Friday 15 August 2014

Snes Review : Desert Strike (Game 055)

“You need a map, you’ve been over that way already”. I wasn’t aware my Dad was watching me play ‘Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf’ let alone paying enough attention to notice when I was doubling back on myself. “I have a map” I smugly reply pressing the start button bringing it up on screen. “But didn’t it say earlier you’re meant to destroy all radar stations first?” For some reason there was something in this game that had caught my Dad’s attention.
With the exception of ‘Lemmings’ or ‘Worms’ he would usually notice if I was playing a game but not really get involved. I didn’t really want to break it to him that I hadn’t paid much attention to the mission goals and was just enjoying going around in my apache helicopter blowing up anything that moved. “Let me help you” he says as he begins to draw up an intricate annotated map with arrows and something called ‘dependencies’. This is how my Dad became my official ‘Desert Strike’ cartographer and the reason I ended up giving it far more than a cursory glance in my youth.

Perhaps it was the subject matter that engaged my Dad. Since I was born in 1982 I wasn’t really aware of Middle Eastern struggles throughout the late eighties and nineties but my parents certainly were. However, as Tim Tucker describes in his Amiga Power review, it wasn’t really comfortable subject matter to base a game on. “Shown in an incredible cinematic intro reminiscent of ‘Apocalypse Now’” the story of ‘Desert Strike’ is “frightening serious and realistic. It’s set in the Middle East where from out of the confusion of religious and racial conflict, a madman has emerged as the leader of his race. He intends to start Armageddon and his name is General Kilbaba. This isn’t a pretend situation where you control a spaceship trying to defeat an evil empire of unpronounceables. This is real. Something very similar to this happened recently and may well happen again.” So relevant and familiar was the story infact, that the game caused outrage in the mainstream news and offended anyone that needed a headline. Copies of the game were taken off the shelves in fear they could cause offence and Gulf war veterans burnt copies outside game shops in protest. Jonathan Davies’ take on the subject matter though was rather lighter. In his Super Play review he notes that that the game “weaves a tale of Middle Eastern intrigue, hostage taking, oil spillages, shifty baddies and lots and lots of sand”.

Though not a simulation by any stretch of the imagination, because ‘Desert Strike’ is based on existing military hardware, concessions have to be made in terms of game play. As Super Play pointed out, since “you fly a modern-day combat helicopter, [it’s] not as fast-moving or exciting as fantastical shooters.” The game is played from an isometric perspective, with the player taking on the roll of a helicopter pilot armed with a limited supply of missiles, rockets and machine guns.  You are tasked with completing campaigns each consisting of various sub-missions, which you can theoretically complete in order. During each campaign you need to constantly keep your eye on three things; you much fuel you have, how damaged your helicopter is and how much ammunition you have left. This is one of the game’s masterstrokes as it really does make the game dynamic despite the rigid to-do list. With all the other factors you have to bear in mind, you never seem to play the same campaign twice. It served in some respects as the blue print for many modern day open world strategy games with its resource management and it’s cerebral demands. ‘Desert Strike’ really is, as Super Play once said “a thinking man’s shoot em up” and one where your co Pilot Dad making detailed maps is a necessity.

It’s a refreshing take on the genre that was ironically forged by ‘Desert Strike’s designer’s lack of firsthand experience with games. “At the time” Mike Posehn recalls, “I was not a game programmer and not even a game player, I was working from a clean slate”.
One thing Posehn did know about though was toy vehicles, something he played with a lot as a child. “When I was a kid back in the fifties I played with matchbox toys so that probably guided the scale of the chopper in some way”. The look of the game is distinctive but was the result of convenience rather than deliberate design.  Posehn had a friend called Tim Calvin, who by day was a dentist but by night was an amateur 3D modeller of some merit. The sprites were made from screen shots of rendered 3D models based on toy machines. Each was then hand coloured using the limited colour palette that was available on 16 bit machines. The results were beautiful but were sadly too large for the tiny maximum 320 by 240 resolution of the Mega Drive (which the game was originally designed for). “It was a trade off” admits Posehn, “you want to see as much of the world as possible but the [sprites] need to be big enough to be interesting.” In the end this was achieved by implanting in the audiences mind what they couldn’t see; suggesting things right from the outset in the game’s opening sequence.
“The actual sprites used in the [main] game were a long way from these [opening sequence images] but gamers saw what they wanted. One allows his imagination to fill in the details” based on the things they have already seen.
The Snes game is of course based on the original Mega Drive game, which Mean Machine once described as “one of the finest blasters ever made”. Sadly though a lot of animation, detail and the dynamic sweeping camera have got lost and the transition from Mega Drive to Snes certainly isn’t perfect. Slow down, reduced animation, flickering sprites and poor collision detection all are present. These may not individually mar the game play but collectively the game ends up feeling rather slap dash. “It’s not that impressive technically” Super Play shamefully admitted “and doesn’t do anything that a (weedy) Mega Drive can’t do”. Mode 7 and other specific quirks of the Super Nintendo’s hardware could have enriched the Mega Drive version, but sadly they have not been used. The sound and Rob Hubbard’s excellent introduction music too sounds more distorted and compressed on the Super Nintendo, again surprising when you consider the console superior audio abilities.

But despite the less than perfect conversion, judged on its own merits the Snes version of ‘Desert Strike’ is still a fun game that lasts much longer than you would imagine from a title that has just four levels. As Jonathan Davies said “each one is huge and will take you ages to complete”, partly because of all the preparation you need to do before starting each mission that make up the larger campaigns. It doesn’t matter if you are being tasked with destroying a target, rescuing MIAs or locating suspects, before each task you must make sure your helicopter is fully stocked with fuel and weaponry otherwise failure is almost a certainty. This is initially enjoyable but soon becomes tiring, as the only way to do it is to check on the map (or ask your Dad) where the nearest weapon caches and fuel drums are, navigate your way there and then wait while your slow hoist picks up the much needed supplies. You are of course being shot at the whole time you’re doing this and with just 3 lives it becomes incredibly frustrating if you die while trying to stock up prior to even taking on the next stage of the multi-tiered campaigns. On some stages too, the objective changes as the mission progresses.
Notably on the third stage you have to rescue some diplomats from an embassy under siege. As they flee from capture they all board a bright yellow bus which you must escort and protect until it leaves the map. This all sounds fantastically exciting, but limited ammunition makes it near impossible without every single shot you fire hitting a desired target. There’s little margin for error, as even fully stocked with all the weapons available to you there so many enemies shooting at once staying on top of them all while avoiding damage being taken by your helicopter or the bus is ludicrously hard. Also on my first attempt at this mission I didn’t realise that I would have to escort the prisoners once I had freed them. I had collected only enough fuel to get me to the embassy in the first place, never expecting to have to do things beyond this. In a hail of gunfire leaving the bus alone to get more fuel guaranteed failure, yet without enough in the tanks mission success was impossible. Failing through lack of preparation should be accepted as a part of ‘Desert Strike’, but failing because there was not enough information given to make informed decisions is unfair.

‘Desert Strike’ is an unforgiving hard game. So much so that Jonathan Davies admits that the difficulty prevented him enjoy too much of the game. “It really really hard” he wrote in his Super Play review. “I still haven’t managed to complete the second mission though I’ve been playing it for days”. But despite this difficulty there’s a charm about the game that does make you return to it, and passwords mean you can continue where you left off. To be honest though, these were not enough to get me to the excessively patriotic ending. I only really progressed and enjoyed ‘Desert Strike’ when I used a cheat device to either give me infinite armour or infinite health. Removing one of the complications meant I spent less time having to continually reassess supplies though it was still a sufficient challenge.
“Unless you’re a moralising kind of pacifist there’s no excuse for you not to have a copy of this” Mike Patterson once said in Mega Tech magazine. This may be true, but as well as being able to stomach the content there are a few other things required to really get all you can from ‘Desert Strike’. You also need time to play it gradually in the manner it was intended and you also need a co-pilot Dad with his maps and mission strategies. 

Where did I get this game from?

‘Desert Strike’ pops up quite a lot on ebay for usually modest sums. I took a hit on the condition of the box, to get the rarer poster. There are ports of the game on a massive amount of systems of varying quality so getting a copy will prove less hard than the game.  

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