College back in the very early 90s was a very long time ago, technologically speaking. We had one TV in the lounge of my freshman dorm and the VHF knob had fallen off, so we had to tune it with a fork. The multimedia experience in my room was a radio with headphones that played AM and FM! There was no such thing as the world wide web for our consumption, but I do recall by the end of my first year responding to a Bitnet message from somebody with the one line, “Sure, I would like to get back in touch with you, but what is the ‘e-mail’ you’re talking about?”
The computer highlight of my first year in college came from the one guy down the hall, Chris, who had his very own PC computer (the rest of us used computer labs in the library). On that computer, he’d snagged a copy of Scorched Earth, and we kids would spend hour after hour sitting around his computer monitor like it was some kind of fireplace, waiting our turn to be one of the six players who could buy weapons and gear for a tank (laser, small missile, MIRV, parachute, dirt bombs, nuke!), set angle and power, adjust for wind speed, and blast the hell out of each other. I was a pretty strident pacifist at the time, but I had no problem unloading a Death Head right on top of my friends. This turn-based combat game for DOS was strictly 2-D and used less than ten colors in its graphics scheme, but it was a whole lot of fun.
Talking about times past with some old friends the other day gave me a sudden hankering for this game that I hadn’t played for over 15 years. I was disappointed to find out that the original game won’t run on my Windows Vista computer. I could find myself a DOS emulator, but by the time I wound myself around to that solution I discovered that my fondness for Scorched Earth is not unique. There is more than one game out there (available for free just like Scorched Earth apparently was) written by fans with the aim of replicating or extending the Scorched Earth experience for play on today’s computers.
Scorched 3D takes the gameplay of Scorched Earth and attempts to bring it into alignment with 21st Century gameplay. Tanks take potshots at one another in 3 dimensions, on mountain islands rendered with polygonal detail and covered with detailed textures. There’s music playing in the background; there are plants growing on the hillsides; there are birds crying above the waves that ripple on the shore. There are shadows to give that extra sense of realism to Scorched 3D. All of these make Scorched 3D a failure as an update. Scorched Earth wasn’t great because it was just like fighting a real projectile battle on real terrain with real birds calling out in the distance. Scorched Earth was great because, just as it was inundated with ridiculously bright red lava, a destroyed tank would call out some silly saying in defeat taken randomly from a text file, like “Bah, I shall fight again!” Then the tank would blow up into little brown or yellow pixels. The whole point was that the fight was unrealistic. Besides, the authors of Scorched 3D have added so many little graphic details that even my current-year computer can’t easily handle the display of them without significant lag. While the game is lagging, I have the “advantage” of being able to change camera angles in three dimensions plus zoom, all by moving around the mouse that also allows me to select options. A common consequence for me is ending up looking at strange, beautiful scenery halfway across the island from where I’d like to be while I’m trying to work with my tank. Perhaps I might learn to enjoy Scorched 3D more if I could get the game to work consistently and predictably. I can’t, so I haven’t.
Scorched Earth 2000 is a Java Applet trying to reproduce the experience and gameplay of Scorched Earth, also allowing people to play from the across the Internet by logging in with an account. Because the applet can be downloaded and put up on just about any server, Scorched Earth 2000 is available on a number of mirror servers on websites across the internet. You may be asked to log in with a username, a password and (!) an e-mail address, which makes me a bit nervous… what is to be done with my e-mail address isn’t specified. Thankfully, you can also log in as a guest.
Another game which I think best carries on the spirit of Scorched Earth is the differently-titled Atomic Tanks. Free, just like these other games, Atomic Tanks permits single, computer, and multi-user play, lets you select from a wide variety of straight-forward or kooky weapons, allows play over multiple rounds for the accumulation of reward money, and even kicks in silly statements made by computer-controlled tanks as they chortle in victory or curse in defeat (“Je ne suis pas un poisson!”). Unfortunately, documentation of the various weapons and their advantages in battle is skimpy, so you’ll have to learn by doing, but fortunately the doing is fun. Best of all, the software seems to work every time. The most confusing part of game play is selecting players (hint: when a player is surrounded by a white oval, it’s selected), but play moves quickly and coherently from that point. Atomic Tanks gets my recommendation for its combination of function and harmless fake-violent projectile-hurling fun.