Retro Revisited: It Came From the Desert (Commodore Amiga)

Following the launch of the Commodore Amiga in 1985, nobody could have foreseen the kind of impact that this revolutionary machine would have upon the computing industry. Equipped with a custom chipset that granted the machine advanced graphical and sound capabilities way beyond the capabilities of the competition (at least at the given price point), the Amiga was seen as an untapped wealth of potential, simply waiting for developers and artists to create content that would demonstrate the capabilities of the machine.

In the year following the Amiga’s release, Defender of the Crown is often cited as one of the first, true showcases of what the Amiga and it’s custom chips could achieve.

Developed by Cinemaware, and featuring some truly phenomenal artwork by Jim Sachs, the game became something of an early poster-child for the machine, and would be a title that crystalised the studio’s reputation for creating engaging video experiences, drawing inspiration from Hollywood cinema and the many genres of movie when developing future titles.

Having covered swashbuckling adventure and science fiction genres in earlier titles, Cinemaware would turn it’s attention to the plethora of B-movie horror flicks from the 1950s for the creation of it’s 1989 release, It Came From the Desert.

Featuring casts of Z-list actors in equally forgettable roles, and with effects budgets that would make an Ed Wood film seem positively space-age by comparison, these movies would often see humankind battling against hostile alien races and other-worldly monsters.

Of all the films in this particular genre, it would be the 1954 movie Them! that would serve as chief inspiration for the game, a movie involving the discovery and subsequent attempts to destroy a nest of mutant, irradiated ants that threaten human existence.

Set during the summer of 1951 in the state of California, the player assumes the role of Dr. Greg Bradley, a geologist who has come to visit the remote town of Lizard Breath in order to study the impact site of a large meteor that has crash-landed somewhere to the south of the town.

The crash itself is depicted in the game’s short but memorable introductory sequence, falling from the sky in suitably spectacular fashion, before smashing into the southern volcano with impressively dramatic consequences.

Unbeknown to the town’s inhabitants, the radiation caused from the fallout of the crash has resulted in the rapid mutation of the local ant population, causing the insects to grow to a truly colossal size. This colony of super-sized insects starts to expand at an alarming rate, roaming the desert and harvesting anything they come into contact with, including the inhabitants of Lizard Breath themselves!

At first, scant heed is paid to the rumours surrounding the existence of these creatures, and potential sightings of the beasts dismissed as little more than the deranged ramblings of yet another poor soul who’s spent too long in the scorching heat of the desert sun.

Less dismissive, however, is Dr. Bradley. As a man of science, the strange tales and string of unexplained events that have occurred in the wake of the meteor strike leave his curiosity well and truly piqued. Having heard wild stories involving the discovery of a headless cow at a neighbouring farm, and with unexplained lights being seen in the night sky around one of the local pumping stations, the good doctor heads out into the desert to discover the truth.

The game’s primary objective is to help Dr. Bradley discover the precise location of the ant colony and to destroy it. You have approximately 10 days in which to do this, else the ant’s mating flight will begin, producing hundreds of new queens that will spread death and destruction across America and beyond.

Designed as a mixture of narrative-driven adventure game, and interspersed with that can be described as a variety of mini-games, much of the game will involve travelling between the various locations within the confines of Lizard Breath, visiting local farms, as well as the volcanic cones situated to the north and south of the town itself.

One of the game’s central features is the map screen, an overhead plan of Lizard Breath and the surrounding area. From here, it’s possible to select a destination where you wish to travel next, which includes an assessment of how long it will take for you to arrive.

Time proves to be most precious of resources in this game, certainly something that neither you, nor the town of Lizard Breath has much of. Many of the encounters with characters and opportunities to advance the plot are scripted to occur on specific days at specific times; with a limited window of opportunity to reach a location, and the fact that you cannot be in two places at once, time management becomes one of the most important facets of the game.

These restrictions, coupled with the game’s non-linearity, result in a title with above-average longevity. The fact that it’s impossible to visit every location and participate in every encounter in a single play session means that players can enjoy a new and fresh experience each time they play, choosing to pursue different lines of questioning, or visiting different locations with each successive attempt.

Of all Lizard Breath’s residents, it is the local mayor who proves to be the most resistant to the notion that his town is about to be overrun by a swarming colony of mutant ants. Understandably, the threat of being harvested and carried away to feed the queen’s burgeoning brood is unlikely to do much for the town’s popularity or economy, so it comes as no surprise that he’s more than a little reticent to recognise the encroaching threat.

Unfortunately, the mayor is the only person with the authority to declare a state of emergency and call on armed forces stationed at the local army barracks for support. The sooner you can convince the mayor of the threat facing the town, the quicker that troops and patrols can be dispatched to keep the marauding insects in check.

The only way to convince the mayor is to present him with sufficient evidence that the ants exist. Whether it is scenting fluid deposited by the creatures whilst foraging, or a chunk of chitinous remains left in the wake of one your inevitable entanglements with the creatures, all of these things contribute towards creating a body of evidence that can be used to persuade the mayor to sound the alarm.

Any evidence gathered should be taken to the Platt University Laboratory, where respected academic, Dr H.G. Wells, will examine the items you have collected. The good doctor will need to run tests on the samples that you bring him, with the results usually becoming available in 1 to 2 days of game time.

Unless you do nothing but sleep all day, your investigations will inevitably lead to an all-too-personal encounter with the ants themselves. Whenever you enter a location, there’s a chance that you’ll encounter one of the monstrosities first hand, with the ant entering from the right of the screen and attempting to leave by the left.

During these encounters, the only weapon you have available to defend yourself with is your trusty revolver. Unfortunately, this sidearm lacks the penetration to punch through the creature’s armoured exoskeleton, so bringing the beast down will prove far more difficult than you might think. The only place where the ant is vulnerable in these encounters is at the base of the antenna, which you must blow clean off with two well-placed shots.

This proves to be exceptionally tricky for several reasons, the first being that there’s no reticule to help you aim. Instead, your only option is to fire the gun and to look for the hit marker that indicates where the shot landed, then to adjust your aim accordingly.

Secondly, the ant isn’t merely going to stand there and let you take pot-shots at it, instead turning this way and that, constantly throwing off your aim as it wanders backwards and forwards, meaning that you’re likely to miss quite a few shots before you get your eye in.

Should you fail to kill the ant at this stage, it may come back to exact it’s revenge, getting right up close and personal in a scene that remains one of the most terrifying gaming moments from my childhood! With mandibles snapping but a few inches from your face, you have only a handful of seconds to shoot off the remaining antenna before you’re overcome by sheer terror, blacking out in the process.

The second mini-game in which you combat the ants on a personal level is somewhat simpler, although no less intense. Moving to an overhead perspective, you must move Dr. Bradley across the desert, blowing up ants with limited supply of dynamite. Timing is crucial to success here, as you must gauge the correct distance between yourself and the ant to ensure that the resulting explosion kills the beast. Kill enough ants and the rest of the colony will retreat; run out of dynamite, however, and the only option remaining is to flee.

Having been blessed by the virtue of “plot armour”, it’s impossible for the player to actually die, at least not in the conventional sense. Whether by losing in battle to the ants, bleeding out in a knife fight with Ice and his Hell Cats, or collapsing through dehydration in the baking sun, Bradley’s unconscious body will be recovered and transported to the town’s hospital to recuperate.

As attractive a prospect of receiving a sponge bath at the hands of the ravishing nurse Judy might be, taking time out to convalesce is something you can ill afford. The penalty for accepting treatment is going to cost you several days of game time, bringing the town’s demise ever closer. You’ll also miss the opportunity to talk to key people, which can even result in their deaths if you’re not careful.

You can attempt to escape the confines of the hospital if you so wish, which initiates a game of cat-and-mouse as you attempt to reach the hospital exit without being accosted by hospital staff. It’s possible to hide under the covers of beds to avoid detection, as well as hitching a ride in a handy wheelchair to give you a speed boost. Get caught, however, and you’ll have no choice but to accept treatment.

With a decent sense of narrative and accomplished script writing, perhaps the game’s greatest feature is the cast of supporting characters you’ll encounter on your adventure. Inhabitants such as Elmer the gas station attendant and Dr Wells, provide you with vital resources and information in your battles with the ants, proving themselves to be key allies.

However, not all of Lizard Breath’s residents prove to be quite so friendly. You’ll cross paths on more than one occasion with the Hell Cats, a local street gang, and there’s something more than a little fishy going on Neptune Hall and it’s band of Mafioso-aligned cultists.

Although perhaps not as ground-breaking as Defender of the Crown, there’s no denying that the artwork and visuals on the display here are anything less than excellent. It goes goes without saying that the ants look suitably terrifying, but all of the location backgrounds look amazing as well. There are plenty of subtle nuances in the animation system too, such as the way that all of the characters that you encounter will display various incidental animations to convey that these are living people you are interacting with and not just a collection of lifeless mannequins.

The game’s music and audio is also exceptionally good. More than just a collection of in-game tunes, the musical score that Cinemaware created for the game really helps in creating an atmosphere of brooding uncertainty and foreboding, and will certainly leave the player apprehensive as to what might happen each and every time they enter a new location.

It’s also worth noting that this particular game really hits home just how advanced the Amiga’s video and sound capabilities really were. You only have to take one look at the garish visuals, or listen to the inferior music of the PC DOS version to know that the Amiga and it’s chipset was still in another league, at least as far as gaming was concerned.

There are, however, a couple of problems with what is an otherwise excellent game.

As good as the game’s script might be, it’s not perfect. Managing such a broad number of story arcs and plot developments must surely have proven to be quite the challenge during the development, and there are times when the various narrative passages fail to gel quite so seamlessly with earlier events.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that all of the game’s scenes and events are pre-scripted, and it’s perfectly possible to run across later encounters that make direct reference to earlier events that the player may never have actually witnessed. Although a rarity, this can result in character dialogue that doesn’t always make much sense, and you might be left wondering exactly what it was you missed earlier in the game.

On a similar note, the game doesn’t appear to place any restriction on when you can enter the ant’s nest, other than the weather needs to be hot and you know where to go. If you’re already familiar with the game, this can invalidate the need to conduct any form of investigation in the first place since there’s really nothing to stop you chartering a plane and then heading out to correct spot when the time is right.

In reality, none of these issues prove to be in any way detrimental to one’s enjoyment of what is an otherwise superb game.

With a sense of style quite unlike anything else available at the time of release, the game remains an experience, that, if anything, might just prove to be even more enjoyable than you remembered. This is partly due to the fact that the presentation has stood the test of time, but also the fact that, as more mature gamers, we’re more likely to appreciate the nuances in the game’s dialogue and finer plot details.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to experience It Came From the Desert, or if you never managed to complete it and wish to make a fresh attempt at saving Lizard Breath, then Cinemaware’s sci-fi horror remains one of the best examples in the genre: highly recommended!

Author: Alec
PC gamer, C64 fan, Amiga advocate, creator of longplay retrogaming videos on YouTube, occasional wordsmith - follow me on Twitter

3 thoughts on “Retro Revisited: It Came From the Desert (Commodore Amiga)

  1. And if you’re so into the game that you would watch it as a movie then you can do that thanks some Finnish people. As last year there was a movie with the same title and with lots of references. But it was adapted to our current age, and it’s not taking place in the fifties.
    Oh, and the movie’s quality… well, let’s just say interesting. Although the makers were not taking themselves too seriously either.

  2. Someone can tell more about thr story of / behind the Neptune cult? I read that there is also a murder game hidden in the game. Any infos about that?

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