Missile Command (GameBoy)

Aaaaah, Missile Command. One of the most storied and respected arcade hits of all time. A hit classic that saw comparable success on home systems. Missile Command was a staple of the Atari family for generations. This made it an interesting break with tradition when the game was then ported to the Nintendo handhelds. Ports that hold up tremendously well compared to the arcade original and even surpass some of Atari’s own ports.

To those unfamiliar with the game, the premise is simple. You play as a commander charged with the defense of Earth’s cities in the face of a brutal, alien invasion. Missiles rain down from the sky, which will surely leave the planet in ruins without your intervention. Your solution are batteries which fire counter-missiles into the sky. Intercept as many attacks as you can while keeping as many cities as possible in tact. No matter how long it takes.

Each round of Missile Command grants you an assortment of counter-missiles to use. The original arcade had 3 batteries of 10 missiles each, which was cut down to just 1 battery for the home console releases. The handheld ports bring that total back up to 2 (mapped to A and B respectively), which puts these versions on the same level as the Atari ST port.

Both batteries have 15 missiles available per round, though they too can be destroyed if you allow them to be hit. Unlike the cities, however, lost batteries are replaced in the next round.

Counter-missiles are special, in that their explosions last quite a while. You don’t need to hit the enemy projectiles head-on, rather you predict where their trajectory will lead them. Explosions lasts for so long that you can potentially down multiple enemy missiles with only a single one of your own. This makes for a very strategic experience as the number of projectiles and their speed increases. You only have so many shots to make, so you want to make them count. Where do you shoot to take down multiple targets at once? Do you deal with the optional targets or let them slip by? Will you sacrifice a few cities to reduce how many you must defend?

These moments of rapid decision-making are what makes Missile Command a timeless experience. Each session is fresh, presenting new challenges and dramatic moments. If you let yourself slip into the mindset of a soldier charged with Earth’s last line of defense, it gets quite intense.

The GameBoy color port benefits heavily from the improved art. Detailed backgrounds make cities more identifiable than the generic colorswaps of old and enemy vessels look more convincing as well. We also got a proper reticle for targeting now, which is more of a plus than you might expect. On the Atari 2600, your reticle was just a tiny rectangle that was easily lost in the chaos. The added clarity makes the hectic moments even more fun, owing to it feeling more fair.

I will say that the added cutscenes feel a bit overindulgent. You got these goofy cartoons about national landmarks that play between transitions to different levels. They are funny and look nice for the GameBoy, but get obnoxious on repeat plays. You can’t skip them and I find that they break my focus too much.

If you want to experience Missile Command and a real arcade cabinet isn’t viable, then this GameBoy port is remarkably sound. Having 2 batteries to work with gives this port an advantage over the home console versions, and it’s otherwise true to the original game. The presentation is also excellent and the cutscenes—while a bit of a drag—are only a minor nuisance.

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