Missile Command

War is Cold but the arcade cabinets are hot. Distract yourself from the threat of nuclear war by playing a little game about nuclear war defence.

Source // Gamespot

My initial reactions to reading about and playing Atari's Missile Command were mixed, along the lines of 'Oh cool, it used a trackball; oh wait, I'll never be able to play it like that; oh wow, that's smoother controls than I expected from a port'.

The goal is simple, it's the same format as shooters we've grown up with in the arcade: shoot down the targets, keep your damages to a minimum. There aren't any aliens here though, as the threat is instead the all too realistic idea of incoming ballistic missiles that signal the destruction of all that you hold dear.

So you best be accurate with your limited countermeasures, targeting a place on the screen that you hope the incoming missile will be when yours explodes, taking that threat with it. Because if it isn't, if your aim is off, that incoming missile will gladly take out a city. That's what it does.

Uhm... test fire successful... three targets remain...


As I say though, there's Missile Command and there's not quite Missile Command, and the Atari 2600 port I played is not quite what I was hoping for. The graphics take a little hit, but it's nothing hideous or out of place. You can clearly see the threat, you can work out its path, your crosshair isn't quite a cross but it does the job, and you know that whatever you're seeing at the bottom shouldn't change at all, otherwise something bad has happened and you've lost.

It also takes away two of your three missile bases, so you don't get to test your skill at launching and managing your missiles from three locations, but there are gameplay variations and even a child version. It's an easier, slower mode, so that young gamers can get used to controlling missiles - a job they may very well end up having in an alternate future (now alternate history) of our planet.

Basically, it's Missile Command, from the arcade, in your home. More or less. And you don't need the trackball.

Fun Times

I thought you'd need it, I thought it'd control like garbage without one, but the controls in the 2600 port are really rather smooth. Is that a result of emulation? I don't know. I hope not, because I'd like to think this was a pretty good offering for those who didn't have the arcade cabinet at hand.

Now, just because I know it used a trackball, doesn't mean it was any good as an input method.

Oh, it's needs skill and it's rather hard? So, as I was saying, trackball, fantastic.

Despite playing on a port, it's not a bad game. For those hunting down high scores it'll keep you going, but then so will damn near every other game of this era. It's easy to pick up and play, tricky to master, but then so is damn near every other game of this era...

You'll have a bit of entertainment with Missile Command, of course you will, but it's not going to hold your attention for aeons. It's just something to keep your mind off mans inhumanity to man. Kind of.

Final Word

Missile Command stands out not only for what it tried in hardware, but what it was portraying in its software. It's not aliens trying to destroy Earth, but humans trying to destroy each other on a grand scale. Not only that, but of humans creating weapons that try to circumvent the countermeasures that their targets will deploy in an attempt to protect themselves. It's not just a show of nuclear war, but of the arms race in trying to succeed at nuclear war.

Something - a lot of things - can be said about it, either positively or negatively. Does it make a comment on how we treat serious issues? Does it make a game of war? How would the game change if it was about a load of birds dropping rocks, and we were chucking up our own counter-rocks in order to defend whatever helpless animal prey the birds were targeting?

Alright, I'm perhaps not the best person to make all these arguments, but I do know that Missile Command can bring new players in and keep skilled players going. I know it makes for a conversation piece for all manner of reasons, and I know that no matter what the incarnation I come across, I doubt I'll play it with a trackball.

Really though, it's a game about managing resources and effectively picking out priority targets. They're life skills in many walks of life. Substitute incoming missiles for incoming emails, and your stockpiles of counter-missiles for the amount of shits you give, and you're all set to tackle the working week, all thanks to Missile Command.

Fun Facts

Instead of 'Game Over', Missile Command concludes with 'The End'. It's all fun and games until someone loses a nuclear war... 

Missile Command, developed by Atari, Inc., first released in 1980.
Version played: Atari 2600, 1981, via emulation.