Nothing’s more timeless than a good puzzle game. Except when it makes a purposeful reference to a specific event. In the case of Agress, released in 1991 by Palco, that event is the Gulf War, which it specifically calls out by showing digitized pictures of Saddam Hussein and George H. W. Bush opposing each other. It’s this specific occurrence and some other game aesthetics which take the game from nondescript (yet competent) puzzler to an anomaly. The gameplay itself is straightforward: create various shapes by shifting tiles around on the board, in the same manner as those small puzzle games where you create a whole picture by shifting one tile around at a time.
Completing a picture causes your artillery to fire missiles at the enemy; if the design you complete is situated over the image of a missile in the background of one or more of its tiles, you fire even more missiles. All the while, the enemy is constantly firing its own missiles at you, which you counter with yours, possibly destroying their artillery (for bonus points.) When enough of their missiles reach your artillery, you lose the game. The images you need to make can become elaborate, sometimes involving multiple colors in the correct spots. You’re under an extreme amount of pressure to move quickly and accurately; a wrong tile shift will often turn into a multiple-step correction that costs you valuable time. After playing over 70 levels of the game, I don’t think there’s a way to “win.” Even marking all the territories as conquered only provides a point bonus and then resets them.
So, why is this of interest at all? Well, from appearances, Agress is one of the few arcade games where you get to play as the villain, and certainly the only one of those set during the Gulf War. The pre-title-screen shot of opposing leaders has Saddam Hussein on the left side—the same side that you play on in a single-player game. Also, the territories you take over start out as green and as you conquer them they turn red, a color usually associated with evil or danger (especially as contrasted with green.) The lack of any other narrative in the game leaves me with the conclusion that you are playing the Iraq side of the Gulf War in this game. Perhaps that’s why the game can’t be won and from the first puzzle you are on an inevitable path toward defeat. Would have been a little more clear if they gave us a little Saddam-statue-teardown pic as part of the game over screen or something.