Retro Game Wednesday #1 – X-COM: UFO Defense

These days we live in the future, or at least the closest to it that we’ve ever been, and our various takes on this whole ‘video game’ idea just keep […]

These days we live in the future, or at least the closest to it that we’ve ever been, and our various takes on this whole ‘video game’ idea just keep getting more complex. Sometimes people like to look back to the simpler games of yesteryear – a heady time when video games had two buttons at most and had no plot to get in the way of the primary pursuit: making a number higher by murdering more aliens.

A select minority would be quite happy with an even simpler time and would be not at all put out if we gave up on the whole ‘civilization’ thing and entertained ourselves by tossing spears at wild pigs, but this article is not for them.

Sure, things are better now, so they tell us. Vast libraries of games and movies are available over the Internet more conveniently than ever before, letting people everywhere fill their lives with new diversions without ever leaving their seats. But sometimes we get the urge to look back, to remember the simpler games of days gone by. Games from a time before photo-real people and hyper-realistic environments. A time when entertaining yourself required a spark of imagination to fill in the gaps the technology couldn’t handle, a time when you had to imagine the last moment of existential dread in a man’s eyes before blasting him into gory pudding with a rocket launcher. Now that they can simulate all of that with their fancy ‘GPUs’ and ‘CPUs’ and ‘existential dread processors’ it’s just not the same anymore.

So you get it in your head that maybe you want to play something older, something simple and nostalgic through which you might recapture a little bit of the lost magic of your youth. It wouldn’t even take five minutes – all your old games are in that box in the back of the closet, aren’t they? But wait! Stay where you are! Getting them out would mean you’d have to get out of your seat. We don’t do that anymore. We don’t have to. It’s the future.

Go ahead.

Open up Steam.

We’ll wait.

That’s right, tucked away in the depths of the cavernous Steam Store is a robust representation of back-catalogue games from various developers! A veritable smorgasbord of blasts from the past waiting to be rediscovered or discovered for the first time by a new generation of gamers. Best of all, they’re affordable, with many of the older titles going for five dollars or less. It’s a thrifty gamer’s paradise! Even if you’re not up for spending days revisiting games from your past, you could save money on new games by pretending it’s ten years earlier than it really is. We won’t judge you for lying to yourself.

The only thing standing in your way is this: how do you decide which old games to buy? How do you tell the true classics that have stood the test of time from the steaming piles of code better left forgotten in the bottom of this digital bargain bin? It’s hard to find reviews for these games anymore, given that at the time most of them ran in ‘magazines’, an esoteric form of media that was ‘printed’ on processed dead trees. Few useful examples of this crude form of information distribution remain, making it more difficult to get a fair opinion on these games.

So to help you make sure you’re buying the right things, Steam Addicts put their top man on the job to review all the fondly remembered classics and forgotten gems that Steam has on offer and tell you, the reader, if they’re still worth the money.


Unfortunately he refused, so we made this guy do it instead.


This is a new column, and as such I thought I might start out strong with something I can most definitely recommend that all of you reading this go out and purchase immediately.

Some of you will already know this game. Some of you will already own it. You can stop reading now if you wish, or complain feverishly about my opinions down at the bottom of the page in the comments. But those of you who don’t know, well, I think you’ll be in for a treat.

Title: X-COM: UFO Defense
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Developer:  MicroProse
Release Date: Dec 31, 1993
Price (at time of review): $4.99


In the near future of 1999, you are placed in command of a worldwide task force charged with repelling an alien invasion with Earth’s finest technology and special forces soldiers. You will do this primarily by getting half your soldiers killed on purpose and the other half killed because they can’t shoot something ten feet in front of them, but at least you’ll have fun doing it.


  • Strategy side of the game holds up after nearly twenty years – the fans are of the opinion that there has never a squad based strategy game as good as the first X-COM.
  • Enough variety in the mission and enemy types to keep things interesting from the beginning to the endgame.
  • Soldiers are refreshingly expendable – in the end they are simply collections of stats with a name, and you have a theoretically infinite supply of them as long as your money holds out.
  • There is something to be said for a game where you will find yourself intentionally giving new soldiers only one magazine of ammunition because you don’t expect them to live long enough to reload.
  • The ones that DO survive grow stronger and rise in rank from battle to battle.
  • Don’t get attached, though – better stats usually only mean the eventual blaze of glory they go out in will be slightly more glorious.
  • The graphics are good… for 1993. You can tell everything apart clearly enough, and the environment types are varied and interesting, especially cities.


  • Punishingly difficult – the difficulty levels are more of an indication of how terrible and unyielding the meatgrinder you’re throwing your soldiers into is going to be.
  • Wait, did I say bad? I meant awesome.
  • Seriously, though, you’re going to run into a lot of game-over while you figure out how this game works.
  • Just remember: losing is fun!
  • There are still a few overlooked bugs present in the original version of the game that are still in the Steam version, including one infamous one that resets the difficulty to ‘beginner’ no matter what difficulty you choose.
  • (Fun fact: This bug led the sequel to be exponentially harder than the first game, since the developers heard complaints about how the game was too easy, even on Superhuman difficulty. Not knowing about the bug, they made Beginner mode in the sequel even harder than Superhuman was intended to be in the original.)
  • They can be patched out with freely available modifications, however – the link to one is provided at the end of the article.
  • Please note: if you can’t stand old pixelated graphics you should probably stay away from this one.


Still just about perfect, in my opinion. They still haven’t made a better one than this, although Firaxis is apparently trying, so if you like the idea but want it in a more modern package you can wait and see how that turns out. Is it worth buying? Yes. For five bucks, you’ll get a brilliant strategy classic that will keep you entertained until you get frustrated with it and hurl your computer out a window.  8/10


Some turn based strategy games can get pretty heavy on story and characterization. These are the kind that want you to care about your little characters, giving them individual personalities and stories and doing their best to make you feel guilty if you get them killed. A good example is the Jagged Alliance series. (Or if that’s too obscure, Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series.)

X-Com is not one of those games.

Your soldiers don’t have personalities, unless you come up with personalities for them yourself. Admittedly, this can be a lot of fun, but that’s not the point. The reason the developers didn’t give your soldiers personalities in X-Com is because the life expectancy for a new soldier on a mission for X-Com is somewhere around twelve seconds. If they get promoted it’s usually because they were the only survivor.

You can hardly blame them for dying horribly, though. X-Com is short for Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, and as the name implies, the organization’s mandate looks something like this.

1. Get vapourized by some aliens.

2. Get eaten by different aliens.

3. Get impregnated by the larvae of yet more aliens that will control your brain and cause you to gestate another alien.

4. If you fail to do any of the above we guess you might also consider stopping the alien invasion.

So why would anyone volunteer for this? Well, it’s 1999, and aliens are attacking Earth because that is what aliens do. In response, the governments of Earth have banded together and formed X-Com, a multinationally funded organization geared toward fending off the new alien threat. Your job is to shoot down alien craft in Earth’s atmosphere, find and destroy alien bases on Earth soil, recover and adapt their technology to create new and better weapons and aircraft, and eventually figure out where these jerks live and blow it up.

The aliens really don’t want you to do this. They’ll level cities and launch secret missions to make X-Com’s member countries pull their funding. If their scouts find your bases they will launch counterattacks. Sometimes they will steal cattle from farmers. And the only thing that can stop them is you.

Really, playing X-Com is switching between two kinds of game – the long term global view where you requisition and transfer supplies and men between bases, perform research on captured alien gadgets and try to keep your funding countries happy, and then the short term, turn based tactical squad game that kicks in when you actually land at an alien ship’s crash site, an alien base, or another mission site. This turn based combat is the real draw of the game – you deploy your soldiers to sites of alien activity and engage them to disrupt their evil plans by shooting them repeatedly. In the process, you’ll capture and reverse-engineer alien technology and face down a large number of different alien species, all with their own abilities. These range from the lowly Sectoid, modelled after the Gray of popular culture, to the cuddly Chryssalid, who only wants to hug you and make you his friend.

You will lose people on these missions. You will lose lots of people. In exceptional cases you will lose your whole squad, your landing craft and all your equipment because everyone died horribly in flames. You will replace these things, you will send out more soldiers, and you will do it again. You will go to crash sites, you will go to cities under attack, you will go to bases in the arctic. Sometimes soldiers will unexpectedly survive the ludicrous suicide runs you send them on and grow stronger. Maybe you will remember their randomly generated name, or change it to something else instead.

Eventually you’ll build up a small cadre of battle hardened veterans to send with the rookies – and by the end of it all you’ll have assembled a crack team to send to the alien homeworld, where they will dole out the harshness.

That’s the real fun of this game – taking on a near-unstoppable enemy force that outnumbers and outguns you and slowly turning the tide. Sure, you’ll be doing it from atop your mountain of rookie corpses, but that’s the point. This is a strategy game where you won’t feel obligated to stop and reload after every single mistake because you might miss out on the story, or the good ending, or because you feel bad for letting them die. There is no intricate story and no characters except for the ones you imagine for yourself as you navigate your little men and women around on the battlefield. That’s the magic of it for me – the open-endedness of it all. If you’re anything like me, you’ll start to fill in the blanks and the details yourself right up to that last moment of existential dread as your favourite soldier opens the door to the UFO and sees a room full of little grey men pointing rocket launchers at his face.

Then you’ll click ‘end turn’ and start thinking about hiring his replacement.


Aside from fixing the difficulty bug, X-ComUtil also provides a host of optional features, tweaks and game enhancements. Play the vanilla game at least once, then come back and read the article on it to see what you can change.

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