Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf was released in the first half of 1992, a year after Operation Desert Storm had ended and with the Middle East still fresh in mind. The plot involves a Middle Eastern despot invading a small Emirate and trying to gain weapons of mass destruction. Some could accuse EA of shamelessly cashing in on these appalling events. Whatever, it turned out to be the most successful game they had yet produced.
On my shortlist I had the Sega Mega Drive original and conversions for the Sega Master System, Super Nintendo and Commodore Amiga.
The Sega Mega Drive was the first version of the game and was released early in 1992 with the first conversions arriving later in the year. It could be described as the definitive version of the game with great graphics and sound, and slick controls. Although I had never played it before if felt familiar. It then dawned on me it played pretty much like cross between Cyclone and Raid on Bungeling Bay.
I played the Master System version next which, it has to be said, was not very good. It could not compete with any of the 16-bit versions here and was quite basic in all areas.
|The Master System is a poor mans Desert Strike. The helicopter doesn’t even have a shadow.|
I really liked the look of the SNES version at first, with its nice big helicopter sprite. I quickly realised it was only big due to the lower resolution graphics. The display has a zoomed-in look and therefore doesn’t show as much of the play area as the Mega Drive version. Little touches are also missing such as the wake from the ship you start the game from. Gameplay is more or less the same as the original.
|Desert Strike on the SNES. Plays pretty much the same as the Mega Drive game but at a lower resolution.|
The Commodore Amiga version appeared in 1993. To quote the manual – ‘when it came to designing the Amiga version of Desert Strike there was one question on everybody’s lips – what can be done to improve the game?’. For starters they used the Extra Half-Brite Graphics mode to display 64 simultaneous colours. Some graphics assets such buildings, targets and especially explosions have been greatly improved. Music is better and it features sampled sound effects and speech. The presentation is also much slicker. The Amiga conversion does have its drawbacks though. Firstly, the game plays a lot slower which can be a blessing or a curse depending on the situation. There is also disk loading which is absent on the consoles. Lastly, the controls are compromised – where the Sega controller has a multitude of buttons, an Amiga joystick has only one (or rarely two) fire buttons. This means cycling through weapons and accessing the map are via the keyboard.
Of the above I felt the Amiga and Genesis titles came on top. Each had its own advantages and disadvantages so I was unable to split them.
Rather than forming a coalition to send Kilbaba packing, the powers that be decided that all is needed is one man and his chopper. Desert Strike plays over four ‘campaigns’ divided into several missions. The first is called ‘Air Superiority’. Your missions here involve destroying radar sites, power station, airports, command centres, and finally picking up a secret agent. Although the missions can be played in any order it is recommended playing in the order given as destroying the radars and power station reduces the range and accuracy of enemy anti-aircraft weapons. The Secret Agent has copies of the Generals plans and his whereabouts is only shown after destroying the command centres and capturing the commander within.
Before you begin the game you must choose your co-pilot. There are several to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. One is marked MIA and can be rescued during the game – he’s located next to a downed aircraft on the first level.
|Choosing you co-pilot on the Mega Drive [left] and Amiga [right]|
I must take issue here with the sprite of your gunship. Although the game box, manual and in-game stills reference an AH-64 Apache, the main sprite only half resembles one – the front half. It looks like they have grafted on the back end of an RAH-66 Comanche with the ducted fan tail rotor and high tailplane. The Apache has a conventional tail rotor and low tailplane. I’m guessing this was to simplify drawing the many frames of animation.
The game proper starts with your chopper sat on the back of a frigate and you must head east towards the desert. You navigate the area by using the map / status screen. The map shows your objectives as well as the position of ammo crates, fuel, MIAs, missile and gun emplacements. You can also get a reminder of completed and remaining objectives. The screen additionally displays remaining fuel, weapons and armour, lives left and the number of MIAs you are carrying.
Your gunship is armed with, from least to most powerful, a chain gun with 1,178 rounds of ammunition, 38 Hydra rockets and 8 Hellfire missiles. The weapons can be fired in the general direction of the target with the accuracy determined by your selected co-pilot.
Ammunition supplies can be replenished by collecting ammo crates that are scattered around the play area. The finite amount of fuel you carry can be topped up in the same manner. Fuel and ammo pickups are displayed on the map screen, even those hidden in buildings.
The enemy territory is heavily defended with Rapier surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft guns. Tiny enemy soldiers carry rifles (they also shoot at MIAs) and portable SAMS. There are also mobile VDAs (armoured vehicles carrying AA guns) roaming the map. Every hit reduces the armour on your helicopter – you get a buzzer (Mega Drive) or warning speech (Amiga) when it gets too low. Armour is also depleted if you fly into rock outcrops, high buildings, power lines and other tall structures – the chopper flies at fixed altitude so you can’t fly over them.
Armour can be increased by picking up MIAs that are dispersed around the map and taking them to a dropzone. Six MIAs can be wedged into the Apache at one time. Very rarely armour pickups can be found (usually hidden in buildings). These pickups do not show up on the map.
Once a set of missions has been completed it is back to the frigate for the next level. Your Apache is limited to three ‘lives’ which are replenished after each campaign. You also get a password so there is no need to start from scratch.
|Stormin’ Norman sets out your objectives for the second campaign (Mega Drive)|
|And the further you get the tougher the enemies (Mega Drive)|
There’s a lot to like about Desert Strike whichever version you choose to play. The handling and momentum feel just right as does the camera which always has the helicopter facing into the screen. It would be fun as just a straight shooter but the limited fuel, weapons and armour adds some strategy. An excellent game all round.
Gameplay from the Mega Drive
I had a hard time getting Amiga gameplay to look okay on YouTube but here’s my best effort (it looks better in reality)