The summer of 1992. The Gulf war is still a painful memory for many, the fires of Kuwait and camera-guided missiles the evocative images that remain. In the UK, the Conservatives secure another five years in power thanks to a surprising election result and in the world of video gaming Sega’s newest console, the Megadrive (AKA the Genesis in the U.S.) has had a successful launch but is still in need of more top quality games to compete with the mighty Nintendo and it’s Super Entertainment System.
Enter Electronic Arts. Already a huge software company, they were embracing the gaming scene rapidly with their ubiquitous sports titles just around the corner. 1993 would see the FIFA series unleashed upon the world, firmly establishing EA as a major power in the world of video games; back in 1992, however, an entirely different type of game was on the horizon. With no license behind it and an original (even groundbreaking) design template, Desert Strike was released to a wave of publicity and hype that for once did not disappoint.
These days, its creator, Mike Posehn is writing software for Canon Digital Cameras but I caught up with him to discuss the legendary Desert Strike and it’s sequels, Jungle and Urban Strike,
But first, here's a little summary of the Strike games.
Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf
Formats: Sega Megadrive, Super Nintendo, Nintendo Gameboy, Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, Commodore Amiga, IBM PC, Apple Mac and (eventually) Nintendo Gameboy Advance and Sony PSP.
The first in the series was a massive hit for EA (their biggest at the time) and resulted in the game being ported to most formats of the day. Set unsurprisingly in the Middle East, Desert Strike was a muscular shooter that combined tactical play with an open map that encouraged the player to wander off and discover hidden elements at any time during the missions. It contained four levels each set at a different time of day, and within each level were several objectives that required completion. These ranged from destroying enemy installations to rescuing POW’s and civilians. The game pioneered the use of SNAFU’s that guided the player to completing certain objectives in a specific order; failure to do so often resulted in the foreboding “Return to Base!” message. Amazingly, Desert Strike was ported the the Nintendo GBA as late as 2002 and even made it onto the PSP as part of a Sega Compilation in 2006. The Megadrive version, however, remains the best way to experience this classic shooter - preferably with a six-button pad.
Formats: Sega Megadrive, SNES, PC, Gameboy, Gamegear, Amiga, Amiga CD32
Expanding massively on the original, the main changes for the sequel were the different vehicles the player could now control and the varied scenarios. Whilst the chopper remained the primary mode of transportation/destruction, you could now merrily blast away on a motorbike, travel across water and land alike in the hovercraft and deal death with the powerful, yet fragile Stealth Bomber. The levels offered greater scope as well, with missions over Washington, Hawaii, a snow-covered mountain range and, of course, the eponymous Jungle as well as a devious night mission that was thrown in for good measure. Although not as nostagically popular, Jungle Strike remains an eminently superior sequel to the original game and was another massive hit for Electronic Arts.
Format: Sega Megadrive, SNES, Gamegear, Gameboy
Another day, another mad dictator, only this one is threatening the USA directly with a mysterious laser weapon. As was expected after the success of Jungle Strike, a huge range of scenarios were presented from a foggy San Francisco to a pre-9/11 New York, complete with an attack on the Twin Towers that freakishly also occurs in the year 2001 in the game. Urban also featured several on-foot levels as well as more vehicles for you to commandeer. It was not as successful as the two previous games, but was still an excellent game, and a fitting end to the series on Sega’s Megadrive.
Formats: Sony Playstation, PC, Sega Saturn,
With Mike Posehn’s involvement now drastically reduced - although John Manley was still involved with the design along with Michael Becker - as Electronic Arts opted for a group-based approach to game development, Soviet Strike added more background information (you were now part of a global covert “Strike” team battling against the enemies of freedom) and also changed the viewpoint: instead of the roving camera of the original games, the player now sat just above and behind the helicopter. Many elements from the original games were included such as fuel and ammo crates, the pause/status screen and landing zones to drop off passengers for which you are rewarded with valuable armour points. Present were the three types of weapon from the Megadrive games (Hellfire missiles, Hydra Rockets and chain gun) and there were also additional “Wingtip” weapons in the form of Sidewinder missiles, fuel drop pods and chaffs bombs to counter enemy attacks. And with this being the onset of the CD era of gaming, cinematics were included for the first time with General Earle giving you the orders and the mysterious Shadowman your nemesis. In a surprising move, you only got to control the Apache in Soviet Strike.
Formats: Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64, PC
Nuclear Strike offered considerably more to the previous game with multiple vehicles (another dozen!), the ability to command ground troops, a HUD that identified objects for you, new characters, a compass that handily directed you to your next task and a targeting box. Like Soviet, the plot was perfunctory with another terrorist threatening world peace with a stolen nuclear missile. Nuclear Strike welded in a clunky plot of political intrigue but the action was similar to all the games: shoot, shoot and shoot again!
Soviet and Nuclear Strike were fun games; the graphics were obviously improved, but with the addition of laborious cut-scenes and the change of view, they moved away considerably from the Megadrive originals and at the time were somewhat lost under the mass of the nascent First Person Shooter genre.
Future Strike: The Strike that wasn’t
A shift of focus at Electronic Arts (and maybe poor sales) led to the end of the Strike series and Future Strike morphing into the excellent mech shooter Future Cop LAPD.
So without further ado, here's my interview with the legendary Mike Posehn.
Before we start on Desert Strike, Mike, can you please tell me a little about your programming history?
“I was fresh out of university in the seventies with a PhD in engineering and I was working at Lawrence Livermore, a government nuclear weapons laboratory in California. I bought one of the first personal computers, a Sol 20, and actually just began writing software, for fun mainly.”
What about your first commercial software experiences?
“I wrote a few productivity programs for the CP/M operating system and sold them via mail order. One of them was Milestone, the first project management software for personal computers which was very successful and enabled me to quit my job at the lab and become an independent software author.”
What happened next?
“I hired a few people and we developed the first PIM (Personal Information Manager) which gained the interest of Electronic Arts. At that time they were a small private company in search of products so they bought my company in 1984 and released the PIM – under the title of Get Organized! – but unfortunately it did not meet their expectations so my team and I got fired.”
Ah, so not the greatest of starts then. Presumably your next project for them was more successful?
“Yes, at that time the Amiga computer was being developed, so Tom Casey (one of my original employees before EA) and I wrote Deluxe Video which Electronic Arts published. It was a good title for them and they made a lot of money on it.”
When did you decide you might want to get involved in videogames and what influenced you in this direction?
“I started in productivity software and moved into creativity. Then I took a stab at entertainment and began work on a flight simulator for EA, which was ok but a little dry and boring. Trip Hawkins (Electronic Arts’ founder and CEO) asked me to take a look at the game Choplifter and produce something along those lines.”
“We both liked several game elements in the game, such as the way you could rescue the little guys with your helicopter. I started work on Desert Strike in 1989 and worked on the technology for about a year, influenced by the Matchbox toys from when I was a kid and the isometric point-of-view which I much preferred.”
Desert Strike was quite unlike most other console games upon it’s release thanks to an open nature that allowed the player an unprecedented level of freedom. What inspired you to design the game this way, and was there any resistance to the non-linear approach?
“To be honest, I had never been a game player and therefore wasn’t constrained by the linear nature of most game play - I just though it was more natural to be able to roam freely through a world. This was heresy at Electronic Arts and I fought many battles with other producers. However, Stewart Bonn, my producer, stuck with me and we got it approved.”
In another revolutionary step, the helicopter is controlled by the player in 1st person, despite the third person view. Why did you feel this was better and was it universally approved of?
“I just hated third person control! People at EA though gamers would never be able to use first person controls with a third person POV. I disagreed. I won.”
Indeed, and it seems bizarre now that anyone could object to such an intuitive control method. How much were you involved in the actual level design?
“I admit I was never one for level design. I credit John Manley, my assistant producer, with that as he had a great imagination. I would come up with ideas for the “mini-missions” and technical things that I thought I could do, and he would stitch them together into a reasonable mission scenario.”
Despite it’s open nature, you obviously still needed certain objectives. How did you compromise these two necessities?
“I wanted to preserve the freedom so I came up with the idea of using SNAFU’s, an acronym I’ve always liked [note: SNAFU stands for Situation Normal: All Fouled Up, although a less polite version is more common!]. In the course of your wandering, if you did something wrong, it would be like a SNAFU that prevented you from finishing the mission. So rather than leading you through a linear order, you flew around the world and learned via SNAFU what things you had to do in advance.”
How hard was it squeezing the game into a Megadrive cart?
“I think I had seven bytes of free memory on that first cart! A lot of my time was spent creating custom compression algorithms for each type of game data. It was painful.”
On release, the Desert Strike caused quite a stir thanks to the recent Gulf War and the supposed jingoism that many observers felt ran through the game. Were you conscious of this at any time during development?
“During the development it was actually Beirut in Lebanon that was making the news in the Middle East. In fact, the code name for the game was Beirut Breakout during this time. Of course, we all knew a bit about Saddam Hussein, so Iraq was on our minds too, but the Gulf War itself was just a coincidence.”
The 3D models are excellent in all of the games. How did you go about creating them?
“Tim Calvin, my best friend and a retired dentist, did the models. I built a Revell plastic model Apache helicopter and he made the 3D model. They were initially highly detailed models that were then scrunched down into those small sprite images. I loved that little Apache and still think it looks pretty cool.”
Talking of the models, another facet that always impresses is the physics involved, especially with the Apache itself. Was this a key element for you?
“Yes, and this is where my math background came in handy. The physics were based on second-order differential equations. It was crucial to get them right to make the game believable.”
Did the development run smoothly on the games?
“No, it was always going wrong. I worked a total of two years on Desert Strike, basically seven days a week, no vacations. I had to build small test worlds for each basic interaction and bug fixing was a chore. It took too much time to play the game to find and fix a bug: I had to replicate each bug in a small special purpose world in order to get a quickly repeatable test case. Jungle Strike took half the time and I liked the look of it much better.”
And what was the trickiest thing you had to work around?
“Without a doubt, the obstacle collisions! Collisions with buildings in an isometric view is hard to compute as getting the z-order - the depth or third dimension - right is very tricky.”
And were there any areas of Desert Strike that you felt could have been improved?
“Not really, although the graphics could have been a bit better. The Jungle Strike cart was twice as big and the graphics were much smoother.”
Urban Strike followed the Jungle template with varied missions and maps, as well as some controversial on-foot sections. Were you happy with they way these levels worked?
“I didn’t like the on-foot parts, not did I like the stealth fighter. I just didn’t feel they fitted in well with the ethos of the original game.”
Were you involved at all with the Playstation sequels, Soviet and Nuclear Strike and what are you thoughts on them?
“I was involved for about one year. Electronic Arts took the team approach to those games and I work best on my own. To be fair, those games were too complex for one guy to code, yet I think EA lost what made the early games great.”
The peeing dog joke right at the end of Desert Strike. Honest now, was that your idea?
“No! John Manley deserves all the credit for that one. However, I did have to write special purpose code to play those cinematics which was not my favourite thing to do...”
Finally, which is your personal favourite of the three Megadrive games, and also your favourite level?
“Jungle, no question about it, and my favourite level was the Night Mission from that game.”
Many thanks to Mike for his time
Many thanks to Gordon Sinclair of Replay Events for kindly permitting this feature to be reproduced from Replay magazine. Check out www.replayevents.com for details of upcoming events.