Back then games came in diskettes. Better games came in several diskettes. When the game was done with Disk 1 it would instruct you to insert Disk 2. Cinemaware titles though never did that. A Cinemaware title would instruct you to insert REEL 2, instead of Disk 2. This is but one of the many small details distinguishing Cinemaware games from others. The reason is very simple. Back when everybody was busy trying to make games, the guys at Cinemaware were doing movies in form of games. They had clarity of vision and they let this vision guide their game designing process.
Today, when we see the words “movie” and “game” in the same sentence we can only think of two things. Sub-par movie tie-ins and long, long cut scenes. This was not the case with Cinemaware. Barring a few exceptions each of their games was based on a genre of movies rather than a single specific movie and they all looked absolutely, mind-blowingly gorgeous for their time. But the really interesting thing about this situation is the fact that they never sacrificed gameplay for the sake of telling a story in a cinematic way. A great example of this is possibly their most innovative game: “It Came From The Desert”
This three disk game originally released on the Amiga required a 512 MB extra fast RAM card to work but it was worth it. From the moment you see the opening sequence you could instantly understand that you’re in for a special ride this time. You are about to play a game unlike any other you have ever seen.
“It Came From The Desert” imitates the giant bug, horror movies of the ’50s. The plot vaguely resembles the classic movie “Them!” Greg Bradley is a geologist investigating a meteor fallen to the isolated desert town of Lizard Breath. Strange things are afoot. People disappearing, animals mutilated, barns thrashed… To his horror, Greg soon discovers that the radiation from the meteor somehow turned the local harvester ants into giants. The only problem: No one believes him. So it falls on his shoulders to save the world.
Like many games at the time “It Came From The Desert” is essentially a collection of individual games bound tightly together by a meta concept. This type of game is practically extinct right now. The closest thing would be the Grand Theft Auto games, providing different gameplay mechanics using the same engine. In contrast “It Came From The Desert” featured a few distinctly different games. There was a top down shooter, a knife fighting game, a first person shooter, a driving simulator, and 8 direction flight game, a strategy game and a stealth action game. I may be forgetting some stuff. None of the these individual games are groundbreaking. The interesting bit is the frame which holds them.
It is impossible to die in “It Came From The Desert”. However unlike it’s in the 2008 remake of “Prince of Persia” this is not a storytelling gimmick to mask the frequent checkpoints. No matter what you do, you cannot cause Greg to die. The worst that can happen is spending a few days in hospital. This is worse than it sounds though.
See, although Greg is a scientist he’s an action hero like Dr. Jones. He can fly airplanes, drive cars dangerously and use all kinds of explosives expertly. There is one thing he cannot do by himself: Saving the world from a hive of giant, mutant ants. For that he needs help. Unfortunately the townsfolk is not believing him. Could you find them guilty for that?
As mentioned before, it’s impossible to die in this game, for personal survival is not the central issue. The most important screen of the game is the overhead map of the town, which you use for travel. The moment you go to that screen you see a clock ticking in a corner. Each minute in Lizard Breath equals to one second in real time. Each location displays an ETA. Going to that location fast forwards the clock by the indicated amount of time. Time, is the key word here. Time is of the essence.
The story starts on June 1st, 1951. In 15 days the ants take over the town, get wings and possibly destroy the world. That is unless you stop the ants. Each and every minute the town spends not fighting the ants is slowly sealing the fate of the world. “It Came From The Desert” is essentially a unique survival horror game in which the protagonist is the town. There is no game over here. You cannot die. If you are not successful though, the world dies in 15 days. Yes, the worst thing that can happen to you is having to spend a few days in the hospital but considering the situation, you simply cannot afford to lose an hour let alone a few days in the hospital.
In most games important events only initiate when you are at an important location. Not in “It Came From The Desert”. You are but a small factor in this web of events. Lizard Breath lives around you. Events take place at certain times in certain locations. By being there, Greg can witness the events or take part in them. No matter what you do, you’ll see June 15th. What matters is what you’ll see on that day, which of the several different endings you’ll get.
Besides its non-linearity, the fascinating thing about “It Came From the Desert” is that there are a lot of different ways of doing a certain stuff. You never miss a very important clue because you are not at a certain location at the time. There are multiple events taking place, which could eventually get Greg to the same clues. Furthermore, your involvement in certain events can trigger others. In fact even your lack of involvement can do that. A great example of this happens in the first day. It is more than likely that you’ll see your first giant ant during the first day of the story, but it is also possible that you miss them entirely no matter how giant they are. Doing so however triggers a dream sequence at night, which may or may not lead you to visit the fortune teller’s shop next day, which in turn may lead to other plot developments.
Way ahead of its time, “It Came From The Desert” was the final evolution of Cinemaware’s approach to interactive storytelling. We can only imagine what Cinemaware could have done if they still existed and used the technology we have today. Sadly, the best we can do instead is playing “It Came From The Desert”
Release Date: 1989
Director: David Riordan
Platform: Amiga, MS-DOS, Turbo Grafx 16
How Do I Play It?:
“It Came From The Desert” was originally released on the Amiga. Later in 1991 it was ported to the IBM PC but due to its usage of the inferior EGA graphics hardware it looks significantly worse than the original Amiga version. The Turbo Grafx 16 version was intended to be the ultimate version but it suffers from several gameplay issues. However, it also features real actors with full motion video so it might be an interesting historical experience. There were an Amiga Baby and a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive version in the works. The former was never released but its assets were used for the Turbo Grafx 16 version. The latter was more of shooter but was cancelled before release.
The original Amiga version along with the MS-DOS and the unreleased Sega Genesis/Mega Drive version are available legally for download here. You may, however, need an emulator software to run them. It is next to impossible to find this game in any shop in its original packaging. If you do, please check if you are dreaming.