Crapshoot: Giant ants and an unsettling nurse in It Came from the Desert


From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, the sleepy town of Lizard Breath has a serious case of ants in its pants... and its farms, mines, and airfield... and a pistol's not gonna cut it.

Mother Nature is a nightmare, and her spawn nothing but hideous monsters. Nobody knows that better than B-Movie directors, or that the best way to appreciate their true horror is to zap them to Godzilla size. Them! Earth vs. The Spider. The Beginning of The End. Honey I Blew Up the Kid. The list goes on, with special effects ranging from advanced tricks with glass and cameras, to simply dumping some grasshoppers on a postcard and hoping the audience weren't paying very much attention.

It Came from the Desert brought this brand of grammatically questionable horror to the desktop.

Cinemaware was an interesting company. Its 'thing' was creating interactive movies, but not in the standard 'lots of bad FMV with occasional mouseclicks' kind of way. Really, it went about it in the right way—taking the primitive technology of the late 80s/early 90s and trying to figure out ways to make it both more cinematic dynamic than your average adventure. By far its most famous game was Defender of the Crown, which plenty of people look fondly back on. Others included Rocket Ranger and Sinbad, neither of which I've ever played much of. They may be great, but looking at them, I suspect not.

It Came from the Desert was by far the most iconic of the Games That Were Not Defender of the Crown though, all thanks to a single screen like the one at the top of this page—a tiny, hysterically weak pistol pointing defiantly at a gigantic killer ant that clearly could not give a shit .

What was the game like? Who cared? Giant ants! And guns! See you next week!

There was more to it than a single iconic picture though. It Came from the Desert is a quirky, interesting mix of adventure, real-time simulation and simple arcade action that puts you right in the middle of a 1950s creature feature. Do you have what it takes to save the day, or will your efforts only serve to make a mountain out of an anthill? There's only one way to find out...

Day One - Something Very, Very Bad Is Coming

Checking my ID badge, it appears I'm Greg Bradley for the duration of this one—a geologist visiting the sleepy town of Lizard Breath to study mineral samples. God, I sound awesome. It's 1951, hair is intentionally greasy, TV news programs unironically use phrases like "world famous nuclear physicist" in missing persons reports, and young men called Biff can go through life without hearing constant cries of "Butthead!" Young men called Butthead however must continue waiting for their Beavis.

The best thing about today? It's a tie between some new samples I have coming in, and the fact that giant ants definitely don't exist. And as I savour that, there comes a loud knock-knocking on my door.

Turns out it's Geez and his trusty mule, both spooked by something out in the desert that definitely didn't involve giant ants. They've brought me some more samples to play with, though Geez mentions that his mule won't go near the volcano to the south ever since a meteor hit a few days ago. Probably some supervillain building a lair. If I see a bald head staring out over the horizon, I'll call the authorities myself. Someone has to step up. Someone has to be a Hero. I hope there's a hot lady-scientist in town.

(Spoiler: There isn't.)

Biff shows up and together we check out the new samples. "Jeepers, this is spooky!" he exclaims, frankly trying too hard. "One of these samples has a weird glow to it!"

"Thank you, Biff," I reply. "As a professional geologist, I'd never have noticed that."

I tell him to pass me the mysterious ore, only it turns out to be hotter than it looks. Not hot enough to burn its way through a small cloth bag or be noticeable to Geez and his mule, but still hot enough for Biff to drop it to the floor with a cry of pain and almost burn down my fucking house.

When I put the fire extinguisher down, he apologises. I accept. After all, he didn't know. He has however just been promoted to Head Radioactive Rock from Space Carrier, and I impress on him the importance of keeping it somewhere safe and ideally very, very close to his balls. Eugenics is underrated.

Right. To business. I have a standing invitation to call some reporter, Bert Lamont, at the local newspaper, but I haven't trusted journalists since that guy gave Hard Reset a pathetic 58%, so he can go suck it. I figure that I should probably check out where the glowing rock thing came from, just in case Biff ends up with superpowers instead of scrotal cancer and I decide I want in. Geez heads over to O'Riordan's pub, Biff... I don't care what Biff does. I head out and go scouting on my own.

Nothing's happening at the Dairy, or at the Mines. On a whim, I stop in by JD's Farm on the way back to town, and get a less than warm reception from the farmhand while checking in on the meteor crash.

"I heard about you," the yokel says. "You're that know-it-all scientist who's pokin' around other people's business! I suppose you came about the cow with the missing head."

I try to explain that not all science is the same, and that while as a 1950s brainiac I almost certainly can handle everything from quantum physics to producing anti-zombie serum should the need arise, I usually appreciate it when mere mortals don't simply assume this omnidisciplinary mastery.

Also, what cow?

But instead of answering, he freezes, seeing something terrible. Something awesome. Something nobody could have predicted, unless they noticed all the ants and stuff on the game box.

Luckily, I have my gun—a standard precaution for us geologists, just in case we run into some samples that don't want to be taken. I aim firmly for its squishy... tail... bulge... thingy and fire and fire and fire until my gun is empty. The ant turns round and gives me a look that says "Dude, seriously?" and wanders off. Finally, I breathe out. I may not have triumphed today, but at least—

Day Two - Bed, Bugs and Hello, Nurse!

I wake up the next morning to the sight of Judy, Lizard Breath's chestiest nurse. "You're lucky that they found you, Doc," she says, winking in the way you don't usually want from someone with the power to stick a gloved hand up your bottom and bill you for the privilege, whether you enjoyed it or not. "Whatever you tangled with won. You're going to be with us for two days at least!"

I mumble something that sounds like "giant ants... giant ants..."

"If it's bugs you want to know about, Dr. Wells over at the University Lab is the guy to see," she winks, winking with a wink. "Now, do you want to Escape Hospital, Make a Call, or Accept Treatment?"

I consider my options carefully. On the one hand, I was just savaged by a giant ant, and have no reason to assume that I have 15 in-game days to deal with this before the town is destroyed. On the other, I'm screaming "AAAAAANTS!" like some kind of madman, and I always promised myself that in situations like this, I'd be sure to see a neurologist before founding some kind of religion around my experiences. I decide to play it safe, and try to at least salvage something from the day by just calling the lab for news. Unfortunately, Dr. Wells is out. Darn. Okay. I phone home instead... getting some sass from the operator asking if anyone's going to be in, as if being a scientist didn't automatically make me a chick-magnet... and get through to Biff. Apparently Geez has brought over more samples.

Jeez, I sigh, hanging up and lying down to have nightmares about impossible entomology.

Day Four - When This Town Is Ash, I Will Dance Amongst The Charcoal

Leaving the hospital, I head straight home to see if anything was up. No sooner am I back when my neighbour Ben showed up looking shaken. He's been camping over in the south-west—the Valley of Certain Death, I think it was—and had found something mysterious —a bit like a deer leg, but bigger, and probably part of... crazy as it sounds... a giant ant. I rush it over to Dr. Wells in the University Lab, but like many scientists faced with the unknown, he found himself officially Baffled.

(This is code for "was just asked questions by some fool in a hurry, and not given time to do any tests." At least by the year 2000, I'm confident that newspapers will understand this.)

With no other pressing leads, I pop into the local bar to find Geez, but he's not around. Nor's that farmhand from earlier, who I'd kinda hoped would back up my "AAAAAAANTS!" story when I went to tell the mayor about it. Who else was there? The guy at the newspaper, I guess. Or wait! What about that secret Neptune Society I've heard about from the locals? Maybe they'll help.

Well, I figure the mayor should probably be told. I swing in on my journalist person-I-know at the local paper to scope out the situation, and am stunned to find out that he's trying to kill any negative story because there's a Hubris Festival happening next week and he doesn't want the bad publicity. In my experience as a 1950s scientist, nothing draws monsters, volcanos, and invasions of the saucer people like a big ironic party. But hey, at least some authority figures must be open to evidence, right?

You know, just once it'd be nice to see a disaster movie of some kind where the Mayor's first response to trouble is to hold a big town meeting and say "I've just been handed some worrying news from some experts; it might be nothing, but just in case we're going to do exactly what they say for a couple of days." But today is not that day. Fine. When the ants attack, may he be eaten first.

Swinging by the bar again, I overhear some rumours about mysterious happenings over at Mine 1. That sounds like it'll be worth checking out, but it's 6PM and I've had a busy day. I decide to treat myself to a movie over at Beverly's Drive In on the edge of town, jump in my car and head over.

Unfortunately, just as I'm pulling in...

Ah, hell, it's the Hellcats—a trio of sociopathic kids with knives and nothing better to do with their time than practice with them. I'm pretty sure I could take them on an intellectual battlefield (or even in a game of Who Can Count to Three?) but they're not in the mood, so I just back off and head home.

Then see them speeding ahead, turning around, and...

Day Five - Carry On Again Nurse

Familiar breasts greet my eyes as they open. "You've been in a car crash," Nurse Chestington tells me, winking inappropriately. What is it with this woman? I half expect to wake her to see her holding a mallet and insisting I find a way to bring Misery back from the dead. Or worse, bringing me a hospital meal.

"Nothing seriously wrong with you, but we're going to keep you here for a day or so."

Well, that's not too bad, I guess. Could be worse, anyway.

"By the way," she adds, raising her eyebrows and grinning. "Ice is really mad about you wrecking his car. He said he'd be waiting for you at Beverly's Drive-In to finish what's been started."

I put aside any plans to invite her to the movies after this ant problem has been dealt with. Speaking of which, do I really have another day to waste lying in bed? I don't think so. It's time to escape.

Metal Gear Solid, this is not. Worse, I'm no Solid Snake. I just about make it to the ground floor, but the staff around the entrance are too quick. They jab me with a needle, and my legs turn to jelly before I can ask "Wait, are you sure this is a good idea, medically speaking?"

Not that I suspect they'd have listened anyway.

Day Six - Scientist, Hero, Lover

After a night strapped to a bed with Nurse Chestington's constant creepy winks... something that might be quite pleasant under less lethal circumstances... I head over to see Dr. Wells.

"Greg, I've looked at the results of the tests we did on that tissue you collected," he tells me, almost playing a drumroll. "Are you sitting down? It's from a harvester ant. An enormous one."

No shit, Sherlock, I don't reply. But he redeems himself. A little.

"With ants this big, the only place they will be vulnerable to pistol shots is their antennae," he explains. "If you can shoot off both, they will lose contact with the others and die."

Finally! A tactic! Not a fun one when faced with a snarling giant ant, but at least 4.5% better than being completely unprepared if one happens to show up. Or if I choose to go on a little hunting trip.

Figuring that there's no evidence quite like a giant dead ant, I take a look around town in search of one to make so... The farms seem empty, but the Ore Plant is another matter. As I arrive, everyone is clustered around a radio from which we can hear a terrifying, unholy screech from the depths of pure nightmare. "Good lord!" shouts the voice on the other end, surprisingly restrained. "It's—"

We all race up to the shaft and another definitely-not-a-hallucination-mr-mayor giant ant. This time though, I'm armed with a pistol, knowledge, and most importantly, a recent savegame. This last one proves important, because trying to hit a couple of wobbling antennae on a fast moving creature with no aiming assistance is, to use a technical scientific term from science, 'a bitch and a half'.

Flushed with success, I race back to the Mayor's office to invite him to kiss my arse. But he's out. So is Dr. Wells when I pop into the Lab. Even the newspaper office is empty. Bloody typical. I single-handedly take out a giant ant, and everyone else takes a half-day holiday.

Asking around, they all seem to have headed over to Neptune Hall, and while I can't say I'm in the mood to jabber with the one man who watched Superfriends and asked his parents for an Aquaman poster, I can take a hint. Arriving, he tells me that someone ... or someTHING... bashed in his toolshed the previous night and left strange fluid all over his belongings. I gather some up, really, really not wanting to ask too many questions. Unfortunately, with the Lab now closed and the mayor not around to kiss my feet, the only thing I can think to do is head over to Beverly's and accept Ice's challenge to settle our car-crash dispute with a knife-fight. That would definitely be the heroic thing to do.

Day Seven - After A Nice, Relaxing Sleep At Home

Geez knocks on my door to say he's heading up to the mines for some reason, and that he'll put a marker down on the ground if I want to go to the expense of chartering a plane. I promise that in the event of his death, I probably won't have his corpse taxidermied and put into humiliating poses for my personal amusement. He doesn't seem as grateful as he should. I may reconsider.

At the lab, Dr. Wells takes my recent evidence and promises to get back to me about it tomorrow, apparently oblivious to the fact that there's an entire dead giant ant that should have been hauled into town already. The mayor is equally oblivious to this, and while I'm not a violent 1950s scientist by nature, I can't say this doesn't make me want to slash a hole in his bladder and make him pee the word "ANTS!" all over Main Street in his own blood. How is nobody seeing these things that should be dwarfing the horizon? Do they have cloaking devices? This is getting ridiculous! Open your eyes!

On the plus side, there's talk of a posse burning down Neptune Hall, home of the fish weirdos. So that's okay. I head over to see if I can help pile up some kindling, but only bump into their leader, Billy Bob, looking sombre in a regular suit instead of his usual outfit. When I press him about recent events, he demonstrates his trustworthiness with calmness, delicacy, and randomly pulling a knife.

Luckily, it turns out that I learned geology in the School of Hard Knocks, and not only have my own knife, I soon leave him a bleeding pile on the ground. At that point, a girl runs into my arms—his daughter Jackie, apparently, though we've yet to actually meet. I take her home immediately.

"Greg, that man is a monster!" Jackie tells me. "He saw something when he was out camping—something he believes he can use to take over this whole valley! Whatever it it was, it's coming from the southwest and has something to do with the meteor crash you were talking about!"

Seriously, how is nobody else aware of the giant ants by now? Everyone's seen one! We have one of their corpses! But no. Even when I nip into the police station to let them know I may have killed a guy, all they can talk about is that the bridge out of town has been taken out. By what? Gee, let me think...

I head back home with a mind to taking Jackie out on a hot date to the Hot Springs on my map, before realising that it's still under construction. Not many other ideas spring to mind, unless you count the Garage... but not many sexytimes are likely to come of that this side of Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X.

Well, never mind. At least we still have the rest of the evening to find something to—

Day Eight - From Ant To Ant-Agonist

"Greg, that drawing of the track that Geez found has been identified as a harvester ant as big as a building!" no-shit-Sherlocks Dr. Wells as I stagger in after yet another night in Nurse Chestington's World of Adventure. Still, with that, the tissue samples, what turns out to be formic acid from Neptune Hall and, oh yeah, the giant dead ant I killed a couple of days ago, we should at least have enough to persuade even the world's stupidest mayor that Something Has To Be Done About This.

Haha, no.

I check in back home, where Jackie tries to convince me that she's heard about giant ants the size of vans. "Call me when they're the size of trucks," I sigh, and head to the pub. At this point, it looks like I'm going to fight this invasion personally, and if I know anything at all about ants, it's that their mounds are typically flat and broad, 0 to 100 mm (0 to 3.9 in) high, and 300 to 1,200 mm (12 to 47 in) in diameter. Also, there are usually a buttload of them inside. A metric buttload. And that's a lot .

From the air though... from their air it'd be safe enough, and I know a pilot who's willing to lend me a plane. Even better, he tells me that one of his colleagues recorded some strange sounds to go onto my giant ant corpse shaped pile of giant ant-related evidence. Checking my watch, it's too late to go to the Mayor with it today... but I still have enough time to head up-diddly-up and see if I can find Geez's marker out in the desert. If I can locate the ants' nest, maybe we can blow it up...

Well, they say any landing you can walk away from is a good one. Louie, who owns the plane, disagrees quite a lot about that, but at least I'm not badly enough hurt to need more of Nurse Chestington's ministrations. Overall then, I'm going to call today a success. Hurrah for Day Eight!

Day Nine - On The Other Hand Can Sod Right Off

I wake up and head to the Mayor with my exciting tape recording. He doesn't care. I go home. I go back to bed and spend the entire day with a bottle of Coke and an expression of pure hate.

Screw this town. I hope they all burn in Hell.

Day Ten - Invasion Of The Ants

Dr. Wells calls to say he's at the farm south of town, and wants me to head over. I grab my gun and grudgingly do so. No sooner have I arrived though than he gets into a flap about something.

"Greg!" he screams. "Help me! It's coming this way!"

I turn and yawn at the sight of one of the giant ants approaching. "Yeah, I got this," I tell the dustcloud where he used to be, and effortlessly pop off its antennae. Approaching its corpse, I give it a very satisfying little kick. "There," I tell it, waving my gun. "You and who's army?"

I make a desperate run for it and get clear of the small swarm, but to no avail. Under the burning sun, I soon collapse. When I wake up, I figure that at least now, the evidence is incontrovertible—nobody, not even these idiots could have missed a swarm of giant ants killing the local doctor. But no. The Mayor kicks me out. All my friends and contacts are mysteriously gone. And just to add insult to injury, Ice and his pals show up on the way home and make me spend another night at the bloody hospital.

Time for a new plan. A better plan. A brilliant plan.

Day Eleven - A Brilliant Plan

I wake to a world where the Mayor has finally accepted that his town is under attack by giant ants... because one of them ate his car. He's still not too bothered about the situation though.

"Maybe they've gone," he grins, punchably. "That's it! We scared them away! I'll declare tomorrow Ant Evacuation Day... we'll have a float and crown an Ant Queen! What a BONANZA!"

I ponder my options in the face of this idiocy, but only one seems appropriate.

Okay. Two. But I don't have a urine-soaked crowbar to hand.

Days Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen - Do Giant Ants Dream Of Electric Sheep? (No.)

I wake up to Biff telling me that the ants have destroyed the ore plant and the airfield. I tell him not to worry. I totally have this. And by the way, do we have any more chocolate biscuits left? I'm feeling hungry. He answers no, and something about duty and honour and stuff. I roll over and go back to sleep, idly wondering where Jackie is. Maybe eaten by the ants. Pity. She seemed nice enough.

The next morning rolls round and there's still no sign of her. Just Biff. Again. "So... the lab's gone," he says, with a certain 'I'm about to run like hell' look in his eyes as he looks out of the window at something in the distance. "And gee whiz, you have some unexpected house guests."

"Call Nurse Chestington," I yawn, rolling over. "Tell her I'll be there in a minute."

Day Fifteen: The Final Stand

The early morning sirens announced that the final battle was already under way on Main Street. I had a nice long breakfast and a relaxing shower, then ambled over to see how it was going. It was going badly. The National Guard had mobilised a few tanks, but nowhere near enough to handle the onslaught. I wandered between the explosions, looking for the Mayor. Humanity was over, that much was clear. The ants would expand their territory, turning the Earth itself into the ultimate hiding place. We'd bomb them and spray them, and we'd kill many... but with just a handful left, they'd rebuild. Possibly even in time for an expansion pack to this invasion that would have an incredibly stupid name, before returning for a completely different invasion on Turbografx. Which used FMV. And looks completely dreadful.

And I couldn't help but wonder... what if things had gone differently? What if Ice hadn't shown up when he did? What if I'd checked the farm at some time after I went to the bar? What if I'd been able to persuade the Mayor to act sooner? What if I'd been able to fly a plane? They were questions that could have changed the world, and the kind of decisions... albeit decisions wrapped up in dodgy mini-games... that could have done so much for adventure gaming as a genre if followed up on by future games.

But not this time. No, this time, the ants had won.

And I for one welcomed our new insect overlords.