Monday, 31 August 2015

Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf (Amiga)

Desert Strike Amiga title screen
Developer:EA|Release Date:1993 (Amiga)|Systems:Genesis/Mega Drive, Amiga, DOS, Master System, Lynx, Game Gear, Game Boy, SNES, GBA, PSP

Today on Super Adventures I'm having a look at Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, the first of EA's legendary Strike series and at the time their biggest selling game ever, beating titles like Road Rage, John Madden Football and, uh, Skate or Die 2: The Search for Double Trouble.

The subtitle's always made it sound like a sequel to me, but the game came out just a year after coalition forces liberated Kuwait from Iraq during the Persian Gulf War and it's actually following on from that. The problems in the Middle East had gotten a lot of news coverage at the time (if you can imagine that), so it was inevitable that a few fictional Saddam Hussain lookalikes would pop up in video games and start threatening the world.

Desert Strike was originally released on the Sega Genesis AKA. the Mega Drive but I'll be playing through the first level of the Amiga port instead because of its improved sound and enhanced visuals. You can see right now how they've enhanced the title screen with a digitised photo featuring trees (but then tinted them brown so we wouldn't notice.)

I can't exactly show the sound but I suppose I could link to a YouTube video of the Amiga title theme. It's almost but not quite entirely different to the rock theme the game has in most other versions: YouTube link of the Mega Drive theme, but I think we win either way.



The Middle East. Terrorist leader General Kilbaba has invaded a small but wealthy Arab emirate and taken over. The madman built his reputation by showing no mercy and he built his jail cells with the bars spaced so far apart you wouldn't even need to turn sideways to slip through. Wait, did the prisoner just... did he just grab a bit of whatever's growing on those cell bars and eat it?

I'm pretty amazed that's not an AK that the guard's firing indoors like an idiot. They're going to be hearing that echoing for hours. In fact what even is that? It's like a shotgun with an oversized scope along the top.

Genesis/Mega DriveSNES
In the original Mega Drive game, the prisoner is actually being boiled alive/melted in acid/fed to ravenous piranhas/given a nice warm bath, and man does the guard take his time doing it. We do have other scenes to get through in this intro mate!

Whatever was happening to him, Nintendo apparently didn't want it on their system, so on the SNES he shows up caged instead. I still think there's a chance he could squeeze through those bars, though it wouldn't be easy. Also he'd get shot by his personal armed guard.

Here's General Kilbaba himself, who actually bears far less resemblance to Saddam Hussein than I remembered. Kilbaba is the kind of evil leader who likes to rant in front of giant maps of made up countries and brag about murdering his lieutenants.

This guy gets off fairly lightly though.

It turns out that one slap was all it really took to convince Muammaar here to forget his children's future and get back to arranging World War III. I don't blame him for caving though, as he's not the first Muammaar to have stood in this position (and he won't be the last).

GBA
Genesis/Mega DriveGame Boy Advance
The original Mega Drive version for instance features a Muammaar with a moustache and considerably paler skin, while Desert Strike Advance released a decade later features a new guy with no moustache who escapes without getting a slap!

The coalition forces brought together around a million military personnel for the first Gulf War, but the US apparently thought that was overkill as they're planning to resolve this crisis with just one helicopter.

What's weird is that it's not the same reporter in every port. Pilar Cloud shows up in the Amiga and MS-DOS ports, the Master System version has an android called Elvis Dennis from DNN, and most other versions feature Lesley Mansford reporting for EANN. I expected Desert Strike Advance to keep the name and change the face like it did with Muammaar, but nope it's still the same Lesley.

We may never know or care why this happened, but it is a bit weird.

And so our heroes climb into their badass looking AH-64A Apache gunship with its wonky looking rocket pods and prepare to prevent World War III all on their own. Meanwhile the gentleman on the right just wants them to hurry up and get off his deck.

Desert Strike Amiga Menu
The developers of the Amiga version sure did like their scanned photos of helicopters. The MS-DOS port looks a lot like this as well, but most of the other versions have a very different menu with far less swooshing and clanking.

I can pick from a number of different co-op pilots with various strengths and weaknesses, but as they only have two jobs it seems I'm basically just choosing whether I want better weapon accuracy or faster winching. I'll stick with Big Dave as he seems a shooty type.

Weird how the sound option is an on/off toggle switch. A number of Amiga games force players to choose between having music or sound effects but this is purely an option for people without a mute button who demand total silence from their video games.

Genesis/Mega Drive
Here's what the menu looks like on the original version. Somehow the Amiga port ended up with the slick serious menu, while the Mega Drive has a more jokey one with a bendy missile.

Sadly Big Dave doesn't seem to be in the Mega Drive game. In fact it has a different set of co-pilots entirely.

Here's another change I've noticed: In the original game our unnamed pilot doesn't get to drink coffee during the briefing.

My objectives on level one are:
  1. Destroy the radar sites.
  2. Blow up the power plant.
  3. Bomb the airfields.
  4. Hit the enemy command centres.
  5. Find and rescue the secret agent.
That sounds like the pre-credits sequence of five separate Bond movies, but he expects me to get it all done in one go!

Okay here I am in my Apache sitting on the deck of a US frigate in some gulf somewhere in the Middle East. But before I take off I need to work out where I'm going because I remember this thing drinking fuel like crazy.

This handy in-game map screen lets me flip through my objectives along with the position of all enemy anti-aircraft weaponry, pick-ups and missing allied troops. My commander suggested that I attack the missions in order though so I suppose I should start by flying directly east and blowing up the radar dish.

Hang on, when I had 'SECRET AGENT' selected did one of those questions marks flash over the frigate?

Uh, I don't think our missing secret agent is hiding in our own frigate guys. It's probably safe to cross that one off the list of places to look. Though I guess it can't hurt to check behind the couch first.

The Apache is controlled a bit like a real helicopter: it's happy enough to just hover on the spot until the fuel runs out, but if I press 'up' it'll tilt its nose down and accelerate forward and holding a direction will make it rotate. It's even got some momentum, which can be turned off on the console versions if you're some kind of physics-hating lunatic.

Before I go flying into combat I need to fly around in circles a bit first though. I'm not getting used to the controls or anything, I just want to see the helicopter turn. The thing has a ridiculous number of angles for a 2D pixelled sprite, especially when you consider it leans when it turns and tilts in the direction I want to move in. Sure it looks a little jerky (especially when the tail's whipping around on the left), but compared to any other shoot 'em up hero vehicle at the time this was amazing.

I know now that it must have started life as a 3D model before being rendered as frames and cleaned up, but at the time it mystified me. These days I'm mostly just confused why my Apache has a ducted fan tail rotor like a Comanche. Not that I'm complaining.

No you dumbass helicopter, keep shooting the anti-aircraft gun, not the harmless radar dish!

I'm having a few auto-aim problems right now, and my helicopter actually behaves like it's a large metal object hovering in the air so I can't just slip between incoming enemy shells to avoid taking damage.

That explosion though... it doesn't just look impressive, it sounds meaty too. I suddenly don't mind so much that it has no in-game music. The thing is, these explosions were created for the Amiga port and no other version of the game has them. Here's what it looks like when things blow up on other systems:

EXPLOSION COMPARISON BOX
Mega Drive/GenesisGBA (and basically SNES)
On the Mega Drive, SNES and GBA versions things mostly blow up like... well, a 1992 console game. The game started out on the Mega Drive though, so these are the original authentic Desert Strike explosions.

Amiga MS-DOS
The Amiga might not be so fast at scrolling a desert background around, but when things blow, they blow big. The PC version seems to feature art from both the Amiga and Mega Drive versions, redrawn to add more colours, but its explosions are all its own (and they're a bit crap really). Also the DOS Apache seriously needs to get some oil on its rotor shaft because it is unbearably squeaky.

Atari Lynx Game Boy
The game also made it onto the trinity of early 90s handhelds, gameplay more or less intact (though the physics less so). The artists for the Lynx port decided to go minimalist with the 'desert' part, but the 'strike' bit seems alright. The Game Boy version on the other hand has tiny inadequate explosions. 

Master System Game Gear
The biggest surprise with the 8-bit console ports is that they actually look different. In my experience Game Gear games are usually just the Master System version with a smaller screen, but these are clearly two separate ports of Desert Strike with equally weedy explosions.

I didn't quite show all of the ports there, but I think I got most of them. Not much point in showing the one from the PSP's EA Replay compilation as it's identical to the Mega Drive version.

Okay that's one radar site down, one to go.

The map screen's not just good for telling me where to go though, it also tells me if I've got enough fuel to make it (and if I have enough missiles left to do anything when I get there). Trouble is I've already used up a third of my fuel just blowing up one radar dish, so I need to make sure there's a set of fuel drums up by the next dish before I fly up there or else I'll be falling out of the sky soon.

There's a white dot over on the beach so I should be fine.


LATER, AFTER WRECKING THE SECOND RADAR DISH.


Big Dave might not be the best on the winch, but he gets the job done. It's automatic as well: as soon as I hover near a pick-up, the winch comes down to let me grab it. Reminds me a lot of Cyclone on the ZX Spectrum from seven years earlier, except with more people shooting at me and less cyclones.

I'm starting to realise why they included a sound on/off option in the menu earlier, as the noise of my rotor blades is pretty relentless. There's no ingame music on any version so all I can hear is my helicopter, the occasional gun shot from the soldiers I fly past, and some guy shouting "Over here!" You know, I should probably go investigate that.

Man, this pilot can really shout, I heard him over the sound of my rotorblades from a couple of screens away.

This isn't the first MIA soldier I've swooped by to pick up, but the smoking F-15 made this a better looking shot. Don't ask how a two-seater Apache can pick up passengers, it just can.

Oh by the way, the way the background constantly moves is making my GIFs huge, so I'll be running image stabilisation on them from now on to keep the file size reasonable. They'll be way less authentic (and I hate that), but I don't think the effect looks too bad. You can barely even notice that I had to put in some of the frames of smoke myself after the camera panned too far away from the plane. That camera sure likes to pan around.

I should probably go drop this guy off somewhere.


SOON, A FEW SCREENS SOUTH.


Hey don't tap your foot at me mate, I just pulled you out of the burning fighter jet you wrecked!

I didn't rescue the pilot purely out of the goodness of my own heart though as if I drop people back to the big X on the beach like this I can get my Apache repaired while I wait. This is the only way I'm aware of to replace lost armour as there's no pick-ups marked on the map.

But by collecting the pilot (and his a few of his friends along the way) I've used up a third of my fuel again! The stingy gits down here at the X don't give me fuel or ammo while I'm parked, but if I really need to I can grab their supplies... once.

My next mission is to destroy the power plant over on the east side of the map.


SOON, ON THE WAY FROM THE BEACH TO MISSION 2.


Balls.

I didn't even mean to end up at the airfield, I was actually flying straight to the power station, but I figured I'd take out this anti-air missile launcher while I was here to make my job easier later. Turns out that his missiles are a lot better at hitting their target than mine are.

The game recommended in the briefing that I complete objectives in order and I think I'll be taking that advice from now on. First though I need to fly away very quickly, as I respawned in the same place I crashed and I've only got two lives left now.

Mission 2 completed! I know I should've probably stuck with the cannon for this, but I got bored of waiting and switched to Hydras to finish it off. I've got three weapon types: 30mm cannon, Hydra rockets and Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, and the more powerful they are the less shots I get. I can only have 8 Hellfires max, so I have to save them for things I really hate.

Right, now the power station has successfully erupted into flames I can go back and deal with that airfield. Just as soon as I've watched this loop a few more times.

Hang on, did I blow something else up in there too?

Damn, slow motion reveals that I just blew up an ammo crate! I really could've used that after firing off all my Hydras.

Although now that I think about it, all the ammo crates I've seen have been red. But it definitely wasn't a fuel tank... so it must have been an ARMOUR crate! They do exist, they're just not marked on my map. And I've just blown one up.

Amiga                                                 |                             Genesis/Mega Drive
Because I'm feeling petty and spiteful right now after the game tricked me into blowing up my armour pick-up I'm going to point out that the power station's missing a shadow on one of its chimneys. You can see how the right hand chimney casts a shadow all the way up onto the roof, but the left hand chimney is a soulless vampire.

To be fair though, the building's a lot prettier than it started out as on the Mega Drive, which is ironic because now it looks like a game console.

Anyway I need to go blow up a couple of airfields now but I can't do while I have a third of a tank of fuel left and 28 points of armour (out of 600).

Fortunately there's a few MIAs still left alive so I'll pick up three on my way back to the X and get repaired. The closest one even has a fuel tank next to him! The tricky part will be surviving until I get to the beach because right now I can't even survive a single hit.

...the fuck? From OFF SCREEN?

Well at least now I don't have to head back to the beach any more, though I still need to pick up some fuel as my replacement Apache didn't come with a full tank (or an ammo reload). In fact if I know I’m about to blow up it’ll probably be better if I find somewhere safe to let the thing run dry and crash instead, as that way it has to give me a full tank of fuel when I respawn.


SOON, BACK AT THE NORTH AIRFIELD.


Okay new plan: whenever I shoot at anything that can fire back at me, I switch to Hydras. Because it takes forever otherwise and I'm soaking up too much damage in the process.

No no, shoot the planes, not the sand, the PLANES!

The trouble with Hydra rockets is that they're not the most accurate weapon. It seems 50/50 if the things are actually going to hit what I'm aiming at, and they alternate between the rocket pods on each wing, so the second shot's going come from the other side of the helicopter and end up landing somewhere else.

It's painful watching missiles miss because I don't get many and I'm not sure it's even my fault. I've got no crosshair, I can't tell what the thing's aimed at!


SEVERAL PLANES LATER.


For fuck's sake...

I'd blown up all the MiGs on the runways and I was just about to finish off the buildings. I was so close to being done here!

I suppose I can't really complain about being taken out by a missile from off screen, because I knew the thing was there; I can see them all marked on my map screen. There's not much I can do about a surprise missile to the face, but if I'd paid attention to the "Low Armour!" message and gone down the beach with some friends first I would've had the health to survive it.

Hey it really does say 'armour' with a 'u'; you can bet that's not true for the console games. The Master System version doesn't say anything, but the alarm it plays gives players a real motivation to get some MIAs over to that X as soon as humanly possible just to shut it up. It makes you want to scream "Holy shit, someone please answer your damn phone already!"

Anyway I'm out of lives here so I have to start the whole level again from the frigate.


TWO RADAR SITES AND A POWER PLANT LATER.


You piece of shit game! I was being really careful with my shots to make sure I didn't accidentally blow up anything inside... and it turns out that there was a guy with a fucking rocket launcher hiding in there! I didn't even know that could happen.

Still at least the fuel drums are intact too. I could really do with them right now, as when the "Low Fuel!" message is flashing I've got about 30 seconds to deal with it.


LATER, AFTER BLOWING UP BOTH AIRFIELDS.


Aha, so there really ARE armour pick-ups out in the wild, and not just inside that one power station. Now I just have to winch it up without smacking my Apache against the guard tower. It won't mean my instant fiery demise, but it's hard to pick up a box when I keep bouncing away from it. I could always just blow the tower up I suppose, send a few missiles over and hope they I hit what I'm aiming at for once... nah.

I guess these secret pick-ups are the kind of thing you're meant to stumble across accidentally and remember for your next attempt. The level seems designed to be played over and over again until you know things, like what buildings the secret rocket launcher guys are hiding in, when to grab the ammo crate next to the X, and where to get the hidden armour pick up.

After the radar sites, power plant and airfields, mission 4 involves blowing up two of these command centres and... huh? "Return to Frigate"? But I'm not done yet! I've still got a second command centre to blow up. I've still got the secret agent to find!

Did I do something wrong?

You motherfucker...

Seems that my stray shot killed an enemy inside the command centre and that's an instant mission fail. That's an instant level fail in fact; everything I've done up to this point has now been for nothing.

Try again? You must be joking.

Nope, I'm done with Amiga Desert Strike, I'm turning it off. It's not like I've got any progress to lose.


LATER, ON THE MEGA DRIVE VERSION OF DESERT STRIKE.


Genesis/Mega Drive
Alright, I've captured the enemy commander from his command centre (without killing him this time) and he's told us exactly where our agent is being held! Hang on, what's happened to my Apache... it's been shrunk! It's like half the size it should be! My co-pilot is lucky he didn't get his head taken off by the rotor blades on the way out.

This is the actual frame rate of the cutscene by the way, I've done nothing to it this time. It's running at an ultra-cinematic 4 FPS.

Genesis/Mega Drive
Weirdly after showing my co-pilot run into the bunker in a cutscene, the game then goes and shows it again from isometric view. The Mega Drive run animation isn't quite as good as the Amiga one (on account of it having two frames and both of them bad), but on the other hand no one stands and taps their feet at me either.

The thing about Desert Strike, at least on this first level, is that 9 times out 10 the enemies stay put and I fly to them. There's no tanks chasing me, no incoming waves of fighters, just lots of AAA guns, missile launchers and the occasional tiny soldier. But there's no way they're not sending something after me while I'm hanging around here waiting for my co-pilot to come back out with the agent.

Genesis/Mega Drive
Aha, I knew it.

The nefarious forces of General Kilbaba sent a few VDA anti-aircraft vehicles to take down my chopper, but a couple of Hydras at close range sorted them out. It's funny how much more fun this is when my rockets actually hit the thing I'm trying to destroy. I'm actually doing better without a co-pilot.

Actually I've had a lot more luck blowing things up on the Mega Drive version in general and I doubt it's just because the three button pad means there's no need to cycle between weapons. The slicker frame rate is definitely helping (except for when I'm trying to make GIFs).

It's funny looking at the game with the scrolling frozen like this, it's almost like I'm playing Command & Conquer. Of course the only parts that are real are what the camera could see at the time, so anything too far in front or behind the Apache I had to copy and paste in myself. My desire for absolute authenticity fought my need to not leave explosions half-exploded and lost. It's fine as long as you people know it's fake, that's my line of thinking.

But that's it now I think. I've rescued the secret agent, so now I'm done here and I can go back to the frigate.

Genesis/Mega Drive
High five! Oh damn, this cheesy victory music makes it all worth it: YouTube Link. I'm glad I got here on the Mega Drive version as there's no way the Amiga music can match that (though its instruments likely sound less like a swarm of angry hornets).

My pilots are happy, the Apache has a huge grin on its face, I'll call that a win. In fact Desert Strike only has 4 levels, so that's 25% of the game I just completed. I even got my 3 lives back to get me through the next level, but I'm not going to push my luck.


CONCLUSION

Desert Strike can be a great experience when things are going your way and you manage to swoop through enemies blasting them to pieces with two rockets each. The Apache feels much more like a real object than your typical 16-bit aircraft sprite though, with its momentum and its 3 billion frames of animation and it's fun just to fly the thing around. Well, when you're not trying to avoid incoming fire anyway.

But those rockets seem just as likely to miss just when you really need an AA turret to not be there. Plus it gets tedious picking up MIAs and ferrying them back to the landing zone every time your Apache gets beat up, and having to keep track of fuel and ammo as well seems like an unnecessary complication. Being able to accidentally blow your fuel and ammo up is definitely something they could've left out, as it serves no purpose but to screw you over for using too many rockets on a building or trusting the auto-aim.

Man this game loves its gotchas. Whoops there was an enemy just off screen who could see you, you lose health. Whoops there was a guy with a rocket launcher inside that building you destroyed, you lose a life. Whoops you just killed the commander who knows where your agent is, you lose the game. It doesn't feel like you really have a fair chance to make it through a level on your first time through, you need to keep attacking it over and over and learning what to expect. And I only played the easy first level, I hear it gets much more awkward after this.

But... I can't say that I didn't enjoy it at times and I can't say I won't want to play it again so I guess I have to give it a star and say it's Not Crap, but at the same time it kind of is. My advice: if you're going to play one version of it, try to play the Mega Drive/Genesis one. Better controls, a faster frame rate and no loading screens beats out the Amiga's flashier explosions and improved sound. The MS-DOS port's nice, but the sound will drive you crazy, and the SNES version is just a slightly faded carbon copy of the Mega Drive game.


This 'next game' clue should be really easy to get. Or maybe difficult, I can never tell. It's from a well known part of a well known game so someone's going to get it.

Feel free to leave a comment, feedback is appreciated.

16 comments:

  1. Why is General Kilbaba slapping Prince? Didn't he like Batdance?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was thinking Michael Jackson but I like your one better.

      Delete
  2. Man i love this one and the Jungle Strike.
    Got them on a compilation disc. Friggin love them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yeahhh !! The scumm bar !! Enjoy one of the best games ever !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We have a winner! The next game is... The Secret of Monkey Island.

      Delete
  4. Wait,wait,wait.... isn't Muamaar version 1.... the artist formerly known as Prince?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was thinking the same XD
      I bet he is the secret agent!!!!

      Delete
  5. Such a pity that the chopper can't do strafing at all
    So to outmaneuver, you have to use momentum and aim&shoot as fast as you can
    or you can just take the damage and pick armor restore pickup later
    Anyway that's my opinion about playing Jungle Strike
    and i think it's quite apply to it's prequel

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    Replies
    1. You actually can get the Apache to strafe in this by holding down the weapon button as you press left and right, but it's so slow that it's entirely useless.

      Delete
  6. I don't know how much unpaid work making all these gif animations is to you, but they really look amazing.
    I tend to take time to read trough all the articles even about games I couldn't care less about (like Mortal Kombat 1) just for animations and comparisons between different platform versions.

    Now I must attent to this sudden urge to replay original Command & Conguer...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't actually know how long it takes me either, as that's info I don't want to have. I'm sure it takes much less work than it used to though, as I've learned how to not suck at it.

      It's always nice to hear that it's appreciated, plus the comparisons too. I only know what people want to read about when they tell me, otherwise I'm just left hoping someone actually cares.

      Delete
  7. Odd that Urban Strike eerily predicts 9/11 in some ways, maybe it was EA all along?

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  8. Hey, Ray. Sorry for the double post, but it just occurred to me that this year is inspector Gadget's 30th anniversary, apparently.
    How about celebrating with a review of the "inspector Gadget" videogame for the SNES? It's literally the only nice Gadget videogame out there. I don't know how much you know the character, but Gadget was a big part of my childhood. :P

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    Replies
    1. Sounds like a good idea, I'll check it out.

      Delete
  9. Great game :) got it back then in old good times on my amiga. I love that title tune with cool music and voice samples and how many small well animated details this game have. have never seen different versions and now I know there are many changes here and there so thanks for Your work on that game.

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  10. Pretty sure the Genesis/Mega Drive version of Muammaar is Frank Zappa.

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