One of the best things about the 80s and early 90s was all that kitschy sci-fi that took video games way too seriously. You know, like Tron, The Last Starfighter, or that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with Ashley Judd. One of the worst was the lingering fear of nuclear annihilation that came with the final years of the Cold War. Take those two things together, and you have 1983’s WarGames. It told the story of a young Matthew Broderick’s misguided efforts to play games against the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) computer, and how he very nearly brought about World War III in the process.
The great minds behind WarGames had a simpler vision of video games in mind than the ones we play, one that probably wouldn’t cause much confusion for the gamers of today. Games good, nuclear launch interface bad, ya know? But if the licensed WarGames homage Be-Rad Entertainment put together was the ticket to the launch codes, I might just play us into oblivion. Take out the endless elements of Dungeon Raid ($0.99) and replace them with the 1980s and you’d have something a lot like WarGames: WOPR ($2.99). I mean that in the best way possible.
Loosely following the plot of WarGames, WOPR is hacked by David Lightman, portrayed by a portrait of a young Matthew Broderick. Lightman engages WOPR in a game of Global Thermonuclear War, which sounds entertaining enough but sets off a chain reaction that nearly makes the game a reality. In the movie, you’re cheering for the good guys, hoping they can stop the end of the world. In the game you play the computer, and the good guys are nothing more than stepping stones in your way.
Most of WarGames: WOPR’s 41 levels have enemies to defeat, be it Lightman or one of the folks from NORAD. Like Dungeon Raid, it’s a game of matching in lines. If you match a string of missiles, they’ll launch straight at your enemy’s health. If you make a string of dollars, you earn cash to spend on special abilities. Or you can match until you hit 100 radar points to use a whole other set of tools.
The enemy doesn’t sit idly by; it launches its own attacks every few turns. These are on countdown timers, and you need to match them with enough tiles to take them out before their turn timers run down. The enemy uses tiles in the same way you do, to damage you or spawn tools to use against you. You can collect health tiles to heal back up after a successful attack, but so can the enemy.
The game’s atmosphere is pitch-perfect. The interface is set up as a shiny reimagining of 1980s computers, and the game has the simple wireframes and beeps and bloops you’d expect of something from that era. The dialog is as campy as ever, and the plot, while simplified, still holds the same hamfisted lessons of the original film. It’s great.
In a cute touch, you (as the WOPR computer) earn RAM each time you finish a level. That RAM can be used for passive mods and upgrades of your tactics and programs. You earn more than enough to make it comfortably through the normal difficulty mode, but you can buy more for a boost. The mods make the experience customizable in a way that few matching games are, loosely holding on to some of the RPG stylings of Dungeon Raid. Sure it can be a bit derivative, but it works so well in this context that it’s hard to complain.
I wasn’t expecting to run into a modern licensed game of a 1983 movie, and I’m even more surprised that it’s so good. The kitsch is intact, and so is the light-hearted fun. WarGames might be all about the prudence of engaging in global thermonuclear war (spoiler: it’s never a good idea), but it’s also a great look back at Hollywood’s idea of 80s gaming culture. Throw my favourite sort of matching game in the mix and it becomes kind of hard to resist. Sure, if the computer wins we all die, but this time around the only way to lose is not to play.