Desert Strike Retro Review: Securing Peace Through Superior Firepower

Trying to recall all of the games my younger brother and I had for the Sega Genesis is like trying to recall how to solve that chemical mixture problem from freshman algebra that drove me up the wall without using Google, but if I tried, I’d have no trouble remembering Desert Strike.  I don’t know how many hours I plowed into that game and how many times I cursed not having more AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, but flying around the desert in an Boeing AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter and blowing up tanks, fuel bowsers and grounded planes seems to be indelibly imprinted in my brain.

Depth in an early shooter?

Desert Strike

There could be serious consequences

If the Rockstar guys haven’t hoisted a beer to Mike Posehn, the game’s designer, they need to.  Maybe it was because he had no previous game design experience, but Desert Strike was a stark departure from strictly linear games common at the time and if you were to try and describe it with modern categories, you’d doubtlessly use words like “open world” and “sandbox.”  Although Desert Strike was split into “levels,” it gave you a surprising amount of freedom to plan your path to completing your objectives while adding in some realistic limitations like fuel consumption and limited ammunition capacity.

I see your "Danger Zone" and raise you a face full of Hellfire missiles.

On top of weapons and fuel management, Desert Strike added another layer of strategy to the gameplay in the selection of your copilot.  Copilots had different ratings for gunnery and winch operation; winch operation being critical since that was the mechanism that allowed you to rescue POW’s and downed pilots and to pick up ammo crates and fuel barrels to reload and refuel.

Rescuing POW’s wasn’t always required, but it did provide the bonuses of repairing your armor and occasionally resulted in finding a new copilot with higher skill levels.

Desert Strike Copilot

This copilot's gunnery skills make you think he's in a wheelchair.

Beyond the meat-and-potato gameplay, Desert Strike designer Posehn was a PhD Mechanical Engineer who obsessed on game controls and camera movement – something that game designers like those over at Disney’s Epic Mickey studio might be well served to learn from considering the criticism their game has received regarding camera movement.  It might seem to be a strange thing to remember, but the inclusion of inertia that carried the ‘chopper in the direction you had been traveling and a camera that follows the Apache’s movement as it turns along an elliptic curve to show as much of the surrounding area as possible have stuck with me as novel for the time and an attention to a detail that sometimes seems to get lost in modern games’ design.  Whether it’s coming up with launch day DLC or edging uncomfortably close to the uncanny valley, it’s often the “simple” things that make games memorable like Desert Strike.


Giant Bomb (images)

10 Comments Desert Strike Retro Review: Securing Peace Through Superior Firepower

  1. JPizzle151

    I forgot about this entire series. I played every one on SEGA Channel back in the day! This would be a great XBLA reboot. Someone call Major Nelson right away!

  2. GiffTor

    JPizzle151, you actually had SEGA Channel?! Wow.
    But yeah – if it’s not obvious, this (and Jungle Strike – I didn’t play Soviet Strike or Urban Strike) was my favorite of the series, probably because Mike Posehn was most involved in the programming and (from what I can tell from research) had a clear understanding of how he wanted the game to be and stuck to it (a la Rocksteady’s decision to keep Arkham City multi-player-less). Although I can’t speak to the development of every single game that I’ve played and loved, I do know that the ones where I’ve heard a dev had the metaphorical “plotline” set from the get go and/or took on a studio/publishing house that wanted to change it has often turned out a great game (Peter Molyneux excluded).

  3. JPizzle151

    Oh yeah I had SEGA Channel from almost launch until it was shut down. My parents bribed me with get a B average and we will keep it for you. I smell a future retro post.

  4. JPizzle151

    Well should I say here that I am honored to break your SEGA channel virginity? That is where I played Earthworm Jim, Shining Force, Primal Rage, etc. It replaced the video store for me from middle school and most of high school. I specifically remember reading a book for a book report while playing Shining Force the day before the report was due! The pacing of Shining Force was VERY slow. I some how managed to pull it off.

  5. GiffTor

    I haven’t played in a while, but I’m cautiously suspicious that they would still stand up as good & enjoyable games. Obviously, we’re all big fans and I’m a little in awe that you were reading our site, so thank you for reading and thank you for developing a great game that has a lot of good memories associated with it and (I think) has a lot to do with the success/idea of non-linear/open-world games now.

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