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Have You Played... It Came From The Desert!?

The ending's an anty-climax

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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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Richard Cobbett

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