When I was a kid, my friends and I spent hours in our school’s computer lab playing round after round of Scorched Earth on a beat up IBM PS/1. The game was simple and beautiful—each player controlled a tank and took turns lobbing explosives across the map at their opponent. Players charted a parabola meant to arc their munitions over mountains, through wind and onto the enemy’s tank.
It was easy to learn, impossible to master, and so much fun that it kept me and my friends in school long after we were supposed to go home. Scorched Earth is just one example of one of gaming’s oldest genres—the artillery shooter. It’s a genre most people have played, even if they don’t realize it.
Angry Birds—one of the most popular video games of all time—is a single player artillery game. And birds wouldn't hate pigs if millions of kids like me hadn’t spent countless hours lobbing explosives at each other in games such as Scorched Earth, Gorillas, and Worms.
Worms is a special case. The brightly colored, arcadey artillery shooter puts players in control of a team of worms fighting over a desolate wasteland. It’s wacky where other artillery games are grim, hilarious where others are serious and full of customization where so many of the artillery shooters are stripped down and simple.
Worms is an old mainstay in the genre, arguably the longest running artillery game still in production. MicroProse published the first Worms in 1995, just four years after Scorched Earth hit the market.
Scorched Earth defined the genre and showed a generation of game developers what artillery games could be. Worms took that ball and ran with it. The game evolved, stayed popular and ran through dozens of iterations. Developer Team17 just celebrated more than 20 years of Worms with the recent release of Worms W.M.D, the 25th installment in the long running series.
‘Scorched Earth’ in action. Image: Wendell Hicken/screengrab
Artillery games are almost as old as computers and video games themselves. Geeks working on mainframe computers back in the ‘60s programmed early artillery simulators and swapped the codes among themselves.
As personal computing took off in the ‘70s and ‘80s, hobby magazines such as Creative Computing published simple programs for their readers to try on their home PCs. The earliest of these was Artillery by Mike Forman from the Winter 1976 issue of Creative Computing.
The genre exploded and clones and variations of Artillery littered the personal computers and home console systems of the ‘80s. The Magnavox Odyssey2 has Smithereens and the Atari 2600 and the Commodore 64 had Artillery Duel. If you played video games in the ‘80s, there’s a good chance you spent a lot of time firing tank shells at your friends in an artillery game.
The history of artillery shooters is the history of early PC video games. Early adopters and young coders swapped their favorite versions of Artillery, refined the code and created their own small variations. It’s an intimidating legacy and one Worms developers Team17 is well aware of.
“Without them there probably wouldn’t be Worms,” John Eggett Lead Designer for Worms W.M.D. told me. Eggett has been working on Worms games almost as long as the series has been around. He started working on the series as a quality assurance tester—a kind of paid beta tester—in 1997.
In the world of video game development, working QA is like starting in the mail room. Now, almost two decades later, he’s the lead developer of Team17’s latest installment in the franchise. He’s played a lot of artillery shooters and he knows he stands on the shoulders of giants.
Among the classics, none is as powerful and important as Scorched Earth. Wendell Hicken released the game in 1991 for DOS systems and it spread like wildfire.
The game defined the artillery shooter genre the way Half Life defined first person shooters. It was bright and colorful, it randomly generated its maps and it let players access a vast array of weapons such as napalm and cluster bombs. For the first time, players had robust control over the variables of the match, everything from wind speed to their tanks munitions loadout.
For early gamers, Scorched Earth was a revelation. For Eggett, the best part of the game was that it was as much fun to watch as it was to play, it’s a philosophy he’s carried into Worms. “Even if you were not playing there was still a lot of fun to be had in watching others play,” he explained. “The anticipation while they line up a shot, the screams when it goes right... or wrong.”
“Just about everyone has played a game of this type at some point,” Eggett said. “They are often easy to play but difficult to master, that's one reason I think they are attractive. I can sit down with anyone and if they can throw a ball they will understand how to play. Most are turn based which also opens up the genre to a larger audience. You don't need fast reactions and dexterity, a good eye and judgment will suffice.”
The original ‘Worms.’ Image: Team17/screengrab.
The importance of artillery games goes beyond playing and spectating. The popular genre was also a lot of developers' introduction to coding and development. As a kid, I learned the foundations of coding from a simple book called The Absolute Beginner's Guide to QBasic.
The book’s final project had aspiring coders programming Gorillas—a simplistic artillery game where giant apes stood on opposite ends of a vast city and lobbed explosive bananas at each other. I wasn’t the only one who learned how to code by creating an artillery game.
I asked Eggett about the book and Gorillas. It was a shot in the dark and his reply surprised me. “A lot of the more veteran team members [coded Gorillas] when we got our first PCs way back,” he said. “How's this for a coincidence, I asked one of our coders on W.M.D how he got into programming just the other day, and it was tinkering with Gorillas in QBasic.”
“At first glance Worms can look quite simple but behind the scenes there are so many mechanics at work."
Artillery shooters aren’t as popular as they once were. Successes such as Angry Birds and Worms are rare and poorly designed Scorched Earth knock offs litter digital storefronts. Artillery shooters seem so simple and Angry Birds was such a success that it’s hard to believe no other developer has released an Angry Birds killer.
But Eggett isn’t surprised. He told me the genre only seems easy to make. “At first glance Worms can look quite simple but behind the scenes there are so many mechanics at work. It also takes a lot of balancing. To make a good artillery game takes a lot of effort.”
That’s part of what’s kept Worms around for so long—Team 17 keeps innovating. “We update and refine,” he told me. The games took the dark humor of games such as Atari’s Smithereens and took it to absurd heights.
“Worms is well renowned for its sense of humor, especially weapons such as the Banana Bomb, Holy Hand Grenade and Concrete Donkey,” a giant, donkey statue that falls from the sky and explodes on contact, Eggett explained.
Worms also kept itself alive by learning from Scorched Earth—customization is king. Worms W.M.D. lets players personalize their army of crawlers as well as alter dozens of variables such as wind speed and weapon damage. The militant worms can even craft new weapons during the round.
Those changes keep an old game new and interesting. It’s how Worms survived in a market that’s largely forgotten artillery shooters. The tiny, hilarious, and high pitched screams of the worms as they burn when blasted by a flamethrower don’t hurt either.
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