I expected more from a game packaged in a box featuring a B-movie style screaming woman getting terrified by an enormous ant. Despite the intriguing title, 'It Came From the Desert' isn't a comedy game, combining a basic and tediously difficult survival game with a not-so-subtle anti-nuclear message that's likely all inspired by the B-classic 'Them!' The player must track down the cause of the mutations as the most evil and destructive creature of them all: a giant ant! I mean humankind, responsible for these mutations in the first place, obviously. But there is a giant ant too. It's also, sadly, one of those games where the opening animation ends up being far superior to the game that follows, and only in this instance for being painted in particularly pleasing shades of red.
The playing screen is simple to understand, and the player is thrown into the action immediately. The joypad controls the two dimensional movements (alright, so jumping is technically a third dimension if you're going to be pedantic) of a man viewed from above who we later learn is called Buzz, donning a flamethrower, some grenades and a rucksack, and essentially dressed in far more layers than could be comfortable in this generic desert environment. The extent of the playing field is relatively small, as the action primarily moves upwards, but further ground can be accessed by moving a little to the left or right of the default screen. Besides picking up the occasional power-ups that can be salvaged from the ground, such as vital replacement grenades, the object of the game is to make it from the bottom of the level to the top of the level, avoiding the rolling sand trails and burning any pesky oversized green bugs that get in Buzz's way. At the end of each level is a character who Buzz will chat with automatically, revealing the intricate details of the poor excuse for a plot.
The problems with 'ICFTD' are twofold; firstly, it's an overused and very limited idea, and secondly it's fairly impossible to complete each individual area without multiple re-tries. This seems to be a trend with desert-based survival games of the era, and was perfected elsewhere in the great public domain release 'Egyptian Run,' produced independently by some Australian guy for the Amiga on what must have been a fraction of the cost, and to a far greater degree of white knuckle entertainment and hilarious frustration. In 'ICFTD' there's no enjoyment to be found in the anger, as the player is given enough breathing and thinking time as each level begins to deceive them into a false sense of entertainment, before the impassable barrier trails across and the game is inevitably over.
In an attempt to add value, the game box offers a cooperative two player option that sounds at first like a promising way to pass the terrain more quickly and effectively. Unfortunately, it's only two player in the 'Ms. PacMan' sense, with each player taking it in turns to control the same green-coated and green-bandana-wearing character in exactly the same situation. Seriously, how difficult would it have been to just change the colour of the clothes from green to red, or give one player dark skin or blonde hair? Suffice to say, there are several thousand better two player experiences out there, and it's no further incentive to buy this game. Slightly annoyingly, the turn-taking method doesn't even eliminate the need for a second MegaDrive controller as it does with some games, still requiring a second pad plugged into Port 2, or for more desperate players to switch ports with their existing, very well-worn pad on which the writing is no longer legible.
So what can be salvaged from this game, almost twenty years later? Often there's something memorable in the graphics or sound department, but not so here aside from the nice 'blood red sky' mentioned earlier, that even has attention drawn to it in the scrolling story exposition text that comes after. The desert sand is pretty boring, and even when desert roads or the streets of Lovelock usurp it, it all looks very dull, flat and square, lacking the jaunty angles of the many similar games that followed a diagonal isometric plan. The first time I played the game on mute, I anticipated that the opening animation, with its bouncing rabbit, plummeting bird, wide vista and cataclysmic nuclear mushroom cloud would offer something interesting, but instead it's overlaid with nothing more than a simple bass rhythm that evokes none of the necessary emotions. I know this is cheap 16-bit video game music I'm talking about, and indeed I may never learn how futile this all is, but it could have been so much better. The title screen is a little more interesting as a melodic range is added over the top, and even the in-game music (which even I don't expect to be anything special. I'm not that mad) is quite good, with appropriate burny and bangy sound effects, though lacking a boingy or deadey one.
It's cute that programmer Matthew Harmon and co-designer and artist Jon Gwyn attempted to craft a serious story around this game, one that only becomes relevant in the brief pauses between levels. This was clearly something of a pet project for them, however pleased they may have been with their finished product, but despite claiming 'Quality Assurance' by one Mario Escamilla and an extensive list of 'Special Thanks' in the credits, 'It Came From the Desert' can only claim to be memorable due to its cool title (but one that I can't help feeling should be 'It Came From Beneath the Desert,' which would still technically work) and box art of a woman being afraid of a giant bug. Still an all-too-common occurrence in twenty-first century life, though normal sized rather than gigantic ones, obviously.
It Came From The Desert is easily one of Cinemaware's greatest games. It pays homage to the 50s Sci-Fi genre, especially those which consisted of some kind of mutated monster and in particular THEM! from the mid-50s. Here you play a geologist investigating the recent landing of a meteor on the outskirts of the desert town of Lizard Breath. However, not only do you find the meteor but also a number of strange events are occurring including the disappearance of some towsfolk and the discovery of a headless cow out on some farmer's ranch. Intrigued you of course investigate only to find that there are huge mutant ants wandering around the desert now, mutated by the landing of the meteor. Your task in this game is to assemble enough evidence to prove to the mayor of the town that you are neither a madman nor is the situation one to be taken lightly whilst confronting both these ants and some hostile reactions from the townsfolk. The first thing which strikes you about this game is the graphics. There are simply stunning for the Amiga and really capture the 1950's feel as well. Gameplay takes place in real time and the clock begins ticking as soon as you start with each second representing a second in normal time. When travelling larger distances which you have to do using the game map you are given an estimated time as to how long this would take and this is added to the clock. Time is of the essence here so you do not want to be wasting in. When you get into a fight and lose then you end up in the hospital with a rather large chested nurse hanging over the bottom of your bed(gotto worry about games developers) and the prospect of a two day wait before they will release you - or an escape attempt. Attempt to escape and you must sneak around the hospital without being caught, manage it and you are free, but get caught by a doctor or nurse and you are in for the duration. Gameplay may at first seem rather limited by the menu driven style, bu
t there are literall hoardes of options that you can select so resultantly it was never completely linear and there were different routes which you could take to your final goal. But this is the adventure part and there is also a more aracde style game which runs in tandem to this whereby you can get involved in knife fights with unfriendly locals, shoot the ants with your pistol and infinite supply of grenade and even rce again the local petrol heads on the highway. All good stuff. Couple this with some rather spooky music and an elaboarte story if you try to follow it and not just run about blasting things and you should have a supremely enjoyable game. You do not. Well, its a good game but its difficult to actually really get into it when you spend every other second swapping a disk. This game comes on a lot of disks and every location seems to end up in you swapping one for another. I suppose that is the price you pay for the graphics you have here but even so! If it could have been installed onto a hard drive it would have been fine but no, they decided not to include this as an option...oh well. Hence, its good, it looks superb and is fun to play, but quickly becomes annoying thanks to the disk swapping.