Remember US President Ronald Reagan’s plan for space weapons in the 1980s? Today, it’s little more than a punchline, but it used to be serious business. How serious? Video game serious. Yes, there really was an SDI video game, and thanks to the Internet Archive you can even play it.
President Reagan first proposed his space age missile defence program in an infamous 1983 speech. Officially known as the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), detractors would soon refer to it as Star Wars. The plan was to launch laser weapons into space, where they could shoot down any long range missiles that the Soviets might direct toward US soil.
Screenshot from the video game SDI (1988) of New York City getting attacked by Soviet missiles
From a technical perspective the plan was absurd (some compared it to shooting a bullet out of the air with another bullet) but it certainly stirred the public imagination about the future of war. Sometimes those visions were rather dark, like in the video game — set in a version of the 21st century where not only are the Soviets still a thing, their missiles could destroy the United States at any minute.
The game was called SDI: Now The Odds Are Even, and it started as an arcade machine that was originally released in 1987. It was brought to home consoles the following year, available on Amiga, Commodore 64, and Atari ST, among others. And over at the Internet Archive, we here in the early 21st century can even play it in our web browsers.
Some versions of the game gave you the introduction above, set in 2017. In that version, the KGB seizes missile bases in the Soviet Union and demand that the Americans dismantle their Star Wars defence system. Your missions, naturally, was to protect the United States by shooting missiles out of the sky. The space shuttle even made a cameo, as you can see from the 1988 ad below.
Amazingly, the game doesn’t just imagine space-based wars over Earth. By the end of the game the Cold War even spills into battles over Mars.
The plan for Star Wars may have been absurd, but it had real consequences during negotiations with the Soviets. Reagan believed in the Star Wars plan so much that he refused to make concessions about it, even though its capabilities were entirely theoretical. Reagan’s October 1986 meeting with Gorbachev in Iceland failed because Reagan wouldn’t confine research into the program to the laboratory.
Both sides were seemingly ready and willing to get rid of all their ICBMs over the course of ten years. That’s right, all of them. But Reagan wouldn’t budge on Star Wars. And the talks were an utter failure.
The Strategic Defence Initiative would prove to be a flop, right up there with its lesser known sister program, the Strategic Computing Initiative. The closest Star Wars would get to reality would be in the form of pixels and joysticks. But I guess the best we can say for it is that at least the SDI video game didn’t nearly start World War III.
Images: Game box via EmuParadise; Screenshots from YouTube