Missile Command screenshot

The Day I Uncovered THE SECRET of Missile Command

by The Video Game Critic

1/6/2019

This is the story of how a boy single-handedly discovered THE SECRET of the Atari 2600 Missile Command cartridge, probably averting some kind of global catastrophe in the process. Probably.

Rewind to the early 1980's - the golden age when video games were still shiny and new! Gamers of today may be jaded with the never-ending parade of online shooters, but in 1982 there was still a sense of childlike wonderment. Every month an innovative new arcade hit would push the envelope and get everybody excited.

During the summer of 1982 Missile Command was "the" hot Atari cartridge in my Baltimore townhouse neighborhood. My friend Andy and I would huddle up in Billy's basement, taking turns decimating waves of ballistic missiles with - what else? - anti-ballistic missiles. I had played the arcade version at the bowling alley but it didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the excellent home version.

I still remember the glorious day when I obtained my very own copy of Missile Command. It was a sunny day during my summer vacation when I heard the local 7-11 was now carrying Atari 2600 cartridges. The implications were huge. Since 7-11 was within walking distance I no longer had to nag my mom into driving me to the local electronics store to blow my hard-earned cash.

I called 7-11 using a device called a telephone with a long, curly cord. When I asked if they had Missile Command I was told they did for $22! What a bargain! Even my mom didn't object as I set off on that mile-long long journey in the less-than-blistering Maryland heat.

Missile Command proved to be a great addition to my collection. Owning my own copy meant I could explore all 28 game variations instead of just the easy one Billy always insisted on. The orange box looked really nice in the rainbow-colored stack in the corner of my bedroom.

Missile Command box

A few days later I was sitting in the basement on that ugly green rug about to play Missile Command when my mom called down from the kitchen. Mothers had a sixth sense about their kids playing games and would intentionally call them at the most inopportune times. This had better be important! When I returned a few minutes later I saw something that blew my mind. In place of the far-right city were the initials "RF"! I rubbed my eyes in disbelief!

Apparently this phenomenon occurs when you score zero points on variation 13. Try it yourself! Many years later I would come to learn that RF stood for Robert Fulop, the Missile Command programmer who was also responsible for other classics like Night Driver and Demon Attack.

RF secret screenshot RF closeup

I immediately called my mother down to serve as an official witness. In my mind this moment was comparable to snapping a photo of a flying saucer or Bigfoot or something. I had previously found the easter egg in Adventure, but that one was common knowledge. I was the ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD to know about this new one.

My mom recommended I write a letter to Atari, who were clearly oblivious to this enigma they had unknowingly unleashed upon the masses. Using my best penmanship I explained what happened and dropped the letter in the mailbox on the corner.

For those of you who weren't around in the 1980's you need to understand that if you did any correspondence by mail there was typically a six to eight week waiting period before you heard anything back. Once I ordered a box of army men from the back page of a comic book for $1, and by the time I received something I had outgrown army men. That's just how it was back then, and yes, it kind of sucked.

Many weeks later I actually received a letter from Atari headquarters. Yes, that's right - the REAL ATARI in Sunnyvale California! The letter featured their official letterhead and text worded something to this effect:

Dear David,
Congratulations on finding THE SECRET in your Missile Command game cartridge. Be sure to look out for more secrets hidden in other Atari video game cartridges!

That was it. No cash reward. No crate of free merchandise. Not even a lousy coupon! My mom thought that was pretty lame, but I was amazed to get any response at all.

Fast-forward 13 years to the mid-1990's. Now I have my own place and I'm sifting through boxes of junk I've accumulated over the years. There are old trinkets, magazines, and loose papers. I stumbled across that old letter from Atari, smile briefly, and proceed to toss it into the ever-growing trash pile with everything else (including my original high score book).

In retrospect that was the worst mistake I ever made in my entire life. Little did I know that just a few years later I would rekindle my love for classic video games, using the internet to methodically re-acquire all my old games and systems. Sadly, that letter was one thing that could not be replaced. Had I had kept it you can bet it would be framed and proudly displayed as the centerpiece of my game room. But all I have left is the fond memory and this story.

Thanks for reading, and never stop searching for the next SECRET. It's out there... somewhere.