Cinemaware's twilight years… this famous and infamous company's penultimate game in their trademarked classic genre-bending style. The Master Designers (as their original name claimed) at their peak. Shame that market failure prevented them from going further. Though is it? Oh, yes, as their last games showed a clear upwards trend – andshould be considered in their top two, if not their finest hour bar none.
Inspired by 1950s creature features, most specifically the charming Them! (and maybe to a lesser degree the awfully entertaining Empire of the Ants), a radioactive meteor crash causes regular ants to grow to giant size and invade the nearby village. The player has to collect evidence of their existence, marshal the defense and finally destroy the threat to humanity.
What distinguishes this game from Cinemaware's earlier ones, though? It is two main aspects which come to mind.
First, the storytelling is simply spot-on. The cliché genre characters and themes represented are simply delightful. The backwoods desert village hoping for a brighter future as post-war economy starts booming. The outsider protagonist, seen with suspicion by many locals, fascinating the eligible women. The wholesome love interests and the sexpot. The scientist nobody wants to believe. The buffoon mayor who simply refuses to believe until it's almost (or actually, depending on player performance) too late. The young, eager sidekick. The greasers out for dangerous fun even in the face of extinction. The business interest of the construction and the mining companies being held above certain doom by some. To name just some.
Second, and even more importantly, this is the one time they got gameplay close to flawless. Once again, it is a mixture of many mini games, though this time around, there is the distinct impression that theme and plot came first and the gameplay elements originate organically from the storytelling needs. Never does it feel tacked on just to have another action sequence. And then, the game even almost fully transforms from one main genre to another as it goes on. Again, in a fully valid manner, because gameplay follows the a major plot point.
It starts as an adventure game of sorts, with the player moving around a city map in real time, having encounters leading to conversations or other interactions. Again, the initial objective is investigating the ants and convincing key people of their existence. The game allows for some non-linearity there – concerning time, place and nature of evidence – so that different routes are possible and optimization isn't so obvious. Also worth noting, it leaves ample time to explore side plots, such as the conflict with the greasers or the pursuit of a love interest.
Later on, the main activity shifts towards a simple strategy game where different kind of forces can be deployed on the map to defend the city against ant attacks. Which makes a lot of sense in the gradual progress of the plot.
All throughout, little action sequences keep up the challenge and make for quite varied entertainment. Players get to drive a car, fly a plane, have various types of shoot-outs with giant ants, escape from hospital treatment in a hilarious slapstick scene, have knife fights and so on. Again, it all makes sense. You need to get to the ants' nest? The game will allow you to walk, though good luck getting through the ant hordes. You could hop into a tank to drive or take a biplane to fly there. If you have kept the airfield intact. Yup, and the biplane can also be used for other purposes, such as scouting, of course.
Meaning: the design is mostly exhaustive in two dimensions. First, instead of simply saying “we need an action sequence of fighting through the ants to get to their nest” and then designing this standalone mini-game, the designers apparently considered what is already in the game, which of these means could be used to accomplish said task and then allowed for all of those. Second, this leads to many of the in-game resources having more than one use.
Coming from a smash hit like Defender of the Crown and if they improved so much in subsequent years, how could Cinemaware fail? Apart from the fact that they weren't very good at timely porting and therefore constricted themselves to technically powerful, but commercially slowly failing platforms like the Amiga, one factor may have been that the market clearly moved towards more clearly cut gameplay concepts. The genre definitions became much better defined, target audiences of one often rejected aspects of the other. Cinemaware's much more theme or plot driven approach finally satisfied nobody at the time.
As one of their final attempts to stay afloat, they produced a data disk called(even marketed as , although it required the original game to play) which offered a second, slightly adapted variant of the original set in the same locations where now humans are turning into ants themselves. Nice for fans, but for sure, this did not engage new players.
Nowadays, in an age where narrative driven games have carved out their own niche and found a strong audience, a past gem likemay be ripe for re-discovery. Even if only to really see how far Cinemaware came from their not-so-humble and broadly successful, but actually fairly poor beginnings to well-rounded productions like this in just few years. Pity that everyone remembers them for the former instead.