Missile Command Review: The Aging of Shock and Awe

Screenshot from Level 13 of Missile Command 1980 showing missiles and a single city.

The concept of Missile Command (1980) is ingenious at its core, encapsulating the paranoia and fear of the nuclear age in a simple shoot 'em up that gets real hard, real fast.  Missiles strike not with a pop, but with an ever-expanding blast that evokes the head of a mushroom cloud.  The experience of playing Missile Command was so visceral in its time that its lead programmer suffered from nightmares throughout its development.  This edginess is reflected in the gameplay as well.  In my deep dive analysis of the game, I showed how the designers turned a simple shoot 'em up into an intense interactive experience, placing a rapidly escalating demand on the player's reflexes and spatial abilities.

Another one of the keys to creating unease during gameplay is the use of harsh color schemes, and I think this is where the remakes and ports of Missile Command tend to flub.  The 1999 remake by Hasbro, shown below, goes as far as to make the game pretty, adding 3-D graphics, complete with a beautiful sky at sunset, firework-like explosions, and a full battery of impressive weapons.  Cold War paranoia, meet romantic technophilia.

While the original Missile Command designers surely would have used more detailed graphics if they could, I doubt that this is the direction they would have gone with it.  Look below at the arcade game's flashing end-game splash screen.  No doubt many commercial graphics designers would balk at its use of contrasting colors, but if your goal is to make your player feel like they're fighting off a nuclear holocaust, the last thing you want to do is give them the visual equivalent of a massage.

Animated splash screen of the ending from Missile Command 1980 with transparent background.

That being said, I do have some gripes with the arcade original, especially as you move further into the game.  First of all, there's the "smart bombs".

Demonstration of firing at smart bombs in Missile Command 1980 in level 15.

The problem with the smart bombs is not that they are difficult to destroy -- as I said, rapidly escalating difficulty is key to the game's design -- but rather that they seem out of place in a game that's playing on realistic fears.  The smart bombs do so much dodging and weaving that they seem more like UFOs than Cold-War-era bombs.  Simply giving the smart bombs the ability to dance around the player's shots is also a bit of a hacky way to add challenge -- it's like if the later levels of Donkey Kong featured smart barrels that just followed Mario around wherever he went.

Animation of Mario jumping over a barrel in Donkey Kong then being chased by it.

Besides, a nuclear holocaust doesn't outsmart you, it overwhelms you with the sheer magnitude of its destruction.  There are real "smart bombs" that were used during the Cold War, but they were designed for precision targeting, not physics-defying aerial acrobatics.

I also think there were some missed opportunities here.  The game gives you three defensive towers to fire from, and this is great, but the missile speed of the side towers is so slow that it seldom makes sense to use them as anything other than a backup to the center tower (see below).  Giving the towers comparable speeds would have made the left-center-right decision process a more regular part of the gameplay, adding strategic options for the later waves.

Optimal locations to use each tower in Missile Command 1980 based time to the target.

Finally, it's unfortunate that so much of the game uses only a small portion of the playing space.  This is most problematic in the late-game action, when you're left defending just one or two cities on the same side of the screen, but it can also be an issue in the early waves, depending on which cities the missiles decide to target.

Overall, I like Missile Command and think it was one of the better games in its time, but I think a lot of what made it so special in 1980 will be lost on modern gamers.  For one, the Cold War is long over, and while nuclear war is still a major global concern, you aren't likely to encounter many people who are kept up at night over it.  What's more, with all of the advances in video game hardware, you are unlikely to be awed by flashing, pixellated graphics.  That's no fault of the developers, of course, it's just the nature of a game concept that relies on fear and awe for much of its appeal.


  1. Say, how do you make GIFs like that? Especially the "The End" explosion with the transparent background.

    1. For the flashing end screen, I captured it in MAME and then used this site to convert to gif and replace the background: https://ezgif.com/. The background replacement is under "Effects". Sometimes you have to play with it a little before adding transparency; that is, doing a fuzzy replacement of the background color with itself to recast near-background pixels... I don't remember if I had to do that with that particular image. Maybe I'll do a blog entry on my process, since it has gotten quite involved in some cases. These old games are ideal for that kind of GIF processing because there are relatively few colors and the backgrounds are often a single color.

      The one that took the most work was the Donkey Kong animation. That involved a combination of Python, ImageMagick, Paint3D, ezgif, and MAME. For a single image, it definitely isn't worth it, but I'm hoping that I can generalize the script for future use.

  2. This is one of my personal all-time favorite games, and has been for decades. It's not a game for everyone, by any means, for reasons of both theme, difficulty, and graphical sparseness (by modern standards.) But as far as a game that will give you a stiff challenge that can be slowly overcome (well, partially anyway!) with practice and strategy, it's hard to beat!

    If the idea of "dancing" smart bombs really bothers you, try to think of the screen as less of a true depiction of what's happening and more of a graphical representation as might have been seen by a 1980's "missile commander" They're not so much really defying gravity as using countermeasures. Part of playing almost any classic game is using your imagination a bit to fill in the blanks left by the necessarily simplistic graphics.

    As for the different missile bases, sure the center base is always the best one. But it only has ten shots! Which makes using the left and right bases effectively a majorly important part of the game. A good player will use them to take out large numbers of missiles and satellites and even the occasional nearby smart bombs, carefully saving the super effective center base missiles mostly for smart bombs, and the occasional missile that's just about to destroy a city.

    If this game intrigues anyone at all, I really recommend playing A LOT of it. It is a truly satisfying feeling to see your scores rise as you start to get the feel for it and start to make progress against this challenging game.

    1. Thanks, I always love to hear from the people who are really passionate about these games. You're not the first who I've heard comment about the literal interpretation of the game and envisioning yourself as an actual "missile commander", and I bet this is something that's hard to capture in emulation. Being at an arcade cabinet does feel a lot like being at the control panel of a ship or, in this case, a weapons system.

  3. Do you have any alternative ideas on what could have been used in place of the smart bombs to ramp up the difficulty? Would you just make the missiles faster and/or add more missiles? I'm assuming there were probably some hardware limitations the programmer had to deal with in regards to the number of objects on the screen.

    1. I suspect you're right about the hardware limitations being the reason for the object limit -- a larger swarm of missiles would be very much within the spirit of the game and seems like the obvious direction to go. Failing that, they might consider curved paths for the missiles, smaller ABM detonations, fewer ABMs, and mixing up missile speeds in a single level. I don't know much about the history of the game's development, so maybe they tried some of those things. Backseat game design is fraught, since you can't know for sure how specific ideas will work out without play-testing them within the context of the other game elements.

  4. I'm really enjoying your in-depth game analyses and reviews by the way. These early arcade games generally don't get this kind of attention and deconstruction aside from the Pac-Man ghost AI videos on youtube.

    1. Glad to hear it! I appreciate the thoughtful comments, too.


Post a Comment