The Game: Tucked away safely in an underground bunker, you are solely responsible for defending six cities from a relentless, ever-escalating ICBM attack. Your missile base is armed with three banks of nuclear missiles capable of intercepting the incoming enemy nukes, planes and smart bombs. One nuke hit on your base will incapacitate one bank of missiles for the rest of your current turn, but one nuke hit on any of your six cities will destroy it completely. (The only chance you have of rebuilding a city comes when a bonus city is awarded for every 10,000 points scored.) And when all six of your cities have been destroyed, the cataclysmic end of the world proceeds. Game over. (Atari, 1981)
Memories: After the runaway success of the licensed Space Invaders and its own in-house Asteroids translation, Atari started mining its own vaults for new cartridges – and Missile Command, the legendary Cold War video game that had given its designer nightmares about nuclear war, was a prime target. And rightly so! In the arcade, Missile Command wasn’t exactly a graphics extravaganza, so the VCS version didn’t lose much in the translation…aside from the control scheme. Relying on a three-button firing scheme – one for each of the missile silos on screen – arcade Missile Command had to be simplified for home play, and to work better with a joystick than the arcade trakball control, an innovation that hadn’t made it to home consoles yet. (Though when the trakball did make it home, it didn’t hurt this game one bit.)
The biggest change to Missile Command wasn’t in game play necessarily, but in the game’s admittedly paper-thin storyline. This was the early 80s, right? We had Reagan in office, calling the Soviets the “evil empire” and raising blood pressure readings on both hemispheres. And that was what the original Missile Command was all about: nuclear war. Surviving a first strike from a purely defensive posture. Intercepting ICBMs before they wiped out every city on the map. Scary stuff. Only when it was brought home, Missile Command was now about fending off a hostile alien attack, the kind that comes from another world, not another country.
Maybe I’m being too harsh here, and maybe I’m gnashing my teeth over changes that were made in the transition from the presumably older arcade crowd to the presumably younger home console audience. But it seems like somewhere in there, Missile Command lost its teeth.
And that means it can’t chew up a free Thanksgiving turkey. In appreciation for his creation of a million-selling adaptation, Atari programmer Rob Fulop received – from Atari CEO Ray Kassar – a certificate good for one free grocery-store turkey. Yum! Fulop, who also hid his initials in the game, saw this as a sign that his talents would probably be better appreciated elsewhere, and migrated to the third-party upstart Imagic at the earliest opportunity. He still has the un-redeemed turkey certificate to this day.