Cold War memories from the past – High Frontier

This plain, white ad by Activision that ran in Computer & Video Games magazine in 1987 was pretty sparse on the pics but big on texting up the premise.

When President Ronald Reagan announced his SDI initiative in 1983, it set off a fanciful firestorm in Hollywood and elsewhere as it quickly earned the nickname “Star Wars” for its incredibly ambitious and high-tech ideas.

SDI, or the “Strategic Defense Initiative”, was a collaboration of technologies meant to break the stalemate caused by MAD (mutually assured destruction) that theoretically guaranteed that everyone involved in a nuclear argument would be wiped out. In being able to blast Soviet ICBMs out of the sky before they could even threaten the American heartland (and all of the silos sitting there), it was argued that not only could someone survive, but survive to finish the job.

It was the kind of Cold War rainbow that may have helped some military strategists sleep better at night. At least if you were working for Uncle Sam.

For the game space, it was rich material. Satellites in space, killer lasers on the ground, subs, warheads — plenty of bits and bobs for arcade blast ’em ups like Sega’s SDI or hard simulators like Cosmi’s DEF CON 5 which also came out in 1987 and went head to head with Activision’s take. But the one thing that Activision’s sim remembered compared to Cosmi’s game was in sacrificing just enough realism to be sort of fun.

Activision’s High Frontier was reminiscent of Hacker by Steve Cartwright in ’85 which flirted with the concept of “hacking” as it was known back in the 80s, splicing it in with conspiratorial sci-fi and setting players loose to figure things out on their own without a manual because as the box suggested, there wasn’t one for that sort of thing.

High Frontier, on the other hand, came with a manual that actually explored some of the better known concepts of the SDI program (it even had a short bibliography listing the books the designers looked at), albeit with quite a bit of artistic license to make it work within a game scenario. Here, players were placed in charge of an SDI program of their own, responsible for doing things such as keeping an eye on the Soviet Union via satellites, budgeting manpower and money for research and development of weapons like SLAM missiles and laser satellites, launching said weapons, and checking in with the President when they call in.

That satellite is working to defend freedom!

(Amstrad) That satellite is working to defend freedom!

The game was released for the Amstrad CPC, the ZX Spectrum, and the Commodore 64 on cassette tapes and disk in 1987 with varying, cosmetic differences between the three. The Amstrad CPC version, in particular, was packed with sound effects and neat visuals though the ZX Spectrum was also quite functional even if it didn’t look as fancy or sound as good as the Amstrad or the Commodore 64 versions did. For example, the Commodore and Amstrad versions had a fancy title screen which was oddly omitted on the ZX Spectrum.

Starting out, the player was presented with a big screen of choices where they could set the attitudes of the Soviet and American leaders to be either Hawks, Doves, or Realists. Making both Hawks will escalate things pretty quickly (though a Hawk President will tend to spend more money on SDI) while realists will take a tad longer to reach for that final option. As the manual notes, you can’t have both become “Doves” to which it also adds “hopefully this is not true of the real world”. In this game, conflict is inevitable and it’s always the Soviets that start it.

Hawk? Dove? Realist? It's all up to you. The difficulty levels also add in extra ICBMs, warheads, and decoys among other things to really try and overwhelm the unprepared.

(Amstrad) Hawk? Dove? Realist? It’s all up to you. The higher difficulty levels also add in extra ICBMs, warheads, and decoys among other things to really try and overwhelm the unprepared.

Difficulty affects a number of things in the game such as how many decoy warheads are thrown at your defenses to fool them into letting a few real ones through. Lastly, you can opt to start playing things out or jump into Orbit and practice shooting things down manually if you don’t want the computer to handle everything when the action starts.

Time for a little shooting practice.

(Amstrad) Time for a little shooting practice. That blocky blue stuff below is supposed to be the Earth rolling by.

 

Once that’s all settled, it’s time to check out the control panel from which you’ll run SDI.

Everything’s run using the icon system via a joystick or keyboard and all you really need to do is pick which category to take care of, do what you need to do, and then click on the “globe” icon to move time ahead and see what happens next. That’s the basic flow.

(Amstrad) Here's the global view as time flies by. The bottom right moves time in monthly increments, so you might be at this job for years before an attack actually happens.

(Amstrad) Here’s the global view as time flies by. The bottom right measures time in monthly increments, so you might be at this job for years before an attack actually happens.

(ZX Spectrum) It might not have been as pretty as the Amstrad or the Commodore 64, but I kind of preferred the abstract visuals in some ways.

(ZX Spectrum) It might not have been as pretty as the Amstrad or the Commodore 64, but the abstract visuals still had their own character, especially with the digital font working overtime.

Of course, things are a lot more involved in “doing what you need to do” since it’s up to you to get things ready. The icons along the bottom of the screen each have their own special functions. From left to right:

  • Phone – this lights up when the President calls in to ask how effective you think the SDI system will be in shooting down enemy ICBMs. Depending on your answer, the President will either allocate more or less funds to the program. Saying that it’s a 100% effective could cut your budget, while giving the President too low a number might make him lose faith in the program.When things get antsy, the President will also call in and give you the arm/disarm codes for your satellite systems — that is, if you’ve managed to get any into orbit before things go too far.
  • Globe – this advances time in the game
  • Shield and Sword – this is where you can arm/disarm the SDI systems you have in place, initiate launches for those that you’ve built in R&D, or take direct control via the Orbit option
  • Calculator – R&D, where the magic is made
  • Satellite camera – where you allocate cameras to focus on what in the Soviet Union to get an idea of what to plan for
  • Skull – flash messages informing you on important Soviet activities, such as whether they’re massing at the borders or conducting war games
Here, I've allocated manpower and money to build up lasers and railguns. Throwing extra money at a project may even attract free agents that are like free people. The giant "White House" icon is what you use to drop men and money down into whatever weapon you want to develop.

(Amstrad) Here, I’ve allocated manpower and money to build up lasers and railguns. Throwing extra money at a project may even attract free agents that are like free people. The giant “White House” icon is what you use to drop men and money down into whatever weapon you want to develop.

"We're, ah, not TOO confident that our system can knock out all of their missiles. But with a little more money..."

(Amstrad) “We’re, ah, not TOO confident that our system can knock out all of their missiles. But with a little more money…”

The center of the screen is dominated by whatever information the panel you select wants to display. The left bar running vertically along the edge of the screen are icons reserved for the ATTACK display when under attack. From top to bottom, those icons represent:

  • Number of Soviet ICBMs heading your way
  • Soviet ICBMs destroyed
  • Soviet warheads approaching
  • Soviet warheads destroyed
  • hits on the United States
  • urban areas hit within the United States
Hooray! I've got enough of a system ready to start launching satellites into space!

(Amstrad) Hooray! I’ve got enough railgun satellites ready to start launching them into space! This only happens after several turns, though. It’s not “research and deploy immediately after”.

On the right side of the screen is a listing of all of the defense systems that you’ve managed to get into orbit. From top to bottom:

  • Laser satellites
  • Rail guns
  • SLAM missiles
  • X-ray laser satellite
  • space plane (manned satellites)
  • battle management system (effective at attacking warheads that have re-entered the atmosphere)

It’s a lot of information! But in reality, it’s also a lot of window dressing. As the manual suggests, and as a viable strategy in playing the game, you can’t build everything — focusing on only a few systems at a time is a lot more useful than spreading the money you get along with the manpower too thinly.

To add to the challenge, each particular system is good at zapping specific types of weapons and a limit of how many you can have of each in orbit. Laser satellites, for example, are great against missiles and warheads, but you can only have 100 of these in orbit. Space planes are pretty mediocre against missiles and okay against warheads, but they can actually maintain the other satellites you have in orbit freeing up money from maintenance costs.

Spying on the Rodina is as easy as assigning how many points you want to focus on finding out what missiles, subs, or warheads the Soviets have aimed at you.

(Amstrad) Spying on the Rodina is as easy as assigning how many points you want to focus on finding out what missiles, subs, or warheads the Soviets have aimed at you.

Playing a typical game involves going back and forth from the screens that need your attention indicated by a yellow bar at the top of their button and most of your time will be spent allocating money and people to develop systems, satellite cams to get an idea of what the Soviets are building, and waiting for the next phase as the months roll by. Eventually, the Cold War will start to heat up.

When the Skull lights up, it means the Soviets are up to something.

(Amstrad) When the Skull lights up, it means the Soviets are up to something. The gauge above shows how close to peace (the heart) or war (mushroom cloud) they seem to be. It could just be an exercise…or a prelude to war. I hope you’ve got those systems ready.

When things start getting serious, the President will eventually issue you the arm and disarm codes for the SDI systems that you have up in orbit, so keep an eye on that phone icon — when war breaks out and your systems are in space doing nothing, whose fault is that?

Yes, you'll really need to write down the codes.

(Amstrad) Yes, you’ll really need to write down the codes.

(Amstrad) It’s all up to your defenses now! In some ways, a game like this is a distant ancestor to today’s tower defense titles.

Already a step ahead of you, Chief!

(Amstrad) Already a step ahead of you, Chief!

When the actual attack is launched, time no longer speeds by. Instead, the clock in the bottom right hand corner is replaced with a live countdown to the first impacts by Soviet ICBMs. While it’s counting down, you can watch it all from the global screen and keep your fingers crossed that you’ve got enough systems in place to handle the radioactive rain coming your way.

You can even take control of the satellites yourself and start firing away in an arcade simulation if you don’t trust the CPU and the odds.

Things aren't looking too good. The reason for having a lot of satellites in orbit is because the Soviets will shoot as many of them down as they can. Right now, my laser satellites are almost all gone.

(Amstrad) Things aren’t looking too good. The reason for having a lot of satellites in orbit is because the Soviets will shoot as many of them down as they can. Right now, my laser satellites are almost all gone.

(Amstrad) When it looks like some Soviet warheads will make it through, the President will ask if they need to launch their ICBMs in retaliation. This will affect your score if you say yes, which I did here. Note the little mushroom cloud icon in the bottom right of the world screen. That will count up the number of craters you leave on the USSR.

(Amstrad) Contact with NATO lost, parts of America are a smoking, radioactive wasteland. War…war never changes.

(Amstrad) In one game, I didn’t do so well. I guess I should have launched those ICBMs. Sorry, Mr. President! The “inquest” screen tallies up how effective your defenses were which, in this case, weren’t. I only knocked out 225 warheads. That’s terrible.

I did a lot better in this game! I even gave the launch order and scored pretty good despite that. I like the question mark at the end of “victory”…as if there could really be any kind of victory in a nuclear war.

When it comes to SDI sims attempting to grapple with both the tech and the moral questions of nuclear war while remaining rooted as an accessible game, High Frontier doesn’t do a half bad job. While a lot of this information can seem like too much, the gameplay was simple enough leaving much of what the manual did similar to what many others have also done in those days — excite the player’s imagination. There’s no real shortage of SDI talk in the manual and it doesn’t try to confuse the hell out of players when it comes to describing the game mechanics.

But that was this kind of text-heavy approach in pulp and it was an approach that, like many others, Activision had previously taken with Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers in ’86 with a manual filled with tech geekery that served only as a backdrop to the actual gameplay providing a tangible connection to its world.

For a few minutes of play (my games typically seemed to go around fifteen or so minutes and there was even a save system in place), the game seemed worth the relatively low price it retailed at. In the UK, the Amstrad and C64 tape versions retailed at £9.99 with the disk at £14.99. The Spectrum’s came in at £7.99 according to this excerpt from Computer + Video Games from the World of Spectrum. Gameplay-wise, it certainly felt as if its mechanics had a lot more meat on its bones than New World Computing’s Nuclear War which retailed around $34 USD, though Nuclear War’s manual was certainly a lot funnier to read through.

High Frontier also seems to be a relatively unknown game — at least from the US side. Over in the UK, it seems to be much better known featuring ads in C+VG such as the one above.

I’m not even sure if it came out in the United States at all which is a too bad. High Frontier’s not a bad take on the fanciful notions surrounding SDI, tackling the topic with equal parts gameplay, strategy, and a bit of thought on the part of the manual. We might not have railguns floating in space or x-ray lasers powered by nuclear bombs overhead, either, but thanks to games like High Frontier, we can safely play with these toys without necessarily changing the course of human history.

Incidentally, there’s actually an outfit out there called High Frontier that continues to promote Ronald Reagan’s “vision of defending the United States through Missile Defense” founded by who some call the “Father of SDI”, Lt. General Daniel O. Graham. I’m not sure if the two are related, or if the title of the game was simply inspired by what the designers had dug up on SDI, but it’s an interesting twist.

There’s even an old promo from the 80s that talks about the “High Frontier” defense system:

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