Why X-COM Matters (To Me)

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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