As Villeneuve’s Dune sweeps through viewers' brains like an Arakis sandstorm, Dune media is in a new heyday. People are reading the books on the subway, bashing David Lynch’s Dune, and pining for Jodorowsky’s. Suddenly dads have something fun to talk about with their kids at Thanksgiving dinner, and everyone had an easy all-black Halloween costume. Lately, it seems like no medium can escape the pull of Herbert’s sci-fi classic.
But even if the books and movies are seeing renewed interest, one thing no one is talking about are the Dune video games. And for good reason: they’ve been dead in the water for almost two full decades. But let’s dust ‘em off ...
The first game falls into one of those odd eras of gaming history where the game designers hadn’t caught up to the latest tech. Dune was actually one of the first games converted to CD, meaning that it had a lot more memory to play with than other games that preceded it. It also struck out in a new direction genre-wise in order to let players experience the story of Paul Atreides as a person while keeping themselves involved in the geopolitics of Arakis.
Rather than being a pure action RPG, Dune exists in two “layers.” The first layer is what you’d expect; a dungeon crawling adventure game in which you meet characters and discuss the plot with them, moving towards your ultimate goal of destroying the Harkonnens. The second layer is what you would not expect because running right behind this RPG is a 4X game, basically if Civilization made a Dune expansion. By modern standards, this is really weird, but overall, this game’s blending of these styles seems to have been successful, and contemporary reviews give it credit for making the player feel involved in the story’s outcome while also having a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in the world.
Dune II (also 1992)
Right off the bat, I gotta warn you- this is not at all a sequel to the last Dune game. For some reason, both games were in production at the same time and this game got the name Dune II just because it was released after Dune. This will get more confusing later, I promise. (I can see the future with my melange-induced prescience.) Critics loved it, but fans had a hard time with the fact that it changed Dune’s plot.
It’s genuinely unbelievable we don’t talk more about Dune II in the canon of video games. It’s not the first Real-Time Strategy game, but it introduced so many concepts to the genre that it may as well be. Dune II brought the mouse to RTS games- yeah, like, the ability to select things with a cursor? That’s from this bad boy right here. Building bases and units? First showed up in this. Gathering resources? That’s from Dune II. Asymmetric gameplay? Tech trees? All of these first showed up in Dune II. So if you’re enjoying Age of Empires 4 or Starcraft 2 right now, take a moment and pay your respects to an ancient game that held its own way back in the day.
Alright, we got through the good ones. Now it’s time to talk about the games that killed this whole franchise off.
Dune 2000 (1998)
Dune 2000 was a heaping pile of worm dung. Six years after Dune II blew the doors off of the RTS genre and showed everyone how it’s done, Dune 2000 promised to do the exact same thing.
… the only problem is that it did the exact same thing-- it’s basically the same game as Dune II, but six years later. Six years between games is a long time now, but six years between games in this era is the difference between the SNES and the N64. Games that came out even two years previously might age badly, but six? Nobody wants that.
Emperor: Battle for Dune (2001)
Westwood, the company behind Dune II and Dune 2000, had learned their lesson from remaking Dune II and not modernizing it. Players weren’t happy, and they did what any reasonable game company would do: they doubled down and made basically the exact same game again. The graphics are nicer, and the story is way meatier, but Emperor gets absolutely panned because it has bad multiplayer, terrible pathing, and AI, and wasn’t up to date on what players of RTS games expected from their controls. If Dune 2000 bombed, Emperor went atomic, and had its own feature in Computer Gaming World titled “The Emperor Has No Clue.” This is the beginning of the end.
Frank Herbert’s Dune (2001)
Remember Dune, the first game made in 1992? The weird action RPG/4X game that time forgot? Yeah, well that was made by a company named Cryo Interactive. And we come back to Cryo Interactive now, nine years later and on the brink of financial collapse.
One of the final releases for this company is Frank Herbert’s Dune, a 3D action-adventure game that is accurate to the original novels, although it cuts to the middle section in which Paul is trying to earn the trust of the natives. There’s not much to be said about this- it was a complete flop of a game and shortly afterward Cryo filed for bankruptcy.
And that’s where we leave the Dune games. Westwood made one successful game three consecutive times and Cryo couldn’t keep the spice flowing long enough to keep the lights on. But who knows- maybe with the new movie generating so much hype some modern studio will pick up the rights and blow us away? My vision of the future is murky, but maybe with a little more of the spice I could be sure ...
Top Image: Warner Bros.