8 Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari’s Missile Command
by Alex Rubens
The Overlook Press, 2018
Missile Command, an arcade cabinet video game released by Atari in 1980, is nothing short of a spectacle. It plays like a hazy pixelated nightmare bred from fears of nuclear war, where players are tasked with protecting clusters of cities from relentless waves of missile bombardments. It somehow manages to tastefully frame the topic of nuclear warfare within the context of a video game while simultaneously being a shining example of what top-notch game design looks like even by today’s standards. In 8 Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari’s Missile Command, video game writer Alex Rubens sets out to chronicle the game’s creation as well as its lasting impact on both gaming and popular culture.
This is a tall order; Missile Command is very much a product of its time, and to fully understand its inception as well as its legacy requires following a daisy-chain of interconnected subjects not unlike falling into the rabbit hole of a late-night Wikipedia clickfest. Rubens handles this challenge with ease, prioritizing a balanced breadth-over-depth approach with the wide variety of topics in play. He starts with the mindset of the average American during the late 1970s and early 1980s, how nuclear tensions from the Cold War and economic worries permeated the country’s collective consciousness:
[T]here was a feeling of deep rooted uncertainty. If you start with the fear that you may not be able to support your family and that you’ll be kicked out on the street and forced to do anything you can to feed your kids, yet you might just barely succeed; add to that the sight of missiles streaking in from above and the knowledge that everything you know and love could be wiped out in an instant. That state of mind does something to you, and it certainly did for the average American trying to make it through daily life at the time.
From there, Rubens deftly weaves in other topics such as the rise and fall of Atari, game development work culture and the propensity to regularly work several all-nighters in a row, and the thoroughly entertaining history behind the high score record holders of the Missile Command competitive scene. The latter is especially wonderful, starting off as an underdog story about record holder Tony Temple’s journey to the top, and ultimately concluding with the antics and belligerence of former record holder Roy Shildt in reaction to being bested by Temple.
The topic Rubens gives the most weight to in his story is that of the game’s lead programmer and designer, Dave Theurer. Although Rubens describes having difficulty convincing Theurer to give him an all-important interview for this book, eventually his persistence was rewarded. Theurer was the moral epicenter of Missile Command and Rubens frames him as someone taking great care to create a game that could be profound on different levels if the player should choose to read into it. He also went to great lengths to ensure that, in a game about nuclear war, the player is not the active aggressor and that they can clearly see the full spectrum of ramifications that spring from a nuclear conflict:
Realizing that these bombs would kill all of the people in a targeted city, I did not want to put the player in a position of being a genocidal maniac,” explains Theurer. Only a crazy person would sling nuclear weapons without context, right? That’s what Theurer was convinced of at least. In his heart he felt that putting players in that situation made them no different from the aggressors they were fighting so hard to defeat.
However, with this great attention to detail came an unfortunate personal cost. Rubens vividly describes Theurer’s borderline delirium as his passion for making the game mutated into an 80+ hour a week obsession. One passage describes how Theurer briefly lost all motor function on the job after staying in the office for four days straight without sleep. Another recounts a recurring nightmare Theurer experienced late in the game’s development in which he helplessly watches nuclear missiles rain down from the sky while out for a morning hike.
It is the tale of Theurer’s noble intentions and brief dance with the devil in his dreams that resonates the most here. Rubens effectively shows how Theurer’s blood, sweat, tears, and arguably some of his sanity went into Missile Command, and how the end result is something to behold. Powered by Rubens’ enthusiasm, 8-Bit Apocalypse melds all of these seemingly disparate elements, ultimately showing how Missile Command embodies the spirit of its time. It allows the reader to live (or potentially relive) that ever-present paranoia through the lens of virtual reality. By dipping into a wide array of subjects, Rubens makes this work accessible for the uninitiated but gives enough detail to satisfy those in the know.
Tony Perriello is a software developer who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He also plays way too many video games.