It was 1984 and even though we were 30+ years into of the Cold War and (unknown to us) nearing its end, we were clearly at the height of its social and media exposure. One year earlier, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy had narrowly avoided starting a nuclear war in Wargames. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen were about to lead a guerrilla resistance of russian occupation in Red Dawn. And in a year, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky would be tackling Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago (“I must break you”) in Rocky IV. Far from attempting to hide the Cold War, the entertainment industry was riding the idea all the way to the bank. Propaganda or Capitalism? Either way, it opposed the doctrines of Communism represented by the Soviet Union.
Enter Raid Over Moscow, not the first Cold War-based computer game, but arguably the greatest of its era. As the name might suggest, the ultimate successful conclusion of the game will put you in the position of directly attacking the heart of the USSR. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning. The game’s intro sets the stage. Following successful anti-nuclear movements throughout America and Europe, the United States and Soviet Union signed a nuclear disarmament treaty. The U.S. has complied with the treaty, desroyed all of their missiles and is replacing its arsenal with a series of defense satellites bearing both lasers and military dropships. The USSR has not been able to implement such a plan so, while on the surface they have been disarming, they have hidden nuclear stockpiles in three major cities. When tensions increase due to a American-Russian conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Soviets launch their missiles, threatening to detonate if the U.S. does not back down in the gulf. In response, the United States dispatches the forces from its single operational satellite to take out the control centers for the missiles and then strike the Soviet headquarters.
As a youngster in middle school I didn’t really grasp the full context of this intro, being content to just blow stuff up and save the world, but this story has a surprising amount of complexity for an action game in its time. Many developers (and players) would have been satisfied with the mere concept of intercepting and stopping a Soviet nuclear launch, but the backstory surrounding disarmament and Persian Gulf conflict were remarkably prescient. To be sure, there are some gaps in the logic involved, and the technology proposed within the game still isn’t feasible nearly 30 years later, but it was still a great step forward for action gaming.
You take control of the commander of the satellite station, and will be responsible for the decisions that will (hopefully) save the United States from nuclear annihilation. The first of these decisions is how many shuttles to launch from your satellite during each sortie. You have to pilot each out manually, potentially destroying them in the process. Take too long, and the missiles in the air will touch down, obliterating a United States city. Don’t take enough shuttles, and you may run out of them during the next step of the process, a Zaxxon-style shooting stage leading to the enemy control center. Running out of shuttles would be a bad thing, as it means starting back at the satellite and travelling to the city all over again. Assuming you make it through this, you’ll still need to face down a number of armed bunkers to take down the control center. And if you defeat that, there are two other major cities just waiting to launch their nuclear strikes. Why didn’t all three cities launch simultaneously? Who knows, but that kind of thinking must be why we won.
After disabling the nuclear arsenals at Minsk, Leningrad and Saratov, it’s time for Moscow itself. You’ll have another Zaxxon-esque flying stage to tackle on your approach before, armed with nothing more than a grenade launcher, you assault… the State Historical Museum? Well, that’s a little weird, but I can’t blame the developers for possibly thinking this was the Kremlin considering how many people nowadays make that mistake. It certainly looks more Russian than the chief building of the Kremlin–maybe that was the reason. The only building more demonstrably Russian is St. Basil’s Cathedral, which would later be featured on the cover of Tetris–and who would want to blow up that?
Even after you’ve overcome snipers and a weird alien tank-thing to bust into this building, you’re still not done. The central reactor for Moscow is guarded by not just one but two drones that you must take out Deadly Discs of Tron-style. This is very difficult and complicated by the fact that after the first drone is defeated, a reactor explosion counter starts, and you’ll need to defeat the second drone in time to successfully escape.
Raid Over Moscow is a remarkable game for its time. The game has six different types of gameplay to go through, all loaded into memory simultaneously and all sporting graphics that, while sometimes simple, are quite respectable. You’re challenged right off the bat to pilot shuttles out of your satellite, dealing with altitude, direction and inertia all at once. Things only get trickier from there and the fast action plus missile detonation deadlines really stress the urgency of a Defcon 1 scenario. And although modern games (especially shooters) still portray Russians as a force of potential evil in the world, we may never again see a game that so places you so squarely in the iron-clad tension of the Cold War. While the fears represented in the game when it was published were very real, now Raid Over Moscow serves only as a look into what could have been, and thankfully wasn’t.