Why X-COM Matters (To Me)

By Alec Meer on April 14th, 2010 at 3:49 pm.

Oof, tough day. I totally get why people are upset, but once again it’s worth waiting for a few more details before you decide the new XCOM is the end of all that is sacred. Maybe it will be, maybe it won’t, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little honest hope. Today does, however, spell the end of a decade-long dream that someone would throw really serious money at resurrecting the fantastic hybrid genre 1994’s X-COM created. There is a great sadness there – so many ideas left to die, never bettered in the long gap between then and now. So let’s be hopeful, cautiously or otherwise, about XCOM, but let’s also raise a glass to X-COM. We owe it so much, and we may never see its like again. Sniff.

This is the first of two posts exploring why I (and many others) unwaveringly believe X-COM is one of the most important and greatest games ever made. We’ll talk about the game itself in the second one, but first please allow me to indulge myself with this autobiographical prelude. This is why X-COM matters to me.

It is sometime, I would guess, in 1993 or 94. It may be Summer. I’m browsing the magazine racks in a branch of WH Smiths in Worcester, England. I haven’t had a PC for long, and it’s the only games machine I’ve ever owned apart from a malfunctioning ZX Spectrum. Owning it (well, my mother owns it, but I’m allowed to use it weekends) has been a transformative experience for me. I’m desperate to play everything that’s released for it – like a lot of gentlemen my age, 1993-94 was the year I became a gamer. 365 days that made me what I am.

There’s just one problem: I can’t afford any games. It’s all copied floppy disks and, most of all, demos played to death and beyond. Trouble is, I can’t afford any games magazines either.

I can’t remember the magazine itself. PC Something, obviously, but it’s more a hardware one than a games one. Cover-mounted floppy disks don’t come cheap, so the magazines that carry two of them are rare and precious things. PC Something does have two, but that isn’t enough to encompass what was clearly a bumper month for demos. There’s some old crap sellotaped to the front (possibly a trial version of Lotus Office), but also a promise that you would be posted a bonus demo disk if you called a certain phone number and quoted a code from inside the magazine. As an additional clever/cruel gimmick, you’re only allowed one of the three demos on offer. One shall stand, two shall fall. The options are Sim City 2000, something I’ve forgotten, and another game I don’t recognise called UFO: Enemy Unknown.

Boy, do I want that Sim City 2000 demo. UFO? Never heard of it. Don’t care. Everyone’s talking about SC2K at school, though. Gotta have it. Can’t afford the magazine. Not fair, not fair. Idea! I scribble down the phone number with a leaky biro I found floating around my blazer pocket, and I’m just frantically flicking through PC Something to find the special code when one of my more surly teachers passes by, determines that lunchbreak is over (it bloody isn’t! There’s four minutes left!) and orders me back to school. No. No. Noooooooooooooooooo…

Home, that evening. I still have the phone number. I call it, not really knowing why – I’m such a goddamned wimp that I’m liable to hang up the second someone answers. Fortunately, a machine answers. A calm, pre-recorded, non-judgmental machine. A machine which simply wants me to intone my name and address. I do so, hope blossoming in my teenage pigeon chest. This is going to work! And then… the code. The bloody code. I um and ah into the line, then hang up, shaking. I’ve broken the law! They’re going to get me! And I’ll never get that Sim City 2000 demo now!

I don’t know how long passes. Time was different then. It may only have been a few days, but it seems like a lifetime. One day, a small parcel arrives for me. I don’t get parcels – this is strange and exciting. My father eyes me and it sternly, presuming mischief and/or contraband. Somehow, I escape upstairs with it. I don’t have the faintest what it is, but as I peel back the bubble wrap I spy the top of a 3.5” floppy disk. No way! It’s the Sim City 2000 demo after all! They must have somehow mistaken my whimpering and heavy breathing for the secret code. I win. I totally win.

I lose. It’s not Sim City 2000. It’s something I’ve never heard of. I’m disgusted, with it and with myself. UFO: Enemy Unknown? Hopeless Nerd: Playing Games Unknown By Anyone more like. I’m too miserly to bin it, though. It’s a free thing. It must be used at all costs.

I peer at the label, and my sneer softens. There’s something incredibly compelling about the picture of some giant tentacle beast with spaceships for hands. Of course there’s something compelling about it. I’m 13 years old, for God’s sake. Batman’s awesome, and I record Red Dwarf every week. That tentacle beast is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

I’m talking about the picture at the top of this post, the original UK cover art for a game you might also know as X-COM: UFO Defense. The picture is awful. Incredible. Unforgettable. And nothing whatsoever to do with the game itself, in that cheerily irrelevant way a lot of game art used to be.

I loved that disc. So colourful, a tiny beacon of joy and glory. A few weeks/months later, after I’ve been enthusing/boring everyone at school with my daily anecdotes about this incredible game I’d found, a rich acquaintance buys X-COM. He graciously allows me to copy it. With reverence, I copy the first of its three disks over my treasured demo disk. I Tippex out the words ‘playable demo’ and the logo of the magazine, and I’m left with something that is absolutely perfect.

I can’t believe I don’t still have that disk. A combination of theft and accident gave me my most adored game of all time: that disk is part of my DNA. The unexpected arrival of that disc is probably one of the most defining moments in my tiny life. It’s why I work for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, it’s why I spend so much time at a PC every day that I have agonising RSI in my right hand, and it’s why I flew to San Francisco to see the new XCOM a few weeks ago (No, not telling yet. Watch this space). I can’t believe I don’t still have that disk.

1993 once more. I dig out that phone number and try again, hoping that they’ll randomly send me Sim City 2000 instead this time. Months pass. Nothing. Rumbled.

It would be around a decade before I finally played Sim City 2000. Conversely, I have played X-COM at least once every year of my life since 1994.

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139 Comments »

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  1. Adam says:

    The XCom games are so terrific and beloved, and the indie/open source community fairly robust, it’s very surprising that there have been so few attempts at recreating it. I know there are a few OS attempts (Project Xenocide, etc.) but none of those projects seem to have any driving force for completion. This is one of the properties I would “honor” with my own version (using Lovecraft’s creations – shoggoths, mi-go, etc.), had I the programming skill and/or manpower.

    But seriously – why so few indie attempts at a remake?

  2. Frenchkiss says:

    No, there’s scarse little way you can compare Daggerfall to Morrowind or Oblivion.

    You can’t understand unless you played it to the bone at the age of 10.

  3. Premium User Badge

    amishmonster says:

    I love that all this news of a new X-Com comes in the middle of my most recent playthrough/revival of the obsession. It gives me a little hope.

    Such a heartwarming story, Alec!

  4. Hmm says:

    OK, so we’re ONCE AGAIN going to accept a rotten compromise? Fallshit 3: “It shits on everything that made Fallout good and was made by some five year-olds who can’t write, design a coherent world and good gameplay mechanics and cater to the FPS crowd instead, but hey, it has nice atmosphere and is OK in its own right! We LUV Bethsduh”
    Now, even X-COM?
    To hell with it, every game – EVERY game – must be an FPS or TPS these days or some close-minded FPP fanboys will refuse to play it, accusing OTHERS of being AFRAID OF CHANGE. Lol-worthy.

    • Bret says:

      Got our knickers in a twist there, I see.

      Ever played Metroid Prime? Same deal…

      Only it worked perfect. And if that sort of lightning hits again? Well, we’ve got a winner.

    • Psychopomp says:

      Except Metroid Prime was a spin-off, not the “reimagining” of the main series.

    • Tom O'Bedlam says:

      Fallshit 3? Really?

      Really?

      its all gone a bit console round here…

  5. reginald says:

    I still don’t understand this XCOM thing. I was pc-gaming in 1993-1994, but I never heard of XCOM until 1999-2000ish when IGN threw it up as their #1 PC game of all time, beating out games like Half Life and Starcraft. it raised a lot of questions in my head, especially because I had never heard of this game, and the fact that the title sounded uber-lame. XCOM ? sounds like a word processor from Microsoft’s Black Project division.

    maybe some day I’ll actually play the damned thing, assuming its still playable.

    • HairCute says:

      @reginald:

      I feel sorry for you, Reggie.

    • Bret says:

      I don’t. Lucky bastard will get to play X-Com for the first time.

      Which he should do. Game kicks ass, and is just five bucks on Steam for a version that works aces.

    • Psychopomp says:

      Considering that I played it for the first time a year ago, yeah it’s still pretty damn playable.

  6. Jack says:

    Yes it’s still playable. I recommend that you play UFO: Enemy Unknown, as the difficulty level of TFTD can be devastating and discouraging (I finished UFO:EU on Normal few times, while TFTD kicks my ass VERY MUCH on “Beginner” difficulty)

    • Psychopomp says:

      You do know about the difficulty bug in EU, right?

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      For those who don’t know: Every time you began a battle in the original X-COM / UFO game, the difficulty would revert to “beginner” difficulty. This is fixed by XcomUtil, but I’m not sure if it was ever fixed in any of the official patches for any version of the game.

  7. SinisterSalad says:

    XCom series is available through Steam. I have the floppies, the version for the PS1, and got it on Steam when they had the whole kit for $2 around XMas time. I re-hash with up to date graphics would rock.

    • Vinraith says:

      @SinisterSalad

      It’s available through all the major digital distributors, with the unfortunate (and confusing) exception of GOG.

  8. Fenchurch says:

    Oh! I have a similar tale about Baldur’s Gate! I didn’t dare take it back as it was PC World, but; PC Gamer had a huuuge guide to it, and when I saw that list of all the NPCs and the maps of this world to explore, I became obsessed with getting it.

    When I did get it, I was disappointed, absolutely bewildered by the mechanics, the strange interface, the giant manual. But after persevering beyond the opening areas, I found myself sucked into this free world, caring about my entourage and playing it for hours and hours!

  9. Bret says:

    Wisq said:
    For those who don’t know: Every time you began a battle in the original X-COM / UFO game, the difficulty would revert to “beginner” difficulty. This is fixed by XcomUtil, but I’m not sure if it was ever fixed in any of the official patches for any version of the game.

    Well, I think that’s not quite right. Every time you load, maybe.

    I’ve only done minimal testing, mind, but I can confirm that loading mid-mission resets the difficulty.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      http://www.ufopaedia.org/index.php?title=Known_Bugs#Difficulty_Bug

      The DOS version had a problem where no matter what difficulty level you chose, you were actually playing at “Beginner” level. Because of one or two incorrectly set bytes in all dos versions of the game( 1.0 through to 1.4), no matter what difficulty was selected, the difficulty bug would reset to beginner at the end of the first mission. XcomUtil corrects this problem, as does the Collectors Edition Windows port (also commonly known as UFO Gold or CE).

      So it looks like the Windows version is fixed, but I think Steam uses the DOS version.

  10. CdrJameson says:

    You didn’t have the instructions, then?

    That’s important.

    No instructions.

    Enemy: Unknown.

    What does that starburst mean?
    What’s that odd screeching sound?
    WHAT DO YOU MEAN MY TROOPS ARE UNDER ALIEN CONTROL?

  11. Bascule42 says:

    UFO:EU….ahhh, The 2nd game I ever paid for with my own cash, (pocket money spent on speccy games not counting). The 1st being Dune 2. One of the 4 reasons it was worth getting an Amiga. UFO: Enemy Unkown, (wtf is XCOM: UFO Defence? Pff…never heard of it!). FPS XCOM? Not another damn shooter pleeeeeaaaaseee!!

  12. pimorte says:

    I really still don’t get why there is so much love for XCOM. It seems like nostalgic attraction is the driving force here.

    Keep in mind that I never played the game as a child. I bought it last year because I love turn-based strategy, and liked the idea of playing an UFO-themed one.

    Whenever I’ve played it, I’ve always come away thinking that as a tactical game it’s a complete failure. The game is so heavily dependent on luck that any real tactical thought on your part seems to play a miniscule role in whether you survive. Unavoidable reaction fire from unexplored territory, wildly inaccurate soldiers, a chance you can get alien types like Chrysalids within the first-second month which means facing against them with soldiers that seem to be made out of paper mache and barely contained fear…

  13. pimorte says:

    Oh, and lol nerfnow: http://www.nerfnow.com/comic/283

  14. Bret says:

    Anonymous Coward said:
    I really still don’t get why there is so much love for XCOM. It seems like nostalgic attraction is the driving force here.

    Keep in mind that I never played the game as a child. I bought it last year because I love turn-based strategy, and liked the idea of playing an UFO-themed one.

    Whenever I’ve played it, I’ve always come away thinking that as a tactical game it’s a complete failure. The game is so heavily dependent on luck that any real tactical thought on your part seems to play a miniscule role in whether you survive. Unavoidable reaction fire from unexplored territory, wildly inaccurate soldiers, a chance you can get alien types like Chrysalids within the first-second month which means facing against them with soldiers that seem to be made out of paper mache and barely contained fear…

    That’s the fun!

    More seriously, yeah. It’s a game of odds and the occasional defying thereof, but it ain’t RISK. Explosions almost always hit and hurt, so you’ve got options if your guys can’t shoot.

    Mutual suprise and snipers reduce the pain of reaction fire. Any alien type can be dealt with using starting weapons if you’re good and lucky, and if you aren’t up to it, well, that’s when you pull a Brave Sir Robin. (But really, if you don’t have lasers before the first terror mission, you did it wrong.)

    It’s a tough game, and not always a fair one, but it is possible to at least have a good chance at victory, and tactics really do matter.

  15. Pockets says:

    I remember seeing all the promotional stuff for that cancelled X-COM: Alliance game, which was basically a UT-engined SWAT-style thing, and thinking there was potential in the idea. So that, plus 2K Australia used to be the Irrational team that did SWAT4 didn’t they?

    So I’m sure there’s potential for a very good game here, but there’s just something odd about essentially bringing something back from the dead for a loosely-related spinoff, however good.

  16. Anzariel says:

    When my parents bought our first PC, I was corious about it. I already have my nintendo, why another machine?

    With it came a set of 5 games. Sim City 2000, Train Tycoon, some other stuff that I can’t remember, and X-Com: UFO Defense. When I first tried it, the first thing I realised was that you could play the game in FRENCH??!?!?!?!

    But, wait….I am French! First game in french ever, so I tried it in a language I could understand at the time. The game became a cult for me and my cousin, we played as much as we could. We still do :D

    …I should play again. Hell, I should record it too!

  17. Magic H8 Ball says:

    Lilliput King said:Except that what Fallout 3 got wrong was the characters, quests and worlds. The combat was fucking terrible, certainly, but in that respect it was true to the originals.

    Your life means nothing.

  18. sinister agent says:

    Try having to leave three amigas and a spectrum behind when you move house, along with a bajillon games that were all but surrogate parents, knowing you’ll never see them again. I’ve had breakups with girlfriends that felt like less of a loss.

    I was quite a newcomer to UFO, as it happens – I’m pretty sure I picked it up when the amiga’s decline was a given, and knock-off companies were selling some of the best games I’ve ever played (and still do), that were £20+ a few years before, for under a fiver each. It was the first game that had me stay up all night, thinking only an hour or two had gone by.

    I don’t expect new players to ‘get’ it in the same way, though. It is still undeniably great, but ‘being there’ and experiencing something in its prime makes such a difference. It’s the reason why I never really thought that much of Nirvana, while (some) people just a decade older than me will always appreciate them in a way I never can.

  19. rollermint says:

    Nice write up, somewhat similar to my own experience.

    I was like…what, 12? and I frequented this store that has this thick catalogue of games in alphabetical order. Obviously, I’ve realised now that that damn store is actually a pirate shop (lol) but at the time, I had no freaking idea. My dad just bought a new pc and I absolutely was desperate for a game other than Solitaire.

    So I was browsing through the list and I just came upon the “T” list and for some reason, Terror From the Deep sounded like an awesome title for a game(which turns out to be an awesome game, likewise). There were’t any Internet(hasn’t kickstarted), no gaming review websites, I don’t even know about gaming magazines. SO I got the game based on a simple hunch.

    Thats how my love affair started. I remembered for days I had no idea what the heck the game was all about but it was intriguing and I kept at it until I figured out how to actually play the game. And yeah, I started on Terror From the Deep with no manuals and no a single clue what I was getting. Pretty badass :P And I agree with what a guy said earlier in the thread, I think I’m WAAYYY smarter at 12 than now at 27…

    In fact, I think gamers at the time were way smarter and hardcore than today’s gamers with their streamlined and noobified games :P

  20. Mark says:

    Is the original genuinely still worth playing? I don’t mind old games, I’m just wary getting it based on the recommendation of fanboys or people wanting to be seen to be cool and retro.

    Will take a look if so.

  21. Seb says:

    I think you just need to look at the level of the posts in relation to this game, to realise, it is something special. Near twenty years of gaming and I am yet to feel anything close to the experience in playing XCOM.

    ..that and nothing more satisfying than an alien death-screech in the darkness beyond your hastily tossed grenades..

  22. x says:

    http://ufo2000.sourceforge.net/

    “UFO2000 is free and opensource turn based tactical squad simulation multiplayer game, heavily inspired by the famous UFO: Enemy Unknown and providing a very similar reimplementation of its tactical part.

    Currently UFO2000 has its own basic set of fan-made graphics which is included in UFO2000 distribution by default (see screenshots). But those who also have a copy of UFO: Enemy Unknown game (there are plenty of places to buy it nowadays), have the possibility to use the original graphics from it for extending UFO2000 with additional maps, weapon sets and units.”/end q