Between my more extensive articles, I’ve decided to do a few shorter articles on some of the earliest On-Line System (Sierra On-Line) titles. While On-Line Systems is known for its early Hi-Res adventure games, the company published a myriad of titles in its first couple of years. From sports and tabletop games to fast-paced action titles inspired by the popular video arcade games of the time.
When Ken and Roberta Williams had completed the development of their first game, Mystery House, in the summer of 1980, Roberta took out a full-page ad in Micro 6502 magazine. To offer more than just Mystery House, two other titles, Skeet Shoot and Trap Shoot, both developed by a third party, were also featured. While Skeet shoot and Trap shoot quickly faded away, the company’s portfolio rapidly expanded with a multitude of new titles added over the next couple of years, one of the titles being Missile Defense by Dave. W. Clark.
For decades the Cold War had, with its imminent threat of nuclear armageddon and mutually assured destruction, inspired countless books and movies, and everything in between. The Soviet Union and the United States had in 1979, in Vienna, agreed to the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement treaty. A treaty that was supposed to limit the parties’ nuclear arsenals and technologies but ultimately failed with both parties continuously replacing older missiles and warheads with newer and more powerful ones.
With Ronald Reagan’s proposed missile defense program tagged the Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based anti-ballistic missile system derided as Star Wars, a continued interest in intercontinental and anti-ballistic missiles lasted for the better part of the ’80s.
In 1980 Atari, Inc. released Missile Command, its take on an Anti-Ballistic Missile video arcade game.
With the fate of your nation resting on your ability to defend your six cities from incoming ballistic missiles, it was very much a game of its time. It was designed by Dave Theurer, who the same year designed another Atari success title, Tempest. Missile Command became an immediate success at arcades around and was fairly quickly ported to Atari’s own Atari VCS video game console (later, Atari 2600) and 8-bit line of computers the following year. Providing players from their homes a chance to blast enemy missiles out of the sky. While the Atari VCS version of Missile Command became a huge commercial success and went on to sell 2.5 million copies, most of the numerous clones the original game spawned didn’t fare as well.
In 1981 Dave Clark created a Missile Command clone for the Apple II computer. Written in 6502 Machine language, a must at the time if you wanted fast-paced gameplay and animations. Missile Defense was picked up and published by On-Line Systems for the Apple II personal computer. The game played very true to the game it copied, with three anti-ballistic missile sites protecting your six cities from the incoming waves of missiles.
While I haven’t been able to find any information on Clark or how the game reached Ken Williams, it likely arrived at the doorstep of On-Line Systems, as a response to Williams’ Authors Wanted ad in the magazines of the day. Here Williams was looking for new developers with a promise of a publishing deal and the highest royalties in the industry.
On-Line Systems “Authors Wanted” ad from InfoWorld in 1981
Missile Defence was published in 1981 by On-Line Systems. The Apple II version was the only release
Missile Defence looked great and featured fast-paced gameplay. especially for a title released in 1981. Controlling the cross-hair aim with either the keyboard or the paddles, instead of the fast track-ball approach the original used, was quite a challenging task and required practice to get used to.
I played it on “Slow Attack” using the keyboard and it was challenging indeed
In Byte magazine’s December issue of 1981, Missile Defense went up against MUSE Software and Silas Warner’s ABM from 1980, in a fight for the best home computer variant of Atari’s Missile Command. With the original rated at 100, Missile Defense came in at 85, and ABM at 75.
While Missile Command is now considered one of the classics from the golden era of video arcade games, Missile Defence only sold moderately and was quickly buried under the masses of clones released at the time. The title is now mostly a forgotten piece in the early On-Line Systems’ portfolio.
With countless clones saturating the personal computer market, Atari Corporation soon started threatening legal action against several companies that were producing software similar to those which Atari would hold the patents and licenses for. That included publishers like On-Line Systems, Brøderbund, and Sirius Software and clones of Pac-Man, Asteroids and Missile Command.
Steven Levy’s book from 1984, Hacker: Heroes of the Computer Revolution tells the story from the early mainframe hackers at MIT to the game pioneers of the early ’80s at companies like On-Line Systems, Brøderbund, and Sirius Software
Tony Temple’s newly released book (October 2020), Missile Commander, A Journey to the Top of an Arcade Classic, is a must-read for any with an interest in the golden days of video arcade games. While the premises of the book is Temple’s 40-year journey and memories with Missile Command, from his first quarter to many years later be crowned as the best player in the Guinness Book of World Records, it also describes the story of the game from the initial concept to its domination of the arcades in the early 80s. Missile Commander is full of unreleased pictures, exciting details, and with a foreword by Dave Theurer, creator of Missile Command. The book can be purchased on Missilecommander.com or here on Amazon.
Missile Command, A Journey to the Top of an Arcade Classic by arcade blogger Tony Temple, celebrating his 40-year journey with one of the great games of the golden era of video arcade games