Retro Game Of The Week: Desert Strike (Mega Drive)

Desert Strike Mega Drive
Desert Strike for the Mega Drive may have politics that have not aged gracefully, but underneath that lies a compelling, well designed game.

In Retro Game Of The Week I pull a game from my collection and write about why it’s important or interesting. Or in some cases, badly dated and rubbish.

War and video games have been something of a natural partnership ever since their inception. After all, what is Space Invaders if it isn’t a representation of a war? Still, most “war” games tended to apply a rather strong layer of abstraction over their efforts, ignoring real world conflicts in favour of more of a battlefield hypothesis, to remain on the right side of good taste.

Desert Strike Mega Drive: It's 1992. What could the title be referencing? It's a total mystery.It’s 1992. What could the title be referencing? It’s a total mystery.

That’s not precisely what EA’s Desert Strike for the Mega Drive (more formally Desert Strike: Return To The Gulf, but I’ve never met a single soul who refers to it that way) does.

OK, it’s not technically a Gulf War simulator, because you’re fighting against the forces of “General Kilbaba”, but its release in 1992 was not coincidental.

Oddly it apparently started life with a Lebanon setting and the title Beirut Breakout… and again I’m left pondering the level of taste in that one.

Desert Strike Mega Drive: ... Or even worse. What, we might run out of TWINKIES?… Or even worse. What, we might run out of TWINKIES?

I tend to try to ignore the “plot” such as it is… but then it had also been a very long time since I’d played the first in the Strike series, and I was wary as to how much the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia (buy a pair today!) might have glossed over the game’s limitations.

So I fired up Desert Strike on the Mega Drive — sorry Americans, I don’t own a Genesis and don’t plan to — this week, somewhat expecting the worst, especially as it’s the first in a series. Jungle Strike and Urban Strike did it better on the 16-bit systems, and EA really went all out for the PlayStation’s Soviet Strike and Nuclear Strike too.

Just slightly more threatening. This intro would take up far more storage space than every single Mega Drive Strike game, too.

I shouldn’t have worried, because issues of poor taste aside (and I know, that’s a choice to make that not everyone will be happy with) the actual game underneath still stands up well as an interesting battle simulator.

I say simulator because while other helicopter-based games of the era (Hi Super Thunder Blade!) just went for the straight arcade setting, Desert Strike is a lot more considered.

Yes, you can go in all guns and missiles blazing, and you’ll last a little while before getting done in, probably less time than you’d think. Actual play of Desert Strike’s four missions requires careful planning, a certain amount of replaying levels to learn them and constant map checking.

Desert Strike Mega Drive: If you don't like the map screen, you're not going to get very far in Desert Strike. At all.If you don’t like the map screen, you’re not going to get very far in Desert Strike. At all.

If you just want the pew-pew-pew action of your typical modern Call of Duty game, you won’t find that here — though you will get more than your fair share of US military jingoism if that’s your bag.

Desert Strike Mega Drive: Oops. I think I broke it.

Oops. I think I broke it.

EA made some deliberate design choices with Desert Strike, both from its isometric viewpoint and its desert setting. It’s got a lot of brown, and “brown military shooter” is indeed a cliche these days.

Desert Strike Mega Drive: Anakin does not approve of Desert Strike.
Anakin Skywalker does not approve of Desert Strike.

It works for Desert Strike though, because it does make what aren’t huge maps seem more vast and oppressive. The isometric viewpoint limits what you can see, and when you’re effectively sneaking around because your armour and fuel are low, hoping to avoid getting blown out of the sky, that helps to ratchet up the tension nicely.

Desert Strike Mega Drive: Desert Strike is basically a fuel management simulator.Desert Strike is basically a fuel management simulator.

As I’ve already noted, the Strike series improved as it went on, though gamers didn’t seem to have much taste for it in the PlayStation generation.

Still, Desert Strike is an interesting title that does deserve some playtime, especially if your tastes lean more towards simulation than straight up arcade action.

How to play Desert Strike (Mega Drive) today

Desert Strike Mega Drive

My own copy came from… somewhere.

I can’t honestly say I recall, but it’s a full retail copy as sold in Australia, and one of the few that got labelled as a “Genesis” game here. Was that an EA thing across the board?

Desert Strike didn’t just stay on the Mega Drive, with ports to the SNES, Amiga, PC, Mac, Master System, Lynx, Game Gear and Game Boy, though they’re not all the same game. I know, you’re shocked that the Game Boy version isn’t feature-identical to the Mega Drive version.

There’s only the one rerelease, too, which is a tad unusual, on the EA Replay collection for the PlayStation Portable.

That one I got in as a review copy, though my review is lost to the mists of time. Curse you, certain online publishers I used to work for!

Desert Strike sold very well, so it’s not hard to come by. Over on eBay you can find copies — generally boxed, because plastic Mega Drive boxes stand up well to the ravages of time — for between $25-$50 depending on condition.

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