Given the ‘street cred’ I have with arcades – first collecting, then operating a professional arcade, writing & reporting on them, consulting on new developments, & selling them – it is probably expected that I enjoy every single iconic classic arcade title from the Golden Age.
Well, not really. I have my likes and dislikes like anyone else. One game that just never grew on me was Atari’s Missile Command. Granted, I only played home ports of the game for years before I came across the arcade version so those formed my opinion of it early on. When I did come across the arcade cabinet, I could recognize that it was superior to those versions I was familiar with. It still didn’t land on the list of cabinets I would want to own, I just could see why it had its fans.
So when I came across Gamepro’s review of Atari’s remade Missile Command for the Atari Jaguar, Missile Command 3D, I should have been inclined to agree with their poor assessment of the game. I had not found a console version of the game I liked to spend a lot of time on, the closest I had come to that was the 2600 with the trackball accessory. Despite that, I bought the game anyways since I had it in my head that I was going to collect for the system. Fortunately I ignored GP’s review (there are anecdotes about the friction between Atari and game magazines, usually that Atari worked to piss them off as opposed to cull favor) and found MC3D to be an excellent game and worth having if you own a Jaguar. Click below for more details on why I find this to be one of the top gems of the Jaguar
There is an interesting history behind Missile Command 3D, in that it originally started out as Missile Command VR. In a bid to grab attention and sales, Atari announced a partnership with the professional VR company Virtuality and together they were developing the Jaguar VR headset which would go into homes for only about $300 (sounds familiar!). It was based upon the Virtuality VR pods that arcades/amusement parks could obtain for a mere $50k-$60k, so it was an ambitious goal. They got pretty far along in development, in fact there are a couple of complete working headset kits out there in the hands of collectors, with the IR tracking pods and the MCVR game to accompany it (these presently sell for around $10k). Missile Command VR was going to be the flagship game to promote the headset, the killer app for it so to speak but when that deal fell apart, Atari recognized they still had a good game to work with so they reworked it for gamepad controls and released Missile Command 3D. The VR version of the game did end up finding its way to the Virtuality pods as well but it wouldn’t be long before the whole VR hype would find itself cryogenically frozen until 2014 or so.
So how is the game that Atari produced?
Using the same formula they had created with the successful Tempest 2000, the game features 3 distinct game modes, each of which is a game in itself.
Original – The original arcade version of defending your cities from the raining nuclear bombs is found on the cartridge with the added modification of a re-sizable window. I think they made this from scratch as opposed to running an emulator but how it plays seems spot-on to me (despite my lack of excitement about the original, I do own the game on a Centipede/Millipede/Missile Command cabinet I got for my arcade in 2013 so I’ve been able to give it another chance). Just the title of Missile Command spinning around is an extra; You can activate some interesting “borders” which are made out of flat-shaded 3D polygons. My favorite is the Atari Lynx; the arcade cabinet would have been better if it had used the original
3D – The idea on the Plus games that Jeff Minter had devised was a go-between the original and the headlining 3D game. It didn’t work out so well on Tempest 2000 (Tempest Plus is the least played version for me since it feels like 2000 without the shaded web parts and powerups) but in MC3D, they made a nice rendition of the concept where the layout is very similar to the arcade game but with a touch of the first-person to it as your view scrolls around the playfield as though you were sitting in a tower overlooking the valleys. At this point in the market Atari knew their uphill battle against Sega and Sony was more like scaling a sheer cliff so they were trying to push the 3D envelope as much as they could on their machine designed for pumping 2D stuff. The lens flare from the sun, animated smoke trails from the missiles and blend of textured and flat-shaded polygons worked out well. This mode also introduced a radar to help you track falling missiles that would be outside of your view. The only thing about this mode is that the missiles move a little slow; it also would be nice to use a trackball which was never officially released for the Jag, otherwise it is a solid variation of the concept.
Virtual – And here is the main course of the game, the 3D mode developed for the VR headset. Thanks to the intended hardware, they took the approach of making Missile Command a full first person experience. You still have cities to protect and three turrets to protect them with but instead of being organized along a 2D plane, the cities are grouped together in a center area, the turrets occupy strategic spots overlooking the cities. In a major difference from the standard Missile Command, they took a page from Atari’s obscure Liberator and give you laser turrets in addition to missile launchers. The missiles can feel almost useless when compared to the instant gratification of using the laser cannons but timing them right can work out, especially on boss fights. They also added power-ups so your lasers and missiles can do more damage; smart bombs to clear the whole screen which is very useful for when things get out of hand.
There are 3 different venues you will come across – first is the bottom of the ocean; then some high mountain peaks with cloud cities and finally in space. Each area features some unique bosses that fit the theme of the area to some degree and there are 3 bosses you have to fight per area. Some of those include a mutant eel (ocean); a fire-breathing dragon or an attack blimp (cloud cities); asteroids, flying gundam-like mechs and a huge cool-looking space station (space). You encounter waves of missiles that fall towards your cities where you need to stop them in time; enemies will fly around firing missiles as well.
Looking around is easy enough although it obviously would have moved along smoother with the VR headset. This concept could still work for VR without any additional hardware but it likewise would be workable with a trackball. Graphically this mode is a showcase for how the Jaguar could handle 3D – they did hold back from going full texture-mapping (not a strong suit for the hardware) for everything. The landscapes are textured without any warping, the missiles and some enemies just use flat-shaded polys. All of the polys are perfectly Z-buffered and the color used puts it into the 65k range. From an audio perspective it doesn’t have tunes that gained notoriety like Tempest 2000 but they are catchy in their own right and the sound effects are pretty cool – the bubbles that pop, the metallic explosions, screeching from the eel or dragon.
Thanks to a faster pace of hitting the missiles with your laser cannons, the different way which the concept is handled and the overall quality of the game package, I really enjoy playing this game. It often is placed on Top 10 lists among Jaguar fans but even then I’ve seen it ignored when any discussion of the Jaguar rears its head outside of Jag fan circles. In fact sometimes the reviews really don’t make any sense – take for instance this one where MC3D gets an F, which should mean the game is completely unplayable, buggy, broken and not-fun, and yet the review itself is positive (this is why I detest scores for games – they are very arbitrary and usually don’t match what the reviewer actually says). I suppose this also goes to why I am doing these posts, given that good games get bashed or ignored simply because they were on the Atari Jaguar.
If you are looking to collect for the console, don’t pass this one up.