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As a youngster I was fascinated with technology in general and computers in particular. At the age of nine I was given my first ever computer of my own, an old MSX beast that I still have today but even then I wanted more. I wanted a PC. For years I saved up and did odd jobs on the side so I could buy one of those new monsters. In 1992 the day had finally arrived that I could go out and buy a brand spanking new 486 PC (thanks to a generous last minute gift of my brother, Thanks again Bro’). After unpacking my new trophy and booting her up for the first time I came to the conclusion that I had nothing to run on her. Once again my brother came to the rescue and offered me several 3.5” diskettes worth of games (640K on just one disk? Really?). Among them was one game that I would play for months on end from that time forward, Master of Orion.
Released a year after the gaming-world altering Civilization, many believed Master of Orion was nothing more then a Civilization set among the stars. After playing for just a few hours you will see just how wrong that belief is. Stephen Barcia, spiritual creator and lead programmer of Master of Orion started work on the program years before and this is testified by the existence of a prequel called Star Lords. This is not to say that there are no parallels between the two games. Both are empire building games. Exploration, research and diplomacy are all part of Master of Orion as they are of Civilization, but there are also some differences. Most importantly Civilization charts humanities rise throughout the ages to the modern world, Master of Orion is set in among the stars. You could say that one takes up where the other leaves off. This gives Master of Orion an entirely different flavour.
In Master of Orion it is your task as leader of your species to reinstate the throne of the Galactic Imperium (and make sure your on it) that once ruled over the entire galaxy but fell and was lost to the mists of time. There are two ways you can do this. One is to conquer all other races but the other is much more interesting. You can also be elected by the galactic council as emperor of the galaxy (the Master of Orion obviously). The Galactic Council consists of all the races in the universe and they all have a vote. If you wish their vote you will need to become close allies with the other species in the galaxy. This brings us to one of the strongest points of Master of Orion, its diplomatic system.
While in previous games diplomacy consisted of little more then a way to end your wars and possibly form alliances, Master of Orion however gives you a myriad of options ranging from non-aggression treaties to trade agreements and even technological exchanges. In other games from the period (even Civilization) nothing else comes even close to the freedom Master of Orion gives you in diplomacy.
Rather then have to build the same buildings on each of your colonies Master of Orion has a unique system of five slides. These slides represent, ship building, defence, industry, ecology and research. With the setting of these slides you dictate the percentage of work that goes into these directions. If you want more factories on your colony then you need to increase the industry slide so they can be build. But factories create pollution that needs be cleaned up. The ecology tab takes care of that. If you want to build ships you need to increase the shipbuilding slide so your workers start building ships. It is all very simple. No need to run by every colony to make sure they are building something. Colonies are always doing something.
The best thing about Master of Orion is the ability to design your own ships. At the beginning of the game you are given four designs for ships you can build but as your research progresses you will soon want to upgrade those designs to make use of the new technologies available to you. In all you can have six designs at any given time. This means you will need to scrap your older ships to make room for the newer ones. There are four seizes of ships you can choose from. Bigger ships can carry more, which makes them more powerful, but also take longer to build. The diverse set of technologies you can put into your ship makes for a wide variety of possible designs. Special systems can be added to your ship as well, when you for instance place a transporter on your ships it can move you from one corner of the battlefield to the other in an instance or you could choose to extend the range of your ships by adding extra fuel-tanks. Again you are given the freedom to do what you want to do.
The research is not as straight forward as you might think. Normally in these kinds of games you decide what you research and when and although you are given the option of choosing the specific technology you want to research you cannot research them all. In each game the technological tree is different. This not only makes each game unique because in each game you will lack a certain ability (like travelling very far or very fast) but it also opens up a new dimension to the game. You are forced to go out and steal the technologies you do not posses from the species that do have them. Very likely they will not be pleased with you when you do this and they will retaliate by cancelling treaties with you or even declaring war. It all makes the game that much more interesting.
Master of Orion was one of the more better looking games of the time, especially for a strategy game. All the different species have a different set of ships all with engine glow animations. Cut scenes are absent save for the opening titles and the ending cinematic. Battles look great with beam weapons of various colours flying around. Sound was sparse and not very good but it never bothered me. The controls of the game are not fluent especially all the different windows that are needed to control the different functions of the game are a nuisance. As your empire grows it becomes difficult to keep track of all your colonies, luckily the game does not require much micromanagement so most of the time your colonies will do fine without your guidance.
Master of Orion is a true classic in strategy gaming. It by itself spawned a new genre of games. Space exploration games (or 4X games as they are now called) were very popular for a time and many different titles were released some very good. Master of Orion itself to date has gotten two sequels. Master of Orion II (1994) was a very good game that brought many improvements (including multiplayer) but failed to keep the magic of the original. Master of Orion III (2003) was a poor attempt to revive the 4X game genre that has not seen many releases in recent years. Hopefully a fourth game will be made in the future. Its great grandparent certainly deserves it.