in survival, the SDI emphasizes destroying as many of the enemy and his smart missiles as is humanly possible.” It was almost like a distant ancestor to Treasure’s 2001 hit, Ikaruga, where enemy bullets could be absorbed instead of avoided depending on the polarity of your ship.
But instead of shifting polarities in SDI, you just had to blow up as much as you could because if any of it got by you, it added to the DANGER bar on the bottom of the screen. After finishing the Offense phase, a shuttle comes by to pick up your satellite.
It then drops you off in the second half of the stage, the DEFENSE phase, which took place in a stationary stage as you blew up warheads that came raining down from above. Failing that meant that you would lose your “state” and if you had no lives left, ended the game. If you succeeded, a shuttle came by to pick you up again and start the whole thing over with a new stage, a few new tricks (such as missiles coming up from below), and more enemies.
SDI was also ported over to Sega’s Master System. Stripped down visually and difficulty-wise, it still retains the spirit of the arcade game but working the controls adapted to a gamepad without a trackball turns it into something of an awkward experience. The D-pad moves your satellite, one button fires, and holding down another button allows the D-pad to move the aiming cursor instead of the satellite.
While it was nice to see it on the Master System, it’s not the prettiest game — or the most fun — when you look at other games such as Zillion or another arcade adaptation from Sega, Quartet (which only had two players instead of four-way play and a few other cosmetic changes). For the most part, SDI was a ho hum shooter with an kludgy control scheme.
The game would return in a Japan-only compilation for the PS2, Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol. 21, featuring the arcade versions of both SDI and Quartet (though still with only two players). However, this time around, SDI took advantage of the PS2 controller’s dual stick configuration as a first undoubtedly making it much easier to play.
It might not have been the greatest game in the arcade, or an exciting shooter on the Master System, but it stands out as another dramatic take on what Ronald Reagan wanted to add to the Arsenal of Democracy. We might not have giant mirrors in space and laser cannons capable of blasting ICBMs from the sky, or space missiles flying from the Moon to duck and cover from, but with games like SDI, we won’t need them, either.