There’s a section early in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune that sounds like it was lifted straight from an RTS’s instruction manual. Spice mining on the desert planet Arrakis and the vehicles that make it possible are described in exacting detail—harvesters mine the spice, ornithopters hover above, looking out for sandworms. No surprise, then, that the franchise spawned not one but two strategy games in the early 90s. Westwood’s Dune II is by far the more famous game, a crudely effective proto-RTS that is essentially Command & Conquer, version 0.5. Buried under the misfortune of being released at the same time, Cyro Interactive’s Dune is consequently less well known, despite being packed in with a lot of Windows 3.1 systems and selling two or three copies on the Sega CD.
Westwood’s game set the conventions of a genre that would dominate the PC gaming world for the next decade, so it’s hard to say it’s not important, but Cyro’s Dune is a completely unique creature, a clever combination of strategy and adventure that has not been seen since. Its innovative approach brings the battle for Arrakis to life in a way a traditional, impersonal god’s-eye RTS cannot, making the player feel they are both directing and participating in the Dune universe.
Cyro makes no secret of their ambitions. The game’s instruction manual begins by point out the failings of David Lynch’s Dune film. Though the film picks up after a “rather slow first half”, “the film struggles to significantly transfer the grand scope of the novel and is forced to omit a great deal.” This is an odd assertion for a product based on a movie to make, and in its frequent use of digitized video involving Kyle MacLachlan Dune does not try to hide the fact that it is based on the movie and not a wholly original imagining of the universe.
Then why point out the movie’s flaws? Because, like any good delusional mad scientist with an army of robots, Cyro’s goal was not to make a game based on the film, their goal was to make a game that perfected the film. The imperfect shell left behind by non-Cyro employee David Lynch, could, through the magic of the CD-ROM, finally attain its true potential. Dune is not based on the moive, Dune is the marriage of the original novel and modern multimedia that the movie could only hope to be, at least according the guys who made Versailles: 1685.
Measured by these goals, Dune is a tad underwhelming, but by any sane rubric it’s a wild success for its time and a lot of fun to play, even today. The game’s genre actually evolves with the plot and the changing circumstances of the main character, taking Paul Atreides (looking very much like Kyle MacLachlan) from a standard adventure game protagonist, pointing and clicking on things in the Atreides palace, to a planetary military leader, directing armies across enormous swaths of territory.
When the game begins, it is a straight adventure game. Paul travels around the palace, talking to different characters and learning about the world of Arrakis. Some characters, like Lady Jessica and Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, look almost exactly like they do in the movie, while others have a more original design. Baron Harkonnen pushes the boundaries of ridiculousness, but I did enjoy the Nosferatu-like look of the mentats. All the characters are rendered in colorful, detailed sprite artwork (not unlike the characters in Shadow of the Comet) and feature competent voice acting for the time (unlike Shadow of the Comet.)Before long Paul is given the task of exploring Arrakis and making friends with its Freman natives. Travel is handled by a gorgeous 3D flyover of Dune as Paul takes his ornithopter from place to place. This is accompanied by gorgeous music that evokes the lonliness of the desert planet perfectly. Eventually these “driving” sequences get tedious and you’ll find yourself skipping them, but the first few make for a thrilling introduction to the game’s wider world.From this point the game gradually evolves into a strategy/adventure hybrid on its way to transforming into a full military strategy game by the final section. Paul travels increasingly farther afield, meeting Fremen troops and setting them up to either mine spice or focus on military. Every few days he must return to the palace to send the Emperor a spice shipment; fail to keep up with the exponentially increasing demands and the game ends. Meanwhile, Harkonnen forces begin invading Atreides territory, making a strong military essential. There are a finite number of Fremen available and you can never train new units, so finding the proper balance between military and mining is the key to victory.
All the while Paul is interacting with characters on a one-on-one basis, gaining allies and increasing his power in a plot line that loosely follows that of the novel and film. The more allies he enlists, the more his telepathic powers increasing, meaning the player no longer has to visit each individual Fremen group in person, but can contact an ever widening range as the game progress. By the final phase of the game, Paul can contact the whole planet without moving at all. If you’ve ever wanted to experience what it feels like to order loyal soldiers to their deaths from the confines of a comfy palace, Dune is worth a look. This is a great solution to the tedious micromanagement strategy games often fall prey to in their final hours, to actually speed up the gameplay based on story events in the main character’s journey.
That’s not to say the game totally avoids tedium. It is, after all, an early 90s PC strategy game. Particularly in the late stages, it takes ages to march troops across the map. After winning a battle, troops have to spend what seems like hours transforming Harkonnen fortresses into Fremen sietches before they can be used for anything else. Each troop, whether they be spice miners or military, also has an inventory, but to equip them properly sometimes involves a long journey across the map to pick up the right item. Also, like many, many strategy games, the game reaches a tipping point about 75% of the way through where losing is virtually impossible. Instead of a thrilling planetary race for resources it becomes a mop-up operation that can last hours as your troops eliminate Harkonnen territories one by one.
This is a problem strategy games have yet to fully conquer. Winning older strategy games was almost always a matter of building up resources to the point where the AI simply cannot keep up. Dune is no different in this regard.
There is also a sadly underdeveloped ecology feature. After a certain point in the plot Fremen troops can be trained to plant trees and start to remake Arrakis. It is possible to win this way, but it’s too boring to really be worth it. You can get by ignoring it entirely, which is a shame, because having to balance troops between three essential occupations could have made the game that much more challenging. As it is, as long as you train enough military and make sure they have enough weapons, the game can be won without touching ecology.
I’ve written before about the way the spaces between gameplay can make a game itself feel more like a real place. Dune takes this concept further, integrating the adventure trappings into the strategy in a way so seemless that it never feels like a clumsy marriage of two genres but instead one complete, wholly original game. It’s one thing to impersonally command armies in an RTS, quite another to order a battle, walk out of your palace, hop on a worm, and go join the battle yourself. (Paul riding into battle on a sandworm gives the troops a morale boost and gives you some options for how the battle plays out.)
Dune’s great achievement is in making an impersonal genre personal, of putting the player in the shoes of a character and then giving that character a direct role in the world. Cyro Interactive may not have made the definitive version of Dune, but I’m not sure anyone else has ever done any better.