World War III Arcade Games

I grew up in Central Jersey during the 1980s, which meant I spent a lot of time at the Jersey Shore as a kid. I loved to spend countless hours holed up inside of boardwalk arcades in Point Pleasant and Seaside Heights. Wildwood had a pretty good selection as well, but being from Central Jersey, we did the Point and Seaside boardwalks. Folks from Pennsylvania preferred the southern Jersey Shore towns like Ocean City and Wildwood. That tradition remains in effect even today.  

Back in the 80s I loved arcade games. Even after the NES came out I continued spending rolls of quarters playing arcade games every weekend. NES and Atari were quality platforms, but arcade games were more interactive and enjoyable. Especially as the decade went on. Those of you over the age of 40 are probably nodding your heads and thinking back right now. 😊

Arcade games back in the 1980s routinely grabbed inspiration and ideas from wars, combat, weapons and current events. Folks did not make a big deal about this and parents were not up in arms demanding violent games be banned. It really was a more innocent time with adults who acted maturely and in the best interests of their kids most of the time.

The one subject regarded as taboo by arcade game designers was World War III. Given the tenor of the times, this is understandable. Especially in the early years of the 1980s. I can’t remember a single arcade game from that decade which used a potential Third World War or US-Russia war as the theme. Sure, more than one game came close, but always pulled back at the last second.

Earlier in the summer I took the time to reexamine some almost-World War III arcade games from the 80s and selected a few that really did make it a player was fighting WWIII….at least until the game was over.

Missile Command– Yeah, this game was available on every platform but cut its teeth as an arcade game. It came out in 1980 when the Cold War was really beginning to heat up. The goal of the game was to defend six cities against an ICBM attack using anti-ballistic missiles. When the game was first designed, the six cities were supposed to represent six cities in California. This concept never made the final cut. When Missile Command made it to Atari, the game manual described the background as a war between two planets. That never stopped me from pretending each of the six targets was a city in the United States. Los Angeles all the way to the left and Boston as the eastern-most target, with other cities in between. NORAD and the Rocky Mountains were in the middle part. Classic game with everything from ICBMs, ABMs, MIRVs and mushroom clouds.

MACH 3– A laserdisc arcade game released in 1984. The game gave the player control of a high-tech fighter which looked suspiciously like an F-15 Eagle. Two missions were included: “Fighter Raid” was a low level fast paced sortie, while “Bombing Run” was a top-down mode. It was a lot of fun for me at 7 years old and I always pretended I was bombing Russia. 😊

Dangerzone/Viper- A war combat game that is set in a desert airbase. Helicopters, fighters and bombers enter the area swooping down over the mountains and your task is to shoot them down. If your base absorbs too much damage, nukes are launched and the game ends in a blinding white flash. Its successor Viper was a bit more polished, with aircraft that appeared to be of Eastern Bloc origin, and some comedy included as well.

Firefox– This game was based on the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name. Similar premise too. You have to fly a stolen, advanced MiG to the West with half the Soviet navy and airforce on your tail. Shoot em up style, and a laserdisc game too. Six year old me spent a lot of time shooting down MiGs in this game. 😊

F-14 Tomcat Pinball– Whereas video game designers balked at the idea of romanticizing a US-Soviet clash, pinball designers simply didn’t give a……hoot. 😊 In this pinball game the goal is to kill General Yagov, a shit-hot senior Soviet MiG pilot. To accomplish this objective you take on the role of a shit-hot US Navy Tomcat Driver with the callsign “Hitman.” Doesn’t get more American than that!

Rush ‘N Attack– This one is a no brainer. It’s essentially a couple of consonants and vowels short of officially promoting an attack against Russia….or the Soviet Union, whichever you prefer. As for the graphics and game setting……looks like Russia. Equipment definitely looks Russian. Troops appear remarkably similar to KGB Internal Security troops. Naming the game Rush ‘N Attack is the same as renaming Debbie Does Dallas as “Sexual Education Film #4.” We know what it really is, but we ain’t spilling the beans. 😉


16 Replies to “World War III Arcade Games”

  1. What about Battle Zone, the tank combat game? It was definitely some sort of conventional WWIII system. I sure played that one a lot in the early 80’s.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That one is close but I read that the backstory is that world peace broke out and some tyrant tried to take power. The Battle tank is the last tank left in existence.

      Great game though


      1. Here’s one, and it has special cold war connections (but not for the reason you may think!): Firefox.

        Much like Mystar’s MACH-3, Firefox was a laserdisk game, based on the Clint Eastwood film. It used a laserdisk and overlaid its graphics on video being streamed from the disk.

        So you might think, “Ah, Firefox, fly a ‘Mig-31’, gotcha.” But it’s not that we’re focusing on. Firefox’s controller is what we’re after. If you never played Firefox but were still an arcade enthusiast in the 1980s, odds are you handled its weird control yoke in another arcade game, Star Wars (or the cabinet conversion that Atari offered, The Empire Strikes Back). These were vector graphics games (vs. Raster graphics games), and they had an unusual control yoke.

        Someone in another message mentioned Battlezone, and that’s where this controller’s story begins. In 1980 Atari accomplished a pretty amazing feat by creating a 3d geometry engine for computer graphics that, for the cost of an arcade game and a few weeks’ programming, could make reasonably life-like and more importantly fluid graphics. And they put them in a tank battle game. This caught the eye of the US Army, because right at that time they had completed the requirements for their new infantry fighting vehicle and were keen to start training gunners for it. The M-2 Bradley featured a 25mm autocannon and a TOW-2 missile launcher. The Bradley would use “standard” gunnery methods: the mark-1 eyeball and some quick mental trigonometry for computing lead and elevation.

        Atari, having seen Battlezone, commissioned ROM and cabinet conversions, and provided Atari with images and specs for the gunner’s control yoke and asked them to produce 300 of these new “Bradley Gunner Trainer” arcade cabinets to distribute around to US Army bases. In the Trainer “simulation” the gunner’s POV didn’t move, nor did enemies fire back. There were additional controls on the cabinet, a knob that increased the sight through zooming the screen in, for example. The Army was overjoyed that Atari had pulled it off…but then, a new type of ballistic fire control computer was added to the Bradley. Rather than a lot of traditional gunnery methods the Bradley’s gunner could lase a target, the range and elevation would be dialed in automatically, and that was that.

        (Nota bene: I don’t know if any of the other switchology on the cabinet worked)

        Here’s the game in action:

        Note the Range meter and ammunition types in the HUD.

        If you’re interested in arcade emulation, the ROMs are available. Despite only a single cabinet actually being taken into possession by the Army, in the early 00s someone did actually find another cabinet and dump the ROM chips so you can try it out at home, now.

        But back to the controller: Atari was now stuck with hundreds of these controllers…so, not wanting the tech go to waste, they included them in another vector graphics arcade game, 1983’s Star Wars (and as mentioned, The Empire Strikes Back which like Bradley Gunner was a ROM swap for the Star Wars cabinet). And, of course, Firefox.

        A final Cold War game was planned, a more radical ROM swap for the Star Wars cabinet, where you’d fly an F14 in sorties against various enemies, called (appropriately) Tomcat. It would have used the Bradley yoke as well, but Atari canceled the game while it was in development. But, like Bradley Gunner, a ROM dump of it exists out there too, if you want to take a vector graphics F14 for a spin. Unlike the virtual M-2, though, Tomcat was “only just” playable, and is less of a complete game and more of a rolling demo.

        So there you have it! If you were playing Star Wars or Firefox, you were using a Bradley gunner’s yoke (or a mockup thereof).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve been looking for the Arcade ROMs a little bit here and there lately. When I get the time I’m going to look closer and try to find some of the ones you mentioned above. Thanks, Bill! 🙂


  2. You wouldn’t have been able to play it at the time because it was a Japan-only release, but there was a game called Time Gal released in arcades there in the same period. (Short description: Steer an anime girl as she travels through time via lots of what would become known as quick-time events.).

    One time period, “1990”, had her dodging M1 Abrams and AH-1s in a very World War III-like environment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I LOVED missile command. I didn’t know of a backstory. I was naturally defending American cities. I lived for that game. In college, there was a watering hole that had it. We were done with class, so went up for dogs and beers. I started plating close to 2p, and kept winning. When I got to 1 million (?) points I got 100 free cities, and kept playing until well over 2 million. It was almost 7p when I finally lost. Luckily, the bartender kept bringing me beer… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. With Coin op games in that era I always think of the flight one called Afterburner, which was definitely very Top Gun inspired. Very cool graphics for it’s time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Afterburner is a classic. There was a similar arcade game that came out later. G-Loc Airbattle. Same concept but with a seat that moved and vibrated!


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