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Missile Command
Reviewed by Chad Polenz

We all know what makes a video game good, but is it possible they appeal to us on a subconscious level? Some say Asteroids isn't so much about the fun of blasting rocks to smithereens, but about a basic human need to restore order to chaos. In the case of Missile Command, it's a game whose premise played to our fear of the Cold War at the time of its release. It's not just entertainment, it's instilling confidence in the player that "the enemy" can be defeated.

Or maybe it's just a classic arcade game that utilizes fast action and a science fiction theme, who knows?

This port for the Atari 2600 attempts to make the player believe it's NOT a metaphor for the fear of nuclear holocaust by describing the story as an act of defense on behalf of a peaceful alien planet. Clearly, the allegories to the real world of the time can be made despite this charade sci-fi theme.

You control a missile-launching silo in the bottom center of the screen. To either side of your station are three cities. The evil (unseen) aliens are dropping bombs and cruise missiles at the six cities as well as your artillery bunker. It's your job to destroy the incoming projectiles before they reach their targets. You control a target marker in the sky which can move in any direction and must be placed directly in the paths of the bombs and missiles in order to blow them up. Your aim doesn't have to be 100% accurate, though. If your blast radius touches the enemy fire it'll be enough to destroy them.

Your "lives" in this game are represented by the cities. As long as you have one city remaining at the end of each stage you'll advance to the next one. After multiples of 10,000 points a city will be resurrected, but once they're all gone it's game over.

The true challenge to this game lies in the fact you have a finite amount of rounds (30 per stage) and you're also limited to 3 missiles in action at any given time. The key is to determine where the bombs will be by the time your missiles reach them and if they'll be within the kill zone. To make this game simply a button-masher would make it way too easy. Missile Command is a game of finesse since it mixes dexterity with good judgment.

The best strategy to take is to engage the bombs as high up as possible during the early stages since they fall so slowly, but as the pace of the game increases you're better off playing more conservatively. In general, the best place to have your target marker is about halfway up the screen because if it's too high and you miss your target you'll have to go all the way down to re-engage it and then all the way back up to stop the onslaught.

What's ironic is that the game actually becomes a bit easier to play the fewer cities you have to defend. Once a city is destroyed you can ignore all bombs and missiles heading for it and instead concentrate on your remaining cities (it helps if they're adjacent to each other).

Since this game employs essentially 360 degrees of control, it's clear that the Atari 2600 platform is already something of a hindrance. In its original arcade version a track ball controller was used, and unfortunately, no such controller existed for the 2600. However, the standard Atari joystick in conjunction with the game's play control does a fair job in giving the player freedom of movement.

You have two choices for general play control: either a faster moving target marker which sacrifices accuracy; or a slower moving marker which sacrifices speed for higher accuracy. In the slower mode the controls feel a little too tight and you might actually find yourself craning the joystick hard thinking it's going to move the target marker quicker. In fast mode the controls feel a bit slippery and you'll often over-shoot your desired point of impact. Practicing in fast mode is essential to making significant progress in the game. I find the slow mode almost unusable in the later stages.

A major grievance I do have about the controls is how often I found myself having to shoot the same bombs and missiles multiple times. It's not so much the game's fault as it is my own for not timing my shots accurately. But it can be very frustrating when you realize how accurate your aim must be once the gameplay picks up significant speed.

There really isn't much to this game in terms of visuals, in fact, 90% of the screen is empty space. At the very least it's obvious what all the graphical images represent.

What I genuinely liked about this game is its use of color. Every few stages the color scheme will change completely, much like Centipede and Millipede, giving the game a bit of a trippy effect.

I also love the little animation of a mushroom cloud whenever a city is hit by a missile. Not intricately detailed, but certainly effective and kind of funny, too.

Although there is no background music throughout the game, it does have a lot of interesting sound effects, most notably the explosions when you hit your targets or when a city is destroyed. And since you're constantly bombarding incoming missiles you can expect virtually no moments of silence. Yes, the sound palette is fairly limited and primitive, but never grating on the ears.

Special mention must be made to two musical tones:
1) The bizarre electronic chime made whenever you score 10,000 points and earn a 1-Up. Is this an homage to R2-D2?
2) The creepy "Game Over" countdown/explosion-type sound which starts out quiet and high pitched and quickly lowers in tone as it reaches a violent crescendo - awesome!

Since Missile Command is a game of the Sisyphus method, it's not surprising it has such a high replay value. Like most arcade classics of the format, it's very addictive and the player will constantly feel the need to top himself. Although replaying the first few stages can be a bit annoying because they are so slowly-paced, once things heat up it becomes a real challenge since it'll never feel like you're simply repeating the same task over and over again (a la Pac-Man).

There's a lot to like about this game. It's such a good mix of action with finesse playing and judgment. The colors are cool and the sounds are pretty interesting as well. It does suffer a bit in its controls since they truly cannot play the game the way it's meant to be played. However, it is challenging and fun and that's what matters.