Retro Coin Op Synopsis
Since their invention, video games have featured zombies, vampires, mutants, aliens and other hideous monsters, but perhaps no game has packed as much genuine fear as Atari’s 1980 classic, Missile Command. Created at the onset of the Reagan Years, the game put players right in the middle of a Cold War nightmare: global thermonuclear war.
Using a Trak-Ball controller and three buttons, you manned a strategic defense arsenal of missile interceptors. As enemy warheads streaked down from the sky, you fired off rockets to meet them in midair, protecting the six cities at the bottom of the screen. If a nuke made it past your defenses, a city went up in a horrible blast.
The Trak-Ball guided your targeting crosshairs, and each of the buttons launched rockets from one of your three missile defense silos—left, middle and right. Each of these silos had only a limited supply of shells, and if an enemy ICBM struck a station, that station’s missile stores were lost for the remainder of the stage. Once a wave of nukes was wiped out, bonus points were awarded for remaining cities and missile supplies, and if your score was high enough, an extra city was awarded.
Like many early games, Missile Command was an exercise in steadily mounting tension and almost unbearable stress. Since there was no ending to the game (other than a climactic explosion and an ominous “The End” once all your cities were gone), there was no rest for the harried missile defenders. And as the levels wore on, the enemy only got tougher.
Faster ICBM’s were hard enough, but they were minor threats compared to the deadly “smart missiles.” These crafty warheads were intelligent enough to avoid your shots, requiring near-perfect timing to obliterate them. To make matters worse, one missile often broke off into two, three, four or more separate warheads, placing an even greater strain on your limited defense supplies.
As designed by Dave Theurer (Tempest, I, Robot), Missile Command was terrifying, but it was the good kind of terrifying. Players crowded the machines, turning a nightmare scenario into a dream come true for Atari, arcade owners, and gamers everywhere. Thanks to its arcade popularity and successful conversion to the Atari 2600 and other home systems, Missile Command has joined the exclusive club of Asteroids, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and others as a genuine classic of the arcade’s golden years.