One of the oldest genres of computer game is “artillery,” in which players take turns inputting power and angle for a shot and watching the results of their calculations play out. Something like Gorillas is the simplest version of this concept, but even in the early 90s more complex variants were emerging. One such variant was called Scorched Earth.
The game looks downright ancient today, and well, it kind of is. But Scorched Earth had a number of things going for it. First, it had a variety of different weapons and items to use. In contrast to simpler games, Scorched Earth let you deploy shields, fire shots that would burrow through terrain, launch napalm, and more. This range of abilities opened up different tactical options and anticipated later artillery games like Worms.
Additionally, Scorched Earth allowed for up to nine players at once, rather than the more common two. This, plus the small size of the software and its status as shareware meant that the game was perfect for playing on breaks in school. Have a half-hour free because the teacher is hungover? Slam that floppy disk into the classroom machine and boot up Scorched Earth.
Like many computer games in the early 90s, there were a number of different versions of Scorched Earth. I was most familiar with version 1.1, which added a bunch of different weapons including “liquid dirt,” which let you bury another tank under a pile of soil. The game continued to receive updates from its developer, Wendell T. Hicken, until 1995. At that time, you could purchase a registered version by mail that added more features — though nobody I knew ever did.
Back in 2005, Hicken discussed his attempts to create an official sequel with Ars Technica, though it seems like nothing ever came of this. Hicken doesn’t seem to be active much online these days, but you can still download Scorched Earth from his website. Alternately, you can play it in your browser, which doesn’t require you to futz around with a DOS emulator. And in a nod to the game’s illicit popularity in schools, you can even get a commemorative t-shirt to tell the world about your wasted youth.
Scorched Earth may not seem like much now, but before cheap storage space, powerful processors, and high-speed internet, it and games like it were the lifeblood of anyone looking for a little fun or distraction in school or at home on a computer that wasn’t intended for playing the hottest new titles. These kinds of games were built with restrictive limitations in mind, which meant that what ended up in them was just the essentials — nothing fancy or extraneous, just what was necessary for an enjoyable experience that could be played over and over again with your friends. Today’s bigger and more complex games may seem self-evidently better and more compelling than little curiosities like Scorched Earth, but in the words of Orson Welles, the enemy of art is the absence of limitations. Sometimes, all you need is a bunch of little tanks shooting at each other.