I was probably around six or seven years old when the Atari 2600 showed up in our house. 1981, 1982, something like that. This was, as my friend Bill often says, a meteor landing among the dinosaurs. Our world might not have ended, but it certainly would never be the same again. Suddenly, we had in in our little hands the capacity to waste time on an epic scale. No more would we be at the mercy of rides to the arcade or rolls of quarters. Now we could play Donkey Kong or Centipede or Pac-Man or any of our 8-bit favorites in the comfort of our own home, on an old fifteen-inch black and white screen. It was transformational.
The first game I can remember playing on this technological marvel was Missile Command. It's entirely possible that it came with the console. It's not a complicated game (how could it be?). Missiles come at your cities, you try to intercept them. It was an apt distillation of late Cold War anxiety: while the game booklet might have claimed these were alien targets on some distant war-torn planet, we knew these were Soviet ICBMs falling on American cities. It was also a worthy cautionary analogue to actual nuclear conflict, given that this game was impossible to win. I don't mean it was hard. I mean there was no possible victory. Each time a level was survived, the next screen would bring more missiles coming faster. Like Tetris, it wasn't a question of success, it was a question of how long you could endure before the inevitable failure. No saves, no cheat codes - by God, arcade games made men out of little boys.
I tried not long ago to play Missile Command on some kind of emulator. It was somehow both challenging and unexciting. Like so many other things from the 1980s, it's probably a lot more fun in hindsight.