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Tony Temple, Missile Command Champion & Guinness World Record Holder — Interview Series

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Tony Temple, a UK-based arcade fanatic who’s spent the best part of sixteen years clutching onto a rather lofty Guinness World Record for most points scored in Atari’s Missile Command, has attained global recognition for a myriad of contributions to the world of arcade gaming. Besides breaking the world record on three separate occasions, the prestigious player has also lathered his knowledge of all things retro onto a number of projects, including The Arcade Blogger, and Missile Commander: A Journey to the Top of an Arcade Classic, an encyclopedia of sorts that delves into the history of the game, as well as the trials and tribulations Temple had to face to become its torchbearer.

Anyway, with Atari celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, we thought we’d return to one of its most celebrated games, and discover how Tony Temple, curator of arcade memorabilia, was able to reignite its wick long after the golden age of arcade gaming made way for a new era of entertainment.

Image via Atari

Missile Command evidently played a huge role during your young adulthood. What was it that drew you into Atari’s arcade phenomenon?

It was a mix of a few things, I think. The main one was the subject matter. You have to remember that in 1980, all teenage kids thought the world was going to end at any point! So the macabre thought of playing a video game based on thermonuclear warfare was too enticing to pass up as a 13-year-old. It was rather cathartic, in fact. Missile Command’s controls were something unique at the time also. Using a trackball and three fire buttons was a huge challenge to figure out compared to what was in the arcades up to that point – whilst most players avoided it, for some reason that difficulty with the hardware of controlling the game drew me to it. And of course, Missile Command just happened to be the new game to arrive at my local arcade. In that respect, it was mostly fate, as it could have been any number of new games that came out during that year.

And how long was it after you first found Missile Command that you targeted a spot in the Guinness World Records?

Well, in fact, it was many years later. Missile Command disappeared here in UK arcades from around 1984 or so and I didn’t play again for another 20 years when I started collecting and restoring arcade machines in 2005. I realized I still had the old skills that I learned as a kid and started researching high scores on the game. Looking at recorded scores mostly set in the USA, I figured I had a shot. This led me to the opportunity to get into the Guinness World Record book.

We can’t begin to imagine the trials and tribulations you must have encountered when trying to break it [GWR]. What was the most challenging part of the journey?

Aside from having the skills to do it, breaking a world record on anything (I guess) does require dedication and a desire to achieve a lofty goal. So, without a doubt, the biggest challenge to me was the realization that if I was going to break the record, I was going to have to dismantle my gameplay completely and re-learn a totally different way of playing Missile Command. I was good at the game, but only as a casual gamer. It was clear to me that simply wasn’t going to get me the world record. I had to figure out new strategies for maximizing opportunities to press for points and managing my missile inventory effectively. You couldn’t learn this stuff from YouTube because no one else was doing it! Deliberately not doing what comes naturally is incredibly difficult, and I can’t say that part of it was much fun. It really was hard work – it was like learning to walk again. But I guess I’m living proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks!

Image via Atari

After being recognized as the world record holder for most points scored in a Missile Command game on Tournament Settings in 2006, you went on to increase your world record in 2009, and 2010. What made you want to return to the cabinet after breaking the first?

I was keen to put some distance between myself and the guy in second place. My initial world record score was only 20% higher than the previous record and I felt I had more to go. Interest had built up in the game at the time, so my final score of 4.4 million points was my line in the sand I guess. It is significantly higher than anyone else has officially scored, and still stands to this day. But I fully expect someone will come along one day and beat it. 

And are there any plans to beat your last record of 4,472,570 points, or are you satisfied with what’s already been achieved?

I get asked this a lot. The answer is I really don’t know. I don’t play seriously these days, but I still have my cabinet, so who knows? Twitch streaming is popular these days, so that could be an option. I’ve thought about streaming gameplay and sharing tips and strategies, which could lead to something. The 4.4 million point game was a one-off – everything came together and I was able to play continuously for almost three hours. The good news is the record I hold (tournament settings, which gives no bonus cities) is good for quick bursts, so logistically it’s not too taxing. I do get people emailing me asking if I’m going to come out of ‘retirement’ and play again. It’s hard to believe that score was done 12 years ago. So maybe you’re right, it might be time to dust off the trackball and get back in the saddle! 

But what’s interesting is you never know when you’re going to get a great score. You could be playing casually and before you know it, things are coming together and you might just be on track for a new world record.

It would be a fun thing to do though, but does require commitment and time; something I don’t have much of these days with my job, family, and other projects I’m working on.

Tony Temple (left), and Missile Command creator Dave Theurer (right)

Of course, your love of arcade gaming goes much deeper than Atari’s Missile Command, as shown in The Arcade Blogger. If Missile Command didn’t take the lion’s share of your youth, what game(s) would have?

Where to start? I mean, you literally have thousands of early ‘80s games to choose from. I would say Robotron and Tempest are the two classic arcade games that appeal to me. Both are manic, addictive, and non-pattern based, which are the types of games that appeal to me. Since writing about the Golden Age of arcade gaming on arcadeblogger.com, I’ve discovered many games that we never saw over here in the UK, so there are plenty of gems I’ve discovered recently that are amazing. Omega Race, Aztarac, and Tac-Scan are three that spring to mind.

In the past, you’ve mentioned features that Missile Command never went on to employ. Could you give us a breakdown of what they were, please?

Missile Command actually ended up being a simplified version of all the initial ideas that were thought of during its development. The game could have been much more complex had those ideas remained in the game. Many features were cut from the game after playtesting both at Atari and out in the field. Railroads and submarines are one example. The programmers had this initial idea of a living ecosystem, where missiles were transported from the cities and into the bases. If the railroads carrying the missiles were hit, your ability to defend yourself was significantly compromised. But it was all too complex. Another was the screen was intended to display as if looking at a radar, but again, it got too messy, and having parts of the display literally disappear as the radar swept across the screen wasn’t a great idea (who’d have thought?!). Perhaps the biggest thing to be removed was the huge attract panel found on the prototype Missile Command cabinet. This was intended to provide the player with information about the status of their game at any one point. Again, nice idea, and it looks impressive, but early players complained about having to look away from the game to establish this information – again, not ideal when you’re defending against endless missiles attacking you. So with some clever programming and moving some of those info points onto the main screen allowed Atari to remove the panel, and in the process, save a bunch of money during production.

Fine-tuning Missile Command was its greatest strength. Having the time and freedom to test out these interesting ideas and either enhance them or remove them from the code is what made Missile Command such a huge classic title for Atari that is still loved to this day. The recent re-release of the game on the 2600 as an Atari XP collectible is probably a testament to that.

Image via Atari

While on the subject, we noticed that you recently published an article detailing the above points for Atari XP. Do you have plans to collaborate with Atari in the future? If so, what can we expect?

I really enjoyed doing that. It’s always good to share some of the history surrounding the development of Missile Command. I’d love to continue contributing in the future for the guys at Atari, and perhaps cover some of Atari’s other classic titles. There’s plenty to choose from!

Your book, Missile Commander: A Journey to the Top of an Arcade Classic, isn’t just a retelling of your rise to fame as a Guinness World Record champion, correct? What else can its readers expect from Tony Temple, curator of retro tales?

Missile Commander tells the story from the ground up of the development of the game – how the idea came about, who worked on it, what the challenges were and how the game was received in the marketplace. Alongside this, I tell the story of my discovery of the game and how I ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records. I packed it full of supporting documents and images, many of which have never been published before. It was a labor of love, but I’m so pleased with how it came out. To be able to share my story alongside how the game was created made for a unique book that stands out from the crowd. At least that’s what readers tell me!

Feedback has been universally positive and I’m still selling copies via my website to this day some two years later. 

As for other stuff, I regularly update my blog at www.arcadeblogger.com with arcade restorations, new discoveries relating to the Golden Age of classic arcade gaming, and articles that delve into aspects of the industry back then that passed many people by.

Along with two other guys, I also work on a podcast, The Ted Dabney Experience, which keeps me out of trouble. We interview the leading lights of the Golden Age of classic arcade gaming, which has been incredibly fulfilling and a real honor to give these guys a place to share their stories from back in the day. I think we’re pulling together a great body of work with high production values that will be referred to and accessed long after we’re gone.

I do too much!

Image via Arcade Blogger

What are your thoughts on arcade games today? Are there any titles that you’d recommend to a new player?

Well, very few video arcade games are released these days, but I would urge everyone to seek out a game called Cosmotrons – look it up on YouTube – it’s a hybrid of some of the old classic vector titles like Asteroids and Gravitar. Great multiplayer fun that reminds me of the classic arcade games of the early eighties.

Lastly, will you be doing anything to commemorate Atari’s 50th anniversary? Another book, perhaps? Or, dare we say, another world record?

As well as regularly updating my blog with lots of Atari-related content, I am working on another book project, which is still under wraps for now, but watch this space! I hope to release it before the end of the year.

Looking forward to it! Thanks, Tony!

 

You can visit Tony Temple’s blog at www.arcadeblogger.com, and podcast at www.tdepodcast.net. Signed copies of Missile Commander can be ordered via Tony’s blog, or directly from Amazon.

Jord is acting Team Leader at gaming.net. If he isn't blabbering on in his daily listicles, then he's probably out writing fantasy novels or scraping Game Pass of all its slept on indies.