Each week, The Replay takes a classic game from the '80s, '90s and '00s and examines them in greater detail, exploring their impact, contemporary reviews, and why we're still playing them to this day. This week, 1996's real-time strategy 'Command & Conquer: Red Alert'...
For those who played PC games in the '90s, there were the stalwarts, the most obvious in any collection. You had 'Microsoft Flight Simulator', you had maybe something like 'Quake 2', and you had 'Command & Conquer: Red Alert'. The likes of 'Warcraft' or 'Starcraft' might have come later, but for real-time strategy, 'Command & Conquer: Red Alert' was many people's first introduction to the genre.
And what an introduction it was. Although it was a sequel, 'Red Alert' felt like it was designed to bring in players of all stripes because of how fast-paced it was. The story missions were the perfect blend of tutorial and plot, introducing the weird alternate present and getting you neatly to grips with the point-and-click system. Before long, you were off and running with full-spread tank charges and Tesla coils protecting your base.
The neat, efficient way in which 'Red Alert' presented itself was almost in stark contrast to the likes of 'Sim City 2000' or 'Civilization', which seemed to relish making things more ornate and intricate. Here, you mined for ore and resources, you built units, you sent them out to hunt for the enemy and you fought them. It was that simple. No more, no less.
Strategy games, then and now, were somewhat off-putting for casual gamers because they followed a steep learning curve. It took time and effort to get to grips with it, but 'Red Alert' was far more forgiving. If a unit was destroyed, it didn't necessarily take long to build a new one and send it back out again. Moreover, you learned from mistakes quickly, rather than realising it further into the game.
In a game like 'Civilization', it could be argued that this was the point - your decisions, however small, affect the overall strategy. By that sense, 'Civilization' had a much longer life-span than 'Red Alert'. After all, a saved game from 'Civilization II' that lasted 10 years - those are human years, by the way - went viral because the player's early decisions locked it into a state of perpetual action. That wouldn't happen in 'Red Alert', simply because the game moved so quickly.
What also helped 'Red Alert' achieve critical mass with early PC players was just how accessible it was. You could play it on even the most basic of home computers, and it worked perfectly with virtually no distortion of graphics or playability. All the speed and chaos was there to play on your noisy Packard Bell PC, the sounds of 'Hell March' blasting through the one working speaker.
Subsequent games, such as 'Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun' and the 'Red Alert' sequels that followed, may have updated the graphics and smoothed out the rough edges, but the original still has its charms. The cartoonish nature of the violence, the outlandishly bad Russian accents, the hidden ant missions in 'Counterstrike' - it was much more fun and less inclined to take itself seriously.
That EA hasn't yet got around to attemping a reboot on it isn't any surprise. It's hard to think of a reason to try and improve on something that's as timeless as 'Red Alert'. Unlike other games of that era where your imagination has to do a lot more work, 'Red Alert' still has that innate charm and addictive quality that you could easily burn an hour on a laptop - with a decent mouse, of course - and enjoy it immensely.