"God bless you KKnD: you may have been a shit game, but without you, we may well still be stuck in isometric RTS hell to this very day."
Real-time strategy games are all but dead. New releases are few and far between these days, and most of the developers who once focused on them have moved on to other projects. StarCraft II is the last vestige of the traditional RTS, kept alive primarily as an e-sport by genre pioneers Blizzard for the better part of a decade.
Of course, it wasn't always so. Once the foundations of the RTS had been solidified by games like Dune II (1992), WarCraft (1994) and Command & Conquer (1995), a major boom dominated the latter half of the 1990s. New games from the experienced studios routinely sold in the millions, and smaller developers found success with derivatives of their own.
Speaking to PC Zone in 2004, Tim Ansell of The Creative Assembly recalled being stunned by the success of these "clones". He singled out a Krush, Kill 'n' Destroy (or KKnD), "an absolute pile of crap" and bemoaned its impressive sales of 600,000 copies. This realisation of how much money could be made inspired the development of what would become Shogun: Total War (2000).
Both Ansell and PC Zone were cruel in their appraisal of KKnD. It may be in many ways a slavish clone of the Command & Conquer games, but it is in no way "far inferior". KKnD has significant innovations and quirks of its own, and has a rich and humorous personality.
Its developers, Beam Software, were based in Australia and were industry veterans founded in 1977. KKnD was their first foray into RTS games, and has a post-apocalyptic setting which strongly recalls Mad Max. One faction, the Survivors, hid from the post-nuclear wasteland underground. The other, the Evolved, remained on the surface and became tribal mutants, fond of irradiated beasts like giant scorpions.
The eccentricity of this setting and factions, particularly the Evolved, is a far cry from some of the more glum and serious RTS games of the time. For example Total Annihilation, also released in 1997, is almost completely without a personality of its own - populated only by faceless, identikit machines. The tongue-in-cheek FMV mission briefings of KKnD anticipate the overt kitsch style of Westwood's Red Alert 2 (2000), one of the very last 2D RTS classics as the 3D era took over.
KKnD has other significant strengths. The AI was quite advanced for its time, to the extent that attacking forces will often retreat when they sense they are outnumbered; there is a novel approach to a tech tree, whereby a research building upgrades other structures; and units enjoy the benefits of a veterancy system.
Beam also placed a greater emphasis on cutting off an enemy's sources of income, as opposed to simply running them over with superior numbers. Both factions rely on oil collected from wells using tankers, and interrupting this flow is crucial to a large proportion of the 30 campaign missions (50 in the later Xtreme edition of the game). The battlefields are as static as in other games of the time, but are well-detailed - as are many of the units, particularly infantry.
There's no doubt that numerous poor RTS games released in the 1990s - it was inevitable, given how lucrative the genre was at the time and how many developers wanted to get involved. It may even be fair to call KKnD a "clone" of the more popular C&C games. But there are reasons why Beam's work has not fallen into complete obscurity, and why it has always had its defenders. Its anarchic sense of humour is very much a product of its origin in Australia and is very distinctive. The graphics and music are strong for 1997 and still satisfying today - and there definitely aren't enough games these days featuring giant crabs armed with missile launchers.
Those who miss the glory days of the RTS but didn't pick up KKnD at the time will likely find something to enjoy - the game (and its 1998 sequel KKnD2: Krossfire) is available from GOG.com and plays very smoothly on Windows 10.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.