Atari’s original Missile Command is an arcade classic. The 1980s cabinet version with the trackball is really iconic and if you were around when they were available you can probably still picture it quite easily. If you take a quick look through its Wikipedia page, you’ll see that 2600 port later saw sales soar well past the 2 million mark. And like so many similar arcade classics of that time, Missile Command has made its way into popular culture too and I remember it fondly as the main plot device in the “Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer” episode from the Chuck series I still really enjoy going back to. The game has been ported, remade and remastered several times over the years and sequels & spiritual successors have even found their way to more modern consoles.
Unfortunately, the games have always leaned heavily on the original and haven’t been able to iterate enough to stay relevant to most modern players and this ‘re-imagining’ probably falls into that same category. While Recharged includes a few modern bells and whistles, the gameplay loop is over very quickly and unfortunately shows its age. That being said, I will concede that this is an ‘anniversary edition’ so players of the original may actually rather like that 40 years later. Atari themselves say this game is aimed at mobile gamers (the game is also available on iOS, the Google Playstore and PC) and honestly that’s what it felt like: a (rather good) mobile game. Sure, the simple visuals look nice enough on the Switch and button controls are comfortable and familiar, but that probably won’t keep anyone but ardent fans interested for more than a couple of hours on Nintendo’s hybrid console.
Atari themselves say this game is aimed at mobile gamers and honestly, that’s what it felt like: a (rather good) mobile game; And the best evidence of this is probably how much easier the touch controls make the gameplay.
All Your Base Are Belong To Us
The basic premise of the game remains the same. You have six bases arranged at the bottom of the screen. You control three batteries (launchers) situated to the left, middle and right of the screen and fire your own counter-missiles to defend the bases. Using the controller or Joy-cons you control a single target (using the left analogue stick) and can fire from each of the three launch sites using the A, B (or X) and Y buttons. Touch screen controls (in handheld mode) make this a lot easier though where simply pointing at the screen will fire whichever battery is closest. Counter-missile explosions linger on the screen for some time and any enemy missiles that are caught in the explosion are destroyed. However, unlike the original, Recharged is a survival-mode only game. You have an unlimited number of missiles to fire, however, incoming missiles are also endless.
To spice things up a bit occasionally a powerup will float across the screen. Hitting this lettered-icon will allow you to slow down time, speed up your own missile speed, decrease your battery respawn (rebuild) period or target several enemy missiles with either a screen-clearing bomb or a targeted homing missile. At first, getting the hang of the controls takes some time. Because you need your missile to explode before an enemy attack reaches the target zone you have to get used to pre-empting the trajectory of incoming missiles. This is a little frustrating at first as your explosions are relatively small and incoming threats travel at a variety of speeds.
To add to that, I played most of the time using my pro controller and the three-buttoned, tri-directional firing system had me struggling to work out the optimum right-hand finger position early on. This all led to really short games, painfully low scores and frustration. So for those of you starting the game out on the Switch, this may be the first (and possibly only) time then that I suggest that if you have the option – go with the touch controls in handheld mode. It just gives you much better speed of movement, accuracy and doesn’t rely so heavily on right/left independence of motion (like tapping your head while rubbing your stomach) – almost like it was designed to be played like that (wink wink).
It all felt a little straight-laced and plain and I really think a sharp injection of a little madness would’ve really gone a long way in energising this title.
Let’s Attack Aggressively
After every game, any points your rack up can be used to upgrade your counter-missile batteries. These upgrades fall into four categories: Power (the size of the explosions your missiles can generate), Reload (the time it takes for each battery to fire the next missile), Speed (the speed the actual missiles fly at) and Rebuild (the time period a battery takes to respawn after it has been hit). This is could’ve been the best feature of the revamped game. However, it feels underutilised and also means you feel painfully underpowered when starting off. And because enemies do not (seem to) progress and level up but have a pretty ‘standard’ difficulty level from the get-go, the first few times you play the game feels a little too tough. And while you may suspect this was designed so that later upgrades feel significant, it means those early games are short and quite punishing and importantly it takes forever to really get into that thrilling and addictive gameplay loop that Missile Command is all about.
Unfortunately, the upgrades themselves also do not offer much of a payoff; The jump in abilities just seems too insignificant and the same limited enemies missile-types just keep repeating again and again (with perhaps a slight increase in speed and amount). After some time, I did manage to build up some nice higher scores but it felt like that was more a case of getting used to the unusual control scheme rather than the upgrades themselves. Even at my rather low level of skill, I managed to max out the upgrades within just two or three hours. I felt quite disappointed. The combination of power-ups and upgrades seems like the perfect starting-combination to mix up the old formula but instead, it felt like they played it a little too safe and I was left wishing for a lot (or even at least a little) more.
This title loves the original and for that reason alone isn’t terrible, but just doesn’t venture far enough to hold your attention for very long.
On the aesthetic side of things, I actually enjoyed that simple line retro-futuristic Tron-like like visuals but once again wished they had somehow mixed things up a bit more when high scores were reached or when power-ups were in play. While the ‘keep it simple’ saying is almost always the way to go, in this case, it just doesn’t keep you interested. The music and visual style were good enough to start off with but after a few minutes, you’ve probably seen and heard everything you’re going to for the rest of the game. In fact, and it seems a little strange even writing this down but hear me out… Even the point-scoring seemed a little boring. Rather than 25 points for a downed missile – I would’ve loved a ridiculous 2500 to flash wildly across the screen. I’m not a great player I will admit, but hitting the top 35 (there is an online leaderboard you can see after every round) with a score somewhere near the 7500 mark just felt quite flat to me. It all felt a little straight-laced and plain and I really think a sharp injection of a little madness would’ve really gone a long way in energising this title.
With everything said and done, Missile Command: Recharged is not a bad game. It definitely fits the bill as a competent callback to the original. And for that reason, those that loved the arcade/2600 game will probably love how much this updated title respects the original and the small updates may even be just the right amount of change that you were looking for. However, I wanted a little more. A few extra game modes added to the standard survival would have made a big difference. The power-ups were a really fun addition but again the slim upgrades felt really underused.
I couldn’t help but think of a game like Tetris and how it has been re-imagined so many times over the years while maintaining the core gameplay. The more I played the more I kept wishing for something more interesting to happen with the audio (an oddball burst of a new melody perhaps) or on the visual side of things – perhaps a burst of a different colour-palette or a rotating perspective, heck even a new enemy missile type… just something to really embody the ‘Recharged‘ moniker more appropriately. For better or for worse, what you see is really what you get. This title loves the original and for that reason alone isn’t terrible, but perhaps because of its mobile focus just doesn’t venture far enough to hold your attention for very long.