Retro Review: “Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf” (SEGA Genesis – Attack Helicopter Week Special)
Welcome to The Splintering’s Attack Helicopter Week. With 2020 being the 30th anniversary of Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait, it makes sense to mark the occasion with one of the games inspired by that short-lived conflict.
Published by Electronic Arts in 1992, Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf is a slower-paced, isometric shooter released for multiple platforms. While it was inspired by the conflict in the Middle East known as Desert Storm, Desert Strike does not actually recount any historical events. The game doesn’t ever refer to Iraq, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia, and the main antagonist is not named Saddam Hussein, but rather General Kilbaba (love it). However, he is typically referred to as “The Madman” throughout the game, and it’s up to you to stop his mad ambitions of launching the world into World War III.
America’s plan to prevent this catastrophe? Send in a lone Apache helicopter to disrupt enemy communications, destroy their infrastructure and weapons system, rescue political prisoners, and ultimately defeat the enemy forces across four desert stages.
“This aggression… will not stand, man!”
Your Apache helicopter is equipped with guns and two types of missiles, Hydra missiles and the more powerful hellfire. All of your weapons have limited ammunition, though you can replenish them by collecting ammo boxes throughout each stage. The controls take very short bit to get used to, as up moves forward, down moves, backward, and left and right banks your craft as you fly. This scheme works rather well, and it feels pretty good to coast through the open spaces of each stage. Targeting your weapons, on the other hand, isn’t always as precise, unfortunately, so you’ll want to fire a few bullets to ensure that you’re on the mark before unloading any of your more powerful (and more limited) ammunition.
Despite having only four stages, the maps are fairly large, each of which takes about 30-45 minutes to complete. Your pilot crew is tasked with several missions before you can successfully clear an area, and there is a decent amount of variety in them. Of course you will have to find and destroy a set of targets, but you will also have to conduct rescue missions, collect intelligence by capturing enemy commanders, and even provide security in an escort mission.
This variety in tasks keeps the action pretty fresh, though not all the missions are equally enjoyable. Sometimes your task isn’t always clear, such as trying to discern whether a target is military or civilian (destroying the latter will penalize you in points). The final had the most confusing mission of all, where I wandered around aimlessly until I just happened upon a Navy Seal team whom I was supposed to escort to defend the last oilfield.
Some of the rescue missions can be a bit of a pain, too, as your helicopter can only carry six passengers at a time, so you’ll sometimes have to ferry back and forth across large sections of the map to drop them off. It’s a bit like Choplifter, except you have to cover a lot more ground without the benefit of a rousing soundtrack.
No oasis in sight
This is where Desert Strike starts to lose its luster most – in the aesthetics. It’s not an ugly game, certainly not. Your helicopter is extremely detailed (though green rather than tan, likely to have it stand out from the backgrounds). There is also quite a bit of care in the terrain feature designs, too. However, the environments themselves are large, sparse, and repetitive. The basic layout of each stage is exactly the same – a giant desert with a slice of ocean in the southwest. The brown desert backgrounds simply aren’t very interesting, making each stage feel a bit too much like the last. Sure, the last stage is set at night so the background colors change, but the final map seems to be a bit late to be shaking things up.
There’s not much sound to speak of, either. Sure, there are sound effects for your weapons and explosions and the chopping sounds from your helicopter are always present, but there’s no background music. This contributes to the mundanity established by the repetitive environments. There are some rocking tunes at the title screen and between stages during the story interludes (which also look pretty good), but that just calls into question why there isn’t some kind of background music during the stages.
DID YOU KNOW…? Before her celebrated work scripting stories for the Legacy of Kain and Uncharted series, Amy Hennig worked at Electronic Arts as an animator and artist. Her work at EA included – you guessed it – Desert Strike!
Desert Strike is still a fun game. It’s got a unique presentation, it plays well, and the variety of missions does a good job in holding the player’s interest. It also set the groundwork for future installments of the Strike series, but after roughly three decades, Desert Strike is starting to show its age. The 16-bit sequels Jungle Strike and Urban Strike improve upon many of Desert Strike‘s flaws, particularly when it comes to solving the repetitive environment problem.
If you’re a war history buff and want to play a game inspired by contemporary, real-world events, or if you want to experience the Strike series in its entirety, then of course Desert Strike is worth a try. If you’re not really interested in the overall series and just want to play a good war game, I’d suggest starting with Jungle Strike over Desert Strike.
Thanks for reading! To check out more of The Splintering’s Attack Helicopter Week content, go here!
*Thanks to Moby Games for the screenshots!