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Missile Command (Atari 2600) artwork

Missile Command (Atari 2600) review


"No, Missile Command is not easy on the eyes whatsoever, and yet somehow that's incredibly beautiful. Most of the screen is wide open nothing: a blank night sky and a bleak environment. There you sit, alone, vulnerable, no discernible geographic advantage, waiting in anticipation for those rockets to arrive. It's disquieting because you get the sense that you are it. You are the only remnants of a civilization, and once the bases you're defending are toast your only existence will be in the pages of a history book."



Missile Command asset


April, 2012. Missile Command caught me off guard, something few 2600 games do these days. I knew the game had aged, but that didn't prepare me for what the minimalist visuals would stir in my mind. The graphics haven't just "aged," but they're downright ugly. Jagged piles of pixels make up bases you must defend from oncoming missiles. Basic blinking dots drop from the sky, leaving jagged lines in their wakes. Now and then an enemy cruiser, represented by a small basic rectangle, speeds onto the screen, threatening to kamikaze into one of your bases. Your survival relies on your ability to fight off the warheads by firing missiles of your own and creating giant "splotches" (read: explosions) in the sky to intercept oncoming missiles. It all plays out like a war in a remedial geometry class. It's not just that each piece is primitive singularly. Put all of them on the screen at the same time and it looks like a three-year-old's art project.

No, Missile Command is not easy on the eyes whatsoever, and yet somehow that's incredibly beautiful. Most of the screen is wide open nothing: a blank night sky and a bleak environment. There you sit, alone, vulnerable, no discernible geographic advantage, waiting in anticipation for those rockets to arrive. It's disquieting because you get the sense that you are it. You are the only remnants of a civilization, and once the bases you're defending are toast your only existence will be in the pages of a history book. It's this empty, depressing atmosphere that caused me to dislike the game as a kid, and appreciate it as an adult. The developers wanted to engage your imagination, to dredge up your despair and draw the fighting spirit out of you.

Missile Command assetMissile Command asset


Even in the midst of battle, when splotches meet flashing dots, when rectangles crash into jagged piles, I see beauty. Here was war in all its glory: not a neat and glamorous affair, but a sloppy series of violence and displays of power. Maybe it didn't start off as a chaotic mess of explosions and desperate acts, but missiles drop faster and more frequently as you advance. Panic will overtake you as you defend your last few bases, frantically sending warheads to meet the enemy missiles at such a rate that you constantly run out and have to wait for a reload. Precision and fast reactions become the cornerstone of your defense. If you're off by a hair in later stages, it could be the difference between destroying another missile and losing another base. The speed eventually cranks up such that you'll want to rip your hair out, but will find yourself unable to pry your attention away from the game long enough to do so. It's an addictive, fast-paced affair.

You'll find that this game doesn't totally crush your skull right away. It eases into the role of the skull-crushee. It'll let you win the first few rounds, giving you a false sense of skillfulness. While you're distracted by your own thoughts about how awesome you are, Missile Command will move in for the kill. You'll realize how futile this mission, like many others, is. You'll realize then why you only have a few key buildings left in a small barren area. You'll despair, realize you're not that awesome, and either quit or fight back.

Perhaps Missile Command was trying to tell us something about video games of yore. These games always end badly for you. There were no end credits, no final boss battle, no closing cutscene. You played until you were dead, and how depressing is that? Missile Command gave it to you straight. It's like the game was readying you for what you knew was coming, a most saddening end at the hands of tyrannical oppression. You knew you were eventually going to lose, and the game didn't sugar coat it. It used basic visuals because that was all it needed, both to convey its point and to create a simple, fast-paced and addictive arcade title. Just the same, it's not a visually pretty game at all. Missile Command is ugly, war is ugly, loss is ugly. Life can be ugly. At least now you can have some fun with that bleak, poignant bit of truth.

Rating: 8/10

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (April 14, 2012)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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Feedback

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aschultz posted April 14, 2012:

Missile Command was one of the first games I ever achieved stasis in. I liked it a lot better than the arcade with the trak-ball. I remember people able to spin it just right, but that wasn't feasible on the home systems. I think the hard settings were impossible since you couldn't cover all the missiles at once, but I remember really loving the color changes for each level.

I agree that the ugliness works very well--it doesn't have to TRY to be anything like a person or a monster. Just dots and lines and calculating angles and so forth.

I remember how nervy it was watching a missile cloud collapse too fast for a missile to walk into, or the later levels when I learned to spin missiles coming down fast to my advantage and leave clouds for them in advance. This review brought back a lot of that, so thanks!
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JoeTheDestroyer posted April 15, 2012:

No problem. Thanks for reading! I never got to play a legit arcade version, just a port on the Dreamcast version of Atari Anniversary Edition. It's one of those machines I'm keeping an eye out for. In the meantime, the Centipede, Ms. Pac-Man, and Galaga machines that are hugely abundant here can keep me busy.
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zippdementia posted April 15, 2012:

I like how your reviews always have just the right pictures to augment what you've written. Good picture choice is often ignored as a part of reviewing, so I want to acknowledge your skills in the area. I've yet to read a review by you where I wished for different pics.

Except maybe that horrible cover.... you know, that one time...
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JoeTheDestroyer posted April 16, 2012:

Shhh! We aren't to mention that game! Never! Never!
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SamildanachEmrys posted April 19, 2012:

Interesting angle. Missile Command as a life lesson.

I never got that sense of bleakness from it. I think it was the title that did it: 'missile command' gave me a mental image of a war zone teeming with infantry and well-supplied defensive batteries.

In any case, good review. You took a game that it seemed impossible to say much about, and created a review that's worth reading even for those without any interest in the game.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted April 19, 2012:

Thanks, Sam. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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