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Missile Command Turns 40

Missile Command Turns 40

Kris Randazzo
6 minute read

Happy Birthday, Missile Command! 

40 years ago, this wonderful arcade game was released to an unwitting American public, and all this time later, it’s just as fun as it ever was.

As someone who was born in 1981, I didn’t get to actually play the arcade version of Missile Command until I was much older. I was fascinated by the arcade scene, but there weren’t many around me at the time. I did, however, own an Atari 2600, and Missile Command was one of the first games I ever got.

Commanding at home

To say I played the heck out of this game would be an understatement. What seemed like endless hours were poured into trying to get as far as I could in the game. I know the point was to try and get a high score, but I never really got into score attacks myself. For me, it was all about seeing what color the game field would turn next. I can’t say why this fascinated me so much, but I just thought it was cool.

As a very small child, I naturally wasn’t very good at the game, but my sister who is a few years older than me, was way better. She always managed to get a level or two farther than I could, but when she first got to the stage where the background turns from black to blue, the only way I can describe it was it blew my mind.

If I'm being honest, I have no idea why I thought it was mind-blowing. The sky is blue. Neat. But back then, to little me, it was incredible. Honestly, it still freaks me out a little. There’s something mildly unnerving about that particular color change that I’ve never been able to put my finger on, but it’s really something to see. Or, at least it was to me.

Trackball mania

As for the arcade release, which is what we’re here for, playing it for the first time was a revelation because of the way it controls. Having learned the ins and outs of Missile Command with a 2600 joystick in my hands, when I approached the arcade cabinet for the first time and was greeted by a giant black ball, I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I had never seen a trackball before, and the experience was altogether new to me. I plunked in my quarter to see what it was all about and it immediately clicked. Suddenly the joystick I was so familiar with seemed woefully inadequate. I was spinning that ball around, blasting missiles like a machine in no time. It was so much fun!

While I felt way more comfortable with the trackball, I still couldn’t get very far in the game. I was good, but only by my own rather meager standards. Still, I had a ton of fun. That is, until the Game Over screen showed up and freaked me the heck out.

Modern Missiles

As is the case with pretty much every successful arcade game from the old days, Missile Command has seen a couple of attempts at modernization over the years. The first one that comes to mind is the rather fun release from 1999 for the PlayStation. Like Frogger and Space Invaders before it, Missile Command attempted to replicate the gameplay of the arcade classic while adding the modern flare that consoles of the time were capable of.

There was a pseudo 3D Modern mode which was pretty neat for a while, but I personally enjoyed the Classic Mode a lot more. The Modern Mode featured voice acting, a story, and all sorts of other movement, which was nice, but the Classic Mode was just good old fashioned Missile Command, except with modern graphics.

What’s particularly interesting about this is that they created a whole set of assets just for this mode. Seems a bit unnecessary, but I appreciated it. A great rendition of the game that’s been ported a couple of times to systems as recent as PlayStation 3 and PS Vita.

Touch the Missiles

Another great take on Missile Command is in Retro Atari Classics for Nintendo DS. This one’s a bit on the weird side, but it’s super fun. The whole game is themed around graffiti art, and all the games in the collection have these wacky graffiti-inspired visual remakes. It also has classic-looking versions, which is nice because while visually interesting, a lot of the graffiti ones are a bit garish.

The version of Missile Command on here is odd. It takes place on both screens, with the bottom screen more or less replicating the original arcade screen, and the top screen showing where the missiles are coming from. Instead of moving the cursor around, you just tap the screen where you want your shots to go. But only the bottom screen on the DS is a touch screen, so while you can see stuff on the top screen, you can’t actually interact with it. It balances the difficulty pretty well since making your shots with precision is WAY easier with a touch screen than a trackball or joystick.

Switching it up

Speaking of touch screens, Missile Command: Recharged was recently released on Nintendo Switch, and it’s a pretty darn good time. It’s only about $3, and it can be played in handheld mode with the touch screen. I haven’t spent a ton of time with it myself just yet, but it seems pretty intuitive.

The visuals have a real Geometry Wars vibe to them, which works great in this setting. I played my first round with a controller, and it seems you can either use one button to shoot from whatever cannon the game recommends, or you can shoot from the three cannons as you like with different button presses. I had a lot of fun with it, and you can’t really beat the price.

No matter how you play Missile Command, there’s no denying that it’s a great game concept. From the humble Atari 2600 to current gen consoles, the basic gameplay works like a charm. And hey, if you're feeling nostalgic and you want to boot up your Atari 2600 again, give one of these a try

What are your favorite missile Command memories?

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