While I was recently poking around in retroland looking for old DMA Design stuff, I stumbled across what is pretty old news: ancient DMA, now Rockstar, games for free. Having already played the GTA games to death I immediately downloaded Wild Metal Country, which I vaguely remembered for being over-hyped and too hard back when it came out in 1997. It was one of the earliest games I remember being able to cry "Physics!" when playing, and it was also a game I bought before reading any reviews... Let's just say that it was one of those titles that made me realise the value of my cancelled Amiga Power subscription (and, as if any reason were needed to emphasise the point, cancelled Amiga Power).
But perhaps, just perhaps, it was a game that would be more comprehensible and digestible from the perspective of a game player now ten years older and wiser. I booted it up to discover that no, my memory hadn't distorted things over the intervening decade. Wild Metal Country remains a game with astounding promise and a control method that's simple too complex for its own good. You take control of one of four different types of tanks and fight across a desolate landscape using eight different projectiles and four different mines. Clearing a landscape means collecting a number of coloured "powercores" which are, naturally enough, defended by enemy machines.
The problem with all this was that it's just so hard to get to grips with. The tanks are controlled with two keys - one for each track - while the direction you fire in is also independently controlled via the movable turret. It's a pretty faithful interpretation of how tanks actually work, and astonishingly infuriating implementation in what is otherwise a fairly pacey action game. In the worst moments you can actually find yourself flipped over and helpless, like an upended tortoise, requiring a strong flip to get yourself back on your tracks and out of the predatory crosshairs of nearby enemies.
Wild Metal Country remains as a beacon of game history in my head, partly because of the weirdly open design (infinite lives, no constraints on how you went about completing a level) and the splendid physics. It was also the first game I can remember that had weird alien birds circle in the sky, which remains one of my favourite sci-fi game motifs across the years. Nevertheless this is a lost title from the company that would go on to become the largest and most famous of all UK studios. I always feel annoyed that it was so quickly shelved by my younger gaming self, but I can now see exactly why I never persisted with it. (So obscure is this game, it seems, that it doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page. For a site that otherwise seems to be infested with habitual game-existence catalogers that seems like a fair snub.) Ah, the sad whimsy of nostalgia.