Atari 2600 Game
Produced by: Atari and Sears
Model Number: CX2638
Rarity:1 Common
Year of Release: 1981

Missile Command is perhaps one of the greatest video games ever made. This node deals with the Atari 2600 version of the game. But all comments can be considered valid for the Arcade version, (and for most of the clones as well).

The premise of Missile Command is simple. Defend your cities from enemy missiles. You start out with 6 cities and 3 missile silos. Enemy missiles fall from the top of the screen leaving a trail behind them. You control a crosshair that shows where your defense missiles will explode. Only the front of a missile trail is vulnerable to your fire, (position your crosshair just below that and fire). Your defense missiles explode with a burst effect making it possible to take out more than one enemy missile at a time. More dangerous are the enemy cruise missiles which do not leave a trail and will actually dodge your fire. At higher levels missiles will often split in two making things even more difficult.

The most important things to defend are your missile silos. Whenever one of these is hit you will lose the missiles that were inside, (often making you run out of missiles before the level is over). It is not as big a deal if you lose a city, (you get an extra city every 10,000 points). A good player will be able to build up a ton of reserve cities before he loses a single one.

The Atari 2600 version of this game uses the joystick with a single button, while the arcade version uses a trackball, with a separate fire button for each missile silo. The two versions have a very different feel to them because of the different controls used.

From the instruction manual:

Aliens from the planet of Krytol have begun an attack on the planet Zardon. The Krytolians are warriors out to destroy and seize the planet of Zardon. Zardon is the last of the peaceful planets. The Zardonians are skillful and hardworking people. Their cities are built-up and rich in resources. It is truly a planet void of crime and violence.

Zardon has built a powerful defense system. Several antiballistic missile bases have been established within the cities of Zardon. The Zardonians are ready for this attack, and are prepared to fight to save their cities.

As base commander it is your responsibility to protect and defend six cities on the planet of Zardon. The Krytolians have begun firing interplanetary ballistic missiles. They are aiming at your cities and missile bases. Your only defense is to fire back with antiballistic missiles. But watch out, the Krytolians are sly, they also have cruise missiles. Cruise missiles look like satellites, but they are just as deadly as the interplanetary ballistic missiles.

Use your antiballistic missiles (ABMs) to stop the enemy before your happy and harmonious planet is destroyed.

This game is valued at around $1 USD. Games with boxes and manuals are worth more.

A good modern day clone of Missile Command is called Penguin Command, it is a free game available for Windows, BeOS, and Linux.
Further to the above writeup, Missile Command's real-world inspiration comes from the ABM defences around Moscow which were completed in 1972 and upgraded in the early 1980s. Comprising a set of short-range nuclear missiles armed with 2 - 3 megaton warheads, the engagement sequence was similar to that of the game (if one assumes that the upper half of the play area is orbital space), although under control of a powerful radar system (and not a soldier with a trackball). Unlike the game, there were four sites and not three, and only one city; like the game, however, the defences were only capable of delaying armageddon, not preventing it entirely. Currently, the system exists in a curious twilight world - too expensive to maintain effectively, too valuable to abandon. If used in anger the missiles would have had adverse effects flash and EMP effects on people and electrical equipment not in shelters, although as the missiles exploded outside the atmosphere the shock and fallout were greatly lessened (not that they would have been much of a consideration at the time). ABMs were one of the reasons behind the development of MIRVs, 'Multiple Independently-targetted Re-entry Vehicles', the other being a desire to wiggle out of SALT treaty obligations which set limits on the number of missiles, but not warheads.

Missile Command was one of a handful of cold war video games to deal directly and unsensationally with real-world nuclear armageddon, being both chilling and blackly comic in its bathetic treatment of something which, at the time, did not seem particularly funny. The strategy outlined in The BooBooKitty's writeup above - 'the most important things to defend are your missile silos... it is not as big a deal if you lose a city' - is close to that of American nuclear strategy at the time (the American equivalent of the Moscow ABM system was sited around Grand Forks Missile Base, not Washington DC).

By peculiar coincidence, Grand Forks is also the home of 'Advanced Business Methods (ABM)', a company which sells photocopiers.

As the instructions for the Atari 2600 version above make clear, the concept was sufficiently touchy for home versions of the game to be set on an alien planet (although the curious colour scheme of the arcade machine - purple ground and black sky - creates sufficient ambiguity for this contrivance to go un-noticed, it could also be due to the limits of the hardware). As with Tetris, the game becomes progressively more demoralizing as it goes on - there is no way to win, and after a short while gameplay degenerates into a desperate scramble for survival. Initially, the player is determined to protect every city and silo, but before long it becomes apparent that a form of triage must be applied - triage on a grand scale. In a clever piece of copywriting, the end, when it comes, is definitive - it isn't 'an ending', it's 'The End', the absolute end of everything, a dazzling electromagnetic orgasm of annihilation.

Of course, the only way to win is not to play.

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