Qt3 Classic Game Club: Master of Orion

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[Editor’s note: Every two weeks, we’ll pick a classic game to play and discuss. Then the choice of the next game will be made by a randomly selected participant from the current discussion. It’s like a book club, but with videogames. We’d love to have you join us. Register for the forums and hop into the discussion! This week’s choice, by jsnell, is Master of Orion 1. Yep, that’s 1. Not 2. 1.]

For this iteration of the classic game club I’ve chosen a game that’s 20 years old, and an improvement over all of its successors. Master of Orion is the prototypical space 4X game. Like all games that effectively ended up defining a genre, it’s interesting to visit from a historical point of view. But the game would stand alone even without that historical context.

After the jump, what a lack of a difference 20 years makes.

In Master of Orion you pick one of a handful of different space-faring races, each with their own special abilities and personality. You’ll expand to fill new planets, research new technology, design and build starships, and ultimately mash big fleets of starships into opposing fleets in battle. You can also cooperate with the other races by trading with them, allying with them, swapping technology, and so on. Even get them to vote you the new galactic emperor. Along the way you might conquer the heavily defended cache of ancient technology in Orion, be attacked by a vicious giant Space Amoeba, or need to pool your whole empire’s resources together to avoid a star going Nova. The game is just dripping character.

But the best part about Master of Orion is how amazingly focused the design is for the genre. You can play a full and satisfactory game to a conclusion in 2-3 hours. How many modern 4x games can you say that about? The resource management is streamlined to just 6 sliders per planet that you mostly won’t touch. This is enough to give you some control but always making sure that you never enter a micromanagement hell. The game even gives you a primitive method for automatically adjusting the sliders on all your planets when discovering new technologies that affect production. The technology system is simple, but can give a huge amount of variability.

The only concession in Master of Orion to the usual 4x feature sprawl is the ship customization and tactical battles. You’ll make maybe 10-20 designs over a full game, so it’s not a huge burden, and it does add huge amounts of character. No endless sequence of “laser I” and “laser II” here. The tactical battles are a bigger problem though, in the end game you can have a very large number of nuisance battles. They can be left to play on automatic, but you still need to watch through the combat animations.

When playing a game that’s over 20 years old, there’s always two things that’ll cause a worry: the graphics and the user interface. After having given the game a spin for the first time in ages, I have to say it holds up amazingly well on both counts. There aren’t many 320×200 games that look good these days. Most of them are playable, sure, but ultimately a muddled mess. Not so with Master of Orion, probably because the art is so stylized and perhaps even a bit cartoony. The graphics have been optimized for clarity first, looks second, and photorealism completely ignored. I can totally see some adorable indie retro game being published with these graphics.

The user interface is more of a mixed bag. Many modern amenities are missing, like tooltips and scroll wheels. There are some missing automation opportunities. But the UI stays out of the way, and thanks to the spartan game design that’s all that’s needed. (Hint: press F1 in the map view for a in-game help).

On a more personal level, Master of Orion has a special place in my heart. It was one of only three game boxes I rescued from being thrown in the trash when last clearing out my parents’ basement. It’s hard to say why. Maybe because it was the first game I acquired unambiguously through my own labor (from doing some photo modeling, if you can believe it). Or possibly since it was the first game that I got into due to internet discussions, after reading through the comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.strategic FAQ over and over again while waiting to get the game. It was a lovely document, and a first step on the path to enjoying talking about games as much as playing them.

You can get Master of Orion (and an inferior sequel) for a mere handful of currency units from GOG here. There are couple of podcast episodes on this subject that are worth listening to. Here’s a Three Moves Ahead on SimTex games (with Tom Chick) and here’s a more general Three Moves Ahead on space 4x games.