Classic Amiga Game Review: It Came from the Desert (1989)

It Came from the Desert title screen
It Came from the Desert title screen. Image courtesy Vintage is the New Old.

Recently on SBBN, I posted the first movie review I ever wrote, and up next is the first review I ever published online, but there’s a twist: it’s for a video game, not a movie. Angus Manwaring of the essential Amiga Games Database was kind enough to ask me to write a review for what is still my favorite game for the Amiga, It Came from the Desert. My review first appeared in September, 2000, and remains up to this day, which makes me indescribably happy.

I no longer have an Amiga, and in truth never really did, as we were holding onto the only Amiga computer we ever had for a friend without actually owning it. We returned it to him several years ago (though I suspect we still have some of his disks packed away somewhere, oops), plus I’m a yutz when it comes to installing emulators, so I haven’t played It Came from the Desert in a very long time. What I can tell you is that it’s a riff on 1950s big bug flicks, and if you’ve seen Them! and It Came from Outer Space then you’ll already know what to do to win the game, though don’t expect winning to be easy. It’s arguably the best game produced by Cinemaware, who specialized in video games with movie-related themes, though I loved Defender of the Crown for the Commodore 64, and will always regret never getting a chance to play Wings, loosely based on the silent classic starring El Brendel and, I dunno, some other guys I guess.

My review for It Came from the Desert, as originally published in September of 2000, corrected for typos:

It Came from the Desert play screen
Big ants with Achilles antennae! Image courtesy Queerly Represent Me.

 

It’s June 1, 1951, and you’re a geologist investigating a meteor strike in a small desert town. You’ve lived in the town — a quaint dot on the map called Lizard Breath — for a month, and now you’re being told that some very odd things are happening, not least of which is the headless cow over at J.D.’s farm.

Based loosely on dozens of 1950s American sci fi thrillers, especially the 1954 mutant-ant classic “Them!”, ICFtD challenges both your mind and your might. When you boot up the game, a gorgeous red-orange desert panorama scrolls by as a narrator warns that, because man has meddled where he should not have, this desert will become living proof that the Biblical prophesy “the meek shall inherit the earth” is about to come true.

Your goal once the game starts is to discover the source of all the strange occurrences happening in Lizard Breath. Starting out in your small home, you are given text that describes the scene. Geez, an old geezer who collects rock samples for you, stops by with some new material from the meteor impact site. Soon after, your occasional sidekick Biff drops by as well. You get to choose what you want to do by selecting an option on the multiple choice screens that pop up.

There are several buildings in town, as well as farms, mines, an airport, and even a drive-in theatre. To get to the map, select “go to map” at one of the pop-up screens. A solid knowledge of the map will help you greatly, as time ticks away quickly at one minute per second of real time. The time and date appear in the upper corner of the town map. As you use the joystick to move around, each building you point to will be labeled, and the ETA to get there shown.

Once you investigate, you soon realize there are large, mutant ants roaming around the outskirts of town. These ants are dangerous, and you must fight them to survive. Sure, you’re just a geologist, but you’re a well-armed geologist, equipped with a handgun and an apparently infinite amount of grenades. Not only do you fight the terrifying ants on the ground, but in the air as well; the airplane at the airport contains several canisters of some serious bug spray. Knowledge of the movie “Them!” will help you kill the ants, but if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t despair — you get hints when talking to the townsfolk.

While play might seem limited at first, there are dozens (possibly hundreds) of variations in the game, depending on the choices you make. Not only that, but there are many opportunities to find yourself in a fight, either with the ants, or with some of the not-so-friendly folk of Lizard Breath. You can wind up in a knife fight, or being chased across the desert by several hundred giant ants, or even playing chicken on the
highway with the local greaser punks.

If you get injured, you’ll wake up in the hospital with a gorgeous, buxom blonde nurse standing at the foot of your bed. Time is important in ICFtD, so you have the option to try and escape from the hospital instead of wasting two days in bed. If you choose to try and escape, play switches to an overhead view of the hospital floor you are on. But be
careful — the moment a nurse or doctor (even if they’re off-screen) sees you out of bed, they’ll shout, “There he is!” and begin chasing you. Once caught, you have no choice but to stay in hospital for two days.

Ultimately, you’ll need to present several items of evidence to the mayor of Lizard Breath to convince him of the seriousness of the ant situation. Visit everyone in town to get hints about where to go and what to do. It might not hurt to sketch a map of the town so you can select your destination more quickly, saving time.

ICFtD has some beautiful graphics, and although they are sometimes rather limited, the characters and color scheme quickly transport you back to 1950s America. The music is well-done, especially the spooky 1950s sci fi mood music that accompanies your adventure through town. The plot is elaborate and allows for many pleasant distractions, which won’t help you win the game, but will still make playing worthwhile. And for those who like to fight rather than think, there’s plenty of things to kill.

This is not to say that there are not some problems with ICFtD. When traveling from one place to another, the ETA is often more than 30 minutes, even if the building is quite close to the one you are currently in. You travel by car, and should be able to get to most destinations quickly; the town is simply not spread out that much. Another problem is disk swapping. For anyone with only one floppy drive, the amount of disk
changing is excessive. (I can only assume that two drives would decrease the need for switching disks.) The game can however be installed to the hard drive, which increases playability dramatically.

Despite the floppy drawback, It Came From the Desert is easily one of Cinemaware’s finest games, lovely to look at and a lot of fun to play.