Mass Destruction (1997, NMS Software for Sega Saturn)
Mass Destruction is perfectly named: a pure sugar rush of Pepsi and Pop Rocks, a dizzying assault of thrills and massive explosions. It is a pure arcade videogame from an era when kids suddenly wanted nothing to do with arcade games. Whatever. It’s their loss.
The premise to this game is remarkably simple: you command an arsenal of three armored tanks in a series of military campaigns. You drive around in a calculated frenzy and shoot everything that moves. Then you back up and blow up everything that doesn’t. You run over foot soldiers lobbing mortars at you. You outmaneuver and shoot down enemy tanks. You lob mortar cannons and machine guns at incoming helicopters. You fire rockets at enemy bunkers. And you throw fire on every structure in sight, smashing everything into rubble. It’s all such glorious fun. It’s like being a child again, playing in the front yard with toy soldiers and tanks.
Experienced gamers will be reminded of Electronic Arts’ Strike series, which began with Desert Strike on Sega Genesis and continued with Soviet Strike on Saturn and Playstation. That series was excellent through and through, but its gameplay balance tilted towards simulation and strategy. Mass Destruction leans in the opposite direction, toward arcade action and speed. Which paradigm you prefer is really a matter of taste. Personally, I prefer the arcade model. I don’t want to have to worry about managing fuel and ammunition reserves, or plotting the proper strategy for missions into enemy territory. I really just want to stomp around and break things.
Mass Destruction offers 24 missions across five campaigns, with at least ten additional secret missions that are unlocked if you explode the right buildings. Each stage takes place on an enormous overhead map, featuring valleys, cities, military bases, rivers, lakes, islands and patches of forests. You engage across winter and desert landscapes. Your goals are quite varied, from search-and-destroy missions to reconnaissance to full-scale rampages. One mission requires you to find sensitive documents that detail your army’s future plans before they fall into enemy hands. Another mission requires you to destroy a series of communications dishes and anti-tank bunkers. Each of these objectives are tightly guarded by tanks, soldiers and planes.
I especially like the sight of bomber planes, shown only as a shadow moving across the ground, quickly followed by cluster bombs in its wake. The copters are especially tricky, weaving in and out, dodging your machine guns. I learned that I could knock them out by lobbing mortar shells. I’m not sure if that’s how they’re supposed to be used, but they do work.
Your tanks are massively overpowered, and your regular cannon can cause tremendous damage. High powered shells, mines, rockets and bombs can be collected among demolished buildings (which, of course, only encourages you to smash more things). My favorite weapon in the game, and I’m sure it’s yours as well, is the flamethrower. A massively overpowered flamethrower that launches enormous plumes of fire that devour everything in sight.
Visually, Mass Destruction is a triumph on Sega Saturn. Everything is presented in the hallowed “480/60” high resolution mode, rendered with the combination of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps that was the system’s trademark. When that formula worked, it was magical, and it works here, with endless massive explosions, pieces and debris falling everywhere. There is an especially cool reflective effect over water that dazzles even today. The Sony Playstation version is visibly shakier and less confident by comparison, giving Sega a rare victory in the 32-bit war.
Mass Destruction plays very much like the classic Commodore Amiga games of old, with its thrilling action and endlessly engaging techno music, and I am reminded of the great promise of Saturn as “the ultimate arcade machine.” A videogame like this was beyond the wildest dreams of the children of the Atari, NES and Genesis eras. Then Playstation arrived and a new paradigm suddenly emerged, leaving poor Sega fully exposed, heavily indebted, burned from too many failed products, and leading with a famously complicated system that was itself caught between two worlds, caught between 2D and 3D. It was a losing struggle, one that nobody could have possibly won. But what a glorious struggle. Let’s go play another round and demolish a small town for kicks.