Monday 6 July 2020

Missile Command (1980)

Missile Command screenshot
Introduced July 1980

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation is always just around the corner. Everything you know and everyone you love could be swept away in an instant and there would be very little you could do about it.

So, for some escapism what about a game where everybody dies in a nuclear conflagration? Welcome to 1980 and Atari’s Missile Command.

The golden age of arcade machines featured many escapist games, usually of the shoot-‘em-up variety. As with microcomputers of the time, arcade machines were being propelled by improvements in microprocessors and other silicon chips leading to a rapid improvement of hardware. Missile Command used a 1.25 MHz 6502 CPU with an Atari POKEY chip handling sound. Graphics were 256 x 231 pixels in 8 colours, and unlike Lunar Lander and Asteroids, Missile Command used a raster scan monitor.
Missile Command arcade machine

The gameplay was this: the player had to defend six cities at the bottom of the screen from waves of nuclear weapons (represented with a line with a blob on the end). The player would launch their own missiles from three bases into the sky to destroy the nukes, and those bases themselves can be destroyed. As the game progresses the player is attacked by missiles with multiple warheads, bombers and satellites. The game ends when all six cities are destroyed, and invariably they ARE destroyed.

Unusually, the primary control for the game was a large trackball which emulated the sort of thing that real military bases would use for controlling systems. Combined with the (then) advanced graphics and sound, it made Missile Command a distinctive and popular gaming experience.

Although the game was distributed by Atari in North America, Atari chose to partner with Sega to distribute it in Europe. This gave Sega a useful foothold in the arcade game market. In Asia-Pacific markets a smaller number of Taito cabinets were made. But as a classic video game, it was ported to many platforms from the 1980s onwards and there are still licenced version and clones available today. Or if you still have Flash installed on your computer, you can play it for free here.

Image credits:
John Cooper via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
James Brooks via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

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