If there’s one lesson to be learned in life, it’s this: don’t mess with helicopters armed to the teeth with guns and missiles.
General Kilbaba (aka We Can’t Call Him Saddam But He Is Really) learned this the hard way in the 16-bit classic, Desert Strike.
EA’s whirlybird shoot-em-up was released an incredible 25 years ago, but we still have fond memories of playing it today. The game seemed oh-so simple back then – you fly a chopper and shoot the bad guys. But Desert Strike wasn’t without controversy, and it wasn’t as straightforward as you might remember either.
Because like a helicopter itself, this game was actually a complex beast of machinery.
The odd thing about good helicopter video games is that there’s not been that many of them. With such a cool vehicle, you’d have thought there were more out there. But prior to Desert Strike, we could only put our trigger finger on two that were decent (both by Sega): Choplifter and Thunder Blade.
It was Choplifter that proved to be the biggest inspiration for EA. And you only need to watch it in action to see how closely it’s related to Desert Strike:
And that was pretty much it for helicopter games. Sure, the PC was home to many simulators but none were downright fun-to-play; they didn’t offer the simple arcade-style joy of Choplifter.
But Desert Strike changed all that when it was released in 1992. Whilst it retained the dumb shoot-em-up gratification of its predecessor, it was also a much more weightier vehicle than Choplifter was.
Desert Strike was set in the Middle East, where you – a skilled helicopter pilot (obviously) – must overthrow a tyrannical dictator. Sound familiar? It should do, because the game was released a year after the end of the Gulf War and shamelessly cashed-in on that particular conflict.
It was as clear as crude oil what Desert Strike was all about. And if you had any doubts, the game was even subtitled: Return to the Gulf.
This locale and storyline did not go unnoticed either. It was considered to be in remarkably poor taste at the time to turn a recent war into a video game. It’s perhaps interesting to note then, that EA never planned on making Desert Strike about the Gulf War.
The original premise of the game was set around the Lebanese Civil War and was to be called Beirut Breakout. Which sounds worse and even more offensive.
But thankfully in 1991, the EA team saw Operation Desert Shield being replayed on the news every night and they thought: “hey, let’s have some of this in our game instead”. And thus, Desert Strike came to be.
The great thing about Desert Strike was certainly not the iffy setting or the plot, but the gameplay. On the surface, it had all the hallmarks of an average run-of-the-mill shooter. But dig deeper and you’ll find something more: it was actually an early pioneer of open-world gaming.
Each level tasked you with multiple missions to carry out – destroy enemy bases, rescue UN officers etc. But what the game didn’t do was tell you in what order to carry out these missions. You were left entirely to your own devices on each level. You could head off and do the last mission first and the first mission last – it was your call how to play it.
It was touches like this that made Desert Strike stand out. And with ammunition and passenger management (your helicopter’s not the TARDIS, it can only hold so many people), you had a really nuanced thinker of a shoot-em-up. Granted, we’re not talking Stephen Hawking levels of intelligence here, but it was more than your average let’s-go-blow-things-up kind of game.
Add to all this the unique isometric camera angle and killer visuals, and Desert Strike genuinely felt a bit special. It looked and played like no other game around it at the time, leaving you enthralled for hours on end whilst in its company.
Oh, and you could blow the trees up too. Man, there was nothing more satisfying than wasting all your hellfires on destroying trees. Kill the trees. All the trees. What did they ever do for us apart from supply us with oxygen, eh? Useless greenery.
Desert Strike was hugely successful and inevitably, this resulted in many sequels – the guys at EA were never ones to miss an opportunity to milk a cash-cow.
Jungle Strike was the best of these, even if only for that moment at the start when you could blow up the White House. Everyone must’ve done that, right?
After that, Urban Strike, Soviet Strike, Nuclear Strike and Strike Strike (the bowling themed addition to the series) all followed. OK, maybe not Strike Strike.
Each entry in the Strike series had its positives, but none of them could ever quite capture the joy of the original. And after all these years, Desert Strike is still the best helicopter game in the air. But seriously, we could do with some more now; who owns the Airwolf franchise these days, anyway?