#10: Grand Prix II (PC)
Prior to its days developing some of Meier's greatest ideas, MicroProse had a rather long and decorated history of developing high-quality and modestly popular simulation games. For a list of several of these, you can check out the honorable mentions section of this list: many of those games are quite notable, and were included in my early drafts of this list. Aside from the military simulations, though, the company also produced other similar games, and arguably the most significant game they produced in this realm was 1996's Grand Prix II.
Grand Prix II was the follow-up to 1992's Formula One Grand Prix, itself one of the most significant racing games released during that time period. It was among the first to feature somewhat realistic 3D graphics, and was also notable for its attention to detail in recreating the real logos and car designs visible in actual Formula One racing. The second game, though perhaps not quite as revolutionary, was considered for a long time the pinnacle of F1 racing games. Its graphics were among the most realistic in any game to date, and its physics engine revolutionized the genre at the time. Like Doom's revolutionary physics engine, it was among the first to feature actual movement in all three dimensions rather than just graphics in the three dimensions. Like its predecessor, it also featured a remarkable attention to detail, with painstakingly complete recreations of all of the tracks on the F1 circuit from the 1994 series.
As mentioned above, MicroProse made a name for itself early on for its successful collection of military simulation games. Although the company released several of these in a variety of subtly different genres (M1 Tank Platoon and F-19 Stealth Fighter especially come to mind), arguably the most significant and best one the company released is 1990's Knights of the Sky. Originally released for DOS, it later received ports to Amiga and Atari ST, marking one of the relatively rare times that MicroProse entered the console market.
Knights of the Sky is a combat flight simulator, a genre which, despite an enormous number of releases and relatively significant popular acclaim, rarely generates games that receive much buzz. Outside the Ace Combat series, the series is typically relegated to niche appeal, and even that franchise is not all that widely known. Despite this, Knights of the Sky was released to critical acclaim, receiving accolades for its intuitive, smooth gameplay, its remarkable graphics, and its cohesive, cogent presentation. The game is also notable (to video game history nerds like me, at least) for demonstrating an early version of modern "patching" systems: by mailing a floppy diskette to MicroProse, players could receive patches that updated the damage system of the game as well as overhauling the allied patrolling system. The game was also one of the earlier games to feature a multiplayer head-to-head mode completed over a modem, an early precursor to… well, every modern multiplayer convention in gaming.
Among the genres that have fallen by the wayside with the march of time, point-and-click adventure games are typically referenced as one of the most significant examples of such bygone ages. Although some recent games have revived the genre, the heyday of the genre clearly fell in the early 1990s, the time when the Monkey Island games, the various quality LucasArts titles, and other series thrived. It was during this time that MicroProse released Dragonsphere, one of its only forays into this popular genre. At the time, it was something of a one-hit wonder: it featured among the most advanced graphics in gaming history at the time, but aside from that, it was not notable for much. Then again, the genre does not lend itself to the notable features present in many other genres, so the graphical quality of the game is sufficient on its own to earn the game recognition and cult classic status.
Dragonsphere was actually the company's third release in the genre, following Rex Nebular and Return of the Phantom, two games that did receive some attention at the time of release. The close proximity of the three releases comes because MicroProse, in an attempt to develop more often for the genre, had created its own in-house MicroProse Adventure Development engine. The engine was meant to give the company a leg-up in developing more adventure games with a faster turn-around time and more shared code, but in the end it was something of a dud.
The tradition of naming business simulation games with the moniker 'Tycoon' dates back to Sid Meier's original Railroad Tycoon, released in 1990. MicroProse never officially copyrighted the 'Tycoon' name (leading to games like DinoPark Tycoon and Pizza Tycoon borrowing the name with no connection to the original series), but they re-used it throughout their history, including for games like Transport Tycoon and, of course, 1999's RollerCoaster Tycoon.
In many ways, RollerCoaster Tycoon is something of a throwback, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, despite being released in 1999, the game is almost completely written in Assembly code. For comparison, Assembly code became an outdated way to write video games likely a full decade earlier. The fact that such a complex game was written in such a basic language is itself still astounding. Secondly, the game retained a singular original designer and programmer; while that was common in the 1980s, by the late 1990s most games were designed by committee. RollerCoaster Tycoon, though, was designed and coded almost singlehandedly by Chris Sawyer. As part of that, Chris received a portion of the game's profits, another paradigm that was relatively outdated by the time of the game's release. Of course, the game's success is well-documented, going on to be one of the best-selling games and franchises in PC gaming history. The game was particular notable for bridging the casual gamer gap, drawing an appeal to customers that did not normally play video games.
To the layman, Sid Meier's Colonization initially looks like a more advanced version of his prior classic, Civilization. Rather than creating a new nation effectively from scratch, it involves navigating and founding a new one in the name of a financing nation, seemingly a more evolved and realistic task. In effect, however, despite the visual similarities and somewhat related gameplay structure, Colonization is a very different game. One of its key features involves the development of the colonies that the player founds through multiple phases, from total dependence on its host nation to eventual total independence. The game is built to much more closely mimic the actual conquest of the New World than Civilization, actually taking into consideration the timetable and historical figures present in the colonization of the Americas. Players would quickly recognize many of the figures (including Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington) and tribes (such as the Sioux, Apaches, and Cherokee).
The game was well-received by its audience, which seemed primed for the game by the prior Civilization game. Like Civilization, the game has also been redeveloped into an open-source clone, FreeCol, available for free play and continued development. Although the game never received a true sequel, its influenced was also seen in the Civilization series: Civilization III's expansion pack, Conquests, featured a campaign that was markedly reminiscent of Colonization, and Civilization IV's expansion pack, also titled Colonization, was effectively a total remake of the game on top of the Civilization IV engine.
In my mind, MicroProse went through a two-step evolution from its original identity as a developer of military simulations to its more recent and recognizable incarnation as a developer of business simulation and tycoon games. The first was the development of Sid Meier as a major game designer for the company, and the second was the move by the company toward these business simulations. Railroad Tycoon is the second step along this progression. Released in 1990, Railroad Tycoon was a bit of a surprise hit – first and foremost because, well, it's a bizarre concept for a game. The game puts the player in charge of managing a railroad company, along with all that entails: building the tracks, stations, trains, schedules, and basically everything else. Reading a description of it, it really seems like a boring game.
Yet, Railroad Tycoon was one of the first games to demonstrate the now well-documented fact that boring jobs can suddenly become significantly more entertaining when framed as games (as lesson that, for better or worse, has been adopted by many in the education industry, but that's a rant for another day). It wasn't the first tycoon game, but it certainly played the role of popularizing the genre. The game was a commercial success, spawning a remake and three sequels. Interestingly, however, neither the remake nor the first two "sequels" actually were products of Sid Meier, with the second and third game instead developed by PopTop Software after acquiring the rights to the name from MicroProse, following Meier's departure to form Firaxis. Even more interesting, PopTop Software was later integrated with Firaxis by owner Take-Two Interactive.
It's almost difficult to discuss Civilization II without discussing the original first, but I'm going to give it a go. Released in 1996, the game was the follow-up to the ridiculously popular 1991 release Civilization. That game was the brainchild of Sid Meier, and ultimately would go on to be recognized as arguably his greatest achievement. Perhaps it comes as a surprise, then, that Civilization II was released without any of Sid Meier's involvement. Although the game was partially developed while Meier was still at MicroProse, its primary architect was Brian Reynolds, later involved in Firaxis's development of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and now one of the most significant figures at Zynga. Brian Reynolds is also credited as a major party in the development of Colonization.
Despite the absence of Sid Meier in the development process, Civilization II still went on to be a rousing success. It swept several awards for the PC game of the year and the strategy game of the year, and is ranked by some among the greatest games ever created in general. Many elevate it above the original, and it has even be used (as has the original, again) in educational research to study the ability for artificial intelligence systems to learn and adapt to a new game. The game earned a remake a couple years later, Civilization II: Test of Time, ironically released specifically to compete Alpha Centauri, putting Brian Reynolds in the odd position of watching one of his games compete against another.
If Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon was the second step in MicroProse's evolution toward its more recognized incarnation, Sid Meier's Pirates! was the first. Sid Meier's Pirates! Was the first game to feature Meier's name in the title in a move to try to attract fans of Meier's earlier work (the aforementioned combat simulation games) to the significantly new genre. Like most of Meier's games, it is a simulation, but unlike most of his later games, it comes more from the perspective of a single individual. The player takes the role of an authorized privateer for one of four countries, and from there is given leeway and flexibility to pursue the course most appealing to him. One can change allegiances, change strategies, change styles, and convert to piracy at any time.
Upon its release, Pirates! was immediately a runaway hit. It inarguably helped revolutionize the industry in a variety of ways; however, in my opinion, the most important contribution of the game to the industry was its open structure. It's a little inaccurate to say that up until that point, most games were relatively linear: the game was released in 1987, around the same time as the original Super Mario Bros., and thus there was no generic "most games" to which to compare it. Still, its open structure was something to behold, unlike anything the industry had ever attempted before. The freedom to go anywhere or do anything is easily a precursor to the modern open-world genre, one of the most defining genres of the past decade.
It's unusual for a game with as high a profile as MicroProse to have a "forgotten game", but in my experience, the fact that X-COM: UFO Defense (released in the United States under the title UFO: Enemy Unknown, but more commonly recognized by its original title) was a MicroProse product is often forgotten. Part of that is because the game was part of a collaboration, with Mythos Games sometimes receiving more credit as a developer while MicroProse is inaccurately considered a publisher. More likely, however, is the fact that X-COM: UFO Defense bears relatively little resemblance to the business simulation and strategy titles for which MicroProse is more commonly recognized. In a library including the Civilization games, RollerCoaster Tycoon games, and various Sid Meier games, X-COM: UFO Defense is a bit of a black sheep.
The game, however, remains one of the company's all-time best, and is even ranked by some as among the best games ever created, especially for the PC. It remains one of those rare games that seems to get better over time; as other companies try to recapture what made the game so great, it becomes more and more clear that the game was truly something special. It is, perhaps, for that reason that recently, 18 years after its initial release, the game received a remake – interestingly, by Firaxis games, the new company of MicroProse frontman Sid Meier, who – by all accounts – actually had relatively little to do with the original X-COM: UFO Defense.
The granddaddy of them all, though, remains the original Civilization. Released in 1991, it remains to this day one of the most popular, influential, and significant games of all time. In direct opposition to my theory about every genre going through at least four phases of development (experimentation, popularization, actualization, and normalization), Civilization basically encompasses the first two phases itself: it is arguably the first game to even test out many of the concepts now associated with the 4X genre, and at the same time, it single-handedly popularized the genre as a whole. It would not be unreasonable to say that the game actualized the genre, too: to this day, it remains one of the best 4X games ever.
That comes in large part because, like its close cousin real-time strategy games, 4X games do not necessarily rely on excellent graphics or advanced simulation power to be engaging. Increases in computing ability do not automatically improve 4X games the way they improve first-person shooters or other genres. The design, balance, and pacing of the game are the most important elements, and in Civilization, Sid Meier somehow managed to hit the nail on the head almost right out of the box. The game is downright transcendent, an undeniable member of the pantheon of gaming's all-time greatest games, alongside the likes of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Final Fantasy 7. It has spawned numerous sequels, remakes, and impersonators, and, like its successor, even finds its way into academic research from time to time.
Honorable Mentions: M1 Tank Platoon, Red Storm Rising, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Darklands , Transport Tycoon, Airborne Ranger, Falcon 4.0, Gunship 2000, Hyperspeed , Night Hawk: F-117A Stealth Fighter 2.0, Return of the Phantom, Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, Silent Service, Star Trek Generations, Star Trek: The Next Generation: Birth of the Federation, Starlord
After Sid Meier's departure, MicroProse was never quite the same. In 1997, the company was acquired by Hasbro (who, conveniently, put an end to a dispute between MicroProse and Avalon Hill, the maker of the Civilization board game, by purchasing both of them). MicroProse was merged with Hasbro's own game publishing division, Hasbro Interactive, and closed several branches. A couple years later, in another acquisition, Infogrames (a French video game publisher) took over Hasbro Interactive from Hasbro, and effectively put an end to MicroProse, closing the last studios and discontinuing the usage of the company's name (opting instead to use the more recognized name Atari for its developments, which it had also acquired). In an interesting twist that could only ever happen in the business world, a few years later the Interactive Game Group acquired the MicroProse brand from Infogrames, along with its intellectual property. This has allowed the group to use the MicroProse name on its developments, leveraging the company's history (although in actuality, that never seemed to come to fruition). But the company's legacy is not with its modern incarnation (or lack thereof). Several companies, including Sid Meier's Firaxis, PopTop Software, QuickSilver Software, Zynga, and GraphSim in some way can trace their origins back to MicroProse or its major figureheads. Eventually as well, Firaxis reacquired Sid Meier's intellectual property from the remnants of MicroProse, allowing that company to continue to develop Civilization games, as well as a remake of Pirates!.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJGames (02/07/2013)
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