Have You Played… Scorched Earth?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Before there was Worms, there was Scorched Earth. (And before there was Scorched Earth, there was Gorillas, but that’s another story). A networked or hot-seat game of turn-based tank warfare, and for many nerds of my generation, it was one of the most startling, deliciously destructive statements of games’ potential that we’d ever seen.

Every player controls a tank, with the option to have the AI fill in. That tank carries a selection of explosives chosen from an a la carte menu before the match begins, and attempts to be the last tank standing. The power/angle/wind speed systems seen in a great many imitators, including the infinitely sillier Worms, makes this in some respects a deadly game of snooker. Pool with nukes. Bar billiards with MIRVS. Players with the strongest grasp of physics tended to win, which made it a fascinating as a school lunchtime prospect – the usually all-conquering sports set were on a back foot to the maths and science set.

But everyone played anyway, because the terrain destruction was delightful, and because getting to choose your bombs at the start felt like high-stakes gambling. At a time when games were most visibly about Mario and Sonic’s cutesy, formulaic jump’n’fail structures, Scorched Earth rocked up, apparently with effortlessly, with all these big ideas and player-driven drama, doing perhaps more than any other game has to state “This Is PC Gaming.”

83 Comments

  1. PieBaron says:

    I still play a clone called Pocket Tanks, on certain nights :-)

    • keithzg says:

      There was a very faithful remake called XScorch that I’ve played from time to time; it hasn’t been updated since 2011 but of course the mechanics of this sort of game kindof don’t need to be.

  2. Premium User Badge

    sharkwald says:

    Crikey that takes me back. I found myself remembering MIRVs the other day. What did that even stand for?

    • Xan says:

      It’s a real acronym, short for Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicle. In layman’s terms, several separating warheads in a single shot.

      • KDR_11k says:

        And “Reentry” because MIRV is for ICBMs (which reach space during their flight). AFAIK it was invented because nuclear disarmament treaties specified a maximum number of missiles so they just stuffed more warheads into each missile to get the same result.

  3. Zankman says:

    I assume most people played Pocket Tanks (Deluxe) instead.

    Personally, aside from that, I’ve played Scorched Earth 3D.

    • aoanla says:

      I always found Scorched Earth 3d a little less fun – the extra degree of freedom makes aiming harder enough that it detracts a little from the experience (too much time spent determine the range and bearing).

      • Bugamn says:

        I still prefer the original, but one way that I found to enjoy Scorched 3D is to fill the map with enemies and turn on the mods with crazy weapons so it gets easier to hit something. And never turn on changing wind.

  4. acheron says:

    If there’s anyone here who hasn’t played Scorched Earth I want them caught and shot now. It’s called the “mother of all games” for a reason.

    • Buzko says:

      @acheron – or, y’know given the opportunity to play this fun game?

    • RogueNineCH says:

      This takes me back, I remember playing this and Centurion Defender of Rome constantly! I still remember getting excited at seeing part of Cleopatra’s nipple at the end!

      • RogueNineCH says:

        I forgot to add that my favorite weapon in scorched was the funky bomb! Few things more infuriating in that game, than getting your opponent and yourself in one shot!

  5. kretsdaddy says:

    I played this game on my old x286 until my eyes bled. I remember printing out the entire help.txt file, and going through a ream of paper and an ink ribbon. My parents weren’t happy about that at all.

  6. Imbecile says:

    Ironically I played this on the Amiga. It was great!

    • aoanla says:

      Scorched Earth, or superior clone Scorched Tanks? (Tanks had more shield types and a few additional “weird” shell types, as far as I remember – I don’t recall if Earth had all the “flowing” shells that deployed pools of liquid nitrogen, lava or “bouncy” plastic.)

      • Replikant says:

        It did have burning liquids, napalm, I believe.

        • Jonfon says:

          Always fun to gently drop a napalm onto a bouncy shield where it would dribble into the shield and produce the Goldfish Bowl of Death effect.

          • Replikant says:

            Oh, wow, it is all coming back to me now. I just had this flashback vision of a blinking tank, accompanied by that high-pitched sound which meant that I just lost. Again.

      • Darloth says:

        I loved Scorched Tanks, primarily because of the variety of interesting shield interactions. I was rather disappointed to learn they had entirely gone in Pocket Tanks.

    • harley9699 says:

      Me too! It was this, Perfect General, and Tom Landry’s Pro Football.

    • GomezTheChimp says:

      I thought Artillerus II was the best game of it`s type for the Amiga.

  7. chuckieegg says:

    I’d been playing this game with just a text interface since the days of my Spectrum, but this was the first time I’d seen it multiplayer. It was great fun on the schools one and only 286.

    Does PC gaming go back much before this? Startrek? Hunt The Wumpus?

    • Premium User Badge

      daktaklakpak says:

      There was quite a lot of PC gaming before 1991, when Scorched Earth was released.

  8. Dominare says:

    I remember there was one type of shell you could buy that, instead of doing damage, would explode into a giant pile of new terrain. I always enjoyed infuriating opponents by entombing them in a brand new mountain.

    • Baines says:

      The Dirtball, I believe? There was also a digger shot.

    • Snids says:

      Forcing them to waste a turn injuring themselves ready for you to follow up with a piledriver. HAhAHAHAHhahaAA

    • KDR_11k says:

      The clone version I played had different sizes of dirtballs, the biggest of which could cover 3-4 players in a 10 player game.

      • Chuckaluphagus says:

        No, that was a later release of the real Scorched Earth. It saw a number of versions over the period of a few years, and one of them added varying sizes of dirt bombs to drop on your opponents.

        • Jackablade says:

          Dirt clod, dirt ball and the griefing power of the ton of dirt. There was also a liquid dirt weapon which I don’t think I ever found a particular use for.

          • keithzg says:

            I seem to remember there were times when liquid dirt was precisely what was needed, but frankly I can’t quite remember why. Something about the way it flowed just like the napalm flowed, I think.

          • trivianinja says:

            Liquid Dirt rolled downhill, so if your opponent was at the bottom of a hard to reach valley, you could just tag the slope and it would flow downwards to fill.

  9. dysomniak says:

    This game is up there with Moria and Civ as one of my most played games of childhood. So many lunch hours blowing up my friends.

  10. Shadow says:

    Scorched Earth was one of the first games I ever played, when I was 4 or 5. Not sure if the version I played had this many colours and more than one weapon, though. Can’t recall. It’s been a quarter of a century, after all.

  11. Ben King says:

    I would play this or a very similar clone with Drafting classmates in High School as it was one of the only classrooms with computers, and the teachers were a joke and cared nothing about actually teaching us drafting. What impressed me about this game is that it was teaching elaborate geometry and physics through trail and error- tank position, angle, power, wind… eventually an experienced classmate could look a at that set of numbers and dial in some attributes with their shot and nail another player on the first hit without any kind of pen and paper calculation. The players we REALLY feared were the ones who would only buy low and mid-level payloads, and kill you with that in one or two hits. the lesser the bomb that killed you the more impressive your opponent’s skills and the greater the humiliation- if you needed a nuke you were either incompetent or got screwed into a bad position that required some terrain adjustment.

  12. rommel102 says:

    Turn the damage settings to Maximum and a single Nuke would obliterate nearly the entire level. So much fun.

    Funky Bomb random kills were probably my favorite though. Nothing better than firing that thing only to have the last explosion nail yourself. Whoops.

  13. echopark says:

    Ah man, such a great game. I played this a few years ago on the Amiga with the kid. Homing missiles wrecked that game lol

  14. LexW1 says:

    Have I played Scorched Earth?

    Seems like there was about a year in my teens when I didn’t play much BUT Scorched Earth. That game was the best, and virtually all the clones of it, with the exception of one or two versions of Worms, were and remain wildy inferior.

    Funky Bombs, Moles and Napalm were the best.

  15. LieutLaww says:

    Also played this on the Amiga

  16. Infinitron says:

    This is the end, my only friend.

    From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!

    Zonk!

    • Blackrook says:

      Opps I still quote
      “This is my end, my only friend ”
      and
      “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!”
      at inappropriate moments.

      Must of been stuck in my head after playing this too much.
      I always though that the hells heart one was in from Star Trek Wrath of Khan, but checking its really from Moby Dick.

      • udat says:

        It is in Star Trek II also – but Khan is quoting Moby Dick. You can see the book in his crappy shelter, along with some Shakespeare.

    • khamul says:

      In times of trouble, you go with what you know

  17. ansionnach says:

    Never played Scorched Earth but used to play Gorillas a lot. It came with QBasic for MS-DOS 5.0, so would have been released around June 1991. Scorched Earth was supposedly released in the same year. Seems artillery games have been around for yonks, though (mid-1970s). An Apple II game called Artillery was released in 1980, a year before IBM PCs came into being.

    • El Mariachi says:

      They’ve probably been around much longer than that even, although they might not have been considered “games.” Artillery computers have been around since at least WW2, and they must have had to practice.

      • ansionnach says:

        Yeah, you’re right. One of the earliest computer applications was to calculate the trajectory of artillery. Funny that the wargames came before the war games, but then they had the money so were the earliest early adopter (as was often the case).

        • rmsgrey says:

          Some years ago, I encountered a much older device – an oscilloscope with some attached analogue circuitry and a picture of a golfing green pasted over the bottom of the screen, the goal being to set the circuit up so the waveform it output represented a hole in one…

  18. Sinky says:

    I played this a bit on the Amiga, but I played the simpler TANX a lot more.

    “Ooh, now he can’t be too happy with that one…”

    • theapeofnaples says:

      Oh wow, TANX… many a 90s afternoon spent playing that on the Amiga.

      *evaporates into mist of pure nostalgia*

  19. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I think I played this mostly against AI, though I do remember a handfull of hotseat matches against friends.

  20. Baranor says:

    Ohhhh yes I have. And a game we called ‘bomb’. I should still have the disks somewhere.. broken and all.

    So. Much. Fun. So. Much. Fuuuhuuuun.

    • Baranor says:

      Oeh. Tank wars that was. Man we did that every friday. I do recall loads of ‘no no NOT A NUKE YOU ..ARGH!’

  21. RuySan says:

    How could i have not played “the mother of all games”?

  22. Replikant says:

    Oh yes. Early multiplayer goodness, I spent way too much time with friends hurling MIRV, dirtbombs and napalm all over the place.

    On a side note, I even put a “Gorilla” reference into the “thanks and acknowledgements” section of my thesis. Quote: “Thanks to Khalid for many thoughtful discussions and some serious banana throwing”.

  23. King_Rocket says:

    Four young lads all crammed up to the keyboard playing this into the wee hours, those were the days.

    You could edit the taunts the game used, we made ours filthy and highly personalized.

    • udat says:

      At university my housemates and I played the hell out of this (this, Micromachines 2 and Star Control 2 were our favourite games) and I think we spent almost as much time editing the quotes file as we did playing the game.

  24. Gap Gen says:

    I remember that this ran so fast on the computer I had as a teen that it’d take two or three turns per button press. The only computers slow enough to play it as intended were the old maths department computers, which we managed to sneak in to play once or twice.

  25. Inu says:

    Think i played a demo with my brother a million times.

  26. termit says:

    You whippersnappers and your modern games… the mother game is the Super Artillery on the Apple 2, not this 16 bit fancy-pancy program!
    History lesson over, I did play the hell out of SE. However, I am 50/50 on liking the random stuff like the Funky Bomb – it is fun, but not exactly high on the skill list. Nothing beats hitting the enemy’s fort with a single pixel big projectile dead center with minimal zero-in time and exact calculation of angle/power/wind speed

  27. Spluff says:

    This game was my childhood. I remember we had an unwritten rule forbidding the use of the more excessive weapons. I distinctly remember my older brother walking out of the room when I bought a Death’s Head.

  28. znomorph says:

    Yes! We’d play this and The Incredible Machine in Physics class because our teacher didn’t like to actually teach. My first programming project in college was a remake of this, and now I’m a game developer :).

    I’ll leave this right here: link to scorch2000.com

    • znomorph says:

      hmm, seems I can’t run the game here at work :(. Oh well, great memories!

  29. KDR_11k says:

    I think overall I spent more time with DESTRUCT.

  30. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    Top 1 List of Two Games to bring if allowed to bring two games when stranded on an isolated island with three other people for the Rest of Time and your Hatch is equipped with exactly:
    1 x (one) Commodore Amiga 500.
    1 x (one) Wico Command Control Bat Handle Joystick.
    1 x (one) PAL/NTSC RGB Compliant Television Set with IEC 61169-2 radio-frequency coaxial connector of type 9,52.
    1 x (one) Set of Requisite Cabling, Commodore Amiga 500 230V Power Supply and A520 RF Video Adapter.
    2 x (two) Powered, 230V@50Hz Schuko Socket.

    Spot 1/1: Scorched Tanks and Hero Quest.

  31. damnsalvation says:

    Classic! A true and undying classic.
    My best friend and I spent countless hours blowing eachother up on my 286.
    My favorite tactic was to bury the AI tanks, which had a habit of using heavy ordinance point blank. And undermining my buddy with those digger shots.

  32. Chuckaluphagus says:

    I played this game regularly with my brothers and friends for all of my teenage years. We all got good enough that the only way to play was with 10 tanks, cyborg AI on all the computer players, a “No Nukes” rule, and random weather and wall conditions.

    Favorite weapon will always be the funky bomb.

  33. Toupee says:

    Oh god, not only my first PC game, but my first PC EXPERIENCE, when dad brought home the PC in the early 90s. I was just telling him on Thanksgiving we should figure out how to boot this gem up and play again. So many fond memories.

    The Death’s Head!!

    The FORCE shield!!

  34. icarussc says:

    Nothing like napalming a shielded tank and watching his shield erode under the strike. Best ever!

  35. Jackablade says:

    The very first game I ever modded.

    We discovered that the tank quips for shooting and dying were all contained in unencrypted text files and would spend ages modifying them and then sharing them amongst school mates.

  36. Zeroebbasta says:

    So that’s how it was called! A long time ago I played this thing on a Mac with my dad, but I remind it being far too complex for the mind of a 4-years-old. I always thought it was a random game, not such a piece of history.

  37. NephilimNexus says:

    The first game to ever weaponize math.

  38. willy359 says:

    I once totally derailed a party my roommates were throwing by drawing all the guests, one by one, into my room to play Scorched Earth on my grey-scale 386 laptop. That game has mass. It bends passing bodies into its orbit.

    Yes, I was in my room playing video games while a party was going on outside the door. I trust I am among my own kind here, or I would not admit this so readily.

  39. BuggerBugger says:

    Oh, RPS.

    Recommends a game but doesn’t actually link to the game it’s recommending.

  40. Whelp says:

    Scorched Earth! We played the shit out of that when we were kids, good memories. Nothing like blowing up your friends’ tanks with a Death’s Head :D

  41. nigelvibations says:

    The original is alive and well at link to archive.org

  42. benkc says:

    There was one summer with soooo much of this hotseat 4-player.

    When we felt like a break from actually competing, we’d put in maximum AI players, and give unlimited super mags (shields that repulsed incoming projectiles) and MIRVs. Fire at a low angle, watch the projectiles skip along avoiding the shields, until finally each one came in at too direct an angle and exploded.

  43. Potocobe says:

    One night at the end of a party my friend suggests we get a game of scorched earth going to wind down the evening. Was probably 3 or 4 in the morning. 6 people plus random bots began. Slowly but surely all our other friends passed out from what I assumed was drunken boredom. Me and my friend whose home we were partying at kept going. We began to drink a secret stash of homemade beer. At some point we manage to get ourselves killed by what appeared to be moron AI tanks. Then we watch, fascinated, and drunk, as those last two remaining moron tanks just miss and miss and miss. Color trails from their shots and just streaking all over the screen. This was a version of the game that would speed up when it was only AI left in a game. The two tanks continued to miss. We finished the homebrew. Still they were going at it. We both passed out. When I awoke the next day they were STILL firing at and never quite hitting each other. Decided to let it run all day and when we returned that night one of them had been victorious and it was our turn to purchase weapons again. Neither of us has played it since.

    For those interested, the last I heard there was a flash or java version of the original game by the original author set up to do open match multiplayer on the internet with friends or random strangers. A google search should find it for you.

    Pocket tanks is also good for those moments when you have nothing to talk about while you wait for someone to bring you your food at a restaurant.

  44. keithzg says:

    Played this a lot in Junior High and High School. In fact, in High School I even ended up in the hospital due to it!

    A bunch of us shared a spare period, and we had a computer and monitor to run it with, but nowhere to put it in our highschool (we set it up in the back of a classroom with an amenable teacher for the sake of lunch hour, but he understandably didn’t want us whooping it up in the back of the classroom while he taught Biology during 3rd period). So we decided to try and put the computer and monitor in a spare locker we had snagged. Unfortunately, despite how crappy and tiny the monitor we were using was, it didn’t quite fit in the locker. But if we took off the plastic casing . . .

    Well, you can probably see where this is going. In our defense, we did too! We had all sorts of plans for testing if the bank of lockers were electrified or such, and plans on adding insulation to prevent this, but it never quite got to that point because someone (nobody has ever quite owned up to this) turned it in while I was fiddling with it, trying to get it to run again which it had ceased to do at some point during the disassembly. And so I found myself with all of my muscles suddenly taut and otherwise unable to move, until one of my friends realized what was happening and dove for the wall socket. I stood up, swore a shitton, punched a locker, swore a lot more, noticed that I could see bone where the fleshiest part of my thumb used to be, swore a hell of a lot more, and walked down to the office.

    There’s more to the story, including complete idiocy on the part of both office staff and doctors (I spent a rather aggravating time in the hospital trying to get them to bandage up my goddamn thumb already, which they wouldn’t do because they didn’t understand how I had managed to burn myself on wall current, apparently completely oblivious both to how CRTs work and to my explanations of the nature of capacitors—man, doctors are a dumb group of people, especially for how intelligent they’re rotely trained to believe they are). Point is that every time I look at or feel the rather large scar on my left thumb I think to myself . . . yeah, that was worth it. What a fucking awesome multiplayer game.

  45. bill says:

    Yes! Awesome game.
    I spent half of secondary school playing this against friends and neighbours.

    It never gets mentioned in all the Best PC Games Ever articles.