Updated: Jan 5
Published: December 31st, 2021
Author: Caitlynn Joann
Missile Command was developed and published by Atari in 1980. It was licensed to Sega for Japanese and European releases. It was released during the Cold War and uses a trackball to defend six major cities through missile launch. The idea for this game flourished when Gene Lipkin, Vice President of Sales at Atari in the 80s, read a magazine that displayed radar screens attached to satellites. The various colors found on the image inspired Lipkin to tell the developers at Atari to create a game based on this screen. One of the first people that Lipkin spoke to was Steve Calfee, the boss of Dave Theurer. Lipkin passed these clippings onto Calfee and then to Theurer. Calfee also gave the directive to Theurer to have the missiles hit the player, while also allowing the player to counterattack using missiles as well.
The story for Missile Command revolves around a base on the California coast that is defending the territory against missiles that were launched by the USSR. The developer, Dave Thurer, focused on it being a defensive rather than an offensive game. Because of this story, the developer of Missile Command focused on it being a defensive game rather than an offensive one, as there is no way for the players to attack the USSR, but they do have the means of defending their base against the enemy.
Theurer chose to let go of the typical 9-5 and instead worked on Missile Command until he couldn’t stay awake any longer. When he would reach the point of exhaustion and sleep deprivation, he would sleep for a small amount of time and return to doing this routine again. He states, "I remember one time where I had a field test and I had been up for four days in a row. I actually got the game ready to go, I was tired and I couldn't work the machine that burned the ROMs anymore, because I couldn't remember how to punch the buttons on the keyboard."
Theurer mentioned when he realized that the bombs would kill all of the people in the targeted city, he didn’t want to put the player in a position of genocidal mania and refused to integrate having the players fire at other countries, especially since this game was developing during the Cold War. The idea of defense would give the player a feeling of pride without compromising a country’s population. While this game was never meant to be a complicated game, Theurer’s design developed it this way. Thuerer realized he needed to drop the identification of the geographical locations in California, which were originally Eureka, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego. This also made the game more universally relatable, as not everyone is living in California or living in the United States.
Originally, railroads were meant for trains to carry missiles and weapons to the player, but it was scrapped due to thinking it would overcomplicate the game. Thuerer curbed this idea to avoid the player abusing the use of missiles. Ammunition control later became a matter of timing. He also rid the game of a radar idea, which has an arm sweeping across the screen. The developers brought the game down to the basics of cities and bases.
Dreams and nightmares are often cited as an inspiration for creative works but aren't often shared as a consequence of them. During the development of Missile Command, Theurer began experiencing nightmares about cities being bombarded with missiles. After working on the game for 6 months, he has internalized these events. Thuerer had lived near Moffett Field, where the Air Force would randomly launch spy planes. He would wake up hearing the launch and wonder for a moment if it was an atomic blast. He experienced dreams where he was hiking above the Bay Area over San Francisco. He saw missiles coming in and would be aware they would hit the location he was in. He continued to experience these nightmares even after the release of the game for a couple of years.
"For each section of the game, I imagine it in many different scenarios; I design and program the more promising scenarios and in the end, choose the one that feels the best," he says. "I imagined missiles streaking in, imagined the explosions, both with the sounds and the visuals, over and over, day after day until it felt just right."
Once the game was released, each game had to be field tested for general arcade audiences before production. Atari had to have a cabinet up and running so it could be placed in a local bar or arcade. This was a great deal for arcade owners as they were able to keep ALL of the quarters from this machine rather than only half. For this agreement, the arcade owner had to keep a tally of the players that used the machine during specific periods of time. When field testing was known, competitors would attempt to research the machine to create and distribute a clone before the game could be fully released. This field test allowed the team to track how players would react to the game and the changes made to the gameplay.
A big change that occurred based on players' reactions was the removal of a light-filled panel on the Missile Command cabinet above the player’s head. This panel displayed flashing lights that would indicate the in-game bases. But Thurer found it was too distracting for players, so they chopped off the top of the cabinets and saved quite a bit of money, and didn’t affect the gameplay. This was a vital phase in testing how the game would be received.
Six cities are being attacked by a hail of ballistic missiles. Later in the game, new weapons are introduced and the player must protect these cities from being destroyed. The game is operated by moving a crosshair across the sky with a trackball and pressing one of three buttons to launch a counter-missile. There are 11 basic stages in the game, referred to as waves. Missile Command is programmed to go up to 256 waves, but rarely does someone reach this level. There are three military bases, Alpha, Delta, and Omega that the player can launch their next defensive missile from.
Missile Command contains a series of levels with increasing difficulty, each level contains a set number of enemy weapons. These weapons attack the cities and the missile batteries. The enemy weapons are able to destroy three cities on one level. Shooting down smart bomb yields 125 points, and taking out a killer satellite earns players 100 points. Bombers are also worth 100 points. Players that are able to survive waves with defensive missiles leftover receive 5 points for each additional round. Ending a level with cities left relatively intact yields 100 points.
After the second wave has been completed, all points earned an increase in value. From stages three to four, players receive double the points they normally would. From stages five to six, scores are tripled. Stages seven and eight give players four times their normal scores. This continues until the 11th wave, where point values are six times their original value. Levels end when all enemy weaponry is destroyed or utilized on its target. Players receive bonus points for remaining cities and unused missiles. This varies depending on the level you complete. The game comes to a close when all six cities are destroyed unless the player earns a bonus city. The game continues until the player loses, so it continues at rapid-fire until it inevitably ends.
Missile command exploded when it was released for the Atari 2600 home console, selling 2.5 million copies. It was released for the Atari 5200 in 1982 and the Jaguar in 1995. It was also built into the Atari XEGS as an easter egg, released in 1987. If the players didn’t place a cartridge or plugged in a keyboard once they turned on the console, an Atari 2600 version of Missile Command would boot up automatically. While there were three sequels to Missile Command, only two sequels were ever produced. Official sequels to Missile Command include; Missile Command 3D and an updated version of Missile Command that was released in 1999.