Saturday, March 16, 2019

Game 52: Missile Command

Buy Missile Command and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

In a way, Missile Command feels like a grim twist on Space Invaders. Both games are about the impossible task of fending off waves of hostile aggressors raining death and destruction from above until your inevitable demise, but Missile Command really hammers in the “inevitable demise” part. There is no cover, no dodging, and no catharsis of shooting down your assailants like ducks in a row, just a brief respite in between rounds as you lick your wounds and prepare yourself to face overwhelming odds yet again. Upon losing the last city, a screen-filling explosion overlaid with the words “THE END” tolls your annihilation. This ending is not often seen when emulating, as it is skipped for players who make the high score board, which is reset when the machine or emulator is switched off.

The arcade game is controlled with a trackball, moving the targeting reticle across the screen much like a mouse cursor. A joystick, whether analog or digital, would not be an appropriate substitute. MAME lets you play with a mouse, but I have a trackball control panel, so I used it.

The best I could do, after hours of trying, was a score just shy of 30,000. It didn’t take long at all before the missiles came down too fast for me to effectively shoot them all down. The faster they fall, the more you have to lead them, especially with the missiles from your side bases which fly slowly and usually have to travel far. Any missile that makes slips through your cloud of flak is probably going to strike terra firma without giving you a second chance.

In later rounds, I’d eventually have to abandon protection of all of my cities but one near the central missile base. I’d begin each round by spamming ABMs from a side base to form a protective cloud against the initial wave over a city or two, then abandon that base and use my central one to pick off missed threats. But I couldn’t find a way to reliably deal with smart bombs, which actively avoid your missile’s blast radii. Direct hits will take it out, as will trapping it in between two explosions, but I couldn’t do either of these things consistently, and so they would often take out my missile silos or a remaining base. My final surviving city, as seen in the video, fell to smart missiles.

I tried playing with a mouse too, but this didn't improve my play as much as I had hoped. The problem is backspin; move the cursor too fast, and it will reverse direction. It's as if the game has a built-in maximum speed for the cursor, and exceeding that speed will make it move in the other direction. I had also ran into this problem occasionally when using my trackball, but this happened much more easily with a mouse. I don't know if this is an issue with MAME or with the game itself, but when I played on a real machine at Funspot, it backspun even with moderate rolling speed.

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