Have You Played… It Came From The Desert!?

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

Cinemaware made interactive movies long before that should even have been possible. It Came From The Desert was first released in 1989, and you’d better believe it turned heads. I remember reading the magazines of the time and it felt like just about every company that sold games tried to squeeze in picture of one of those giant ants intimidating this small American town. Surely that alone filled up the disks?

You’d think. But no. It Came From The Desert was movie magic and I mean magic.

I didn’t get to play it until a few years later, but even then was blown away by just how much Cinemaware accomplished. I wasn’t a fan of their earlier stuff, considering Defender Of The Crown in particular to be appalling, but It Came From The Desert was something else. Strategy! Adventure! Escalation! While technically a series of minigames, all of them simple, Cinemaware really made them more than the sum of their parts. You spend much of the game fighting just to convince the rest of the town that the giant ants exist, and that alone is pretty cool. Going out to the various sites. Trying to take them out by shooting their antennae. Avoiding the local greaser gang. It’s impossible to die, but being injured means losing time, and the clock is always ticking. If the town isn’t ready when the real attack starts, with the National Guard on hand to help fight, all you can do is try to limit the damage until the inevitable happens.

The PC version looks dreadful compared to the Amiga original, and that’s a real shame. For 1990 though, it’s still quite a looker, with no expense spared on character art and incidental animation and locations full of weird and wacky characters who occasionally help but mostly just get in the way. It absolutely nails that B-Movie feel of being the one sane person aware of the incoming threat, as well as making the ants both a campy threat straight from the Bert I. Gordon playbook and surprisingly creepy in their own right. Case in point, if you don’t manage to shoot out the antennae in time-

Gah! And it’d be even scarier if it wasn’t so badly dithered.

But still, I consider this one Cinemaware’s masterpiece. Where others never got past just being mini-games (Rocket Ranger, looking at you), It Came From The Desert felt like both a real game, and a glimpse of the future. Even now, the design would likely hold up, with a few tweaks here and there and maybe a few more mini-games thrown in to break the action up a bit. At the very least, it couldn’t be a worse modernisation than the truly bizarre Turbografx version, which kept the concept but threw everything else out. Starting with sanity. Pretend that didn’t happen, but remember this one – a pattern for interactive movies it’s a genuine shame didn’t catch on more than it did.

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30 Comments

  1. Wilf says:

    Classic game, good choice. The audio was also dreadful compared to the Amiga verison

    • waltC says:

      Yes…WinUAE is so easy to use (works perfectly in Win10x64) you are much better off playing the original Amiga games (which are all generally obtainable.) There is nothing quite so horrible as IBM CGA graphics paired with MS-DOS “whistling speaker beeps” for sound and music…! If your eyes don’t revolt your ears surely will. Get the Amiga versions.

    • Sin Vega says:

      The audio was also dreadful compared to the Amiga verison

      This is automatically true of all games.

  2. CartonofMilk says:

    i feel this should have mentioned the game was heavily inspired by 1954 B movie Them!. I got a chance to see it a few months ago on TCM.

    I always preferred the Space Quest 4 parody which could be found in the bargain bin at the Electronics store in the space mall, It Came For The Dessert! Ok well that one couldn’t be played, but that game should have been made.

    • Grim Rainbow says:

      I started watching,’Them’ a few years ago just to laugh at it and ended up wrapped up in it and really enjoying it. I never knew about that King’s Quest 4 reference, that’s awesome. I remember this game only from the Amiga and remember hunting for it via non internet means on and off for the pc (my system), till the early 2000’s where, ‘something more important than hunting for a pc version of It Came from the Desert, must of happened. I’M PROUD TO BE AN ANT HEAD!

  3. Kohlrabi says:

    For the love of $deity, please exchange these screenshots for AMIGA ones.

  4. machstem says:

    I didn’t know the Amiga version so my bias on this game relies on the PC, and let me tell you that this defined what a game could be, its awesome not being limited by a point and click adventure such as the Lucasarts masterpieces and other games in that era.

    I have fond memories of playing and replaying just so I could get to the hospital and escape (that minigame blew my mind) and make bombing and strafe runs by ordering in (limited) air strikes.

    I recently downloaded the SCUMM variant to get my hands on it playing on my retropie, but I think I may not have to give the Amiga version a run.

    • machstem says:

      ..I may have to give the Amiga version a run

      • Wilf says:

        As waltC suggests, install WinUAE, google a copy of the Amiga version and fire away. The difference is night and day

  5. Asurmen says:

    I found the music for the game so evocative. Among with the graphics, it showed what you can do with limited hardware.

  6. exioce says:

    Someone smarter than me please explain why it’s so difficult to take these old classics and simply swap out the old graphics images for new and improved ones.

    • Kabukiman74 says:

      Well, can’t really say anything about game programming but from my experience with other software I know that many programmers used to hard-code stuff (and sometimes still do) requiring extensive rewrites on changes.
      Eg. I had one important program at work which had a specific type of printer (HP LJ 2200) programmed into the code. Since the program printed directly on the parallel port, we had quite a problem when that type of printer went out of production. After struggling for about 2 years to get printers, management level finally gave in to arguments and greenlit a new software since rewriting the old one would’ve been even more expensive.

      I bet it’s the same with old games – since usually you won’t get hold of the programmers responsible you first have to go forensic on the old code (if you can get hold of the sources). IMO it’ll usually be easier to grab the rights and start from scratch.

    • daneel says:

      Updated versions of Wings and Rocket Ranger were Kickstartered.

      I liked Wings, sounds like Rocket Ranger never happened, though, and there seems to have been a problem with rewards.

      Status updates on the RR Kickstarter suggest that the Cinemaware rights have been sold on again, to someone who wants to make “VR-Experiences” based on them.

      link to starbreeze.com

  7. Lumière says:

    There’s a Fallout 3 mission that, I may be wrong, is heavilly based on this game/B movie.

    • PostieDoc says:

      The giant ants are near where you leave the vault. I made the mistake of not going to Megaton first and ran into them while armed with a bb gun, baton and pistol.
      I didn’t last long.

    • Nick says:

      Its probably based on the movie Them! (link to imdb.com) a truely excellent sci fi B-movie that (most likely) birthed the likes of Aliens.

      Honestly it holds up very well to this day, like many great movies of the 40s and 50s: See also White Heat and The Big Sleep.. obviously there are many more but those are ones I have actually seen and enjoyed despite my reservations over their age. I hear Citizen Kane is quite good too >_>

    • Konservenknilch says:

      Ha, I’m actually replaying Fallout 3 right now (wanted to finally check out the DLCs). The quest is called “Those!”. Classic mad scientist stuff, where he wanted to reduce the giant ants in size but instead caused them to breathe fire (oops).

    • April March says:

      I remember reading on the fallout wiki that that quest was very buggy, followed by “no pun intended”.

      That was more memorable, to me, than actually playing through the quest.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    One of my favorite games ever. Also made me love 50s b-movie horror.

  9. geldonyetich says:

    Cinemaware gets a bum rap as a creator of shovelware thanks to the repeated abysmal let down of bad port job after bad port job.

    For the love of cinema, YouTubers, do the Amiga version or none at all.

  10. Konservenknilch says:

    That TurboGrafx version looks epically bizarre though. Love it.

    • Konservenknilch says:

      Proof: link to youtu.be
      Probably the most nutso thing I’ve seen in a game so far. And I’m a huge fan of weird PC games. Hell, I still miss Cryo (now there’s stuff for an article).

      • Grim Rainbow says:

        I just found out about an unreleased Genesis version too but suck at links.

  11. Player1 says:

    I played this on the Amiga, fortunately, and was blown away. It was such a tense game. Thanks for bringing this up! Will try to replay it on an emulator.

  12. GameOverMan says:

    I endured lots of disk swapping in order to play this game on an Amiga 500. It was worth it.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    If you missed it at the time you should also read wot Sin wrote about the game earlier this year.

    As for the game itself, it’s definitely Cinemaware’s masterpiece and I wish more games were influenced by it. One of my all-time favourites and well overdue for a replay.

  14. piphil says:

    I never played the original game. But the way of getting the secret It Came From Red Alert campaign, part of the Aftermath expansion, still stays with me. :-)

  15. Robmonster says:

    I still remember that opening monologue

    The desert. Unchanged for millions of years. Yet witness to a biblical prophecy come true that one day, the meek shall inherit the Earth!

  16. Robmonster says:

    Not sure if anyone is still reading this, but the CinemaWare Anthology is on sale at Steam today for £1.19

    link to store.steampowered.com

    Apparently if you throw the main executable at WinRar you can extract the Amiga disk images to emulate in WinUAE , or just use CinemareWares own emulation.