The Lost Gunship Returns to Base

After more than twenty years, two friends reunite thanks to a long-forgotten Commodore 64 game.

When I saw the notification on my phone, I must admit that I wasn’t all that thrilled. My old high school friend, Joe, had posted something to my Facebook wall and, as I recall, a distinct thought of “Now what’s this nonsense going to be?” meandered through my brain as I exited the car on that balmy, late-summer evening.

Joe and I have been friends since our sophomore year of high school, way back in the halcyon days of 1986. We had Biology together and bonded over our mutual love of video games, especially ones that could be copied or traded on the Commodore 64.

For the uninitiated, the Commodore 64 (or C64) was, unquestionably, the home computer of choice back in the day. Atari was in utter chaos at the time; Apple computers were for the rich, preppy kids; and Nintendo’s “Entertainment System” was just becoming a real presence in the U.S. market. The C64 was powerful, relatively inexpensive and, as a bonus, had a video game library that was quite voluminous by the late ‘80s.

Commodore 64
Credit: Bill Bertram (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Thirty-three years later, the reason for my trepidation over Joe’s post was due to the fact that the majority of our online interactions over the past few years have been in regard to his firm support of our current president, and my diametric opposition to anything Trump related. So, my first thought was that this was going to be some poll, meme, or article proving some point that he made months ago and I had long since forgotten about.

But it wasn’t that. At all.

It was a simple picture of a 5 ¼” floppy disk with a handwritten title on the white sleeve. It was my handwriting for sure. A yellowing, time-worn instruction manual and keyboard overlay lurked behind the disk. 

“Damn…Sorry…I’ll get this back to you right away… was the rather cheeky headline Joe chose to frame the snapshot.

“Holy shit, it’s Gunship,” escaped my lips as I gawked at items I hadn’t seen in over three decades—and that I now wanted back in my possession more than any-goddamn-thing in this world.

Gunship is a combat flight simulator that was developed by the legendary Sid Meier’s MicroProse in 1986. Meier and MicroProse made some of the greatest games of the 8-bit computer era: F-15 Strike Eagle, Silent Service, Airborne Ranger, and Pirates! are just a handful I can name right off the top of my head. While Meier himself did some programming on Gunship, it was his colleagues, Andy Hollis and Arnold Hendrick, who did the majority of the legwork on the title. 

The game sold well and reviewed well; Gunship was MircoProse’s third best-selling title in 1987, and by 1989 it had shifted well over 250,000 copies. It also received a plethora of five-star ratings from the computer magazines and video game press of the time. In other words, it was as good as a computer simulation game of that era could get—it kicked much ass and took many names.

Gunship cover via MobyGames

I played the bejeezus out of Gunship back in the day, attaining the rank of Colonel and amassing several of the more prestigious medals, such as the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross. The overall experience is complicated (hence the overlay and thick manual) but fun. It takes some doing just to get the whirlybird off the damn ground, but that’s just the way I  wanted my games back then. I could always go for some quick, arcade action with a game of Jumpman, Commando, or Kung Fu Master, but computer games, even at that time, offered a layer complexity that arcades and home consoles just could not match. That’s not to say that Gunship couldn’t be pulse-pounding, especially when a Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter (the Russian equivalent to the AH-64A Apache; John Rambo takes out one of these bad boys with a rocket launcher in Rambo II) is bearing down on you with all guns blazing.

This particular copy of Gunship, though, has quite the history—even beyond its 30-plus-year captivity. I bought my original copy upon release in 1986 at a Toys ‘R’ Us, where you weren’t just buying the game but liberating it from the sinister “game cage” where all video games were held for reasons known only to the ubiquitous toy company’s Board of Directors. 

As I mentioned previously, Joe and I had Biology together that year. The teacher of that class was one of the best (and most laid back) I’ve ever had, both hysterically funny and infinitely informative. His name was Mr. Birzes, and he wasn’t so much your teacher as he was your big brother or cool-dude uncle. He taught Biology the way John Keating taught English in Dead Poets Society, sans the whole “standing-on-the-desk-because-I’m-so-different” nonsense. 

Gunship‘s intimidating, thick-as-a-brick
operations manual, via the author.

Mr. Birzes just happened to live around the block from me, and he also liked video games, so when he asked if he could borrow Gunship for “research” purposes, I gladly lent him the game. Unfortunately, he and his cohort, Mr. Aceto, another esteemed member of my high school’s science department, somehow erased and/or destroyed my poor Gunship disk while attempting to copy it.

To his credit, Mr. Birzes immediately copped to this faux pas and bought me a brand new copy of Gunship to replace the one that was unintentionally sacrificed to the wrathful God of Software Piracy. I only told two people about this incident, one of which was Joe because he sat directly across from me and somehow knew something was up. Joe immediately spread the story like wildfire, and lo and behold, before the end of the day I was summoned to Mr. Birzes classroom where I was gently admonished to keep my stupid mouth shut before he got fired. Mr. Birzes wasn’t the type of teacher to read some dumb kid the riot act and I, for one, appreciated that. Because of all this, Joe became obsessed with the game, especially after learning the wonky history with Mr. Birzes and I, and pestered me until I lent it to him.

So, the game that Joe held in his possession for over 30 years wasn’t even the original game that I purchased with my hard-earned Burger King wages.

Credit: MicroProse via MobyGames

Here’s the thing with Joe and I: We were contentious friends. Too similar in too many ways to be very close, let alone best, friends, we still had an appreciation for one another. It was kind of a “game recognizes game” situation before that was even a thing. I distinctly recall him and me getting into a shoving match that came within an inch of actually throwing punches in the hallway by our lockers one day, which may or may not have been fallout of the Gunship hostage situation. I don’t exactly remember why it happened, just that it did.

I also recall, rather sheepishly, that the only reason I passed Chemistry our junior year is because Joe let me liberally copy his labs and tests. I was good at Biology—that subject made perfect sense to me—but the fundamental concepts of Chemistry just could not penetrate my feeble brain, mostly because of the dense mathematical formulas involved to accomplish the most basic of goals. 

I’m certain the unwavering Chemistry support Joe was gracious enough to afford me is the reason I ultimately let his sudden ownership of my Gunship disk go. Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for thirty-three and a half years, that stupid helicopter game passed out of my knowledge…

A yearbook signature from one friend to another,
via the author.

Until the Facebook post. And upon seeing that post, I became much like the pathetic Gollum and Gunship suddenly became my own… my love… my precious!

The trick here was, of course, to make it clear I wanted the game back, but not how badly I wanted it back. So, over the course of the next month, Joe and I exchanged several terse emails and texts which became akin to a passive-aggressive game of cat and mouse. We talked of grabbing a beer a couple times in the hopes of exchanging the game that way, but it never panned out for whatever reason. And, once again, that awful feeling of being a 16-year-old dipshit who was getting strung along creeped into my much-aggrieved psyche.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I was a grown-ass man, and I wasn’t going to play this game again. That’s when I threw up the proverbial Hail Mary: I texted Joe my address, asking him to just simply drop the game in the mail. He chirped back with a simple “OK,” and I fully expected the topic to just die on the vine once again. My Gollum-esque tendencies with this situation would just have to learn to “hang on tightly and let go lightly” without pitching myself into the river of liquid-hot magma known as Disappointment.

A few nights later, I was sitting at my desk waiting for my son and his girlfriend to arrive. It was his birthday, and I was taking them out for impossibly large bowls of pho to celebrate.

There was a brisk knock at my door. I turned the corner out of my bedroom, fully expecting to see my son’s smiling face…

…but it was Joe. And, lo and behold, he had my Gunship disk in hand. My eyes were immediately drawn to it like a ravenous hawk hunting a frightened rabbit scampering through the underbrush. My addled brain screamed at me: I neeeeeeeeds it!

Gunship, back in its rightful place,
via the author.

“JEEEERRRRYYYY BONNNNNNNNNEERR,” he bellowed as if he’d last seen me in person a week ago and not twenty-some years prior at a random bar where I was DJ-ing.

I let him in and we talked for about 20 minutes or so. We chatted about the game, our jobs, and our respective relationship issues before my oft-tardy son finally arrived, but it was a good thing that he was late that night; it gave Joe and I a chance to catch up, as if the universe had ordained it to be so.

All bullshit aside, it was great to see Joe again, and I sincerely appreciated that he decided to hand-deliver the game to me after all this time.That was a cool move from a cool dude, and, in my mind, old friends are always welcome regardless of past grievances, on social media or in real life.

And somewhere, hiding in the back of a dingy biology lab in a far-flung corner of Northeast Philadelphia, 16-year-old Jer is smiling as he dreams of sitting in that virtual Gunship cockpit once again, smiting any Russkie tanks or helicopters that are foolish enough to find themselves in his crosshairs. That’s totally radder than dissecting some stupid frog, isn’t it?

So does this 33-year-old game still work?

The simple answer is: Yes, it does. After all, where do you think the screenshots and video clip came from?

There’s a serious caveat here, though. Retro computers and hardware are more finicky than your grandma’s asshole cat who lives under the bed, so it took some actual doing (and some actual cash forked over at garage sales and on eBay) to get the game up and running. And by doing, I mean taking apart 30-plus-year-old disk drives and cleaning crusty drive heads with Q-tips and alcohol. Hell, I’m not the 8-Bit Guy, but then again, who is?

Upon playing Gunship once again, I can say that it is still fun and exceptionally detailed, but man, is it slow. It chugs along at maybe 10 to 12 frames per second on the C64. Not unplayable, but certainly noticeable to someone who is now accustomed to the latest and greatest of what the current generation of gaming has to offer. It’s funny, though, browsing through the manual once again, because it’s clear by all the notes and coordinates I scribbled down on the now-yellowing pages that I legitimately played the crap out of this title back in the day. And, regardless of all the rigmarole I had to go through to get here, it’s quite wonderful to have Gunship back in my possession once again.

Header image credit: MicroProse via MobyGames

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