Review: 8-Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari’s Missile Command

You’ve probably heard all the stories of game development before: From drug-fueled programming binges that somehow create an instant classic to shoestring budgets that are stretched to their limits to make a masterpiece, the stories behind some of gaming’s earliest hits can be captivating. Once you read through enough harrowing tales, though, they all start to sound the same. There are only so many variations on the troubled game development cycle to read before you start to see the patterns.

Alex Rubens digs into the history of a bygone era, both in terms of gaming history and the larger geopolitical context in the Postwar Era.

What if you were so determined to send a message with your game that it consumed your every thought? In 8-Bit Apocalypse, Alex Rubens tells the tale of Missile Command, one of Atari’s hit arcade games. The development of the iconic game remained a mystery for years, as developer Dave Theurer appeared to disappear from the gaming world after only developing a few games. Against all odds, Rubens contacted Theurer and learned his story. If you enjoy reading about the trials and tribulations of game development, 8-Bit Apocalypse is a worthy, shocking, read.

8-Bit Apocalypse does more than just tell the story of Missile Command, however; it also provides the context that allowed such a game to thrive in the first place. It was 1979 and America was still engaging with the USSR during the Cold War. Tension and anxiety ran high with the American populace. What if today was the day that Russia would launch their nuclear weapons and destroy life as everyone knew it? The uncertainty of what would happen next weighed heavily on everyone’s minds, including Theurer’s as he created Missile Command.

I grew up in a different time–as a 90’s child, I never had to worry about two superpowers destroying themselves in a nuclear war. I find the context 8-Bit Apocalypse provides important, as otherwise, I wouldn’t really understand what makes Missile Command such an influential title. While of course, Missile Command had a number of technological advancements, what’s even more interesting, and altogether unexpected, is that this arcade title tries to convey a message.

Theurer attempted to show arcade goers the horrors of nuclear war.

In Missile Command, you’re never on the offensive, you’re just trying to protect your cities to the bitter end. And what a bitter end it is… there’s no chance for survival and winning the game.

As with any arcade game, the ultimate goal is to get the high score, but that means that eventually, all your cities will fall, and you’ll be greeted with a screen that suggests finality:

THE END

The message may not have gotten through to everyone; after all, in 1980 it was challenging to portray narratives and messages and certainly not what we might expect in video games today.

But even when Theurer’s intended message began giving him nightmares of the world ending in nuclear war, he was determined to get Missile Command out to the world. He worked long hours, sleepless nights, and tinkered with the title constantly to get everything just right, putting Missile Command before his physical and mental health. Before developing Missile Command, Theurer was a 9-5 sort of man, able to separate with work and home life; Missile Command, however, consumed his life.

What if today was the day that Russia would launch their nuclear weapons and destroy life as everyone knew it?

How Alex Rubens frames all this in 8-Bit Apocalypse is fantastic. Given the political climate of the time, as well as deep dive into Atari’s development processes and work culture, it gives gravity to the game’s development. While some of these facts might be known to readers that go through a variety of video game books, 8-Bit Apocalypse is written so that even those that don’t have a vast knowledge of the gaming industry’s early days can read and follow along. It’s something that I find sometimes lacking in gaming books, but yet that readability is essential.

However, there are a few parts of the book that seem a little out of place. There’s a chapter on Missile Command’s competitive scene that, while fascinating, seems to be placed a bit too early in the book and feels out of place with the timeline that Rubens was establishing. While I do not think it comes from a position of bias, the jump in the book from “Missile Command is about to be released” to this story years in the future about breaking high score records is a bit jarring. The chapter also reads in a bit of a different tone, almost as if it was originally a stand-alone article that was incorporated into the book. Again, it’s a great addition, it just seems like the chapter wasn’t placed in the right part of the book.

Missile Command was created under the specter of a nuclear holocaust and was an attempt at showing the audience the dangers of nuclear war.

Additionally, there’s a long analysis of another modern game, Spec Ops: The Line, with what feels like only the most tenuous of connections of Missile Command. Unlike the chapter mentioned above, this feels oddly out of place. Rubens framed Specs Ops as similar to Missile Command, in that the shooter tells a story without spelling the details out. However, the connection just doesn’t stick–the two games are ultimately vastly different, and with over 30 years between the games’ development times, the comparison falls flat.

But even with these criticisms, Ruben’s book does a great job of telling the story of Missile Command, Dave Theurer, and the impact it’s had for all these years. Before 8-Bit Apocalypse, Missile Command wasn’t a game I thought about much–I had tried it a few times when I was younger, sure, but I usually grew bored or frustrated and moved onto other games.

It’s clear to me now that this arcade title holds an iconic place in gaming history, and the story behind its development is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in learning more about human expression and game development in what may have been a dark chapter in human history.

Disclosures: This book was reviewed based on an advanced copy provided by the author.

Mr. Rubens has served as an expert panelist for GoodGamesWriting in the past.

8-Bit Apocalypse Review
  • Score
    8
The Good

Needed context on Cold War provided

New story that breaks free of same old same old

Highly readable

The Bad

Spec Ops section out of place

810
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