Obscure Retroness #3

July 9, 2012

After a lengthy absence, Obscure Retroness is back for yet another round, with more questions and answers than you can poke a stick at a giant ant at! Will we cover PC games? Are there any Game Boy Games in the pipeline? Shall someone finally pay tribute to Terranigma? The answer to at least one of these, at least, is a resounding yes, as shall soon become evident.
We’ve spent some time away from the land of obscure and forgotten games, and some may even believe that we’ve undertaken some time travelling.  It’s appropriate that we have, as this edition of Obscure Retroness deals with a game that has sci-fi roots and goes back in time – if only in setting. The third edition of our spotlight of bygone games shall focus on none other than the Cinemaware classic, It Came From The Desert!

It Came From The Desert owes a lot to 1950’s sci-fi B-movies, where radiation and mutation was the order of the day, with Them! clearly being the most obvious influence. A meteorite crashes into the earth, and it just so happens to start mutating ants into giant beasts near the town of Lizard Falls in the US, which backs right onto a desert. You play as a visiting geologist who begins to suspect that something strange is going on after the meteorite crash (well, besides the random crimes of greasers, town drunks and quarries whose value never seems to translate into a boom for the town). It soon becomes evident that the meteor has results in giant ants springing forth from the desert, hell-bent on the destruction of Lizard Falls and all of humanity! Of course, it’s up to you to prove that something is amiss, but it won’t be an easy task for several reasons. Not only will you have to occasionally fight off giants ants (and end up in hospital for your trouble), many of the townspeople need some convincing that something is wrong and others will outright get in your way. The biggest obstruction to dealing with the giant ant problem is the local mayor – to convince him that something’s wrong, you need to gather up different evidence of the ants, including an audio recording, tissue sample and footprints. You also only have a limited time to obtain everything before the ants become a major threat to the town, and getting evidence is no easy task either.

The varied types of evidence you can acquire are strewn through many different shake-ups in gameplay. It Came From The Desert is a very difficult game to define which genre it belongs to. FPS? Strategy? Stealth? Truth be told, it feels like it has a bit of everything in it. You’ll find yourself shooting off ant antennae in first-person, spraying pesticides from a plane, playing a game of ‘chicken’ against an opposing greaser car and occasionally sneaking out of the hospital when the stakes begin to get really high. If you’re not caught up in all of these shenanigans, expect to sometimes fight off ants with grenades, get into knife fights with a few young punks and even fight fires on occasion.

All of these gameplay segments punctuate the main story, which is told in a cinematic style and involves chatting to the many locals to get their perspective on teh impending insectoid threat. Sometimes you’re given choices as to how to respond to their queries, and these can be crucical in getting help later, saving buildings and even on ocassion saving lives. Saying the right thing at the right time with an appropriate level of evidence to back yourself up can definitely have an impact in how easy or hard the end game becomes, and there are certainly more than a few Chekhov’s gunmen littered throughout the game. It’s worth paying attention to what people say to you, as they’ll give you hints as to what you can do both in the short and long-term. And long term planning is very, very important in It Came From The Desert! as one conversation at the start of the game holds the key to finding the ant’s nest that you need to descend into to kill the ant queen.  Depending on who is still alive towards the finale, you’ll also have much more flamethrower fuel, grenades and dynamite to eradicate the mutant insect hordes once and for all.

While killing the ant queen and destroying the nest is the only way to win the game, there are many other ways to reach a less cheery ending. If you take too long to locate the nest, the game’s internal calendar will run out and the game will end with the ants taking over. Should you get into too many knife fights, car crashes, ant stoushes or just simply wander around the desert sun for too long, you’ll end up in hospital. If you crash your plane, you’ll end up in hospital. If you’re not quite able to put out the occasional fire, you’ll end up in hospital. Generally, you’ll end up in hospital, though given the site that greets you upon each visit it may be a price you’re willing to pay.

Speaking of paying, there have been a number of ways across time that It Came From The Desert can be obtained. There are DOS, Amiga and TurboGrafx CD versions available, which have their own quirks – I myself grew up playing the DOS version, whose screenshots you can see above, though it can be quite an ordeal for a modern computer to run it should you be able to acquire a copy. By all accounts, however, the Amiga version is visually superior. It’s not ridiculously expensive to buy a copy online, but a quick search reveals that it’s still somewhat rare. At one point Cinemaware made  available on their website a free emulated version for the Sega Mega Drive, which wasn’t officially released during the console’s heyday. The Sega version overhauls much of the gameplay, having a greater emphasis on shooting and less on conversing with locals. It doesn’t appear to be available anymore, however. The TurboGrafx version is a bit different yet again – video of live actors replaces the computer generated characters, and there is a bit more side-scrolling involved.

And with that the It Came From The Desert edition of Obscure Retroness comes to a close. Its fifties B-movie sensibilities, combined with varied gameplay work in its favor and make it a unique game of its own time and amongst our own time. If you love those things, then it may just be worth tracking down a copy, and do your best to save the world from those ant overlords. Have you played it before? Is there anything that’s been left out here that has stuck with you through the years? Then let us know in the comments below. Next time on Obscure Retroness, we’ll have our first reader suggestion. What game and what era will it be from? Keep watching to find out!