Missile Command

Original version: Missile Command, released in 1980 for arcade

If you were alive during the cold war you must remember the fear and uncertainty that came with wondering how long the arms race between the US and USSR would last. Missile Command was inspired by this very fear and puts you, the player, in charge of millions of lives.

Even seventeen years after the Cuban Missile Crisis many Americans were frightened of the possibility of a Soviet attack. Children were still compelled to watch PSAs demonstrating proper emergency protocol in case of nuclear attack. Popular media of the time played on this fear. “WarGames” featured a young Matthew Broderic nearly causing a nuclear holocaust by playing on a computer with less processing power than a TI-83 calculator. The gaming medium also received its first example in Missile Command, which tasked the player with fending off incoming ICBMs before they could reach the bottom of the screen. The way in which the game is played models real-world defense systems that were in place during the Cold War.

Missile Command’s gameplay is quite unlike anything that came before. You aim by rolling a trackball with the palm of your right hand to move the cursor. You then press the left, middle, or right button with your left hand to launch a surface-to-air missile from the corresponding missile base. The missile detonates once it reaches the cursor, and the hope is that the explosion will destroy an incoming ICBM.

Anyway, here’s a video of me failing miserably at it.

WARNING: Do not watch if you have photosensitive epilepsy.


The six cities at the bottom of the screen were meant to represent six real cities in California, but were never named explicitly in the game. During development Dave Theurer suffered from nightmares about nuclear attack. It’s not unheard of for developers to have nightmares regarding games they’re passionate about. It’s well known that Miyamoto Shigeru has nightmares about discovering game-breaking bugs in Zelda games.

The sheer brilliance of Missile Command lies in its narrative, which is told solely by its mechanics. It manages to both be emotionally and mechanically engaging, while also making a statement about nuclear war that so many ham-fisted modern games can learn from.


Missile Command is included in Atari Vault. If you own a Missile Command arcade cabinet you can download a backup here and run it with MAME.


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