MicroProse Software had a long run of producing world-class simulation and strategy games during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, including such classics as Civilization, Master of Orion, Pirates! Gold, Master of Magic, F-15 Strike Eagle II, and many, many more. One of the most-loved of these MicroProse gems was X-COM: UFO Defense, released in 1994 in North America (and known as UFO: Enemy Unknown overseas).
X-COM was a turn-based squad strategy game with the premise that not only were UFOs real, they were filled with vicious aliens that loved to abduct, experiment on, and terrorize humanity – and they were arriving in greater numbers and with more regularity. With such a dire threat facing the planet, world leaders gathered to create an emergency covert strike force response team to investigate and eliminate the alien threat: X-COM.
You begin the game staring at the Geoscape screen, your map of the Earth that shows all UFO activity (known bases, sightings, UFO locations, etc.) and X-COM locations (your fighters and bases). Your first challenge is to build your X-COM base, and then to send out your fighter craft on patrol and to investigate possible UFO activity. Clicking through to the Base screen brings you to your micro-management options, such as recruiting, equipment and weaponry purchases, base expansions, and production and research settings.
All of this is paid for by the founding member nations of the global X-COM initiative. Each country pays a share of the overall operating expense, which can increase or decrease depending on how that nation views the overall alien threat and X-COM’s usefulness. Interestingly, some countries can opt to pull a Quisling, aligning themselves with the aliens, which results in the termination of their funding for X-COM. Holy “V”, Batman.
Once a UFO is found (either landing or crashing) or an alien terror incident is reported, players can opt to send out the X-COM team to check things out. At this point the game switches to the isometric Battlescape, and turn-based combat begins. Either the aliens are routed and valuable alien technology is captured for the techies to give it a Will Smith-like Independence Day makeover; or the aliens wipe out your poor soldiers; or, sensing imminent defeat, you tell your people to tuck their tails between their legs and get out of Dodge. Get defeated enough and your funding will dry up, the X-COM program will fold, and you lose the game. Keep winning those little battles and your raison d’être will be validated, funding will hold steady or increase, your tech people will be able to improve your defences and weaponry, and eventually you’ll reach the alien scum’s main base for the final battle. Win that one and you ensure the future of Humanity is golden, and the game is yours.
This was a fabulous game at the time, with VGA graphics, superb sound effects, and varied and fun game play. It was a hot seller at the time and commanded a loyal, intense player following, and still continues to be a favourite classic game among many. X-COM has appeared on several “Best of” lists, including placing in the top ten of PC Gamer’s Top 50 of all-time lists, on Computer Gaming World’s Best Game of All-Time lists, and consistently holding the number one position on IGN’s Top 25 of All-Time lists.
With so many awards and fond memories, it’s an easy game to put forward as one of the classic retro games that every retrogamer needs to have played. If you haven’t gone UFO-hunting with your global anti-alien X-COM strike force yet, don’t just sit there – pick up a copy of this game and get playing!