Tag Archives: Commodore 64

The Summer of ’83: WarGames

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

WarGames

WarGames Movie Poster

Release date: June 3, 1983

Directed by John Badham; Written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes

Starring Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Barry Corbin, Ally Sheedy

See the trailer here.

Shall we play a game?

30 years later, these words spoken by Joshua still have a chilling resonance.

I’ve seen John Badham’s Wargames at least 20 times since my first screening at the Larchmont Theater in June 1983.  It’s one of my favorite films of that particular summer and a perennial favorite since.  Watching it again this week reminded me not only of what a great film WarGames is, but also of how it coincided with my Golden Age of computing in the 80’s.  Back in 1983 the green text on the black monitor of my school’s TSR-80 was as high tech as it got for me (until I moved up to the Commodore 64 and its Royal Blue start screen), but I really enjoyed the days of playing the Infocom classics (Zork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, Ballyhoo), Montezuma’s Revenge and Trolls and TribulationsWarGames is a time capsule of early 80’s computing, but the film still keeps me on the edge of my seat down to the final minutes.  Even with a young Matthew Broderick as the protagonist WarGames doesn’t feel like a teen adventure and holds its own as a well made Cold War thriller.

WarGames begins in the bunker of a nuclear launch site as two launch technicians (played by  actors Michael Madsen and John Spencer) arrive for their shift.  Their arrival at the launch facility is no different from any two average Joes arriving at the office for a day’s work.  But once the alarm sounds, they methodically go through the launch procedures, checking and confirming codes until they learn they must deploy the nuclear warhead.  Spencer’s character hesitates, and the scene ends with Madsen’s character holding up his revolver to get his partner to comply with their orders.  It’s soon revealed that the launch sequence was a test by higher ups to gauge the success rate of the crews following through on their orders to deploy their missiles.  Chief engineer John McKittrick (played by Dabney Coleman) uses this as an opportunity to install a supercomputer (the WOPR – War Operation Plan Response) to take the place of launch technicians and provide a failsafe against the possibility of human hesitation.

I recently took a trip to South Dakota with my faithful sidekick, and coincidentally one of our stops was the Minute Man Nuclear Missile Site near the Badlands national park.  Unfortunately the tour of the launch site was booked for the day, but we got to see a picture of it in the visitor center.  It looked exactly like the launch facility in the opening scene of WarGames so I asked the Park Ranger on duty that day if any films were shot there after it was “retired.”  She advised that the site has never been used as a movie location, but launch facility set created for WarGames was accurate and identical to Minute Man.  With the exception of Michael Madsen pulling out a gun on John Spencer, even the launch sequence in the film was accurate.

Enter David Lightman (played by Matthew Broderick), a high school student and computer whiz who would rather use his talents as a hacker than apply himself in school.  He purposely gets his teachers to send him to the principal’s office so he can look up the passwords to their network and hack into their system.  During dinner with his parents, he learns that computer game company Protovision will be releasing a new line of games.  David can’t wait for them to be released, so he attempts to hack into their network and get early access to the games.

After days of research and long nights trying to crack Protovision’s network through a back door in the system, a benign remark by his friend Jennifer (played by Ally Sheedy) provides David with the logon and password he needs to break in.  But instead of hacking into Protovision, David has unwittingly hacked into the WOPR (also known as Joshua).  He is greeted by Joshua, who thinks that David is his creator Dr. Stephen Falken, and suggests a game of chess.  David insists on playing Global Thermonuclear War, however the “game” is actually the program used by the WOPR to simulate nuclear attacks.

David and Jennifer’s game sets off alarms at NORAD, and the staff headed by McKittrick and General Berringer (played by Barry Corbin) believes they are under nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.  The “threat” disappears when David shuts off his computer, and NORAD quickly learns that it was only a simulation.  They track the break in from David’s hometown of Seattle.  David quickly realizes the gravity of the situation when the simulated attack makes the evening news.  He disposes of the evidence but is still being contacted by Joshua.  The FBI takes David in for questioning at NORAD, but despite his insistence that he thought he was simply playing a game, McKittrick doesn’t believe his story and has him detained on suspicion of espionage.  He uses his tech savvy to sneak out of NORAD (which requires a little suspension of disbelief) and sets out to find Dr. Falken (played by the great John Wood) and prevent Joshua from starting a nuclear war.

What still makes the story accessible despite the dated equipment is Badham and Broderick’s representation of the fun and blank slate of the early days of home computing without dumbing it down with unrealistic graphics.  One of the caveats I’ve always had with computer/tech themed films is how the functionality of computers, networks, etc. are “jazzed up” to make computers more cinematic.  There’s a little bit of that with regard to David’s conversations with Joshua, but the simple typed lines of text typed onto an old school monitor ensure that WarGames doesn’t overachieve with regard to the functionality of early computers.

I already had a DVD copy of WarGames when the 25th Anniversary DVD was released in 2008.  Normally I would have been happy with my first copy, but this new edition had a Making Of featurette that made the purchase a no-brainer.  Despite my appreciation for WarGames and its rank among my all time favorites, I hadn’t actually researched the making of the film.

I didn’t know that John Badham had replaced Martin Brest (director of Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black) early in the film’s production.  Badham had received acclaim for the era defining 70’s classic Saturday Night Fever and had another hit film, Blue Thunder starring Roy Scheider released one month prior to WarGames.  Brest had Broderick and Sheedy initially playing their roles with a darker tone, but fortunately Badham lightened it up.  The beginning of the film needed the infusion of teenage innocence and cluelessness in order for the story to unfold more effectively.  The playfulness in Broderick and Sheedy’s early scenes really add to Broderick’s performance when McKittrick’s mistrust and threats hit David in the gut.

But one piece of information about the production that truly blew me away was how the producers had originally considered John Lennon to play the role of Dr. Stephen Falken.   While I think WarGames was near perfect as is, it would have been amazing to see how Lennon would have played the role.  Screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ tight story combined with Badham’s direction and a fantastic, believable cast takes the audience on a great ride down to the final moments of the film.

WarGames made me and my brother beg our father to buy our first computer.  I still remember the day he drove us to Caldors department store and completely trusted us to make that purchase without balking at the price.  The Commodore 64 required a keyboard and disk drive purchased separately, and your TV would be the monitor.  The salesman asked if we also wanted the modem to go along with it.  I instantly thought of David Lightman using his modem to hack into Protovision.  Fortunately we didn’t add the modem to our purchase and we stayed at Defcon 5.

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Thank You, Jack Tramiel

I just read the news that Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore, passed away on Sunday at the age of 83.  He was a pioneer in personal computing, stating that he wanted to build computers for “the masses, not the classes.”  More on his life and career here.

On a couple of occasions I’ve posted on the passing of an artist that influenced me in one way or another, and I try not to weigh this site down with too much of that.  I prefer for this site to be a celebration of artists and creators.  But this news hits home and got me reminiscing about one particular era of my youth.  I admit I didn’t know much about Jack Tramiel until I read of his passing today, but to say the Commodore 64 was an influence on the course of my life would be an understatement.  I have a lot of memories associated with the machine Jack Tramiel’s company created.

It was 1984, and my father took me and my brother to the Caldor’s department store in Port Chester, New York to buy our first home computer.  That computer was the Commodore 64.  The funny thing is, my brother and I didn’t really do too much research on it prior to buying it.  We had used the Texas Instruments TSR 80 in school, but there was just something about the advertisements (possibly in a Marvel Comic) for the Commodore 64 that made us have to buy it.  So to Caldor’s we went in our navy blue 1977 Ford Granada.   And to my father’s credit he didn’t balk at the price, nor did he question why we would need it.  He saw it as something that would help us with our school work, and it was a step towards giving us the opportunities he didn’t have.  We wanted it for the games, too, but we didn’t mention that.

For those of you who didn’t have a Commodore 64 back in the day, it was simply a keyboard (with a cool design) and a separate floppy disk drive that was hooked up directly to your TV as a monitor.  You could also purchase a separate dot matrix printer.  Once everything was hooked up and the adapter was switched from “TV” to “Computer,” the following screen would come up:

We were mesmerized.  A real computer.  In our home.  Put the Atari 2600 in the closet, we’ve got computing to do!  But the next thought that crossed our minds was:  Now what?  We didn’t buy any games that day.  And we didn’t now how to program in BASIC.

Crap.

Fast forward a bit.  Our local Waldenbooks had a very small section on Computers and Computing, and we bought  a book called 20 Amazing Games For Your Commodore 64 to get us started.  Great!  We’ll have twenty games now!  Wait, what’s with the weird code on these pages?

Yep, each game had to be entered into the Commodore 64 line by line, which in some cases took a couple of hours.  And they would work, provided you didn’t add a “%” where you should have entered a “&” and have to go over your entries line by line all over again to find the mistake.  When I think back to the summers of 1984 and 1985, I don’t think of cookouts, bike riding, or trips to the beach.  My first thought is of sitting in front of that TV at our Commodore 64 keyboard.  I’m not sure how many beautiful summer days we spent indoors with this machine, but it only got worse when we bought what would be our favorite game of the era: Zork by Infocom.

Infocom games were text based adventures in which you maneuvered through the game with simple commands (i.e. “West” to move in that direction, or “Get lamp” to pick up a lamp).  Your command would then lead to a text description of your surroundings and interactions with characters, etc.  In short, it was a cross between a choose-your-own-adventure book and a live screenplay.  I try to explain the concept to some of my younger co-workers, and even show them YouTube video of the actual game play, but they don’t “get” it.  The graphics are in your head.  I still prefer those old games to any new video game.  If you’re curious, you can download a C64 emulator and some old games online.

Zork led to Zork II and III, but Infocom branched out into non-fantasy genres as well.  Ballyhoo was a mystery game that took place on the grounds of a traveling circus.  Infidel took place in Egypt.  Deadline involved a reporter.  Infocom even licensed Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and turned it into a very good game.  The last Infocom game I bought was probably around 1989: a Cold War mystery called Border Zone.

I didn’t finish Border Zone, but it’s on my list to finish one of these days.  I still have our original Commodore 64 and all of our games.  I haven’t hooked it up since sometime in the 90’s but I’m sure it still works.  We used the original box to store some of our X-Men comic books.  Still have that, too.

I always felt comfortable writing in screenplay format.  It took me years to realize that comfort level came from the hours, days, and years I played those Infocom games.

Sorry if it seems like I’ve digressed from the original purpose of this post, but there is a good reason for it.  Everything above was a direct result of my pop buying us that amazing little computer back in 1984.  It defined an era of my youth that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  The Commodore 64 led to countless hours of playing Infocom games.  Those Infocom games led to my passion for writing.  And I have Jack Tramiel to thank for it.

Thank you, Jack Tramiel.

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