10 unique videogames from the Cold War

Top 10 Ryan Lambie 17 Sep 2013 - 05:58

What can videogames tell us about the volatile east-west relations in the 1980s? Ryan takes a look at 10 unique titles from the Cold War...

Videogames are often talked about in terms of nostalgia or their pioneering place in the medium’s evolution, but how often are they described as social or historical documents? The spread of videogaming’s broader popularity in the 70s to the golden age of arcades in the 1980s took place within the shadow of the Cold War’s final years, so it’s only logical that their content reflects that period in history.

After World War II rumbled to a close in 1945, the post-war period brought with it not an era of unprecedented peace, but one of anxiety and distrust; the US and the USSR were two superpowers locked in a state of terse rivalry, and the threat of nuclear war loomed large in the public consciousness. The preoccupation with armageddon, east-west tensions and espionage could readily be found in movies from the very beginning of the Cold War to the end - from intense, black comedies like Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, to heartbreaking animated films like When The Wind Blows.

But while movies can tell us a lot about the anxieties and political situation during this volatile period, so too can videogames. So to redress this balance a little, here’s a brief, decidedly un-academic look at 10 videogames from the 70s and 80s, and what they can tell us about this chapter in modern history.

Missile Command (1980)

Although enshrouded in a cloak of science fiction, the story and imagery behind Atari's Missile Command were clearly informed by the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation. Presenting the player with little more than an abstract shot of cities seen from far off, the inky black sky gradually fills with the vapour trails of falling missiles. The aim is to frantically roll the crosshair around the screen and take out said missiles - failure to do so resulting in the destruction of the vulnerable cities below.

If all the cities were lost without reaching a high score, the concluding screen displayed the chilling words 'The End'. It's said that programmer Dave Theurer found the images he'd created so disturbing that they gave him nightmares - further proof of the game's oddly disquieting power.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

It renders the possibility of extinction by nuclear attack into stark videogame form, so much so that the game's appeared several times in film and television; its famous The End screen was used to close 1982's Fast Times At Ridgemont High, while a young John Connor is seen playing the game in James Cameron's 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In the latter, Missile Command aptly summarises the film's themes about war and its futility.

Missile Command was programmed in the shadow of what was later referred to as the Second Cold War, which took place between 1979 and 1985, at a time when relations between the USSR and the west were at their worst since the Cuban missile Crisis. More than any other game from the period, Missile Command rendered the destructive horror of a nuclear war with chilling simplicity.

Firefox (1982)

Based on the novel by Craig Thomas, Clint Eastwood's 1982 film was about the theft of bleeding-edge technology, and at the time, this Atari coin-op was itself an eye-popping piece of programming. Using footage from the film, stored on an expensive bit of 80s science called a laserdisc, Firefox was essentially an into-the-screen shooter where the player - flying the stolen Russian plane from the title - shoots down the approaching aircraft.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

With the Russians ahead in the space race for part of the late 1960s, there were genuine fears during the Cold War that the Americans might be lagging behind in terms of technology. This led to all kinds speculation as to what the Russians might be working on behind the Iron Curtain, and fears that spies might attempt to steal American technology for the Soviets' own ends.

Interestingly, the first flying saucer ever made (appropriately called The Flying Saucer) reveals that the title craft is a secret project of American origin, and that a communist sympathiser is trying to steal it for the Soviets. Tom Clancy’s Firefox, and Clint Eastwood’s misfiring movie, reversed this speculative theme, suggesting that the Russians had not only created an extraordinarily powerful fighter jet, but had also found a way of flying the thing using thought alone.

“You have to think in Russian," is one piece of advice Eastwood’s troubled pilot is given as he journeys into the heart of the Soviet Union to pilfer this valuable piece of hardware.

As history later revealed, the Russians’ technological superiority was somewhat overrated.

Raid Over Moscow (1984)

This otherwise minor action game from US Gold sparked quite a bit of controversy on its release, when the Finnish government argued that it was anti-Soviet and irresponsible. Later releases of the game were even shortened to the less inflammatory Raid in order to calm everybody down a little bit.

The game itself involved preventing the Soviet Union from taking out US cities with its ballistic missiles, but doing this was a curiously involved affair: it took considerable skill just to get your fighter jet out of the hangar doors, so fiddly were the controls. Had the game been given a science fiction theme, it’s likely it would have been more quickly forgotten - from this point of view, its title and subject matter could have been seen as strokes of marketing genius.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

That a rather crude game produced in the thousands rather than millions could cause such a fuss is evidence, perhaps, of how strained east-west relations were at the time. The moral panic wasn't restricted to Finland, either; when UK magazine Computer & Video Games published a full-page advert for the title in 1985, the following month's letters page ran the following complaint:

"The advertisement, let alone the game, is provocative, insulting and harmful to what any peace-loving person dreams for... and your acceptance of the advertisement indicates to me that you have no objection to the thought of bombing other peace-seeking Russians in Moscow [...] I used to think that a war with the communists was totally unthinkable and that western governments were concerned with finding any sort of peaceful solution. Now it seems that war is inevitable..."

Tetris (1984)

As a beguiling counterpoint to Raid Over Moscow, consider Tetris, the puzzler that would go on to sell a legion Nintendo Game Boys just over five years later. Alexey Pajitnov was working as a computer scientist when he programmed the original version for the Electronica 60, and because all ideas were automatically the property of the government under communist rule, he never received a single ruble in royalties when its sales went stratospheric.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

Some of the old east-west tension may have still existed in the mid-1980s, but it’s telling that the marketing for Tetris played up its Russian origins; whatever system you purchased it for, from the ZX Spectrum to the Sega Mega Drive, you probably would have found an artist’s impression of St Basil’s Cathedral on the front, along with the game’s backwards ‘R’. That distrust on the part of politicians, it seems, was gradually being replaced by a newfound interest in Russian culture - and let’s face it, the game wouldn’t have been the same without that quintessentially Russian theme tune, actually a traditional folk song with some disarmingly tragic lyrics.

Green Beret (1985)

Hailing from a period where action flicks like First Blood and Commando were having a profound influence on videogame designers, Konami’s side-scrolling platformer replaced the mushroom bashing of Mario with a frosty, violent war scenario in which a special forces soldier went behind enemy lines to rescue a group of hostages. Naturally, this being the 80s, said soldier was armed with little more than a hat and a kebab knife, with trinkets like hand grenades and flame throwers available sporadically along the way.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

At a time when the Russians were still the occasional villains of choice in American movies - see Red Dawn and Rambo: First Blood Part II for two examples - Green Beret took place in an unnamed setting that looks suspiciously like Siberia, then still a part of the USSR. Enemies wear great coats and tell-tale big woollen hats (an outfit which, if 1988‘s Red Heat taught us nothing else, was standard issue in the Soviet Union), and would fling themselves at the player like the mindless communist drones they (possibly) are. As if all these Cold War references weren’t enough, the game’s American release was given a punning name that rammed the point home: Rush’N Attack was its unsubtle title on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

SDI (1987)

A side-scrolling shooter set in outer space, SDI was a novel shooter with a slightly disturbing theme. The player controlled an orbiting satellite, and faced the unenviable task of taking out the unceasing barrage of nuclear warheads hurtling across the screen. At the end of each encounter, the player would be rated on their performance - and how much damage planet Earth had taken because of their mistakes - before a space shuttle whisked the diminutive little satellite off to the next encounter.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

In 1983, president Ronald Reagan famously endorsed the Strategic Defense Initiative project - dubbed by the media as Star Wars - which proposed that the United States could be protected from nuclear attack by, among other things, X-ray lasers fired from orbiting satellites. SDI was a controversial idea, with criticisms varying from its huge cost, its inefficiency and even its scientific plausibility. The project finally fizzled out in the 1990s, but it at least managed to inspire Sega to make a videogame out of the idea, and a company called Cinemaware also produced a game of its own called S.D.I - a sci-fi action game where the Cold War's still raging in 2017.  

Armageddon Man (1987)

Although it was set in the future world of 2032, this strategy game had Cold War angst scribbled all over it, from its eerie mushroom-cloud box art to its global tension scenario. The player plays a member of a special United Nations operative whose job it is to mediate between countries and ensure they don't blow each other up with nuclear missiles. Holed up in an orbiting space station, you have a top-down view of the world, and can control a network of anti-nuke satellites while at the same time keeping an eye on the news for any sign of trouble brewing. Radio signals can be scanned for coded messages, while potential unrest between countries will occasionally land in your inbox.

A more cerebral game than, say, Missile Command or SDI, Armageddon Man's detached atmosphere makes it all the more troubling; the fate of the world constantly hangs in the balance, and its destruction is only one wrong icon click away.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

If games like Armageddon Man, and the various Cold War-era fighter jet simulators teach us nothing else, it's that, if the worst does happen, it's better to be on a space station looking down, rather than in an ordinary back garden, looking up.

Red Storm Rising (1988)

One of several military hardware simulators in the 80s and 90s - helicopters and planes being the most common - Red Storm Rising put players in the command of a nuclear submarine. Like Firefox, the game was based on a Tom Clancy book of the same name, and the aim was to defend US shores from nuclear attack.

Aiming for an air of realism, the game was extraordinarily complex, and came with various paper overlays that explained what all the buttons did. It had a surprisingly detailed back story, too, which was largely taken from the book - an Islamic attack on oil supply lines in Siberia ignites a tinderbox of war, with the Soviet Union planning a strategic attack on NATO before attempting to capture oil refineries in the Middle East.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

Once again, the political knife-edge of the 80s Cold War is illustrated in a videogame, and this time, in quite compelling detail. Ordinary citizens may have been powerless to control what was happening politically in the real world, but at least games like Red Storm Rising gave them the chance to defend themselves in videogame form - even if getting to grips with the controls was a bit tricky.

Spitting Image (1989)

Spitting Image was a popular satirical comedy series on UK television, which used grotesque puppets to lampoon the political and social stories of the day. The 1989 videogame spin-off took the form of a one-on-one brawler, in which political figures fought one another for control of the world. "Within the next seven years, a world war greater than all the other wars will take place," the opening text crawl read. "A war so great, even the Swiss will get involved this time..."

What it tells us about the Cold War:

The gameplay element was rightly panned at the time (Street Fighter II this was not) but Spitting Image was nevertheless a wonderful historical document, and reduced the Cold War posturing of the world's leaders - such as Ronald Reagan, depicted here in a clown costume - to the equivalent of a fight in a school playground. Like Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, Spitting Image found humour in a dire political situation.

Ganbare Golby (1991)

This strange puzzle title for Sega’s Game Gear handheld is a true relic of its era; by the time it came out, the Berlin Wall had already fallen, the Soviet Union was on the cusp of dissolution, and Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev (whose name is jokingly referenced in the title)  was months away from replacement. Taking control of Gorbachev, the object of the game was to keep a factory churning out supplies from a cold and miserable populace, from food to medical supplies to - cheekily - handheld devices manufactured by Sega. A simple yet perfectly entertaining time-waster, it’s a mystery why its makers chose to give the game such a topical theme; by the time it arrived in the west, Ganbare Golby was shorn of all its Cold War references, and renamed Factory Panic instead.

What it tells us about the Cold War:

With the Cold War in its dying days, the old fears of the Soviet Union and its secret, high-tech military might were largely dispelled. As the game poignantly illustrates, the reality for ordinary Soviet citizens was of a woefully underfunded battered by years of economic stagnation - a painful state of affairs that remained long after the iron curtain fell and capitalism rolled in.

With the Cold War over, and the fear of nuclear war finally allowed to ebb, Ganbare Golby serves as a final and exceedingly strange footnote to a turbulent moment in history.

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