Game Corner [Bite-Size]: Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf (Mega Drive)

Released: March 1992
Developer: Electronic Arts
Also Available For: Amiga, MS-DOS, Mac OS, Master System, Lynx, Game Gear, Game Boy, SEGA Mega Drive Mini II, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), PlayStation Portable

A Brief Background:
By 15 March 1991, the Gulf War came to an end; after about six months of conflict and thousands left dead, the atrocities of the war would be felt for years to come and, naturally, this meant that Desert Strike caused some controversy when it was released due to the Gulf War being fresh in people’s minds. Desert Strike was spearheaded by Mike Posehn, who built off the air rescue mechanics of Choplifter (Dan Gorlin, 1982) by incorporating nonlinear, mission-based gameplay in a sandbox environment that eschewed typical videogame mechanics like bosses and power-ups. Inspired by Matchbox toys, Posehn designed the 3D models to resemble toys and programmed the game in such a way that players would be forced to restart if they went off-mission. Several months were spent perfecting the game’s physics and controls, all of which served it well upon release and Desert Strike has been highly praised as one of the Mega Drive’s top titles; reviews praised the graphics, the mission variety, and the strategy involved in tackling missions, though the difficulty curve and its more frustrating moments proved to be a cause of contention. Though many may have forgotten the series in recent years, Desert Strike kicked off a slew of similarlythemed sequels that built and improved upon the original’s formula; I used to play the Amiga version all the time back in the day and knew that the series was a must-buy once I really started collecting for the Mega Drive.

First Impressions:
Desert Strike is a top-down, isometric shooter in which players take the controls of an Apache helicopter and undertake a number of missions in a sandbox-like map in the middle of the Gulf Desert. At the start of the game, you can pick from a variety of control and gameplay options: by default, A fires your Hellfire missiles, B fires your Hydra missiles, and C fires your chain gun, but you can customise these to your liking. You can also choose to control the helicopter either from the cockpit (which makes movement a lot easier) from above (which leaves less room for error), or “with momentum” (the default setting, which has the helicopter move more realistically). I chose “from cockpit” and never had any issues with the control scheme; the helicopter is surprisingly manoeuvrable considering you’re essentially flying over a grid, and you can easily reverse away and bank out of firing range if need be. Once you’re happy with your controls, you can pick a co-pilot; while you’ll control the helicopter’s flying and weapons, the co-pilot you choose can greatly impact your gameplay as some cause the winch to jam while others are a bit more trigger happy. From there, you can either start from the game’s first campaign or enter a password to skip ahead to a later level, and you’ll be awarded with one of these codes after successfully completing each campaign. Sadly, despite some pumping tunes blaring during the title sequence and cutscenes, Desert Strike is devoid of in-game music, leaving only the sounds of your helicopter blades and weapons to hold your attention. Each of the campaigns also takes place on the exact same map, though the sand colour changes to indicate a different time of day and you’ll find different buildings, vehicles, and enemy placements in each campaign.

Check your map to identify mission objectives and targets to destroy or POWs to rescue.

While you need to press C on the title screen to view the game’s story, mission debriefing and cutscenes will take place before each campaign (and during the mission when you rescue prisoners of war (POWs) or capture enemy commanders) using large, detailed, and partially animated sprite art and onscreen text. Once you start the campaign, you’ll need to fly from the frigate and to the desert, and right away you’ll see just how large the game map is. You can view the map from the pause menu and use the directional pad to switch between different mission objectives and points of interest on the map, which allows you to easily see where your next target is and what resources you can acquire along the way. You can also view the status of your missions, and get additional information about each one (this tells you how many POWs you need to rescue, or how many targets you need to destroy, in order to clear the mission). The instruction manual stresses that you complete each mission in order; if you don’t destroy the radar dishes first, you’ll encounter greater enemy resistance throughout the campaign, but it’s also advisable to clear out enemies or do some prep work on your way to your next objective (for example, if you’re going to fly past where an enemy spy is hiding, break them out and pick them up before destroying the power plant, then loop past the fuel on your way to taking out a SCUD Launcher). Since onscreen text is limited to warning you when you’re in a danger zone or low on fuel and armour and other situational notifications, you’ll only be able to keep track of your ammo, armour, fuel, lives, current load, and current score from the pause menu. Your helicopter’s chain gun is your weakest weapon, but also holds around a thousand rounds, meaning it’s sometimes better to hang back, angle yourself just right, and use the gun to blow open buildings rather than waste your more powerful missiles. Ammo crates are scattered all over the map, but ammunition is scarce; if you’re too trigger happy, you’ll have a hard (or almost impossible) time destroying the campaign’s bigger targets or tackling more formidable enemy units, like tanks and Rapiers.

Campaigns quickly get very challenging as you’re given a variety of missions to complete.

Your helicopter can take a decent amount of damage, but you’ll be reduced to smouldering wreckage under sustained heavy fire or if you’re not careful and bash into rocks or buildings. You start the game with three lives and, when they’re exhausted, you have to restart the entire campaign over. You can, however, earn additional lives by accumulating a high score or hop back into the later missions using the password system. If you die mid-campaign, you’ll respawn right where you failed but your weapons won’t be replenished after each death. You’ll get a bit of extra fuel, though, but it’s usually not enough to get to one of the handful of fuel drums also scattered across the map. As a result, you really have to think about the best routes and the most efficient way of tackling the missions; fuel, ammo, and armour all need to be considered so you can’t just fly in all guns blazing, and you can only carry six passengers at a time so you’ll need to be mindful of where the nearest landing zone is, too. Resources and passengers are automatically picked up by flying over them, which drops a winch for you to latch onto them. Your helicopter will also land so your co-pilot can get out and rescue targets, which leaves you flying about fending of heavily-armed enemy forces before recovering them, and you also won’t lose fuel when flying over the sea, which is useful in the game’s later campaigns. Missions are generally grouped into two categories: destroying targets and recovering targets. Radar dishes, power stations, airfields, and chemical weapons facilities all need taking out and you’ll need to recover both POWs and enemy commanders to learn the exact location of things like SCUD Launchers or bomb shelters. You’ll be orchestrating jail breaks, rescuing United Nations ambassadors, uncovering and destroying missile silos (before they launch their ordinance), airlifting soldiers from life rafts out in the ocean, and angling yourself just right to stop oil spills as you progress through the game. Practically every target is either defended by or soon reinforced by enemy forces, ranging from soldiers packing both machine guns and rocket launchers to tanks, AAA turrets, mobile Rapier launchers, and even an enemy helicopter in one of the later missions. There are no traditional bosses to speak of, but the more heavy-duty enemy vehicles can easily catch you in a crossfire, especially if you’ve wasted all your best ammo blasting buildings. Things would be a lot easier if you could restock your weapons, fuel, and armour at the frigate but this isn’t an option; rescuinf missing soldiers can restock your armour but resources are so scarce that you’re easily left with no better option than to completely start over since you won’t have the necessary weapons or fuel to continue, making for a challenging gameplay experience

My Progression:
I’ve played Desert Strike, and its sequel, before; as mentioned, I had it on the Amiga and I remember borrowing both from friends back in the day, but my memories are a little vague on the specifics. After replaying it on the Mega Drive, though, I can only conclude that my version must have been one of the many Amiga games I had that was cracked, allowing me to play with such benefits as infinite fuel, armour, and ammo as Desert Strike really is one of the most challenging Mega Drive titles I’ve played. Thankfully, it’s not unfair, exactly, just extremely frugal with its fuel, armour, and ammo and you really need to have a plan of attack in mind before taking on your objectives. If you run out of missiles destroying enemy vehicles or targets, you’ll never be able to destroy five out of the six SCUD Launchers before they fire their missiles, for example, so you shouldn’t just blast away willy-nilly or pick up ammo crates unless you need them, and while you do get extra points for destroying other targets and picking up soldiers, it’s best to stay on-task and only attack and rescue those that you need to. All of this is to say that I couldn’t get past the second campaign, and it was only through a great deal of trial and error that I was even able to beat the first campaign (!), which requires you to destroy three radar dishes, take out a power station, destroy some heavily-defended airfields, and then rescue a secret agent from a bunker while fending off enemy forces.

You’ll be hard pressed to take on the game’s later missions even with the level skip passwords.

Campaign two starts out with much of the same, asking you to destroy radar dishes, a power station, and a chemical weapons facility, but the resources are far scarcer are there are a lot more passengers that need picking up between the jail break and SCUD commanders, meaning you’ll be doing a lot of back and forth between landing zones. I was able to achieve all of these objectives except for destroying the SCUD Launchers as I was completely out of missiles by the time they appeared on my map and thus unable to destroy them before they launched their load. Even using the ten lives code didn’t really help here as I kept running out of the resources I needed to complete the campaign, so I used a password to jump ahead to the other campaigns and see how they fared. As you progress, not only do the number and aggression of the enemy forces increase, but so do your mission objectives: Campaign three has you rescuing U.N. ambassadors, destroying a chemical weapons complex, locating and destroying missile silos before they can launch, destroying a power station, blowing a hole in the Madman’s yacht and rescuing his hostages while fending off speedboats, and then protecting your co-pilot as he drives a bus to safety. I believe I died trying to locate the enemy ambassadors, so I tried the final campaign and was similarly met with failure. At first, you only get two objectives: destroy the tanks attacking an oil field and drop some commandos off to take the complex over and stop oil pumping into the sea with well-timed shots, but additional missions pop up soon after, including locating bomb shelters and destroying specific garbage trucks carrying bomb parts, but I was all out of ammo, fuel, and lives before I really got a chance to go any further than that.

Despite the fact that I couldn’t actually complete the game, and barely managed to clear even one campaign, I still really enjoy Desert Strike. While enemies and the game’s speed aren’t exactly action-packed or at a breakneck speed, combat is exhilarating as you need to try and circle around or stay out of firing range to quickly take out enemies or blow open buildings, without catching their attention and to conserve your more powerful weapons. The controls are surprisingly slick, and there’s a lot of little things to see and do in each campaign, from vehicles idling down the road, security checkpoints, POWs fighting with the enemy, enemy fire damaging buildings, and the amount of objectives crammed into each mission is staggering. In fact, there may be almost too much to do, certainly too much for the limited resources available; thus, Desert Strike is a game that involves a lot of strategy and asks that you plan out your route and how you tackle objectives and then restock your weapons, though the developers were really stingy with the fuel, ammo, and armour, which means that this isn’t really a game you can just casually playthrough. Still, it remains an under-rated Mega Drive classic and I’d love to hear your thoughts on Desert Strike down in the comments or on my social media so please feel free to share your memories and opinions and check back in next Saturday for my thoughts on the sequel.

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