What Cinemaware Understood About Cinema And Games

Cinematic! What a loaded word it’s become. Once the game industry’s marketing buzzword du jour, the descriptor certainly earned its current status as a groanworthy sign that a developer would much rather be doing something else.

With such a disclaimer then, it’s safe to specify why It Came From The Desert, and in fact most games from its developer Cinemaware, had “cinematic” firmly in their sights. But in a good way.

A short-lived, but ambitious and rather prolific studio, Cinemaware released over a dozen games on the Amiga between 1986 and 1991, most of which were ported over to DOS as faithfully as the then-weaker platform allowed. Most were based on films, but on films in general rather than being adaptations of specific releases. While their influences are often obvious, it’s clear that Cinemaware had little interest in recreating singular films or series.

They also suffered none of the insecurity or desperate need for approval that plagued too many studios throughout the 2000s – none of their work attempted to mindlessly copy film (and it’s probably no coincidence that their one official licence, The Three Stooges, was also their most disjointed and strained). Rather than obsess over surface level details and presentation, they took their cues from themes, character tropes, styles of dialogue, and above all, storytelling.

Even their titles fit their genre and setting – their medieval strategies with the grand, even pompous Lords of The Rising Sun and Defender of the Crown, their Prohibition-era gangster tale the succinct The King of Chicago, while the jolly, jingoistic World War One flying ace romp has the cheerfully simple Wings. Finally, It Came From the Desert, a homage to 1950s radioactive monster b-movies, which echoes the tone of the genre and era straight from the title, matching those that emphasised the otherworldliness of their monsters or their origins, like Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and of course, Them!

It Came From The Desert is an adventure about a geologist and recent immigrant to a small desert town in 1950s America, who’s keen to investigate a recent meteorite strike in the area. This quickly becomes a case of proving the existence of, and then stopping, an invasion of giant ants. You achieve your goals by visiting many locations on a map and talking to their inhabitants.

Over time you begin fighting off ant attacks and trying to rescue people rather than merely visiting them, and eventually reveal a strategy layer where you work with local police to co-ordinate defence of the town. The latter part you can ignore entirely, and in fact it’s possible to miss most of the story. As in later non-Cinemaware games like KGB, The Last Express, or Consortium, everything in ICFTD plays out in real time. Events take place whether you’re there to see the results or not.

You can spend the entire time sleeping if you wish, right up until the ants destroy the town. There are conversations and events you’ll certainly miss on your first few attempts, and encounters can play out differently depending on your decisions, or degree of success at minigames. Yeah, there are minigames. That’s the other thing that defined much of the Cinemaware catalogue, but here another disclaimer is needed.

Throughout the 80s and especially the 90s, film licences led to a lot of poorly-conceived games that awkwardly shoehorned the plot or main artifacts of a film into a series of subgames. There’d often be only a tenuous connection between subgame and film, and unlikely explanations left to manuals or the player’s imagination. Many were rushed, and consequently they gained a reputation as cynical cash-ins that was largely deserved, and not really shaken until the early 2000s. This bears mentioning because Cinemaware defied it entirely.

Each story was seemingly built from the ground up with minigames made to fit comfortably, and while they can be tricky, few feel cheap or tacked on. Lords of the Rising Sun has you fielding armies to press your military campaign and fending off ninjas sent by rivals, while The King of Chicago’s mostly optional action scenes are simpler and more direct – “shoot or bomb the wiseguys before they shoot you” pretty much covers it, as you’d expect from gangsters. In the case of ICFTD, the action sequences are much more varied, suiting the general-purpose “adventurous scientist” theme.

Cinemware’s games are more than the sum of these minigames, thematically appropriate though they may be. Each game is equally concerned with the action and the narrative causing the action. Supported by the minor strategic element of balancing your gang’s books, and the randomised attitudes of key characters, it’s possible to take a surprisingly non-violent path in The King of Chicago, instead doing your best to talk or bribe your way to victory, and at least one unhappy ending comes of being too violent.

You can also walk away from some fights in It Came From The Desert, and try to prevent them from reoccurring. The latter features more of a meta-game, too. On a higher level, the key is to plan where you’ll visit in advance, and thus minimise wasted travel time between interviews and gathering evidence, but while screwing up typically costs you a day, it’s a pretty forgiving game overall, and even close to total ruin you still have a chance of pulling things back.

Much like Covert Action, you can’t really die, but injury is common, and anything from a car crash or ant attack to simple exhaustion lands you in the local hospital, where you have the option of escaping via a pretty impressive top-down stealth section. You’ll come to hate the sight of the nurse, and the fanatical determination of the hospital staff to force you to rest all day even if the ants are right outside the building.

The studio’s games with more singular sources of inspiration include Lords of the Rising Sun, a samurai conquest story loosely based on Japanese history (though with fewer crabs), and the very action-oriented Wings, influenced by the 1927 silent film of the same name. Again, both took cues from tone and story patterns of their respective film genres and built a game inspired by them, rather than slavishly copying or forcing exact details into a medium with completely different pacing, structure, and of course, degree of interactivity.

Fundamentally, it’s that latter point that defines the difference between the Cinemaware catalogue and the majority of games touted as “cinematic”. Though you have obvious goals and the measure of your success at achieving them dictates the tone of whatever ending you reach, the game is narrator, and the player is the protagonist. You are the agent navigating the plot, not a mere participant learning to jump through the writer’s preferred hoops in service of their creative vision.

ICFTD showcases this concept at its peak – rather than punishing deviation from the path with instant death, even the most obviously deadly screw-up is treated as another story beat to work with. Losing outright is entertaining in the best of these games. Some of King of Chicago’s endings offer options right up to the death, simply to make things more interesting. You’re still in character even when strapped into the electric chair, and can still play out your part a little differently. Can you win the game? Hell no, but this is all part of the story, all part of the show. Losing is fun.

There are many possible ways to screw up but still be entertained, and the game spins a decent yarn out of most (you don’t see many games where your death makes your poor mother cry and wish you’d been a baker like your old man). Some endings act as hints as well, and it’s a particularly nice touch that you can only be arrested by the one honest cop in town (evidently a childhood friend of the player character, because that trope is still in use even today), who makes a point of saying that the people you bought off on the cheap tried to stop him… but not very hard.

This element was present from Defender of the Realm, their first release, primitive strategy fare which nonetheless had some light adventure/action elements, and where failure results in not your death but text describing your escape from your conquerers, a reunion with Robin Hood, and a vow to one day liberate the kingdom. It’s a small thing but in keeping with the core of film – telling a good story – and with the spirit of historical epics like Spartacus and El Cid, where the hero doesn’t have to win, and the audience don’t even have to see the end of events.

ICFTD, meanwhile, is arguably a much more interesting game if you fail at it a little. The absurdly skeptical townsfolk suddenly realising the truth marks a point where you feel the ominous threat at your door, and as things go downhill their willingness to hand control over to you feels less like vindication and more like the beginning of the end. Fail to get a handle on things in time – and don’t feel bad, because you’re certainly not belittled for it – and the besieged townsfolk will make their desperate last stand. After that, a short but pitch perfect Is This The End Of Mankind ending, somewhere between cheesy American melodrama and Wyndhamesque speculation, burns off any doubt that Cinemaware knew exactly what they were doing.

At a time when the games industry is borrowing heavily from its own long-neglected past, it might be in Cinemaware’s catalogue that the key lessons film has to offer are unearthed. Recent years have already seen games like 80 Days, Life Is Strange, and Kentucky Route Zero meet with success by focusing on the interplay of narrative, setting and character, a point where both media can meet, and which games are uniquely able to explore through interaction. It’s taking control of that point and placing the player firmly there that counts. Cinemaware, and It Came From The Desert in particular, understood that, and as a result are well worth studying even 30 years on.

It Came From The Desert, and most of Cinemaware’s catalogue, are available to buy on Steam. A remastered version of Wings is available on Steam and GOG.

33 Comments

  1. Mud says:

    Good ol’ times, still remember Rocket Ranger.
    It always crashed at the same point, I never finished that game.

  2. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Wow. Defender of The Crown.

    Many a happy afternoon after school spent at my mate’s house playing it. I remember being distinctly annoyed that he could never stop picking his nose as we shared the same mouse or joystick.

    Of course, I curbed my tongue. A small price to pay for access to all those wonderful Amiga games!

    • Premium User Badge

      ErraticGamer says:

      Yes yes yes. I played DotC on the NES, so I missed out on some of it I guess, but I loved that game so much.

    • PostieDoc says:

      Ah, the Commodore Amiga. What a truly glorious machine it was, and still is.

      • FurryLippedSquid says:

        I would go home to my 128K +2 and weep, audibly.

        Don’t get me wrong, I loved my parents fiercely for providing me with that Speccy, but there was always a pang of jealousy.

  3. zxcasdqwecat says:

    Yep bookmarking this.

  4. Sandepande says:

    ICFTD is the raddest thing ever. Superbly deeply atmospheric, doomsday music, weird cults, stiletto fights, and the sense that stuff is going on. Played it through many times, and shamefully too often following a similar route, partially because I hadn’t figured out that there was stuff to be seen outside that well-rehearsed path…

    Wings was another lovely thing. Repetitive, but in a perfectly appropriate way. And again the music was spot-on.

    • frenchy2k1 says:

      I can only recommend the new, remade Wings for PC then.
      They’ve touched it up just the right way, so that it will look and feel just as you remember it (meaning both sounds and graphics have been significantly improved, while the gameplay stays mostly the same).

      • Titler says:

        Disagree; Loved the original Wings, but the remake is severely broken and isn’t likely to fixed now as the Devs seem to have given up. Current issues are that you can’t machine gun troops in trenches (outright game breaking as if you fail too many of those missions the game ends), number of enemies and even mission types don’t match the description types (frustrating, but can be worked through), friendly AI will shoot through you at targets and shoot you down (irritating), achievements aren’t fully working (minor annoyance) the atmosphere is ruined by odd design choices (the intro loses dramatic tension due to a loading screen in the wrong place, and why was it needed at all? Allowed player names are shorter than the original) … And it’s still hideously expensive to boot.

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          Hm, where exactly do you have to get to before you see these bugs? I’m up to the bit where you get your first mission up against 5 planes by yourself (I ditch) and I haven’t seen any of them. Trench strafing is definitely hard but it seems to work the same as it did on the Amiga.

  5. slerbal says:

    Lovely games, lovely article :)

  6. GameCat says:

    Didn’t played It Came From The Desert but I’ve read once very good article about it (sadly, it’s in Polish language, sorry folks) and it’s certainly a rare gem.
    I mean, in which game you must convince the mayor to call the national guards because huge ass ants are romaing near his town and you can totally fail to do that and the game will just shrug and say “too bad for you, player”?

  7. geldonyetich says:

    It’s kind of sad looking at YouTubers trying to do playthroughs of Cinemaware games and panning them as awful. I think it’s because they’re not able to really enjoy the games on the Amiga, and I have yet to see a good port job of a Cinemaware game.

    • BarneyL says:

      I believe the GoG versions available are emulated copies of the Amiga versions.

    • Mr_Blastman says:

      The Atari ST versions tended to be awesome–especially Defender of the Crown. The Amiga version of it was gimped but the ST one is hard–harder than even the DOS version–which itself was better than the Amiga despite the crusty graphics.

  8. Asurmen says:

    Man, It Came From The Desert. That music and atmosphere. Wings and Lords Of Rising Sun. Don’t think I ever successfully assaulted a castle in Lords, and Wings was first flying game I can remember playing.

  9. Muzman says:

    It Came From The Desert still has a mood that I don’t think I’ve ever seen replicated. It really blew my tiny mind when I realised you could do the various story/arcade bits in almost any order and it held together. Or heck, just grab a car and drive out to the crater any time you like. After you’ve played it once you know the ants are coming, so why not? Startlingly for the time the game lets you. And you just bring about the doom quicker.
    Then you become like some Cassandra in Groundhog Day, cursed with the knowledge of the future and trying to stop it. But that jackass greaser at the drive-in still wants to get into a knife fight! Doesn’t he understand you don’t have time for this crap?!

    The game seemed to carry this ‘part unfolding mystery, part cheerful repetition’ really well at the time (it’s probably a bit ham handed now. I don’t know).

    In any case, with all of our freeform emergent narrative’s and living breathing worlds who has actually had the gonads to do this stuff since then? Pretty much no one I can think of.
    You could maybe point to some aspects of Hitman games and MGS-Ground Zeroes as experiments in repeating scenarios with free-form approach and multiple solutions. But it’s not terribly many. And, crucially, no giant bug invasion on a whole town.

  10. theapeofnaples says:

    Great article.

    I used to love the hosiptal escape sections in ICFTD when I were a nipper.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      Me too! I must have been like 8 years old or something when my dad first let me play this, and I very vividly remember the hospital escape sequence. Good times.

  11. Kefren says:

    It Came From The Desert – I played it again and again on the Amiga. A lovely game. (The add-on, Ant Heads, mixed it up a bit). Music, freedom, atmosphere, fun. I must load it up again in my Amiga emulator!

    It also had elements of Killed Until Dead (C64), expanded massively.

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    Lars Westergren says:

    How I loved Cinemaware’s games back in the C64/Amiga era. Great article, summed up why.

    Worth noting that much of the original studio has reformed and have tried to Kickstart remakes. Wings turned out ok. Rocker Ranger Reloaded which I was looking forward to even more met their KS goals, but a while later they took a long hard look at their finances and realized they couldn’t do the game they wanted so they refunded all the backers.
    link to kickstarter.com

  13. Stellar Duck says:

    I know that this is not really cinematic games, but damn, I played a lot of TV Sports Football back in the day.

    ICFTD and Defender of the Crown still are among my favourite gaming memories. Cinemaware were brilliant.

    Thanks for writing this piece! It was a nice warm nostalgia on a dreary Monday.

    Also, at one point in the piece it says Defender of the Realm instead of Crown. I looked it up. It wasn’t a forgotten sequel. :(

    • Cederic says:

      Jousting in Defender of the Crown was always my nemesis and killed many a promising kingdom, but TV Sports Football remains a game I still want to play.

      It hit beautifully that balance between simulation and playability, where you had to make decisions that determined success, had a role in the subsequent execution of those decisions but didn’t have to cope with an arcane control system to do so.

      Modern sports games need to relearn the joys of simple interfaces – it’s not a coincidence that Rocket League is popular.

  14. Prinzmegahertz says:

    There were a few companies back in the day that made extraordinary games. Other excellent companies were the Bitmap Brothers (I loved Xenon 2) and Factor 5 (Turrican). Great times indeed.
    Anyway, I did not speak english back then so I couldn’t get into ICFTD, but I loved wings. Such intense dogfights and great music in between missions.

  15. rocketman71 says:

    What?. No mention of SDI?.

    link to mobygames.com

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Cinemaware’s SDI was one of those games I didn’t play because (like Psygnosis’ Barbarian) I had a thing against games with the same name as a game I already liked and the Activision port of the Sega arcade game called S.D.I was one of my favourite shoot-em-ups on the ST.

  16. Flea says:

    Cinemaware basically made Amiga famous, they made some of the best games ever created on that platform. I can still remember the first time I saw the intro of TV Sports Basketball. My jaw dropped and I fell in love with Amiga…

  17. GameOverMan says:

    I played most of their games and loved them all. It Came From The Desert oozes atmosphere. The first time I saw screenshots from Defender of the Crown I thought they were amazing (coming from a C64). You could say I came for the graphics (and sound, Wings’ music was superb) but I stayed for the gameplay and, as it’s said in the article, the “cinematic” experience.

  18. celticdr says:

    Loved the old Cinemaware games – Wings being my favourite and the only one I ever mastered.

    ICFTD was hilarious, a perfect mash-up of B-movie Sci-Fi and humour… the sequel “Antheads” was even funnier – don’t forget to shoot their antennae!

    They really could remake most of their back catalog without making changes to the gameplay and they would be best sellers today.

  19. thinginathing says:

    Cinemaware, Bitmap Brothers, Psygnosis. Man, that was it back in the day. I wish I still had my Amiga.

  20. Grimmtooth says:

    CW’s “Three Stooges” game was one of the games that sold me on the Amiga back when my C64 gave up its ghost. It was also featured in one of the Lethal Weapon movies (only I think that was the PC version, it looked pretty crappy). How many games involve you in a pie-throwing contest?

    link to en.wikipedia.org

  21. Space Odin says:

    I have to give a shout out to the Amiga version of Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon. You want conversation trees? You got conversation trees.

  22. Kohlrabi says:

    The Cinemaware Anthology still has outstanding bugs (wrong emulation speed in some games, no ability to save your game for others), so I’d recommend emulating these games in WinUAE directly. Of course you’d need legal access to kickstart ROMs and the games themselves. :)