Seven classic games from one of the world’s most respected computer game designers
By Benj Edwards
Even if you’re a casual games fan, chances are you’ve heard of Sid Meier, the veteran computer-game designer who co-founded MicroProse with Bill Stealey in 1982. Through a career that has spanned three decades, Meier has originated, developed, or produced many widely influential games for home PCs and consoles. He’s won awards and earned the respect of other influential game designers and computer gaming fans alike.
I thought it would be fun to whittle down Meier’s sizable catalog to some of the essential early titles he pioneered. I’m calling these games from his “Golden Age” — roughly the first 10 years of Meier’s career.
Floyd of the Jungle (1982)
Platforms: Atari 800
Sid Meier began programming commercial games for the Atari 800 (1979) home computer, which packed powerful specialized sound and graphics chips for the time. Some of Meier’s earliest games for the 800 — Hellcat Ace, Spitfire Ace, and Chopper Rescue — set the stage for his heavy involvement in military simulations that defined his early career.
But one fascinating Atari game of Meier’s usually flies far under the radar: Floyd of the Jungle, an action platform game somewhat reminiscent of Pitfall! and Donkey Kong in gameplay. The original version, programmed in BASIC, was perhaps the most widely known. But soon after, Meier developed a more robust version of Floyd in assembly language that allowed four-player simultaneous co-op play — quite possibly a world first for platform titles.
F-15 Strike Eagle (1984)
Platforms: Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 800, IBM PC, NES, and more
Meier worked on many flight simulation games in the 1980s, and of these, F-15 Strike Eagle proved the breakout hit for MicroProse, selling over one million copies across all platforms.
F-15 pioneered both realistic aircraft dog fighting and air-to-ground combat, adding an aggressive edge to the popular peaceful flight simulators of the day. Curiously, an advanced coin-operated version of this game, released in 1991, represented MicroProse’s only foray into the arcade space.
Silent Service (1985)
Platforms: Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 800, IBM PC, Amiga, Macintosh, and more
With Silent Service, a realistic submarine simulator, Sid Meier began to heavily experiment with multi-modal game design (including different modes of gameplay in the same game), which became something of a trademark for him over the next decade. In such a design, the player interacts with several different screens, doing different activities on each.
In this case, players could pilot a submarine on a map, take bearings through a periscope, fiddle with knobs in the engine room, and more. Like F-15 Strike Eagle, Silent Service garnered both high sales and wide critical acclaim, chalking up another Meier-driven hit for MicroProse.
Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987)
Platforms: Apple II, Commodore 64, NES, Atari ST, IBM PC, Amiga, Macintosh, and more
For Meier’s next big hit, he reached back in time to the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries — the golden age of piracy on the high seas. The result was a multi-modal swashbuckling adventure that included strategy, RPG, simulation, and action elements all packed into one game. Players could be trading goods one minute, then find themselves in engaged in ship-to-ship cannon fights, sword fighting with a rival captain, or marrying the governor’s daughter the next.
Pirates! sold very well, and it later spawned follow-ups and remakes on various platforms.
By the time Pirates! came around, Sid Meier had begun to earn a reputation as an expert game designer, and MicroProse decided to capitalize on that for marketing purposes. As a result, ‘Sid Meier’s Pirates!” was the first game title to include Meier’s name, starting a trend that continues to this day.
Sid Meier’s Covert Action (1990)
Platforms: IBM PC, Macintosh, Amiga
Meier followed up on Pirates! with Covert Action, a globetrotting spy game with themes echoing James Bond films. As with the previous two games we’ve studied, Covert Action includes plenty of activities, including puzzle-like wiretapping, sifting through written clues, overhead action sequences of stealth and shooting, and more. Notably, the player can choose to play as a male or female lead character, which was innovative at the time. Covert Action didn’t sell as well as some of Meier’s other titles, but it still garnered critical acclaim.
Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon (1990)
Platforms: IBM PC, Macintosh, Amiga, Atari ST, and more
When you take a look at the screenshot above, you might get the sense that Meier was building up to something very big just over the horizon. You’re looking at an overhead railroad construction and simulation game that drew upon the style pioneered by Will Wright’s SimCity. Part software toy, part simulation, part god-perspective game, Railroad Tycoon allowed players to play the part of a Gilded Age rail baron building an empire.
Meier says that Railroad Tycoon led directly to his next big hit — perhaps his most famous of all — as we’ll see just ahead.
But one other thing: If you’ve ever played a “Tycoon” simulation game — such as RollerCoaster Tycoon, Zoo Tycoon, DinoPark Tycoon, Airport Tycoon, or others — you have Railroad Tycoon to thank for starting that naming trend.
Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991)
Platforms: IBM PC, Atari ST, Macintosh, Amiga, Windows 3.x, SNES, PlayStation, and more
If there is one game Sid Meier is best known for, it’s Civilization, a wildly ambitious title that compresses all of human history into a convincing, addictive turn-based strategy simulation. With the help of Bruce Shelley, Meier managed to distill the key elements of technological advancement, exploration, warfare, and social development into a timeless and endlessly replayable title that went on to sell millions of copies, spawn many sequels and spin-offs, and garner critical and fan acclaim.
After the wild success of Civilization, Meier began to step back a bit in his role as a designer, often acting as a producer while handing off programming duties to others. Today he still lends his development knowledge and his name to successful games, ensuring that his design legacy will be known for quite some time to come.
(Special thanks to MobyGames for the screenshots used in this gallery.)
Read more: “How to Play Retro Video Games”
Originally published at www.pcmag.com.