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Posts Tagged ‘It came from the Desert’

Ants really are the smartest things in the town of Lizards Breath.  Here are my recollections of my time there in the early 90s.

I love ants.  They’re pretty great things really.  They have a great social structure, can tell when its going to rain, and can carry super heavy things around – like leaves (its all relative guys).  Don’t tell anyone, but when they rise to wage war on the current anthropocentric nature of the planet earth, I’m absolutely defecting to their side.  Which really is about the only fault I can find in the Amiga 500 classic, It Came From the Desert, in that I have to stop them rather than help them.

If you were an X-Copy toting pirate, chances are you never saw the boxart (image: Giantbomb)

Developed by Cinemaware and released in 1989 for the Amiga 500 (followed by releases on PC and TurboGrafx 16, not to mention an unreleased Mega Drive version), It came from the Desert (lets just call it Desert) at the time really was a step forward for the video game medium not only in terms of gameplay and sheer scope of the game, but also in terms of  its graphics.  At the time, developer Cinemaware were producing some of the benchmarks in gaming for the Amiga 500, including classic arcade flight sim Wings (which is still a great example of early 3D trickery) and some of the best examples of sports games on the system through their TV sports brand.  But in my opinion, despite the great ‘Amiga 500 defining’ titles from the studio that preceeded its release, Desert is realy the best example of why Cinemaware themselves should be regarded as one of the most important and innovative developers programming games in the early 90s.

Before I go into trying to justify such bold statements about Desert, its important to set the scene to understand how the Amiga fitted into the videogames industry at the time.

The Amiga 500 was, without a doubt at the forefront of processing power available to developers through its almost five year reign following its release in 1987.  And as I’ve said on here before, it really could be considered one of the most important systems of all time, not only because of its clearly superior power and the sheer number of now classic releases it was home to, but also because it was the launch pad for many game developers and publishers who are still creating and distributing games today. And while it was received moderately in the United States, its certainly no exageration to say that here in Australia and over the the United Kingdom and other European nations the Amiga 500 was a gargantuan success, with more than 1 million sold in 1989 alone according to Amiga History (www.amigahistory.co.uk).  In short, the Amiga 500 was a tour de force in the gaming community – and certainly if my childhood memories serve me correctly, there seemed to be almost a 1:1 ratio of the system to childhood peers (which meant no shortage of love in the school yard for classics on the system such as Batman (Ocean), Gobliins (Coktel Vision), North and South (Infogrames), Speedball II (Bitmap Brothers) and one of my personal favourites, Utopia (Gremlin Interactive)).  Needless to say the Amiga 500 had its fair share of sheer classic gaming experiences; even when compared to its competitors on the Eastern Front, the behemoths that were (and in the case of the latter, still are) Sega and Nintendo.

So it really is testament to the brilliance of Desert that it manages to rise above in most cases and be remembered, to my mind at least, as one of the key Amiga 500 gaming experiences.  The game itself at face value has nothing special going for it in the story department, with players playing through the eyes of main protagonist Greg Bradley at a time when giant ants have suddenly  started appearing in the usually quiet town of Lizard Breath, USA in the 1950s. And guess what, its your job to find out what is going on and try and stop it.  Sounds cliched right?  And it is. But while the plot seems B-grade cliche and kinda Earth Defence Force-y, the way the game plays out is far from it, and if anything Cinemaware’s intentional focus on recreating a videogame homage to that style of b-grade science fiction cinema, allows them to ensure that the player focuses on the great cast of characters throughout Lizard Breath, rather than focusing too much on a convoluted story arc. And when combined with the variety of game play and some intelligent game design, you’ve got a game that nails the execution of each and everything it attempts to achieve.

And this is certainly in no part due to the influence that cinema has on all of Cinemaware’s games, with science fiction being the clear influence in the case of Desert.  But its not just the sci-fi genre that finds its way into Desert, with other film genres and devices making an appearance throughout the proceedings of the game – something that was intentional throughout the development of not only Desert but also Cinemaware’s other titles.  When asked about the connection between film and gaming by Gamasutra, Robert Jacob (Bob) noted that:

That’s a major topic of conversation. If you look at some of the best-selling games right now — if you look at Uncharted 2, the recent Call of Duty games — they are extremely cinematic games. Twenty-three years ago I knew that was going to happen. There was no question; that’s the way it had to go. We had to make the games more movie-like. Until Cinemaware, they were anything but.

Bob states further in the interview that he didn’t have a stack of input into Desert, however Cinemaware’s design ethos is still ever present throughout the game to the point where it is hard not to notice the visual cues the developer has lifted straight from film and attempted, mostly successfully, to emulate into the videogame medium.  Everything from the dialogue of the characters  to the feel of all the locations makes the whole game feel like its been taken straight from the silverscreen of a drive-in cinema in the middle of the 20th century.  At least it did back then.

Hey late of gen Ys and gen Zs, a Drive-in Cinema. Its far out.

So I think we can safely say that visually, at the time, Desert was amongst the most impressive examples of computer graphics, at least that I had seen.   But it Desert was also an early example of a game that was well-served by giving the player a wide range of different gameplay mechanics throughout the game that not only support the narrative of the game, but also to provide the player with what seemed like absolute freedom through variety. While most of the game could be (cautiously) considered somewhat of an open-ended an adventure game, it throws various other gameplay instances (I really don’t want to call them mini-games) in certain circumstances that change the pace and often rely less on cerebral problem solving and time management, and more on hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes.  These vary from recreating games of ‘Chicken’ with the local thugs the Hellcats, to shooting the antennae off of giant ants on farms and mines from a first person perspective.  But it is without a doubt the escape from the hospital instance that I remember the most fondly.  Throughout the course of the game, your character could not die, however over exposure to the sun during top down ant-killin’, failing to kill attacking ants in the above ant shooting occurence and other generally not so savoury happenings will result in a lengthy stay in hospital – which is essentially the game’s way of penalising you as the longer you real time clock governing how long until the end game continues ticking while you’re there.  So while the stay in hospital is puncuated to start with with the same ample-cleavaged nurse who I’m sure has your best intentions at heart, it really is in the interest of humanity that you waste as little time as possible on your back. Escaping itself is basically top hide and seek with the nurses and doctors who, apparently, desperately want you to stay in hospital (it must be a private hospital) and will go to any lengths to keep you there.  You can hide in other patients’ rooms, beds and hijack wheel chairs in your endeavour to escape the hospital and save humanity.  And again, its nothing remarkable when described in words, but running through the hospital chased by doctors, nurses and orderlys screaming “Catch the guy” and “Get him” is easily amongst one of my most treasured gaming memories.  What wasn’t such a treasured memory was being caught and sedated, leading to a waste of more time in the presence of that nurse…

The kind staff at Lizard Breath hospital are here to help.

Thats the thing about this game.  On paper, it can get lost amongst the hundreds of other adventure games that were produced for that and future iterations of hardware throughout the nineties.  But it is in the detail that Desert really does rise above and become one of the most memorable games for not only the Amiga 500, but of my entire childhood.  I’ll admit that I never actually finished the game (to put that in some sort of context I was born in 1983…) but I still had an attachment to the game that is beyond other games that I played when I was a kid.  I fondly remember the characters, from Biff – the idiot who sets your house on fire, to Dusty from KBUG radio; and the places of Lizard Breath like O’Riordan’s Pub and Neptune Hall; more vividly than almost any other game, giving it a deserving place amongst the other games that I remember fondly and often cite as being one of the most important, and best games ever made.

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Anyone tried playing that classic game that you always loved and for 15 years have told everyone that you wish more games were like it, and that you wish they’d make a sequel?  I have.  That game was Killer Instinct.  And before you answer, no, you don’t wish that game had a sequel.  Go back and play it, and tell me its still relevant.  Tell me that its a good game, and if you can try and think back to playing it back in the day and whether it actually WAS any good or if your views had been tainted by your peers at school; by the snazzy graphics it threw out of your SNES back in the day; or – and don’t ever admit this to a brain professional, the violence.  I’ll answer all those questions for you.  The game really wasn’t that great and in fact Street Fighter II which by that point was pushing half a decade old, to put it bluntly, sh!ts all over it.

But ask anyone that played it back in the day what they thought of it, and they’ll swear by it.

I bet you don't remember it looking like this

I have been having a pretty hard time writing anything coherent lately.  If I’ve written anything at all, that is.  But I think I know why.  I like new games, yeah, they’re great.  But I’m not really passionate about them, if that makes any sense.  I could write ad nauseum about why Red Dead Redemption is a new benchmark in open world gaming, but I could also then go on to say that as great (fantastic really) that it is, it can get repetitive and struggles at times to hold my attention.  But that’s a symptom of my strange relationship with open world games in that I sometimes get so sidetracked by the plethora of stuff to do on the side that when it comes to the main quest I find that I’ve spent about as much time as I want to in that world.

But I digress

So while I spend money on these games, and play them, I have been finding it increasingly more difficult to write about them and make them somehow relevant to me.  Lets face it, you’re not coming to me for an opinion and honestly, I wouldn’t either when the great people over at Giantbomb are doing such a cracking job of that themselves.  So really there’s not a whole lot left for me to say about these games apart from maybe saying in a somewhat Daisy Steiner fashion “I Like them, I think they’re good”.

But one thing I do like is old games.  Or new games that are like old games. Or bat shit crazy games.  And portable games.  These really are the bread and butter of what I know and love.  And I know them well.  So rather than me ranting about stuff that I really struggle to write more than a paragraph on, and as such leave this good intentioned little blog somewhat neglected for large periods of time, I think a change in focus should make it easier (and hopefully more interesting) to continue putting stuff up on here.

What does that have to do with Killer Instinct?  Well I wanna be the guy that tells you old games were great, even when they’re not so great anymore.

So if you want more ranting about Powermonger and how its a human rights violation that it hasn’t appeared in any form since its release in 1990 (not to mention how great its intro cinematic was) or how badly we need to stop the successor to President Margaret – PC Bil, from being elected then this may be the place for you.  If you got that last reference then I think we both need a life.

So where to from here?  In the coming weeks you’ll be seeing a dramatic shift in the stuff I put up here; from finishing up that list of the Essential Game Boy games that has taken me far too long to finish, to writing about those games that don’t get enough written about them – starting with a love letter to Cinemaware’s classic It Came from the Desert.

In short, I’m sorry I ran away when I said I was just going out to grab some milk, but I promise that I’ll look after you and our baby from now on.  Wait, that’s from my other blog….

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