Hall of Fame Inductee
Original Release: 1980 (Arcade)
Designer: Dave Theurer
Developed by: Atari
Published by: Atari
Games that deal with doomsday scenarios tend to do well. It’s kind of freakish that the stuff we’re most fascinated with are the things that basically spell out a narrative of our impending doom. Atari’s Missile Command played on the fears of many during the Cold War of the 1980s: nuclear annihilation. The game was epic even with its simple gameplay because it played on the nightmares created by the tensions between the east and the west.
Despite the fact that the graphics were primitive (this game was created in 1980, after all), there was much thought put into the design of the game. The point of the atmosphere within the game was that the United States was in the midst of being bombarded with nuclear weapons. Even though the display is just a bunch of basic pixelated objects, there was so much attention paid to detail that designer Dave Theurer suffered from nightmares in which the world was in being blown up by nuclear weapons. To put it simply, the game was so intense that it messed with the mind of the person who created it.
Missile Command has the player sending out missiles to intercept incoming nuclear missiles about to land and destroy the U.S. cities. Players can fire from three different missile silos by hitting the corresponding button on the console board. Players aimed their missiles by positioning a reticule that could be moved by rolling the game’s trackball in the desired direction. Players had to compensate their aim for the time it took the missile to fire from the silo to where the reticule was. If a missile hit a nuke, there would be an explosion. Any other falling nuke that hit the resulting explosion would be also destroyed and cause another explosion (allowing players to chain-link explosions and take out many nukes with only one shot). Players had a limited amount of ammo: ten per silo. Ammo was replenished after every level. If a silo was hit by a nuke, it would no longer be operational. If a city is destroyed by a nuke, it’s gone for good or until the player scores enough points to earn a new one (usually around 10 thousand). Once all the buildings in the city have been levelled by nuclear weapons, it’s game over.
People enjoyed this game for two reasons: it felt like one was genuinely saving the world from nuclear destruction, and that there was a deceptively large amount of strategy involved in the game. The game may have been made during the dying days of the Cold War but people were still concerned about the Soviet Army and it’s intentions. Tensions were high between the East and West so this game made people feel like they were saving the Western world from the end of days. On the other side of the coin, the game drew people in by its interesting design and hooked gamers as it required cunning strategy to master the machine and receive a high score. The only thing that changed level to level was the speed (it increased as the game progressed). This meant players had to be smarter in chaining explosions and deciding which silo to use to shoot weapons. Quick fingers and a sound strategy would result in a high score while those who couldn’t do better than shoot each nuke one at a time didn’t get very far.
Missile Command made quite a bit of money for Atari for decades. It continued to be one of the top earning games for many arcades up until the arcades themselves stopped being popular. The game was also ported over to home consoles. The Atari 2600 received the only port that closely resembles the original game. Most of the later issues received a graphical upgrade at the very least and, at most, multiple play modes and other special features. The Atari Jaguar, the Sony Playstation, the Microsoft Xbox 360 (through Xbox Live Arcade) received ports. Windows PCs also received a version for the home computer market. The Jaguar version is notable since it features an option for the game to be played with a virtual reality helmet. However, the helmet is very obscure and chances are you or anyone you know doesn’t have one. Missile Command also was made available for several handhelds including Atari Lynx and the Nintendo Game Boy.
Even though the game brought in a lot of money for Atari, nothing much happened with the Missile Command franchise. Although there had been sequels thought about and worked on throughout the years, very few ideas made it far past the drawing board. Liberator was released by Atari in 1984 which saw a role-reversal (in that the player is the one destroying the buildings while trying to avoid the intercepting missiles). However, this was never an official sequel and remains—in Atari’s mind—a separate game. The only game that came close to actually being released in arcades was Missile Command 2. However, it ultimately was cancelled in 1992.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but Atari did well with Missile Command. It was the first game to play on people’s fears and make tons of money out of it. Some would argue it’s a pioneer for future games to exploit the fears of others. However, many of the people who played the game will say they did so because it was fun; not because they said they were scared…or so they would say without feeling embarrassed.