“You must think in Russian. Think in Russian!”
So explains a Soviet physicist to Air Force Major, Mitchell Gant, played by Clint Eastwood in the 1982 thriller, Firefox. Based on the novel of the same name, the film followed Gant from his unorthodox recruitment at his cabin to his crash course as a spy in readying himself to infiltrate the USSR to steal the most advanced fighter jet the world has ever seen.
Why him? One, Gant’s an expert on Soviet hardware. Two, he speaks Russian fluently. Three, he’s a damn good pilot. And four, he’s got the same build as the Soviet pilot he’s replacing in the flight suit he’ll need to use when he steals the MiG-31 which NATO has codenamed “Firefox”.
Just how crazy advanced is this Soviet jet? It’s got stealth, can go to Mach 6 (that’s six times the speed of sound and well ahead of where, according to the NATO guys in the movie, their ‘best airframes’ begin melting from atmospheric friction). And it can also fire its weapons using thought control giving the pilot a split second advantage over everyone else. The trick is, though, that you have to think the commands in Russian. It was like something out of Ace Combat.
It’s also a great Cold War “what-if” involving spies, skullduggery, and the kind of secret war that rumbled between East and West that Hollywood feasted on.
Back then, the Soviet Union was a black hole of information — no one really knew just how advanced, how behind, or the lengths to which they might go to in the arms race. Only that they had thousands of nukes pointed towards the West and were busy working on any advantage that might break the stalemate — just like what the West was also trying to do. As to what form that breakthrough might take, that was the question that movies and books like Firefox answered.
The movie, also directed by Clint Eastwood, wasn’t that big of a critical hit, but the movie actually isn’t that bad — come on, you get Clint Eastwood impersonating a Soviet officer and a godlike jet fighter that he literally steals from the Soviets in one film. With President Ronald Reagan taking a hardline stance against the Soviets, calling them an ‘evil empire’ in 1983, a film like Firefox in which an American good guy infiltrates the USSR and steals its most powerful weapon seemed like a no-brainer.
Atari apparently thought so, too, and bounced around a few ideas for a great arcade game using video disc technology before settling on Firefox. This was to be an adaptation of the exciting flying section at the end of the movie, riding the laserdisc craze that was starting up thanks to Sega’s Astron Belt in ’82 and later, the phenomenally successful Dragon’s Lair, which would also arrive along with Firefox in ’83.
To build its world, Firefox took clips from the actual movie according to this excerpt from Atari’s employee newsletter preserved over at what appears to be an Atari enthusiast archive that hasn’t been updated in years. According to project leader, Mike Hally, he and senior video editor, Moe Shore, went to Warner Bros. Studios and “…went through miles of film — about 20 to 30 hours worth” to find enough first-person footage for use in the flight sequences. In the arcade, the marquee touted it as “A Laservideo Game”.
Parts of development resembled that of a movie studio production with a special effects house contracted in Los Angeles to create a number of explosions for the game using plastic models of Russian MiGs. They even borrowed a Firefox scale model from Clint Eastwood to create the flock of other Firefox planes that went after the player (there was only one Firefox that went after Clint in the movie, though).
Gameplay was simple — players could choose between Easiest, Moderate, Hard, and Hardest, each mode varying the actual length of the game which does have an ending. The Hardest setting simply has “Unlimited Journey” listed beneath it. Difficulty also affected how many missiles enemies shot at the players.
Once you chose which difficulty level you wanted to play at, it was time to take off and start shooting. Because the Firefox is stealthed against normal radar, the Soviets will be using infra-red radar instead to try and locate you represented by a growing series of rings that pop up onscreen that you can shoot. As long as you can shoot these, you stay “invisible” and can shoot enemy planes that fly by without worrying about them shooting you. Once detected, however, it’s time to start blasting the explosive, digitally generated, rain coming your way in first person.
Players control a targeting reticle onscreen displaying how much fuel they have while aiming the onboard cannon. The Firefox also comes with a number of “mind controlled” missiles that can destroy anything they fly through and are guided by the targeting reticle which also keeps track of how many are left.
Firefox is primarily an on-rails shooter — you don’t actually do any real flying aside from when the game asks you to choose whether to gain altitude and fly higher or lower to the ground at certain points. Flying higher exposes you to more infrared detection but allows you to save up on fuel which slowly runs out over the course of your flight as well as when you get hit by enemy fire. Going low uses more fuel but also makes the detection rings easier to shoot.
Running out of fuel ends the game. There are also moments when you approach the ice cliffs from the movie where you need to pull up to avoid smashing into them. On Moderate difficulty and above, there’s also a refueling point that acts as a bonus, refilling your plane with fuel and more mind-controlled missiles. The amount at which you’re resupplied depends on just how good you were on shooting down your enemies in the previous sequence.
As I mentioned before, the game allows you to pick just how long you want to play by difficulty level because if you survive and make it to the end, the game gives you an ending screen and that’s it creating an interesting case of ‘buyer beware’ for an arcade cab. If you scored well, it’s time to enter your initials. The Easiest mission difficulty lasts only a few minutes at best. Playing a few rounds of Donkey Kong on the same quarter might last longer.
The game also incorporated digitized voice reciting a few lines from the movies such as “What a machine” when feeding quarters to it and the first-person video fed from the laserdisc actually didn’t look half bad. It came in two types of cabinet — the regular stand-up type and a sit-down version. The cabs also featured a jack for those that wanted to listen to the game (and the “25 piece orchestra”) via their Walkman headphones.
One interesting thing to note about the steering yoke used for the game is that it’s also very similar to the one used in Atari’s Star Wars which also came out in ’83 and featured itself as a first-person, on-rails shooter albeit using computer generated vector graphics instead of live video.
According to the International Arcade Museum’s entry for Firefox, the Philips laserdisc player used in the cab was notoriously fickle — fickle, as in “breaks down often” turning the game into an expensive paperweight unless it was fixed.
In marketing Firefox, even Clint Eastwood came out to play it at the press event held for the game. Unfortunately, despite the huge push Atari gave the game and the excitement drummed up, it was the first and last time Atari would try it. In addition to the rather dodgy laserdisc player in the cabs coupled with the Video Game Crash tearing into Atari’s fortunes in the same year that the cab went out, Atari likely decided to cut as many of its losses as possible while it bled all over the stock trading floor.
Firefox wasn’t a terrible game and could be a lot more fun at the higher difficulties. The combination of fast moving visuals courtesy of footage from the film, cutscenes, and pure arcade action made it an entertaining, cutting edge tie-in to the film. It, and Gottlieb’s third-person jet shooter, M.A.C.H. 3, would also predate the gameplay of Sega’s popular After Burner which came out a few years later in 1987. Though M.A.C.H. 3 bears more in common with Sega’s game because of its third-person sequences (it also featured overhead bombing runs against frame captured footage), Firefox’s fast aerial action also hits close to home.
Because it was Atari’s first — and last — effort at laserdisc arcade games and its relatively expensive upkeep, Firefox is one of those arcade games that lurks in the shadows of the scene’s history. For as much bleeding edge technology that went into its gameplay, it also had to compete against Star Wars for your quarters. Although both games shared many of the same core elements, Star Wars was…Star Wars. And when you finished a round on the Easy level, it didn’t end the game.
Like a lot of arcade classics, especially those of the laserdisc variety that weren’t named Dragon’s Lair, Firefox, outside of restored cabs by die-hard collectors, never reappeared on anything else other than an emulator making it something of a Cold War relic like many others. Yet the memory of the film has inspired many fans of the film to do things over the years such as recreate the Firefox in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002/2004 with a working model and cockpit. Even today, it’s still a fascinating chunk of Atari’s history, a brief flirtation with the promise of laserdiscs strapping players’ reflexes into the greatest warplane ever made.