Skip to content

Monthly Archives: August 2008

X-COM, and a guide to running it on the Mac

Computer games tend to not have much of a lifespan, and when they do, I think a lot of it is due more to nostalgia than because they hold up especially well (not that modern games are a massive step forward, but there’s an evolutionary process, you know?). However, there are a few games that hold up particularly well, and still have active — albeit very nerdy and obsessive — communities. Cults of grubby retro-gamers, with ancient desktops running obsolete software to keep alive a few embers of games past. Nethack is probably the classic example, of course, and still the most brilliant game I have ever played. But only a couple of paces behind is a little PC game from 1993 called X-COM: UFO Defence, a game that took the #1 slot on IGN’s Top 25 PC Games of all time, and is still, 15 years after release, being dissected in The Escapist. Not to mention the numerous fan remakes and clone, and an extremely thorough wiki in which tactics and programming quirks are still being debated.

The premise is unofficially borrowed from the pretty cool 1970s British TV series UFO, with nods to The X-Files (the game itself is from the UK, where it was titled UFO: Enemy Unknown). Aliens are secretly invading earth, and it’s up to a shadowy, government-funded paramilitary organization — the eXtra-terrestrial COMbat Unit — to stop them. Gameplay starts in the once-futuristic year 1999, with X-COM operating out of a small base with a handful of soldiers, scientists and engineers. And then the aliens start sending out their first few scouts. As the game progresses, you can shoot down or capture alien ships and research their technology to build more powerful weapons and aircraft, and learn the aliens’ plans for Earth. At the same time, though, the aliens up the ante with more sophisticated missions, including infiltrating governments and terrorizing cities. As the campaign progresses, new species of aliens appear, which can blast you with exotic weapons or use their psi powers to make your troops panic or turn on each other.


Gameplay is divided between two different modes. In the Geoscape view, you manage the strategic aspects of your organization — building bases around the world, staffing them with scientists and engineers and tracking UFOs, first locally and soon internationally. Your big concerns here are balancing your resources to effectively battle the alien invasion: spend too much money on research and you won’t be able to build new bases to intercept UFOs; spend too much on conventional planes and weapons and you’ll be stuck on the wrong side of a steadily-increasing technology gap.

Eventually, though, you’re going to have to go toe-to-toe with the greys and their buddies, which brings you to the Tactical view, where you assemble and equip a squad and send them into the field. Typical missions involve assaulting an alien landing or crash site, defending a city being terrorized by aliens, or infiltrating an alien base. In every case, though, the goal is simple: kill the aliens before they kill you. Other factors come into play, such as limiting civilian casualties or trying to take aliens alive for research, but it comes down every time to a bug hunt.

Which is fine by me, since X-COM does it brilliantly. The action is turn-based — you move all your soldiers one by one, and then the aliens move. But there are plenty of elements to keep it interesting. For starters, you can only see what your soldiers see, making every grove of trees and farm house a potential trap — and during night missions, the aliens can see much better than your soldiers. Units with time left over can automatically fire during the alien’s turn, creating opportunities for snipers and ambushes. Given enough explosive power, you can destroy most objects in the terrain. This means you’re going to be lobbing rockets and explosives into buildings and behind trees you think might be hiding aliens — my urban terror missions, in particular, tend to end with several blocks of smouldering rubble. And if things get hairy (as they often do, deep in the bowels of an alien ship or base), your inexperienced units have a tendency to panic, throwing your elegant squad formations into disarray. Soldiers that survive get promoted and become more skilled and disciplined, but it’s not uncommon for a tough mission to take out over half my squad.


X-COM’s not a perfect game. (Only Nethack has ever truly achieved gaming perfection.) The alien AI isn’t very sophisticated — actually, it’s borderline retarded — and the game actually gets easier as it goes on, thanks to your ever-improving weapons, armour and aircraft. But flaws aside, it is pretty damn brilliant, and passes the “one more turn” test handily.

X-COM on the Mac

As a nerdy teen, I played this obsessively when it came out, but since then, I haven’t had much luck — even when I got it running on one of my 21st-century computers, it would be unstable, or the sound wouldn’t work. I’d play for an afternoon but eventually the repeated crashes would frustrate me and I’d give up for a year or two. This time, however — this time, the technology seems to finally exist for me to play a 15-year-old game… flawlessly. All hail technology! It wasn’t even very hard. And so, in the interest of spreading the addiction, here’s what I did.

  1. Acquire a copy of X-COM. I had a copy already, but you might be able to get one on eBay. Or, you know, elsewhere. Make sure you get the MS-DOS version, unless you feel like getting a 15-year-old copy of Windows running on your computer, too.
  2. Install DOSBox. It’s an x86 emulator that will run MS-DOS on the Mac.
  3. Install the DOSBox X-COM configuration files generously posted here. It was a little slow on my MacBook, so I ended up editing it, increasing the cycles to 12000 and using the output=overlay full-screen mode.
  4. You might also want to install XcomUtil, an elaborate “game enhancer”, which allows you to optionally change any or all of a list of game aspects. Most of these are fixes for some of the more annoying elements — like having to re-assign gear to the same soldiers every mission, or the fact that about 60% of missions take place on the farmland terrain. I must have destroyed that same damn stable a hundred times…
  5. Play! The manual is here. You might want to check out the UFOpaedia for tips, but the game is actually pretty forgiving at the easier difficulty levels. As long as you keep building and buying things sensibly and intercepting all the UFOs you can, you won’t go too far off.
  6. The second time through, you might want a bit of a challenge. The XcomUtil patch can add some challenges, particularly making research less easy by forcing you to capture live aliens to decipher their technology. I’ve also been trying to play the game without using any alien plasma weapons, which makes terror missions and base assaults particularly tense, as they should be.

Oh, and lastly, I know that in writing this long, gushing blog post about an old PC game will forever cement my reputation as a huge geek. I think I’m at the age where… I’m okay with that. Go X-COM!! Wooo!

Rocket Science (2007), Pickpocket (1959), Triad Election (2006)

triadelection.jpgI decided to suspend my Zip subscription for a few months. For those not in the know, Zip is a Canadian DVD-by-mail service, like Netflix in the US. You make a list of movies, and they are sent to your mailbox — return the DVD using the included envelope, and a new one is sent to you, ad infinitum.

The problem is, with Zip, you don’t have much say over which DVD gets sent, and lately, it seems to have gotten even worse. In theory, the higher on your list a DVD is, the sooner it will be sent to you. But lately, I’ve been getting DVDs further and further down my list. It’s been weeks since anything on my top-ten has been sent, and my mailbox has been full of things I’m really only marginally interested in. Inevitably, the discs just to sit on top of the TV until I’m in the mood to watch them. And these days, I’ve mostly been in the mood to do things other than watch my 43rd-most-anticipated movie. Like finally mastering barre chords on my guitar and replaying the brilliant 1993 PC game X-COM, which I finally managed to get running on my MacBook.

However, I’m all about not wasting money (lately), so I sat down this past week and watched the last three Zip DVDs I had collecting dust. All of which were, well, slightly disappointing, in different ways.

  • Kampli Rocket Science is an indie high-school comedy-drama about a shy stutterer who joins the debate team to be close to his unattainable crush, a cartoonish overachiever who claims she can see the potential behind his awkwardness. I was curious to see it primarily because the director also did the incredibly winning documentary Spellbound, but unfortunately, it’s yet another instance of a talented documentarian making a mediocre feature (see also, Errol Morris, Joe Berlinger, Michael Moore, etc.). It’s not an unpleasant way to pass a 100 minutes, but it’s hard to think of anything in the movie that hasn’t been done earlier and better in Rushmore, Little Miss Sunshine, Freaks & Geeks or Thumbsucker. (For starters. The quirky coming-of-age story isn’t exactly untrod ground.)
  • buy Latuda Latuda Pickpocket is a 1959 Robert Bresson film that I was curious to see since it’s a favourite of both Paul Schrader and Roger Ebert. Unfortunately, I found the damn thing more tedious than engrossing. A lot of it comes down to a complaint I’ve had about other Robert Bresson films — as a filmmaker, he’s a brilliant novelist. Everybody speaks (or thinks, or writes) in long philosophical paragraphs laden with existential questions before taking ambiguous-but-revealing actions (well, everybody except the women, of course, who don’t get any inner life). The film’s vaunted “stylishness” is mostly in countless inserts of pickpocketing, which would be cool if they weren’t so laughably, distractingly phoney. Or maybe I’m wrong — maybe the style in France in the 1950s was for men to balance wallets precariously between their shirts and lapels, and for women to carry wads of loose cash poking out the tops of open handbags. That said, there are some powerful, brilliant moments in the film, especially the ending. I bet they were even better in the book that was originally in Robert Bresson’s head.
  • Finally, Triad Election (aka Election 2) is Johnny To’s sequel to his brilliantly amoral Hong Kong gangster epic Election (not to be confused with the Reese Witherspoon-Matthew Broderick one). The sequel ups the violence and tragedy to operatic, Godfather-esque levels and shows the relationship between the HK triads and Chinese government, but it leaves behind the penetrating dissection of HK capitalism that was at the heart of the first film. Instead, we get more traditional issues of character and plot. This somehow makes the film both more and less grounded, and a bit less exiting. It’s still great to see Johnny To and Simon Lam at work, though.

bacon maple chocolate chip cookies

bacon chocolate chip cookies, originally uploaded by meggomyeggo.

My former roommate Florence visited my old house for a few days on the way back to France from SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles. While we were waiting for her, other-former-roommate Meghan and I passed the time by making a batch of Bacon Maple Chocolate Chip Cookies, as recipe’d on neverbashfulwithbutter (which sounds to me like a Last Tango reference, but probably isn’t). Could they possibly be as awesome as their name makes them sound?

The answer… is “yes.” Or, more accurately: “sweet baby Jesus and the heavenly hosts of cherubim and seraphim, yes“. The chocolate is sweet and the bacon bits are chewy and savoury, but the secret is the maple glaze, which is a kind of magical flavour kingdom where the bacon and chocolate can come together to make something even more delicious than you had dared dream.

That said, I wouldn’t eat a lot of them and I wouldn’t eat them often. There’s only so much sweet’n’savoury you can handle, and these are very sweet and very savoury. But I was really happy with how they turned out and would make them again should I ever find myself 20 lbs lighter than I am now. Or, alternately, if I decide to just give up and let myself go. Either way.

My Winnipeg (2007)

mywinnipeg.jpgI couldn’t persuade any of my friends to come out to see My Winnipeg at the Tinseltown on a Wednesday night, so I saw by myself, in a theatre occupied by just me and a couple few rows behind me. It’s okay, though — if ever there was a movie meant to wash over you alone in the dark of an empty theatre, it’s this one. I don’t know if it’s the kind of movie I would go around recommending to people, but I’m pretty damn glad I saw it.

My Winnipeg is a dreamlike pseudo-documentary by Winnipeg’s own Guy Maddin, who narrates in a kind of prairie-beatnik drawl tinged with regret and dry humour. Using a pastiche of silent and modern film techniques, he tells real and imagined stories about a forgotten city of dark and cold, with lakes full of frozen horses and underground rivers feeding public swimming pools. Maddin’s Winnipeg is a land of sleepwalkers and corrupt male beauty pageants and demolished hockey stadiums. In the film’s funniest, cleverest conceit, he hires actors to portray his family in re-enactments of scenes from his childhood, complete with the exhumed corpse of his father under the living room rug.

I loved My Winnipeg. I’m sure no small part of this comes from, you know, actually being born there, and being raised on the Canadian prairie. Not to mention I’m a fan of both the pure cinema of the silent era and DIY indie-cinema, which seem to serve as the jumping-off points for Maddin’s own “anti-progressivist” style. And I also love the imaginative potential of the banal (something shared with Spaced, Flight of the Conchords and Twitch City). But while I enjoyed movies like Saddest Music in the World and Careful quite a bit, I sometimes found Maddin’s visual style more appealing than his storytelling. Here, though, Maddin’s deadpan visual nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek myth-making come together to make something I found pretty awesome, something that tapped into the latent flatland whistfulness that has been rolling around in the corner of my skull since I left the prairies.

A Public Servics ANNOUNCEMENT!!!

A PUBLIC SERVICS ANNOUNCEMENT!!!, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

These appeared in my neighbourhood Monday morning, stuck to pretty much every available surface. Looks like the REPENT SINNER guy has competition.

(Close-up of the poster here.)