At a high level, Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf
(1993) is a helicopter themed tactical shoot-em up action game. Inspired heavily by the early 80’s classic Choplifter, it’s as if that old game had been pushed through a time portal ten years into the future. In a way, that’s exactly what it is, albeit in 3D space rather than 2D. And while some might wonder if this game is running in AGA mode as it’s stunningly gorgeous, it was actually written to support all Amiga OSes - 1.2/1.3, 2.0 and 3.0. Everything simply glistens and shines with this game. It’s no wonder that it is often cited as one of the best games found on the Amiga.
Desert Strike was co-designed by Mike Poeshn - a Californian who earned a BS (Mechanical Engineering), MS (EECS), and PhD (Dynamic Systems and Automatic Control) from UC Berkeley. He had never created a video game professionally prior to Desert Strike, and perhaps that is partly why it was so revolutionary at the time. It didn’t hold to any previous notions of how a helicopter shooter game should act or behave. Prior to designing Desert Strike Poeshn was the co-author of Deluxe Video (also published by Electronic Arts), and even some lesser-known productivity software. His break-through action game went on the be the best-selling title ever for Electronic Arts up to that point in 1992 (it was first released on the Sega Genesis before being ported to a superior version on the Amiga).
The other designer of the game was John Hanley of San Jose, California, who ultimately worked at EA as a design director from 1984 - 2001. He and his wife Susan Manley currently reside in Eugene, Oregon. Interesting side note: his wife Susan is also a video game design veteran. She worked on legendary titles like Pool of Radiance by SSI. That game in particular had a hilarious in-joke story
where the final graphic for SSI’s flagship product was rendered such that the game was referred to internally as the Toilet of Radiance by the artists.
Chuck Krogel, the VP of R&D at Strategic Simulations, came up behind [Susan] one day as [she] was converting that final piece of art and animating it. He said, "That looks like a toilet." I was shocked and horrified. And then I sat back and laughed. The designer, the test team and the art director had all seen the same graphic, but only Chuck saw that it indeed looked like a mundane object in the real world. I still laugh when I tell that story. That altar toilet, as the final scene in the game, shipped in every version. If you were lucky enough to finish the game you got to visit the "Toilet of Radiance."
But I digress, back to Desert Strike.
The movie cut-scenes are instantly impressive, entertaining and at times a bit humorous (if jingoistic). And the stereo sound is mind-bogglingly good. It’s no wonder that this game shot to the top of the charts and rocked the gaming world, especially on the Amiga. Its unique full-screen world and isometric 3D views as well as beautifully animated sprites share some visual similarities with Cannon Fodder from the UK. And yet some of Desert Strike's animated sprites are even smaller
(without the overt gore)! It does make one wonder if the EA UK division assisted with the sound editing for the Amiga conversion, however, as some of the digitized voices seem to have a British accent even though the military characters represent the USA during a fictionalized conflict similar to Operation Desert Storm.
Interestingly, the game does not install to hard-drive, nor does it have any copy protection. It comes on three floppy disks and thankfully supports multiple floppy drives. After passing the brilliant intro and movie cut-scenes, you can pretty much put disks 2 and 3 into your floppy drives and not bother with them much after that.
The game’s image sprites look really good, and the animations are buttery smooth. Overall, the game is extremely fun to play. When the cynic steps back and accepts that this is not a simulator game, then the pure bliss of arcade-quality action at its finest will wash over them.
I’ll put it this way. When I was playing the game in earnest, my 7 year old son walked into the room and instantly declared, “Wow, this game looks really good.” It really does - it’s a sparkling example of what the Amiga is capable of producing on any level of machine, pro or consumer.
Below is the original review from Amiga World magazine, published in August of 1993. It pretty much hits the nail on the head.
Amiga World Aug 1993
Rating: A [highest]
FORGET WHAT YOU may have seen on the Genesis and Super NES. Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf (Electronic Arts, S49.95) on the Amiga is an experience all its own. This white-knuckle arcader is even more over-the-top than earlier console conversions like John Madden Football and Road Rash. It's the sort of game that should make cart-gamers turn green. And it's one of the best Amiga games ever.
If you haven't seen the console version, so much the better. Essentially, this is Choplifter recast as a massive iso metric shoot'em-up with good whiff of strategy mixed in. You direct an Apache attack helicopter against the strong holds of certain not-so-we!l-disguised Middle Eastern loon using chain-gun and two types of missiles. Using winch and ladder, you collect caches of ammo and fuel (some of which have to be, uh, liberated from their respective storage buildings first) and rescue little tan-suited MIAs wandering the desert.
Your wits will have to take you the rest of the way. This isn't straight-up blaster. The playfield (there are four) isn't just the narrow band familiar from shoot'em-ups, but wide and varied world—as seen through the bank's security camera— that rewards exploration with things interesting and even use ful, stowed in out-of-the-way places. And there's not simply one task per level, but several linked missions. On the opening lev el, you'll have to take out radar sites, power station, airfields, and the command centers—and finally rescue the spy whose location you learn only when the command center goes down.
Along the way, you'll find jeeps, checkpoints, little guys with rocket launchers, and various annoying buildings. Go ahead. Blow them all up. Virtually everything is combustible if you have the ordnance handy. Finding your way to the next explosion is simple, too. The joystick controls are responsive, and set of screens that tell you where everything is, what's onboard, and what's still to be done is keypress away. Finally, Desert Strike is just lovably slick: You can tell from the way the option and pilot-selection screens zip in and out of view that you're onto something quite special here. (Isn't it fun sometimes to just sit back and watch the software hit the hardware?) It's been rewritten from the sand up for the Amiga. The 64- and 32-Color graphics are much crisper, the explosions are gorgeous (they reportedly each lake up 40K in memory), and the little MIAs on the ground now call out "Over here!" and "Help!" in digitized voices. (OK, so they're yelling in British accents—a clue that this [might be] a product of EA's UK division.) The copter sound comes from the Apache itself.
And can't wrap up without mentioning the wealth of delightful minor detail lavished here: the tiny US flag waving on the beach, the flames from burning truck, the Lemmings sized troops waving and running and going down, and the way you don't blow up if you crash for want of fuel. Just two reprimands for the victorious troops: Couldn't EA find a picture for the title screen that has the Apache flying over sand instead of browned-out trees? It looks more like Return to the 'Burbs. And unfortunately, like its brother console-to-Amiga con versions, the three-disk Desert Strike doesn't go on hard disk. That may not be much of an issue OverThere, but it's bound to cost the game some respect in the US market, where HDs are far more common. We can only hope EA takes this into consideration for the next release.