No discussion of the arcade scene in the early 80s in conjunction with the Cold War could ever be complete without even mentioning Atari’s iconic Missile Command.
In a piece on Polygon by Alex Rubens on the creation of Missile Command, designer Dave Theurer (Tempest, Pit Fighter) recalls that during his work on the game which started out with a simple concept, nightmares fueled part of what he hoped to explain to players experiencing the game’s Cold War commentary. It came out in 1980 after several months of development at the height of the Cold War and three years before President Ronald Reagan would raise the specter of SDI, his “Star Wars”, over the United States as a missile shield.
The initial concept envisioned a strike by the USSR against the West Coast of the continental US, specifically against six cities in California where Atari’s offices were located in what Rich Adam, Theurer’s junior programmer on the project, had admitted to Rubens as a bit of egocentrism on their part.
Eventually, the naming convention for each city was dropped in order to create the effect of internalizing play to each individual player. Every person stepping up to the cab could substitute whatever those six cities could be by what their own imagination, fears, worries, or morbid curiosity informed them that they should be. The game localized itself.
The gameplay concept was incredibly simple. Streaking trails appeared from the top of the screen following dots symbolizing warheads on their way down. A trio of missile launchers defended six cities. The missile launchers were placed at the left, middle, and right along the bottom of the screen and three cities were to the left of the central silo and another three to the right. Each silo also had a limited number of defensive missiles.
Enemy warheads could also splinter, like a MIRV (this is a real thing…it stood for “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle” which is a warhead containing several smaller warheads — think a shotgun mounted on the head of an ICBM, except each pellet is a nuclear device), creating multiple targets. Players used a trackball to move a cursor around the screen, take aim, and fire off a missile from one of the silos to create a small, exploding bloom that lingered on the screen for a few precious moments that might be long enough to consume not just one, but several warheads in the general vicinity.
Missiles would continue to rain down and it was up to the player to try and efficiently take them out by creating temporary firewalls of exploding blooms in their path as quickly as possible in order to both save enough missiles up to do the job in that round and to save as many cities as possible. Satellites and enemy bombers would also occasionally fly across the screen as bonus point targets. When one round was completed, it was off to the next where the warhead count — and the rate of speed at which they fell — would increase, ad infinitum.
There was no ending, this was a pure arcade game where the only winning move was to simply survive to score. The only ending came when all of your cities were wiped out and the screen exploded in a flashing fury with the words “THE END” in red as an example of one of the earliest “bad endings” to an arcade game that did more than tell the player “GAME OVER”. Instead of using the latter, telling players that this was “THE END” played into the Cold War atmosphere that the game was developed in and which an entire generation would live through, increasingly worried whether or not someone might accidentally or intentionally decide to push the button.
The arcade game proved tremendously popular and over the years, spawned a number of ports and remakes. When it came to the Atari VCS/2600, the story turned to a sci-fi backdrop replacing hints of the USSR with evil Krytolians attacking the peaceful planet of Zardon. Gameplay was also adjusted a bit for the console. Instead of three silos, players only had the one in the center whose missile stockpile of ten could be replenished two more times.
It was later ported to Atari’s 8-bit computers, handhelds like the Game Boy, and in numerous compilations such as Arcade Classics on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis in 1996. It seemed that every hardware generation would get a version of Missile Command in one way or another, even appearing as a title in Microsoft’s Game Room initiative in 2010. You can even play the arcade version online today in your browser over at Atari’s homepage.
A sequel was tested but never released and Missile Command was often used by prospective arcade record breakers as the platform of choice doing everything from getting the highest score in the world to marathon sessions. For example, on December 17th, 2013, Victor Sandberg of Sweden managed 71 hours and 41 minutes on December 30th with a score of 103,809,990. Now that’s dedication.
For high scores, attempts were made using “tournament settings” (bonus cities are awarded on score, but in tournament mode, none are given at all) which dramatically increases the difficulty of the game. For twenty years, the record was held by Roy Schildt until it was beaten by Tony Temple from the UK in 2006. Temple still holds the highest score having actually improved on it since then with 4,472,570 points as of 2010.
Missile Command’s simplicity of design crossed with its brutal, Cold War culture continues to be an influential milestone in gaming culture today. Records are still being tested with it, its gameplay still holds up today as an arcade favorite, and its message has never wavered. It’s a great piece of the 80’s, the Cold War, and efficient game design rolled into one — and that it also had a message to share with its audience beyond its place as an arcade classic didn’t hurt, either.