Games that Made Me: Microsurgeon

by wsampson

Microsurgeon Banner


I’ve rediscovered an Intellivision game I played as a kid: Microsurgeon (1982). This was one of the great cooperative console games of my youth, along with General Chaos (Sega Genesis, 1994) and Contra (NES, 1987).

The Intellivision must have been my friend’s father’s — we had both grown up with the NES as the big prize. The console’s controllers each had an analogue directional disc, which struck us as impossibly weird and archaic (but still interesting after too many failed rounds of Sonic the Hedgehog).

The real-world weightiness of the this game made a mark on me. You control a micro-ship inside a human body, where you battle cancer. It was very hard. You could target certain parts of the patient’s body for healing: eyes, brain, lungs, etc. The tumor spread relentlessly and you would find yourself urgently manipulating your directional disc in an effort to hold back advancing grey blocks of cancer cells.

Microsurgeon Medical Chart

Microsurgeon Medical Chart

The challenge was always compelling: you wanted to save this patient.  My most vivid memory though is of the tumor overwhelming whatever organ I was engaged in and the patient dying. Despite the morbid conclusion, the idea of a triumphant heal kept us returning.

Microsurgeon took the mathematical progression of difficulty found in many early arcade games (Space Invaders, Centipede, etc.) and applied it to the body’s battle with disease. I would say it was tragic but my unfamiliarity with Aristotelian tragedy would advise against it. I will just say that it was really sad and a little bit scary to lose. Microsurgeon is still how I visualize cancer doing away with me.

My search phrase (intellivsion health game) also turned up an excerpt from the book Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss. It’s good read; I look forward to reading more.

The second part of this game I remember so well are the visuals, which were gorgeous and appealingly abstract. The banner graphic above and the medical chart display are taken from user Servo’s contributions to the stock of images at MobyGames. The banner graphic reminds me of Basquiat’s popular painting, Unknown (Skull) (1981):

Basquiat, Unknown (Skull)

Unknown (Skull)

There’s some resemblance, isn’t there? Sure the Intellivision’s representation of the skull is medical and diagrammatic, and Basquiat’s is expressive and descriptive. But both skulls are essentially tackled in pieces.