RTS games today often trace their roots back to famous titles such as Westwood’s Dune II or Command & Conquer, but their history could arguably be pushed a bit further to other — although not as popular or famous — games that had seeds of those elements that later designers would polish to new, engrossing levels of quality.
Rescue Raiders in 1984 from Sir-tech was one of those games. Sir-tech, to many, was better known for their Wizardry CRPGs but they also dabbled in quite a few other genres outside of the dungeons that made them famous over their history.
Coming in on the heels of the third Wizardry that had released the year before (Legacy of Llylgamyn), Rescue Raiders blended tactical, real time elements of strategy inside an action adventure reminiscent of the awesome fun of Dan Gorlin’s Choplifter in 1982 for the Apple II.
The manual left little doubt in being a child of a time when games came with voluminous instructions and even fiction helping to embellish the experience to be loaded later. This was a booklet that dedicated two pages to telling the story of D-Day, the Normandy invasion, and the importance that had to history.
It then goes into the fiction behind the game, why you’re there, by revealing that time traveling terrorists are making a move to change that history by sending modern equipment and gear back to make it so that Normandy fails, paving the way for their own version of history a lot more amenable to their pocketbooks. The good news is that you have a time machine, too, and you’re being sent back with equipment and gear to fight these bad people and save history.
The game sets you up on one end of a 2D corridor with the enemy on the other side. The Choplifter feeling is from the helicopter you’re given to fly around to help your forces on the ground make it to the enemy time machine and blow it up. Now here’s where the RTS elements come in.
Players are given a starting bundle of cash that they can use to buy five main units — tanks, anti-aircraft trucks that fire missiles, soldiers, engineers, and demolition vans that need to survive the trip over to explode the enemy time machine. As you pick what you want, they emerge from underground behind your time machine and begin making their way over to the enemy like a deadly parade, never stopping unless they need to attack something. The enemy will be doing the same thing, too. So it becomes a matter of guessing what you need to punch through their forces so that your demolition vans can make it over safely. Outside of picking what you think you need, though, you can’t directly control your units and can only hope for the best.
The good news is that you have snazzy chopper. Armed with a machine gun, missiles, and bombs, you can pre-emptively rain on the enemy’s parade but they will be doing the same with their chopper. And they have an infinite number of those as opposed to the four lives you have to fight back with. You also have a limited amount of fuel and ammo which needs to be replenished back at your base/time machine. The good news is that you can also get any repairs done to fix the smoke leaking from you after getting shot a few times.
Every fifteen seconds, you earn a bag of money. But the scoring is affected by how many units you call up and how long you play to reflect, as the manual explains, the stress of war and the sacrifices made on your economy. Units and time spent can actually subtract from your score leaving you in negative territory.
Saving the game is an interesting process. You hit ESC, type SAVE, and it saves the state to disk and goes into the demo/teaser mode the game starts with. From that screen, you type in CONT (short for continue) which loads the state and erases the saved game. And it’s something that’s vitally needed as the game takes place across eight stages of increasing difficulty.
The game can be oddly addicting as you joust in the air over your conga line of armored death below, hoping that your demo van can make it over. Flying over bunkers (that can be taken over by soldiers if only to keep them from enemy hands…they don’t really seem to do anything), avoiding enemy balloons and the deadly cables hanging from them, anti-aircraft fire, and coming in low to drop bombs on enemy tanks and troopers can be fun. Luring the enemy’s chopper into your own anti-aircraft fire can also be fun, but the game isn’t without its problems.
For one the enemy AI is pretty suicidal which makes it easy for the game to ram you without remorse (remember — infinite choppers) giving you something more to worry about. It can also drag out a bit as you send out units to keep trudging out and wearing down enemy defenses in the hopes that your van will survive the journey, watch it fail, and then do it all over again. Thank goodness for that save feature.
Rescue Raiders is one of those quirky pieces of history that hinted at greater things to come when it came to strategy games year slater. But it wasn’t completely forgotten. It was remade as Armor Alley and released in 1991 for MS-DOS machines. There’s even a fan created remake of Armor Alley on the web by Scott Schiller that you can play. Or if you’re a stickler for the original, Virtual Apple has Rescue Raiders in emulation available, too. It might not have shaken the strategy genre in the same way that others have, but Rescue Raiders can light up with fun as you imagine yourself saving history from the bad guys and their eternally spawning, kamikaze choppers.