Cold War memories from the past – WarGames

Unlike the movie that it takes after, players assume control of NORAD and attempt to defend the continental United States from “aggressor” attack instead of convincing an AI that war is futile. (box picture credit: Coleco Box Art)

Considered by many to be one of the godfathers of hacker movies, WarGames, dramatically introduced a generation of moviegoers to the power of the computer. Instead of an action hero, it starred a kid whose smarts accidentally land him in hot water when he unknowingly stumbles upon a backdoor line into NORAD’s central computer and nearly starts WW3.

John Badham’s 1983 film starring Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, and Dabney Coleman capitalized on the personal computer revolution by charging imaginations at a time when the video game console market was about to implode. That makes this next game seemed almost doomed to failure when it arrived roughly a year later in 1984 for the ColecoVision and the Adam. But it also found its way to the Atari 8-bit computer and the Commodore 64.

WarGames doesn’t even follow the actual storyline from the film. Instead, as the manual and the back of the box actually lay out, you’re commanding NORAD and are in charge of defending the continental US from subs, bombers, and incoming ICBMs using everything at your disposal to protect bases and cities from annihilation. If too many cities and bases get nuked, NORAD will automatically launch an “IOBM” (apparently a typo) counterstrike where everyone loses.

Aside from the title, this is really the only other thing it has in common with the movie.

Aside from the title, this is really the only other thing it has in common with the movie.

If you think political correctness has gotten bad today, the ColecoVision manual for WarGames could pass as another poster child with its overt omission of anything Soviet-related. The enemy is simply called “the aggressor”  despite the film making it extremely clear who the two sides are in this nuclear dust-up. And come on — this was during the Cold War. Who else could it have been?

It’s not as if they were going to sell the game in the USSR anyway, but CBS Electronics apparently hedged their political bets on a topic that developers catering to their audience on PCs were far more up front about with countless simulations and arcade titles gleefully painting the Red Bear as the ultimate bad guy.

For the ColecoVision, the game came with an overlay (similar to what a few others had also done) for its unique controllers. ColecoVision controllers consisted of an analog stick merged with a number pad with buttons on the sides.

The ColecoVision's controllers were pretty sophisticated for the time and aimed to provide a lot of interactivity via the number pad which WarGames used to great effect.

The ColecoVision’s controllers were pretty sophisticated for the time and aimed to provide a lot of interactivity via the number pad which WarGames used to great effect.

In addition to the the controller above, the game also supported a trackball setup where two players could cooperate, one acting as a “Strategic Commander” and another as the “Field Commander”. The Strategic Commander essentially uses the keypad to select which sector to focus on while the Field Commander picks and uses the appropriate weapons.

Here's the trackball setup. The only thing missing are the missile keys.

Here’s the trackball setup. The only thing missing are the missile keys.

The main goal of the game was to try and keep the Total DEFCON status from reaching 1 at which point, a special timer starts counting down next to the status rating for when an ICBM retaliatory strike will be unleashed unless you can turn the tide somehow to bring it back up.

But the clock players will be focusing on is the one counting down how long it is until the actual attack is over at the end of which you’re given your final score if anything manages to survive.

Total DEFCON status is derived from the average DEFCON of the six sectors you need to defend all of which start at 5:

  • Pacific Northwest
  • Midwest and the Plains States
  • New England
  • Southwest
  • Midwest and Gulf States
  • Southeast

Each sector has a number of assets ranging from ABMs (anti-ballistic missiles), bomber bases, and if they’re on the coast, subs. There’s also a satellite that roams the skies that’s like the ultimate weapon option when it shows up as it’s capable of shooting down anything you target with it with SDI-like lasers. Pew pew!

The first few warheads will be dropping by for lunch anytime now. All you have to do is try and save as much of the US as you can as the clock counts down.

The first few warheads will be dropping by for lunch anytime now. All you have to do is try and save as much of the US as you can as the clock counts down.

When a sector is brought up, players can opt to pick what they can use to blast enemy ICBMs from the sky before they impact their target, whatever it might be. After picking what you want to use, it’s time to aim the crosshairs at where you want it to go. All you have to do with a bomber is target it at another bomber or missile and it’ll take care of it by just touching it. Subs will do the same thing to subs.

ABMs, however, do it Missile Command style by exploding where you target, hopefully taking out or blocking off whatever it was in the way of, though they have limited range. The satellite on the other hand has unlimited range and is a huge advantage when it shows up in a sector you really need it in.

Things are getting a bit hairy in the Midwest...

Things are getting a bit hairy in the central United States. The black, pointy warheads are ABM sites and the white plane is an enemy bomber. The blue planes are bombers still on the ground — you can only control one weapon system at a time.

Texas and the Great Plains aren't looking too good, either...

Texas and the Great Plains aren’t looking too good, either. It looks like Houston and New Orleans are going to get permanent tans in a few seconds.

If it sounds really action oriented, it’s because it is, and the challenge lies in juggling through everything to blast the bad guys long enough to survive makes something of a uniquely fun game, especially with eight difficulty levels, co-op, and scoring in play. At higher levels of difficulty, there’s a lot more to worry about.

Cease-fire achieved. In the game, the goal is to buy time and stop the war, though I'm not sure how forgiving the US would be if it lost as many cities as it did in this round of play to not retaliate.

In the game, the goal is to buy time and stop the war, though I’m not sure how forgiving any country would be if it lost as many cities as it did in this round of play.

This also wasn’t the only game based on the famous film. Years later, in 1998 during the height of the Sony Playstation, WarGames: DEFCON 1 came out from Interactive Studios for MGM Interactive as a sort of sequel to the film that saw the WOPR (War Operations Plan Response; the AI from the original film in charge of all of the nukes) resurrected and allowing players to either campaign as the military AI or as the human resistance in an RTS that wasn’t actually half-bad.

WarGames may not stick to the script of the famous film, but it’s also not a bad game for the ColecoVision. In some ways, it’s also another distant ancestor to a few other titles that came out in later years from New World Computing’s Nuclear War in 1989 to Introversion’s DEFCON in 2006, sharing some of the same elements. But as a tie-in to one of the most iconic films from the 80s, it manages to eke out a victory of sorts in turning what audiences had only seen simulated in the film into the kind of game Matthew Broderick’s character had expected to play.

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