Explosions. Hostages. Despair. Confusion. Blood. Lots of sand. Just another quiet day in Iraq? Well, yes...err, but the last time, not the current one. Except not quite the last time either, because the makers of 1992's Desert Strike were curiously cagey about using specific names - whilst at the same time making it extremely obvious what they were on about.
I'm sure we all remember the first Gulf War [you weren't there, man - Ed]. Admittedly, my recollections focus on the annoyance of discovering the news had overrun again and shunted a Pink Panther cartoon from the schedules. But still, the memories are there. Anyway, it's easy to undertake a refresher course by giving Desert Strike another whirl.
A hugely distorted refresher course, that is.
Realising that political nuance tends to play less successfully with the gaming public than flashy boom-booms and fetishistic worship of military hardware, Mike Posehn and chums opted for an exciting pretend-o-3D helicopter title. Consequently, the "madman" in charge of the unnamed, aggressive Middle Eastern nation that definitely isn't Iraq is a delicate shade of pure evil (not entirely unfair, as he does look strangely like a young Gary Bushell hiding behind a pair of John Lennon shades). He has no motives in particular, other than destroying the entire world - despite most theoretical and historical evidence pointing to the idea that small-state dictators tend to favour actions that protect their own regime. There's no mention of any Western powers backing Bushell during his country's equivalent Iraq-Iran war, let's put it that way.
Still, the one-note plot isn't really the point, unless you see it as a further attempt to cement a simplistic good-vs-evil Gulf War narrative with the general public. Which might be a touch paranoid, really. Whatever the case, Desert Strike was a massive success - appearing across pretty much every platform of the age (plus the Game Boy Advance a decade later) and spawning a host of Strike-suffixed sequels. It's the Mega Drive (or Genesis for those of you peaking in from America) version, however, which generally wins a scuffle for the 'definitive' crown. Not least because computer-based conversions tested players patience with loading screens, disk changes and control configurations which stopped just short of demanding a little magical dance before weapons could be cycled.
Nice Warm Ba'ath
Cashing-in on the first war to be presented as a Tomorrow's World military-hardware special (smart bombs! scud missiles! night vision!), Desert Strike sensibly placed the protagonist and moderately-trusty wingman inside an AH-64 Apache. As well as being one step closer to a rotor-head's wet dream, the precision hovering available in a chopper added a certain tactical dimension. Rather than frantically whizzing about all the time, an unusual stop-start pace could be instilled; one where maps are studied and accurately followed, hostages or supplies winched aboard and specific mission objectives scouted and targeted in the most strategically advantageous way. These objectives also tended to be in-keeping with the Gulf War's default presentation through the '90s news studios - a war of distant attacks against installations and buildings (radars, airstrips and the like), with few mentions of any 'soft targets' inside and further dehumanised by the increased spread of subtle jargon. Friendly Fire always sounded so much sweeter than the reality, didn't it?
In other areas, Desert Strike settled for well-worn gaming oddities - such as placing sole trust in a single helicopter team to avert nuclear war and then slightly spoiling the element of surprise by, um, loudly announcing the plan over the 'EANN News' network. Fine work was done, however, in making large expanses of desert look relatively interesting, with all manner of dusty roads, nomad outposts and trundling hulks of anti-helicopter death contributing to the sandy theme. Of course there were also the obligatory oil wells, which, tempting though they were to blow up, it was in the national interest to protect. Surprisingly.
Trigger-happy pilots had to settle for using a selection of exploding sticks on military bases, chemical weapons plants and the odd wildcard soldier with a rocket launcher. This not only tended to be useful for survival, but also produced a selection of meaty technicolour fireworks to marvel at. Oooh. Ahhh. Combined with the open-ended, exploratory approach, whereby secondary and tertiary missions could be attempted on the map at will, and some neat touches like winching stranded soldiers to safety, a fine time was generally had by all who played.
Naturally, there were also problems. Bumbling into bits of the scenery due to confusions over the perspective was quite a regular one. As was the annoying tendency to accidentally destroy a much-needed ammo dump or vital hostage inside a building by firing off a couple of shots too many. The game also seemed to overly reward caution, with the safest way to complete most objectives simply being to nudge the nose of the chopper forward until a defensive unit had been identified and destroyed, then repeating the process until the main target was totally vulnerable. Unfortunately, this was also the dullest method of play.
Sunni in places, Shi'ite in others
Perhaps if things had been taken in slightly more creative directions, or if Electronic Arts had been prepared to take a few more risks, the Strike series could have blossomed from this promising start into something even better. Something which took the gameplay to unexpected places and ironed out the niggling issues. Maybe something like...
Writer's Strike: At the time of (um) writing it seems likely that the mighty US Guild of Penpeople are about to settle their current dispute over the distribution of internet revenue. Still, there's no reason why the 1988 confrontation couldn't have been tarted up for a shameless game-of-the-disagreement cash-in. Play as either an unshaven hack with a part-time chopper licence or a producer with a private military-grade helicopter made of solid gold. As the writer, your primary tasks are to buzz the important award ceremonies around LA, destroy the free clothing and trinket bags handed out to stars like bookmarks and unleash a volley of missiles into the offices of the last executive to reject your marvellous screenplay. In contrast, those choosing to champion the producer must defend key events in town, protect the sets of hopeless reality TV shows in order to keep the schedules full and attempt to kidnap George Kirgo.
Miner's Strike: A spot of historical jiggery-pokery is going to be required for this one, admittedly. The 'lost' pre-Desert Strike title, Miner's Strike is a 1985 release for the 8-bit platforms. Probably a sideways-scrolling shooter or, worse, a text adventure. Use your helicopter (of course) to aid the establishment as they battle to save Great Britain from the dastardly Communist Scargill and his Red Army lackeys. Defend the trains ferrying additional coal supplies to massive government stockpiles, transport 'policemen' from the local barracks to break up groups of miners, and patrol the M1 motorway to ensure no pesky picketers are trying to get the jump on parliament.
Dessert Strike: Shrunk to the size of a wasp by some devilish scientist or other, your craft must direct a hive of buzzing monstrosities towards the leisurely picnic of the very same evil genius who left you in this mess to begin with. He and his family must be annoyed for the duration of three whole courses, climaxing in a daring raid on some expensive strawberries and cream - purchased by the white-coated boffin with the money he earned from your 'demise'. Extra points are gained by launching stinger missiles at small children, panicking the spheksophobic and absolutely ruining the entire day. You stripey bastard.
Dez's Trike: Playing as Dez, the young son of Andrew and Maurine Copter, your aim is to secure an item that will make you the coolest kid in school: a shiny new trike. With Christmas on the way...well, anyway, you get the idea with these.
Alas, none of it came to pass.
Instead, the Strike series would gradually be sunk by a complete lack of invention or variety. The much-anticipated Jungle Strike was the relative equal to Desert Strike in quality, but aside from a different graphics set, a chance to fly a stealth fighter (poorly) and, err, do whatever it is you do in a hovercraft, essentially the same game. Again. No longer benefiting from a spark of originality, it came across as somewhat disappointing. A third effort, Urban Strike, faired little better, introducing an even more ludicrous plot and converting the hero into a wise-cracking moron. Perplexingly, Jungle Strike's opening mission took place in Washington DC and Urban Strike's sent you out over a jungle. Go figure.
In the post-Mega Drive era, the inevitable switch to proper 3D was made with Soviet and Nuclear Strike - but the series was stuck in an ever-deepening rut. Even ditching the Location Strike convention hadn't really helped. Plainly, the heights of the series were never coming back; something borne out by the lack of an original Strike title for the past ten years (despite, we're told, several attempts within EA to revive it). A reminder that a solid, successful idea, even one born of dubious political intentions, will rarely be able to stave off the time-honoured business tradition of running a franchise into the ground until it's dead.