Scorched Parabolas: A History of the Artillery Game

Matt Barton's picture
Author: Matt Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout: Matt Barton
Special Thanks: Bill Loguidice, Erwin Bierhof, Gavin Camp
All screenshots by the author using various emulators.

Creative Commons License
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Screenshot of Scorched Earth

Most PC gamers over the age of 25 will fondly remember a classic DOS shareware game named Scorched Earth. It was truly a landmark game for the PC and demonstrated, once and for all, that the humble IBM clone was a viable platform for fun and addicting videogames. Many are the children who spent recess tucked away in their school's computer lab, engaged in fierce Scorched Earth battles with their eager friends.

Perhaps the reason for the game's popularity was that it lived up to the Golden Rule of Games: It was easy to learn, yet hard to master,”and it helped that it could easily be installed in IBM compatible computer labs at school. Of course, Scorched Earth, released by Wendell Hicken in 1991, was not the first of its kind, though it is arguably the first widely successful title in the genre of "artillery" games. What I've attempted to do in this article is present a history of the evolution of artillery games, starting with obscure BASIC programs and ending with Team 17's Worms 3D (2003).

First, I'll define the genre. The term "Artillery Game"describes a type of shooting game in which players command pieces of artillery, like cannons, tanks, bazookas, or catapults. Players can only destroy their enemy by correctly determining certain firing parameters which affect the trajectory of their projectiles. One parameter is power (or sometimes "powder"), and the other is angle. Since the other players are usually blocked by features of the terrain, players must not aim directly at their targets. Instead, they must fire in a parabolic shape (think of an upside-down U). Artillery game-makers quickly invented new challenges to make the game more difficult, including wind and, more famously, elaborate weaponry. Later artillery games feature hundreds of weapons, many types of shields, variable terrain, and even jetpacks. Team 17's Worms titles are so far the most arcade-suitable artillery games, offering platform-game elements like swinging, jumping, digging, and climbing in addition to superb graphics, sound, and animation.

The origins of artillery games are quite dark, but it's probably a safe bet that the first such game was programmed on a long forgotten mainframe computer in the 60s. The programmers who wrote games for mainframe systems often saw no commercial potential in their games and distributed them freely and anonymously with other mainframe operators, who often took it upon themselves to add features. It is likely that the first artillery games required punch cards and a printer to read the results of each round, though it's anybody's guess who truly programmed the first artillery game. I expect that gameplay consisted of players taking turns entering angles and power parameters, then being told by the computer if they overshot or undershot; it was really more or less a sophisticated version of Milton Bradley's Battleship board game. The reader must keep in mind that these were the days when games like Hunt the Wumpus were considered groundbreaking.

The game is rather straightforward, and generates excitement, with a great amount of vicarious aggression.

--Lyon and West, authors of WAR 3

The first artillery games for personal computers were likely homebrew efforts by BASIC programmers, some of whom published the source code of their games in computer magazines. It was up to the readers to manually type the game into their computer's RAM and then, if one were lucky enough to have such devices, save the file to a cassette tape (otherwise, the entire game would have to be typed in again when the computer was turned off). If this process sounds tedious, just imagine having to debug hundreds of lines of code that varied only by a few digits, and if one digit was wrong, the program wouldn't run. To make matters even worse, the magazines frequently made mistakes that would not be corrected until the next issue. Still, players were not hard to please in the late 70s, and magazines that published new games were highly sought after.

Screenshot of Artillery for the Commoodore Pet
Artillery for the Commodore Pet (1981)

One such magazine was Creative Computing, which published several "gunner"or "battleship"type games which were obviously the prototypes of modern artillery games. A game called "Artillery,"was written by Mike Forman and published in 1976. The game was revised by M.E. Lyon and Brian West and published as War 3 in 1977. Unfortunately, I was not able to review Forman's original game, but was able to find the remake by Lyon and West. Their game is quite simple, which is to be expected from a BASIC program of 143 lines of code. It is completely text-based, and leaves almost everything to the player's imagination. Players first input how much distance they would like between themselves and the other players. Each round, players select which player they are aiming at, their muzzle velocity, and firing angle. At the end of the round, the computer reports how far each player undershot or overshot. Several other games published around the same time build on the theme, like Seawar and Geowar, both published by Creative Computing the same year. All of these games are virtually identical except for a few choice lines of in-game text (such as "depth charge"for "cannon ball"). Gregory Yob, who wrote a critical review of Geowar in 1977 wrote, "I am most annoyed with Geowar. It's another hunt and kill game in an era where mutual co-operation in complex systems is a vital need. Missiles and cartesian [sic] grids are very common in computer games, and in writer's words, 'the theme is a bit overdone.'"Obviously, the theme was not so overdone as Yob might have thought!

The Commodore PET's Artillery (circa 1981), pictured here, was also a game first published in Creative Computing. Though quite minimalist by today's standards, it is still vastly superior to text-based artillery games like Geowar. Though the game is monochrome, graphics definitely make the game easier and more fun to play. Players take turns inputting their cannon's angle and powder, compensating for wind, and then firing their shot. If the shot hits the ground instead of the opponent, it creates a small crater, an important feature known as "destructible terrain." Each game is different because the ground is randomly generated each round; players might find themselves on high peaks or at the bottom of crevices. Artillery contains all of the basic criteria associated with the genre.

Screenshot of Smithereens for the Magnavox Odyssey2
Smithereens for the Odyssey2 (1982)

The Magnavox Odyssey2 was home to one of the earliest commercial artillery games: Philips' catapult-artillery game called Smithereens! (1982). This game, programmed by Robert L. Cheezem, is a very simple yet compelling game of timing. Players move their joysticks to determine how far rocks from their catapults are slung. Two features make this game special: First, it is not turn-based, but allows players to sling rocks simultaneously. If a player (or a catapult) is hit, that player walks off the side of the screen and returns a moment later (pushing a catapult if it was destroyed as well). With enough practice, a player can time her hits so perfectly that the other player is destroyed before he ever gets the chance to fire. The second feature that really sets this game apart is a phenomenal use of the Magnavox Odyssey2's voice module. The game constantly mocks players, saying things like, "Come on and play, Turkey!"and "Mercy, mercy!"The sound of boulders crashing and whizzing through the air is also digitized and surprisingly realistic. The sarcastic humor of this game is found in later games like Scorched Earth and Worms. You can try a browser-based version of the game here.

The earliest commercially manufactured tank-style artillery game I could find is Jerry Brinson's Artillery Duel, released by Xonox in 1983 for a variety of platforms, including the Commodore Vic-20 and 64, the Atari 2600, the Colecovision, and the Bally Astrocade. The versions I tested for the sake of this article were for the Commodore Vic-20 (Vic-20), ColecoVision, Commodore 64 (C-64), and the Atari 2600.

Screenshots of Artillery Duel
Artillery Duel (1983): L to R: C-64, , Vic-20,

Atari 2600, and ColecoVision

The differences among these versions are significant. Though Artillery Duel uses color to create a more compelling display, no version takes much advantage of its respective platform's power. They all suffer from horrid interfaces. The C-64 version has several features that are sorely missed in the 2600 version, such as music, a parallax background, and, most importantly, destructible terrain—an unforgivable omission in the 2600 version. The Vic-20 version is quite similar to the C-64's, though it lacks music and the graphics are a bit blockier. The ColecoVision version has music and destructive terrain; I'd say it was just as good as the Vic-20 version. All versions require two players and lack computer opponents. Obviously, Artillery Duel is a humble entry in the artillery genre, yet it contains most of the features that helped establish the genre: Angle, power, and wind. The game is made even more challenging by a time limit of 30 seconds per turn, which, given the clumsiness of the interface, makes for a frustrating experience. The projectile travels rather slowly across the screen, making for long, dull games. Still, even with all of these shortcomings, the game is still playable, and anyone happening by the television during a match will instantly grasp the gameplay.

After personal computers became more widespread, a slew of shareware and commercial clones appeared, some of which improved the genre significantly. Many, like Microsoft's Gorilla (1990), were programmed in BASIC and intended to serve as tutorials for aspiring BASIC programmers. The two most significant titles to emerge in the early 90s were the aforementioned Scorched Earth (1991) for DOS, and Michael Welch's Scorched Tanks (1993) for the Amiga. Both of these excellent games were released as shareware by independent developers.

Scorched Earth is a simple, yet exciting artillery combat game, based on an auspicious history of artillery games. Most of the options are very intuitive, and you can begin playing with only a little bit of information.

--Wendell Hicken, creator of Scorched Earth

Simply put, Scorched Earth is to artillery games what Super Mario Bros. is to platform games: It revitalized and set a standard for an entire genre of videogames. The graphics and sound are clearly leaps ahead of predecessors—the game requires and uses all 256 colors of VGA at a time when plenty of IBM compatibles were still equipped with either monochrome or CGA graphics cards. The backgrounds are sharp, the destruction scenes are colorful, and the interface is intuitive. There are at least three important releases of Scorched Earth, the earliest being 1.0 in 1991, followed by 1.2 in 1992 and 1.5 in 1995. 1.2 is mostly a bug fix, but 1.5 brings scanned mountain ranges and new weapons and shields. Most of the critical features of 1.5, however, are already available in 1.0. The version I focus on in this review is 1.5.

Screenshots of Scorched Earth
Scorched Earth for the PC (1991)

What really sets the game apart is the impressive set of playing options that dramatically enhance gameplay. The game packs more features than a year's worth of newspapers. First, the game offers computer opponents with seven difficulty options (ranging from moron to cyborg.) All other conditions, like gravity, wind, air viscosity, effect of walls, and so on, are all customizable by the players. There are even options to determine the economy of each game; that is, how the money won for victories is handled at the end of each round. There is hardly any aspect of Scorched Earth that isn't somehow customizable, and a few tweaks can have such a dramatic effect that it's like playing a new game. Players will likely spend hours just toying with the physics options.

There are also defensive (parachutes and shields), guidance systems, fuel, triggers, and energy-related items (batteries) that affect gameplay. Obviously, all of these items make the game more complex; a player with no batteries, for instance, will not be to able to fire a projectile with sufficient power to reach a distant opponent. Players must carefully weigh the offensive advantage of an expensive weapon versus the defensive advantage of parachutes or shields—the economical aspect of the game is one of the most intriguing for many players. Also, unlike early artillery games like Artillery Duel, Scorched Earth allows players to move their tanks provided they have purchased fuel and have selected a tank icon with treads (some are simple cannons). This introduces yet another element of strategy, since clever players will want to reposition their tanks to take advantage of natural cover provided by the randomly generated terrain. There are five different guidance systems available, ranging from "heat seeking,"which only works if the player is already hitting fairly close to an enemy tank, to "lazy boy,"which guarantees a perfect hit without the player's need to aim at all. The player can also select among six shield types: normal, magnetic, force field, heavy, super magnetic, and auto defense, each of which has its own impact on gameplay. "Auto defense"allows players to access their defense menu and enable a shield before combat begins.

When you first play Scorched Earth it seems so simple, almost not worth bothering with. A few hours pass however and you are still playing and beginning to realize there is more to it that it looks. Damn, I've been hooked. It's the original geeky beer drinking party game.

--Gavin Camp, creator of Scorched 3D

There are over 30 weapons available in Scorched Earth, from the humble baby missile to weapons of mass destruction like the nuke, napalm, MIRVs, and Death's Head. Roller weapons, as the name implies, will roll down a hill and strike an enemy lodged in a crevice, and "leapfrogs"bounce a few times before exploding. Sandhogs burrow underground and then curve upwards to strike an enemy from beneath. There are also weapons that do not directly damage the opponent, but nevertheless make his or her life more difficult, such as clods of dirt. Other devices, like diggers and riot charges, are used to extract one's tank from the aforementioned dirt clods. The most destructive weapon, the Death's Head, expands in-flight into nine different warheads—the trick to using the weapon is avoiding accidental suicide, though there is certainly pleasure to be had in launching the weapon that destroys every other player on the screen.

Scorched Earth may not live up to its self-claimed title, "The Mother of all Games,"but it is certainly the mother of modern artillery games. The games that follow it borrow liberally from its features, but also correct some of its flaws, such as its sometimes buggy interface and unpolished feel. Some critics feel that the biggest flaw of Scorched Earth is that all of the action takes place on one screen. Michael Welch fixed this problem in his Amiga game Scorched Tanks. Welch created the game because Scorched Earth "was the first game I'd ever seen for the PC that was better than anything I knew of on my beloved Amiga."Though the Amiga certainly had its share of fun games, it was lacking a competitive artillery game, and Welch was about to solve that problem.

The main reason Scorched Tanks was better than Scorched Earth is that I didn't own a PC at the time. I had no way to go back and compare my work to the original, so I created what I 'thought' was a Scorched Earth look-a-like. But the joke was on me, and Scorched Tanks was a lot better because of it.

--Michael Welch, author of Scorched Tanks

The first obvious improvement Scorched Tanks offers is the larger-than-screen playing field. Now, tanks can be positioned far to the left or right, and players often find themselves aiming at targets that aren't visible on the screen. This adds to the difficulty level of the game, but not so much that it diminishes gameplay. Indeed, having a larger battlefield unquestionably makes the game more fun to play; at last artillery fans can fire extremely devastating weapons without inevitably committing suicide. Since the game offers over 70 weapons, it's nice to know players have enough space to make use of them.

Screenshots of Scorched Tanks
Scorched Tanks (1993) for the Amiga

Scorched Tanks also takes advantage of the Amiga's power to deliver crisp graphics and realistic sounds. Whereas a game like Scorched Earth is obviously a computer game, Scorched Tanks could hold its own on any of the game consoles of its day. It has a polished, professional feel that is usually lacking in most independent shareware titles, and the theme music is a classic Amiga mod file. Still, as good as Scorched Tanks was for the time, the best was yet to come.

In 1994, a programmer named Andy Davidson1 wrote a game in Blitz Basic called Total Wormage, which he decided to enter in a contest hosted by Amiga Format magazine; the prize was publication by Team 17. Davidson didn't win the contest, but Team 17 was impressed enough with the game to release it anyway. A year later they published Worms on a variety of platforms, including the Super Nintendo. Two years later, Team 17 released its last Amiga title, Worms: Director's Cut, which is by far the best artillery game ever published for the Amiga.

Worms once again demonstrated that the artillery genre had plenty of room left for innovation. The tanks (which truly were getting a bit "overdone") were gone, and in their place were cartoonish, Lemming-size worms that could jump, scoot, and swing across a colorful battlefield. The game oozes arcade charm and a quirky Monty Python-style humor ("This worm is an ex-worm!") that adds personality and character to the usually drab world of artillery games. Indeed, the humor in Worms is one of its greatest appeals. It affects all aspects of gameplay, including the arsenal of weapons. One of the most unusual and creative weapons in Worms is the sheep. The sheep trots and bounces across the screen until the player hits the space bar, which causes the sheep to explode (and hopefully damage an opponent). While the sight of an exploding sheep would undoubtedly be too violent in "serious"contexts, the zany, cartoonish world of Worms keeps us from getting upset over such things. Like its predecessor Smithereens!, Worms uses voice samples to taunt players ("First blood!”) and add spice to the gameplay. Even the theme music of this game is classic, and remains one of the most often-requested tunes at Internet game audio radio stations.

Screenshot of Worms for the Commodore Amiga
Worms Director's Cut for the Amiga (1997)

The worms can do much more than the tanks in Scorched Earth or Scorched Tanks. For one thing, they can sidle up next to their opponents and punch them (if they have the weapon in their arsenal). They can also fire handguns, shotguns and Uzis, though proper use of these weapons requires that the worm target an unobstructed enemy. Of course, expert players will want to demonstrate their utter contempt for their unworthy opponents by disposing of them with a simple push over the edge of a cliff. Since the worms are much more mobile than the tanks in earlier artillery games, players can get quite creative. For example, a worm may use a rope to swing over an enemy, drop a stick of dynamite, then leap away. Such flourishes allow for some stunning player performances.

Team 17 followed Worms with a number of sequels, including Worms 2 in 1997, which added Internet play, Worms Armageddon in 1999, which added many more weapons and utilities, Worms World Party in 2000, and Worms Blast (a puzzle game in the style of Bust-a-Move) in 2001. All of these games feature great graphics, humor, and plenty of surprises. Finally, in 2003, Team 17 made the leap into three-dimensions with Worms 3D.

Of course, Team 17's Worms 3D isn't the only game that takes the artillery game into three-dimensions; other projects, like the openGL Scorched 3D, took the artillery concept into 3D as early as 2001, and Bruce Carver's Beach Head (1983) certainly had some 3D artillery elements. I'll finish up this article with a comparison of Worms 3D and Scorched 3D.

Given that Gavin Camp's Scorched 3D is not a commercial project, I was surprised at its quality and polish. The graphics, animations, and sounds are superb. Much in the spirit of its name's sake, Scorched 3D takes full advantage of advanced PC graphics hardware (using OpenGL), and sports lens flares, detailed models, realistic waves, and highly textured landscapes. It also offers players a wealth of options and configurations, including multiplayer LAN and Internet play, an abundance of player avatars (from traditional artillery pieces to helicopters!), tons of weapons (including adaptations of the Scorched Earth arsenal), and almost unlimited camera freedom (a vital feature in most 3D games, especially this one). The authors of this game ought to feel very proud of what they've accomplished. Watching a chunk of the island explode and fill with water after being hit by a MIRV brings enough pleasure to warrant an immediate download of this title. It's as fun to play Scorched 3D in 2004 as it was to play Scorched Earth in 1991.

Screenshot of Scorch 3D for the PC
Scorched 3D for the PC (2004)

However, whereas the basic gameplay of Scorched Earth is easy to learn, Scorched 3D asks for practice and patience. Working the camera is initially a very confusing process, even with all of the auto-zoom options. It's frustrating to line up a shot, then accidentally move the camera and lose the proper viewing angle. Of course, making a good interface for a 3D game is certainly one of the most serious challenges for any developer, particularly makers of artillery games where accuracy is critical. Still, the developers have obviously tried their best to accommodate the player's camera preferences, and can even choose to request that the camera automatically follow their shots. Also like its predecessor, Scorched 3D takes place on a relatively small playing field (an island) that can definitely seem cramped at times, especially when Death Heads are in the air. Let's face it, no sane commander would fire a nuclear warhead at a target on the other side of an island.

It seems that Scorched 3D is more focused on graphics and precise 3D modeling rather than humorous or compelling gameplay. The game is beautifully rendered, but certainly not a story-based game. The game is fun in the way that a classic Doom frag fest is fun—heavy on action, light on everything else.

We wanted to take the feel of the 2d game into 3d without compromise and do all the things we felt were cool in 2d, in 3d. This was a considerable challenge and it's been interesting to see people's reactions when they see the game since most assume it's going to be something of a mess given the heritage of the 2d game.

--Martyn Brown of Team 17

Team 17's Worms 3D seems to have found a way to retain the simplicity of the older 2D interface as well as migrate the popular Worms franchise into three dimensions. The graphics and animations are as smooth and lively as what we've come to expect from Team 17, of course, and the worms look and sound better now than ever before. Watching a bomb-strapped sheep bounce across a 3D playing field towards a wide-eyed enemy worm is not an experience to be missed.

Most of the same weapons and abilities of the 2D Worms games have been carried over into the new game. There are still sheep, nukes, Holy Hand Grenades, and jetpacks (though I did not see the grappling hook in the demo version I tested for this article). The camera is controlled by the mouse; it's a simple interface that is readily picked up by even 2D-centric gamers like me. The worm is moved by the familiar WASD-keyboard layout (ENTER jumps), and the weapons are aimed with the cursor keys. As usual, the power of each shot is controlled by the duration the player holds down the space bar. The camera automatically follows projectiles. This is a logical arrangement that works quite well and makes for a fun game to watch as well as play.

Screenshot of Worms 3D for the PC
Worms 3D for the PC (2003)

When players are ready to fire, they can hold down the Q key to get the "aiming view," which makes aiming weapons like the shotgun much easier. Of course, players will usually need to destroy enemies with artillery pieces like the bazooka or grenade, sometimes lobbing them over the roof of a building. I suppose the geometrically challenged player can avoid the matter by relying on the jetpack to fly the worm to a more strategic location (such as the top of a building), though this will inevitably make them an easier target for other worms. All in all, Team 17's Worms 3D is a brilliant game that demonstrates the continued validity of the artillery game genre in a 3D market.

Artillery games, like the computer platforms required to run them, have certainly come a long away since 1977, but what modern players must keep in mind is how literally "groundbreaking"even an early title like Artillery Duel was for its time. Still, even though the genre has evolved from simple text-based games like Geowar, to the spectacular 3D graphics of Scorched 3D and Worms 3D, the objective remains the same: Adjust angle, adjust power, FIRE!

I guess we still haven't gotten enough of missiles and Cartesian grids. Sorry, Mr. Yob.


1 Andy Davidson soon ran into conflicts at Team 17 and, after receiving a "significant financial arrangement,"has now entered the "Where are they now?"category of videogame history. See this forum thread for more information.