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The Gems of Microprose: A True Giant of Gaming

Much of my early gamer days in my childhood, especially the part of my childhood when I played on the original IBM PC with 4.77Mhz was dominated by one company, Microprose. The company, founded by Bill Stealey and Sid Meier himself, produced some genre-defining games whose echoes can still be felt today. Unfortunately, the gates to (heaven?) Microprose, or rather its husk, were closed in 2003. Perhaps it was for the better, as we’ve seen often enough what happens to game studios as they age; they lose a vital part of the essence that once made them great. Almost everything Microprose touched turned out to be great, and here’s the crème de la crème of their portfolio:

#3–PIRATES!

In Pirates! the player jumps into the role of a swashbuckling rogue in the Caribbean. The game, released in the mid-80s, was exceptionally complex for its time. Not only did the player have multiple eras to choose from, which changed the types of ships and strength of navies they would face, but they could also choose national affiliation, whether they wanted to play as a trader, the name-giving pirate, a mercenary for the crown of one of the nations involved in the game, or all of the above at the same time.

The game’s open world nature allowed gamers to truly carve their own destiny. Any ships you encountered on the high seas were capturable. Any colony you encountered was conquerable. Every woman you encountered was marriable. And there were treasures! And lost relatives! And! And! And! This all fit on two 5 ¼ inch floppy disks, which equals approximately 720KB. It was truly a time when code had to be amazingly efficient. 

This is how I arrived in Australia. True story.

The series was later continued with Pirates! Gold among various ports and adaptations, and in the mid-2000s, the latest version of Pirates! was released, focusing more on mini-games than previous iterations. The series has spawned a lot, and I mean a LOT of similar games, and inspires game developers to this day.

#2–CIVILIZATION

Come on now. Everyone has heard of Civilization. If you haven’t heard of Civilization, it’s time to give back that gamer cred non-gamers always talk about. It’s a thing we apparently have. In Civilization, gamers rule as immortal historical leaders like Genghis Khan or his far more dangerous and bloodthirsty peer, Mahatma Gandhi, over their respective civilizations. Technology needs to be researched, cities and roads need to be built, alliances need to be forged, and wars need to be fought.

The original game was based on a board game of the same name, and was adapted by Meier and Stealey to accommodate the relatively new universe of video gaming. Ever since then, the Civilization franchise became synonymous with the famous ‘ONLY ONE MORE TURN!’ phenomenon. The gameplay loop was brilliantly designed, sending the player on an epic journey of thousands of years, from the stone age to the space age, including nuclear weapons.

1In Civilization, you were in control over every aspect of your chosen nation.

Currently, the sixth iteration of Civilization is being sold on the PC, and very soon, also on consoles. The game inspired multiple spin-offs, the most prominent being Alpha Centauri (a game you need to have played once in your life) and Colonization. I would even dare say that it was Civilization that was the foundation of the grand strategy genre, as no game before it popularized tactical and strategic decisions on a global scale the way Civilization did. This makes the Civilization franchise perhaps the biggest achievement of Microprose.

#1–UFO: ENEMY UNKNOWN (X-COM)

At this point, I have to admit something. I hate the new X-Com games. I hate them with a passion. They may be very good games, but they are terrible X-Coms. Not only did they lose the quintessential hyphen between the X and the Com, but they also took everything that made X-Com appealing, streamlined it, and then mutilated it with the sledgehammer of console compatibility. But enough screeching! The original X-Com, or UFO: Enemy Unknown as its name was outside of the USA, was a true masterpiece.

The player took control of up to 24 soldiers in the tactical phase of the game, whose goal was usually to eliminate all aliens on the map. In the strategic phase, the player could erect bases all over the globe, customize them, and equip them to fight the menace that an unknown alien threat posed to Earth.

A common X-Com tactic: burn everything down, because you can. Maybe the madness will scare the aliens.

The best thing about X-Com was its dynamic, procedural nature. As the player was doing their thing, the aliens were doing theirs. They were actively countering the player’s moves and pursuing their own goals. Every UFO that flew somewhere over the map had a purpose: supply UFOs would bring goods to newly established alien bases, terror UFOs tried to destabilize countries that funded the X-Com organization, and scouting UFOs would try to locate X-Com bases, to name only a few examples.

If you’re vehemently disagreeing with my opinion about the new iterations of X-Com, I invite you to take a look at this original and compare the two. I’m reasonably sure you will see how much more choice and influence you have in this true Microprose gem, which was later continued with X-Com: Terror from the Deep, X-Com: Apocalypse, and various other more or less successful offspring.

As with the other two games, the X-Com franchise popularized a whole genre, a genre I would dub ‘isometric tactical game with strategy elements.’

Microprose produced many more legendary games, like F-19 Stealth Fighter, Covert Action, Railroad Tycoon, Master of Magic, Master of Orion, Silent Service and Gunship. Almost all of them are still holding up to the test of time, and if you haven’t noticed yet, I truly and strongly advise you to have a look at their catalogue and to experience those historic moments of gaming for yourself.

-Falko (Follow me on twitter)

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  1. Bruh, you forgot their best game, “The Chaos Engine”.

    A top down Sega Megadrive shooter that had rpg elements, in game currency, multiple paths through every level, tons of secrets, six different characters, an ai companion and a kickass soundtrack that changed depending on what was happening on screen…. you know… a decade or so before that stuff was in every game.

    (American plebs may know the game as Soldier of Fortune.

    • MrPooPooHead on November 21, 2019 at 4:42 pm said

      Lets not forget the awesome 16-bit steampunk graphics, especially if you played the Amiga version. “The Chaos Engine” is p one of the best co-op action game ever made.

      • I grow up in the 80s playing Microprose games on my Tandy 1000 SL and I have no idea what the “The Chaos Engine” is – exactly which game designer at Microprose created it?

    • Lotus Petal on November 27, 2019 at 6:24 am said

      Granted, “The Chaos Engine” was originally developed by the legendary The Bitmap Brothers and released for the Commodore Amiga, but the Mega Drive port sounds like it holds up to the original. I’ll have to check it out!

  2. This article switches between praising Microprose games and praising Microsoft games repeatedly lol, I’m assuming this is an error and the two companies aren’t actually the same?

  3. Master of Magic is hands down my favorite game of all time. Xcom was pretty good but got no where near as much of my time as MoM.

  4. There was something real special about the intro screen for Gunship – also the game itself is pretty amazing.

  5. God, I miss those days where I spent countless hours playing UFO saying “One more mission”, or Civ 1 saying “I PRESSED 8 INSTEAD of 7!” or Pirates saying “I need more money!”

    Great article. Brings back a lot of memory. Gonna grab a coffee and have a nice smile thinking of me replaying those memories.

  6. Hey Now. two of my top games of all time are from Microprose and missed one. XCOM of course, but what about Master of Orion? While it didn’t full invent the 4x Space Genre it sure as heck had a major effect on shaping it. Both MOO1 and 2’s influences can still be felt in the genre today.

  7. Silent Service and F-117A Nighthawk were some of my first computer game purchases

  8. MECHCOMMANDER 1. You truely aren’t a microprose fan if you don’t know this one.

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