Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Turn-based strategy games are an interesting lot; some players devotedly follow them passionately, but many gamers fail to even give them a try and cast them aside onto the mound of unappreciated genres. For the Nintendo Entertainment System, there were not many examples of such titles, and some would argue that, especially at the time, trying to play such cartridges may have seemed futile when the PC was much more apt to host those types of contests.
But there were still samples to choose from, whether the rather ambitious Nobunaga’s Ambition or the obscure Bandit Kings of Ancient China. Among the simpler, more intuitive cartridges was an obscure little NES game called Desert Commander, a 1989 release by Kemco that places the player in command of Allied or Axis forces in the North African theater of World War II for some key battles.
The game offers a moderate depth of options, with ten different kinds of units available to immediately choose from each play, and the capacity to vary their amounts for each skirmish. Each turn, each unit gets one action, and if they move adjacent to an opposing unit, they get to attack. Different units have different strengths and weaknesses, such as the anti-aircraft cannon being obviously strong against fighters and bombers but with very limited mobility, or the tanks being advantageous against opposing ground units but posing little threat to air forces.
During each battle, the object is to capture the opposing headquarters, and successfully fight their opposing units in the process. One truly remarkable aspect of this game is that different units move different through different terrain (enough uses of the word “different” there?), giving players the thought exercise of whether to take the quick route over the roads and be exposed, or hunch behind bunkers and mountains for a much slower assault.
The one-player mode only offers five missions to choose from, although the final mission is rather difficult, but there is a two-player mode as well for rewarding gameplay with two gamers that have bothered to learn the mechanics behind Desert Commander.
The graphics for Desert Commander are pretty simple in review, with tile-based icons serving the bulk of the game’s looks. There are, though, cut scenes that show each unit-to-unit fight in a brief animated show of force, as each units loses bits of their own units representing their longevity. Otherwise, being a turn-based strategy game, nobody could have realistically expected an emphasis on its graphics anyway.
One item that could have slightly enhanced the Desert Commander experience would be a deeper soundtrack, rather than the one (albeit, appropriate and not detracting) tune that plays throughout each level. Ho hum.
As there were not many RTS games for the NES, Desert Commander stands as a somewhat innovative example. In stark opposition to same of the other examples, Desert Commander is fairly easy to pick up, and can be recommended for retro gamers to try out, especially with a friend. Some of the concepts at work, like choosing your mix of units before each battle or carefully considering movements over differing terrain, still stand as noteworthy ideas within the game and genre as a whole.
This is one of those NES video games that went underappreciated in its time and will likely still be so, despite offering a distinctly unique, rewarding gameplay experience. The two-player mode has a lot of potential for vastly enjoyable rounds, usually under two hours, but the single-player campaign does suffer from being a bit short and limited. It was clearly developed well, through carefully through, and firmly posts as an above-average NES cartridge, battling to gain three and a half out of five stars in the process.