Whether through movies and TV shows such as Stranger Things or the regressive Reagan tribute act of the current US administration, the 1980s have never been more fashionable. Generations who were not even alive during the decade are now obsessed with the music, clothes, TV, and games of the time.
This obsession is often a faux nostalgia, viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, and largely ignorant of the worst aspects of what was a tumultuous period. Commander ’85 is not entirely free of this sense of happy nostalgia, but does go further than many in examining how closely the world flirted with Armageddon. All of this is a long way from the innocent birthday party shown in the game’s free prologue episode.
Commander ’85’s premise is ambitious. The game’s description promises to offer an ‘advanced system of interaction with the computer’s artificial intelligence’, and to allow you to ‘immerse yourself in the life of Polish immigrants in 1980’s America, learning more about their culture and problems’. Both of these aspects sound fascinating, but the reality is far less exciting.
Communicating with the computer is BASIC in the most literal sense of the early computer language. This is obviously period specific, but it’s a far cry from an advanced system of interaction. Fortunately a working knowledge of BASIC isn’t required in the game itself as a handy Help system turns things into something more closely resembling the UI of a point and click adventure, albeit still working through the conceit of a keyboard and monitor in-game.
You play as a teenage boy from the aforementioned Polish immigrant family who has received an amazing ‘super modern computer’ – the Commander ’85. The game’s intro video hints at the mysterious origins of this device in military experimentation rather than consumer electronics and it is this purpose that swiftly comes to the fore.
After a simple introduction to the system’s mechanics, your Commander is infected with a sinister virus that threatens to hack into the nuclear defence systems and unleash Armageddon in order to eradicate the stain of humanity from the Earth. Things certainly escalate quickly here! Your first task is to delay the progress of the virus and find out how to reboot the Commander safely. While this sounds like an exciting and pressure-filled scenario, it turns out that filling the computer’s RAM with games and programs is enough to delay the virus. Staying in your room and playing a Frogger clone is actually enough to save the world.
There are several familiar 80’s game types to be played through your Commander, with Turttler and Breakout being the most enjoyable. Your system can even be set up to play online multiplayer with your friends – a less than accurate view of the time. In a nice touch, though, this online functionality requires you to manually place the landline receiver on the modem, but the threat of the virus is undermined by the fact that you could just take the phone off the hook or unplug the machine itself. If you leave the desk to sleep or carry out chores (none of which are shown) then the phone is inexplicably replaced on the modem. It’s a plot contrivance that makes little sense in the game’s world.
Eventually you will either manage to stop the virus or witness one of the game’s three endings in which you are awoken by a nuclear explosion. So far, so 80s. In my first playthroughs there was almost no guidance as to what you are supposed to do, so I swiftly saw the world come to an end, but a patch added in more hints and tips to nudge you toward other endings. so other results were made available. It is unfortunate that the developers have gone from one extreme to another as the hints are available through a ‘TOP SECRET’ pamphlet attached to your in-game monitor. This approach completely shatters the attempts at immersion, even if it does help you to progress.
The gaming loop is fairly monotonous as you type in a repetitive series of commands to run programs and hack into other systems. While a more realistic portrayal of the nature of early hacking than overly glamorous films like Hackers or the most obvious influence, Wargames, this doesn’t make for thrilling gameplay. Even when you are in the flow of hacking and investigating you have to take breaks to carry out chores for your mum – a single mother pregnant with your younger sister. If you don’t keep her happy then she grounds you from using the Commander, a punishment that the computer inexplicably enforces, even when Armageddon is nigh.
It is also held back by bugs and glitches. I was frequently forced to reload as the game got stuck or progress didn’t trigger. My most successful playthrough involved a glitch in which the virus just disappeared without me actually doing anything. This made playing an anxious experience for all the wrong reasons, and recent patches haven’t really solved matters.