A discussion in the office a couple of days ago about EA filing new trademark applications for Desert Strike got me rather nostalgic for the game, so I gave it a play through again and have ended up deciding to play my way through the whole Strike series, up to the PlayStation’s Nuclear Strike (yes, I know I had a request for Oddworld – Abe’s Oddysee, I’ll get to it soon, promise!)
So, onto Desert Strike then. Released in 1992 while the first Gulf War was still in recent memory, you play as the pilot of an Apache helicopter sent to stop ‘the Madman’ General Kilbaba - a thinly veiled Saddam Hussein-alike - from his evil scheming in an unnamed desert country. As this was a game from the early 90s, the plot wasn’t much more in depth than that. There’s a bad guy, go beat him. The good old days...
Anyway, Desert Strike plays out across 4 levels that I believe are intended to be a single day as the last level is presumably set at night (the sand is purple, but nothing else is really darker.) Each level begins with you launching your helicopter from a frigate at sea and setting off to complete several missions generally of increasing difficulty. Your chopper is armed with three weapons of increasing power; guns, hydra rockets and hellfire missiles. Ammo is limited, but can be replenished with ammo crates that you can pick up with the helicopter’s winch.
It’s generally recommended to do the missions in order, as later missions will be protected by a ‘Danger Zone’ which gives the enemy increased attack power and defence somehow. These can be neutralised by either completing the previous mission or in some cases locating and destroying radar dishes around the area.
You start each level with 3 lives, though additional lives can occasionally be found hidden on the level or gained by entering particular passwords at the beginning of the game. Completing each level gives you a password for the next one. If you lose all your lives you have to start the level (or, if you didn’t make a note of your password the game) again. The later levels of the game are particularly tough, with heavily defended areas that can kill you in seconds.
An additional complication is fuel, as apparently highly sophisticated helicopters can only carry enough fuel to fly a couple of miles before abruptly running out and becoming a fiery wreck. Fuel drums can be found dotted around the landscape and sometimes hidden inside buildings, and these become scarcer as in later levels meaning you have to be careful not to roam too far from where you need to be without a fuel source in range. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but you don’t use fuel while flying over water, meaning if you were anywhere near the coast and needed to go from the top to the bottom of the map then that was the best way to do it.
It’s still a blast to play, with the destruction the Apache can wreak on the enemy being incredibly satisfying. The high difficulty is likely to be a bit off putting to anyone coming to the game new, but anyone who would play it now would likely play through an emulator with save states which helps make it a bit easier. I have to admit I did use saves on the last level a couple of times on my recent play, but I did finish it on an actual Mega Drive several times so I figure I can get away with it!
I don’t find the controls have aged particularly well. In the age of analog sticks and shoulder buttons, the directional controls (left and right on the d-pad rotate the helicopter with up and down always moving it back and forward) just don’t feel right anymore, and a single analog stick directional control with shoulder buttons to jink the chopper left and right would be fantastic. Perhaps if EA are remaking Desert Strike we’ll get something like this?
The animation and sprites, particularly the Apache, still look great and have loads of character, so I’d hope any potential HD remake would preserve or at least be in the style of this – a full 3D remake just wouldn’t be right.
Next up is my favourite game in the series, Jungle Strike.