Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Missed Classic: It Came From the Desert - WON! and Final Rating

Written by TBD

Doctor Greg Bradley Journal Entry #3: Thankfully, the last four days were just a dream. The town's last stand won't take place on June 15, 1951, as it's now June 11, and I've just helped a town defend itself against the giant ants. It was hard work, and some great people lost their lives, but we finally did it. With help from the townsfolk, I found the ant's nest, entered it, and planted some dynamite. The ants won't be bothering anyone anymore. Now I'm going back home to write about the experience so people will know of the bravery of Lizard Breath's citizens.

The Endgame

When we last left, I'd lost and the ants were well on their way to dominating the Earth. Backtracking a bit, a lot of things happened differently in future playthroughs. Notably, I WAS able to convince the mayor that the ants were real. I must have missed a piece of evidence in that playthrough. Interestingly, I was able to convince him on Day 5 by the end. Knowing where to find the evidence from previous successes and mistakes makes the game a lot easier.

The mayor suddenly remembered an important meeting out of town
Most importantly, I was able to enter the ant's nest. The evidence was consistently pointing to the M-1 mine and the nearby Southwest Volcano. My preferred method of transport was via plane from Hilber's Field. After landing and getting out of the plane (without crashing, which is a an effort in itself as all those shrubs and medium sized rocks will crash the plane if I hit them.), I run to the south of the mine where I found this rock arrow.

Geez had told me he'd leave a marker where he found some evidence. The nest is actually a screen or so to the southeast, but thanks for the help anyway, Geez.
 And a little further to the southeast, I finally found what I was looking for - the ant's nest...


Action Sequence 8: The Ant's Nest

Finding the nest was one thing. Getting in is really, really hard. If I go there on the wrong day, the ants will exit the nest but it will close way too quickly for me to get in after killing him. Finally the weather was right on day 11 and I was able to enter the ant's nest.

You won't believe the thrill and relief I felt when I finally saw these words

The ant's nest is basically a simple maze. I never got lost and it was fairly easy to run past the ants. Here I'm about to enter a hole to the second level

I rarely used the flamethrower I happened to be carrying around with me. I only did it twice and one of those times was for this screenshot. The other time is that pile of ash you can see to the bottom right of the screenshot.

As I walked next to the queen I heard a ticking. Must be the timer I'd left on the dynamite detonator. Time to get out of here...
I didn't have to traverse both levels of the nest maze to escape. The ticking kept getting quicker, indicating the limited time I'd have to escape. When I took the exit back to the first level I heard an explosion and got this screen.


No. No it's not. I've played the sequel!
Before we get to the final rating, I'd like to expand on the non-linearity of the game using Jackie as an example.

Case study in non-linearity - Jackie

I've mentioned how things in this game happen whether I'm there to see them or not and how refreshing that is in games from this period. A good example of this is Jackie. Here's some different scenarios that play out when I make different decisions during the game.

I discussed the bulk of the game in the previous post, and in that game I met Jackie fairly late in the piece. I happened upon her asking to be rescued from her insane father at the Neptune Club (a club who aim to help the ants take over the world.) 

In a different game I found her early on (Day 3 I think) when a disheveled Jackie knocked on my door and told me about her car wreck.

I like the way your body is perfectly camouflaged against the desert sand

I was given the choice to go with her, call the cops, calm her down or sleep. Being the heroic type, I checked out the wreckage and fought another ant (getting a tissue sample in the process - not terribly helpful as I already had a tissue sample from J.D.'s farm from the first day) then offered to let her stay at my place. This pissed Dusty off much earlier than in my last post.

When I returned home later that day, Jackie offered to thank me properly for letting her stay.

Seems like it's time to 'collect the rent'

Seeing as Dusty would hate me anyway, this time I accepted Jackie's offer. Doing so unfortunately hampered my ant investigation skills.

Does Biff ever actually go to lectures? He seems to be hanging out at my house 8 hours a day.

Having Jackie at home gives me useful information. She tells me when people have called or visited, giving me hints on where to find clues in the process. She also asked me to drop her off at Neptune Hall once, and when we got there I found out that Crazy Billy Bob was her dad!

Later in the week (June 7th) Biff and I got worried when she was missing.

Oh well. Let's spend the day looking for her. It's not like I'm in the middle of saving the world or anything

Jackie always felt safe with the man she once went shopping for matching blue overalls with

Two days later, Jackie told me she was going back to Los Angeles (I thought the only way out of town was blocked?) and suggested we have 'one for the road'. I didn't seem to have any urgent business to attend to at the time, so why not...

Ants? What ants?

A few hours later I was speaking to Biff, and mentioned something my old M.I.T. professor once told me.

"Greg, just remember two things and you'll be a happy man:
1)  They are only rocks, after all, and
2) The crazy broads make the best love."

That seemed like a weird thing for a professor to tell one of his students but I'm glad I'm continuing the tradition by weirding out my own student with the same advice.

In a different playthrough, I never let her stay at my place at all. I refused her request after helping her with the car wreck, and she asked me to drop her off at Neptune Hall instead.

This seems like a safe place to leave a distraught young woman

I decided to visit Neptune Hall a few days later and it was good to see that she was fitting in fine and nothing was amiss...

As I was escorted out, I may have heard Jackie saying something about welcoming our new insect overlords

So, that's Jackie. I really find this a good example of non-linearity adding to the gameplay. Some games get it wrong by locking you out of quests or important information when you aren't in the right place at the right time - this game gives you the important information another way, and just has your own experiences change by seeing and doing different things without locking you out of content, and yet increases replayability and a sense of accomplishment by showing that your actions do affect the people around you.

So, enough of this (hopefully interesting) case study, time for the final rating...


Final Rating

Puzzles and Solvability - 1 (Amiga version 1)

There are no real puzzles in this game. The only thing that can vaguely be called a puzzle would be working out how to defeat the ants - getting the four pieces of evidence and talking to people to work out where the evidence is, the location of the ant's nest and what to do when we get there. Very low score for this rating for this reason only because it isn't really an adventure game

Interface and Inventory - 2 (Amiga version 2)

No inventory to speak of. When you collect the evidence the game knows you have it but you can't check (apart from going to the University to see if you have the option to give evidence to Dr Wells) The interface is simple and clear. The map screen has a cursor and looks like it SHOULD contain mouse movement but I can't really punish a game made in 1989 for not using mouse input.

Story and Setting – 6 (Amiga version 6)

The story is great fun. It's a simple premise and really feels like a story out of a 50s monster movie. As does the setting of the small town in the middle of nowhere in 1950s USA. The mayor refusing to listen to the evidence, the town being blocked off from the outside world, the one person doing what he can to single-handedly save the world - all cliches and all deliberately included to make the game work as an homage to the movies of old.

Sound and Graphics - 6 (Amiga version 9)

There's no doubt the Amiga version from 1989 really went all out in sound and graphics. You can tell the game was made for that system and the PC port suffered as a result. But still, even the PC version adequately shows the details of the town of Lizard Breath and its surrounds and, if it had to be compared with 1989 PC games would have come out very favourably. As it is for a 1990/1991 game it is above average but nowhere near the top games. The sound is also good. Most locations have unique and appropriate music - the main wandering themes are atmospheric and add to the game as you play. The minigame sound and music are appropriate, from the creepy ant sounds in the shooting scenes, to the frantic action music in the hospital escape sequence. The 1989 Amiga original wins out on both sound and graphics for the extra detail and quality, especially when compared to its original release year.

Environment and Atmosphere - 9 (Amiga version 9)

This is by far the game's best feature. Cinemaware's entire mission statement is to make you feel like you're in a movie and this game does it brilliantly. I've mentioned some of this during the playthrough and in the 'Story and Setting' section but to really understand how well it does you have to have seen the old monster movies it's mimicking and have played the game. It seems appropriate for this game to receive the first 9 we've given in this category.

Dialog and Acting - 6 (Amiga version 7)

The game does quite well in this category. You often get the same information from different people, but in different ways. Each character has a distinct personality and that shines through when they speak. You can get the same information from Dusty, Geez, Elmer, Ida the fortune teller, the police, the phone operator, a mine worker or a farmer, but the way they give you that information is unique and interesting, and adds to replayability as you can visit different people for different dialogue.

The non-linearity that I detailed in this post really helps give the dialogue more believability and impact.

The only reason it doesn't rate higher is that there are limited options to say different things. Dialogue options are often binary "Listen further" or " Tell them I'm not interested" type choices.

The Amiga version gets an extra point for the 'acting' which is mostly in the opening cutscene but also the way a nurse will call out during the hospital escape scene or the scream you make when an ant gets you. Though a few lines don't qualify as a whole point, I was very close to giving the PC version a 7 anyway so it's really more of a 6.4/6.6 situation.

Final Rating - 51 (Amiga version 57)

1+2+6+6+9+6*10/6 equal 50, with the Amiga version getting 57. I'm giving it an extra point because it just does what it does so well, and only fails at categories it wasn't even trying to succeed at in the first place.

So, the final rating is 51, which means the 10 CAPs will go to... Torch, for guessing the highest with 48. Being 2 points higher than the highest guess suggests that perhaps my nostalgia inflated the score slightly. It's possible, but I did try to not let it cloud my judgement. The fact that I really enjoyed playing it again suggests it does still have value, as that isn't the case with all games I loved when I was younger.


Now, if any of you suddenly feel the urge to play the game, you can find it, its sequel and 11 other Cinemaware games here. Enjoy!

14 comments:

  1. "So, the final rating is 51, which means the 10 CAPs will go to... Torch, for guessing the highest with 48. Being 2 points higher than the highest guess suggests that perhaps my nostalgia inflated the score slightly."

    In your defense ( and mine ) I guessed 55 first, but I was kind of dragged down to earth by the negativity of the posters below me :P If not for all the other low ( low ) guesses, I would've kept my original guess.

    My point of reference was always the Amiga version, so my initial 55 was pretty close to your 57 for that version.

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  2. I do think that the notion of graphics and sound for the Amiga version being a '9' is a bit over the top - I definitely think that graphically it's on the weaker side of the Amiga catalogue, and sound-wise it definitely doesn't have the polish of a Sierra/Lucasarts game (this coming from someone who has similar bias, given the Theme to LeChuck has been my ringtone for easily 5 years. It's a great moment when random strangers go '... is that from Monkey Island?' But I digress.

    I never had the patience to get through this one. The minigames were just that little bit too monotonous for my liking, and I had to look up a walkthrough to work out the best strategy for the 'Chicken' minigame as I was constantly trying to get out of hospital when I played it some years ago. The setting is awesome, though, and for some reason this game always reminds me of the two Worlds of Ultima titles which are very difficult not to love - maybe I should run it up one more time just to see if it was the 'three years ago me' that didn't have the patience for it.

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    1. You make a good point about me overrating the Amiga version's graphics and sound. I was stupidly comparing it to 1989 PC games from this blog rather than 1989 Amiga games. I think I'll have a look at some Amiga games for comparison and perhaps change the rating accordingly. I remember Shadow of the Beast II's opening blowing my mind at the time (but the game itself being way too hard for me to have fun for long)

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    2. I'll just have to say again that Amiga whoops PC's ass in the late 80s.

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    3. TBD, I don't think you overrated the Amiga graphics and sound at all. It's not just a question of how many polygons or graphics effects or simultaneous sound channels a game has; it's a question of *atmosphere* coming from those graphics and sound, and I'd argue that this game is almost unbeatable in that respect (for its time, that is). Also note how much atmosphere is lost when playing the PC version, even though the entire game is there.

      And, Aperama, sorry, but no Sierra game looked as good as this on the Amiga. The SCI EGA games didn't even improve on the PC's EGA palette (a bit lazy of them, since some of the older AGI ones did), and were cricticized by all the Amiga magazines because of that (sometimes unfairly, I admit -- there was an attitude of "this doesn't take proper advantage of the Amiga, so it must suck") and the VGA games were obviously highly dithered (256 colors converted to just 32). Not to mention that the latter played very slowly and with a lot of disk swapping.

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    4. This rating is from the first game on the list way back when in Below the Root (1984) all the way to today. I believe that it's important to not go overboard way back here - the music is good but not amazing, the graphics are good enough to convey what they are meant to show but not 'impressive' per se. I'm not claiming that the Amiga versions of Sierra/Lucasarts titles were better, but that they're the golden standard in this era for sure (not separating between PC/etc) - they're what everyone was trying to emulate for the most part because of the relative quality/wide publication. That 0-10 is from a text adventure with no sound to a game that blows away in both according not to the standards of 199x (Phantasmagoria looks so real! F-M-V!!!!) but those of the modern consumer, to me. Chunky pixels can look amazing, used right - the comparative 9 given to KQV gave me no issues. This game uses what it had well, but I do think there were both prettier and better sounding games of a similar era on the Amiga, not to even extend the thought to modern sensibilities in general.

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    5. It seems to me that this is a tricky category to score correctly.

      I apologize if this has been discussed to death before ( I haven't been following the blog for as long as a lot of you guys ), but when reading Tricksters initial description of the categories, he doesn't specify how graphics and sound will be rated compared to other games.

      Are games compared against others released the same year? Shouldn't a game be able to get a 9 or 10 if it's the best looking that year? Do you consider the potential of the hardware it ran on? Do you compare it to other adventure games only? Or to ALL games released the same year?

      Should it be impossible to get a 10 until the introduction Super-VGA/720p/1080p and so on?

      Not trying to incite a riot or anything, I'm just wondering about the thought process behind this. :)

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    6. I've been going with a 'for its time' theory. If it does something better than anything before it in some innovative way it's worth a 10. When I've come up with my ratings, I've had a look at recent games that have received the same (and/or 1 higher and lower) rating to see if I've gotten it right. (though I am currently thinking my '9' for the Amiga version's graphics and sound might be better as an 8) - I already decreased one or two of my PC ratings by reading recent final ratings and realising my first reaction had been a bit too generous.

      That being said, I don't think we've ever been clear or had a discussion on how the ratings should be compared. (I could be wrong - we may well have had this discussion before)

      Should we be comparing the games as if they came out today or comparing them with their contemporaries? I'm definitely in the latter camp. In my opinion the best game of 1991 should be able to get a 10 out of 10 score even if a game from 2015 did everything better.

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    7. My mind says that 2015 is unlikely to have many 10/10s either, even if comparing it between 1984 and all. Good is good. I'll publically say this - Day Of The tentacle is a 10/10 in graphics and sound. The music is perfect, zany and it still looks good on modern monitors - it's not 'beautiful' but the imagery is perfect for what they were going for. Inversely, I'd put Grim Fandango back to about a 7 - great audio but the imagery is awkward and didn't look very good when I played it on my fresh Geforce 2 (or something like that) in the late 90s. Really, good audio is a huge part of the battle here for me, and we've had at least the capability for that since General MIDI (even Soundblaster?).

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    8. I think what Trickster originally had in mind was trying to make ratings not based just on games in the year of publication. This makes a lot sense, when you are consider some other categories - we are not thinking about just the stories in the games of that year, when we are rating that category (otherwise, some of the early Missed Classics might have received better scores, since you could always say that the lack of disc space in early computers just prevented a more complicated story).

      And anyway, at some point the technological progress of computer graphics has gone so far that any new technical innovations are just incremental additions and this whole discussion will be somewhat moot. I'd argue that point will be reached in couple of years of the blog time - that is, beautiful games from around middle of 90s still look beautiful, just as Aperama said.

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  3. If you are to compare the games to their contemporaries, then how about looking up old reviews written at the time of release? Here are a couple of Amiga magazines reviewing "It came from the desert":

    CU Amiga: Graphics 94%, Sound 92% ( http://amr.abime.net/review_28807 )
    Amiga Action: Graphics 96%, Sound 95% ( http://amr.abime.net/review_25797 )
    The One Amiga: Graphics 93%, Sound 96% ( http://amr.abime.net/review_39002 )
    ACE Magazine: Graphics 9/10, Sound 8/10 ( http://amr.abime.net/review_6786 )

    I would say the majority of the reviews at the time seem to agree with you regarding sound/graphics for the Amiga version

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    1. Hmm... this should've been a reply in the previous thread.

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  4. That rating is significantly higher than I was expecting. From reading the articles, it sounded like this was just a bunch of minigames smashed together, rather than an "adventure game," and I would have expected the rating to punish it for that.

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    1. Yeah. It surprised me a bit too. When I was scoring it I was surprised that only 2 of the 6 categories are adventure specific - and the other categories happened to be things this game did well.

      Though at the time 'story and setting' was largely reserved for adventure games and some RPGs. Action game's stories largely consisted of a single sentence in the manual and/or an opening cutscene.

      I mentioned in the introduction post that this game was hard to categorize, and I still have problems trying to pigeon-hole it. I had mostly considered it an action game due to the minigames, but then when I consider what you spend most of your game time doing, and it's the investigation - going to locations and talking to people to try to find out where to go and what to do, which is decidedly un-actiony.

      Still definitely not an adventure game though, either. Just don't tell anyone or I'll feel I wasted 3 weeks playing a non-adventure game for an adventure gaming blog.

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