The coolest RTS game of the ‘90s is yours for less than $1 right now

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The late ‘90s were a real heyday for strategy games. Command and Conquer, C&C Red Alert, StarCraft Brood War, Commandos, Age of Empires 2, Total Annihilation, the original Homeworld – it can be easy to get lost among all the big names. But for my money, to this day, the coolest and the very best RTS game of them all came from British development rockstars The Bitmap Brothers. Fast, brash, funny, and with one of the most distinctive gameplay systems you’ll find, Z remains one of my favorite PC games ever, and it’s yours right now for under a dollar.

I still remember the day a family friend visited us for dinner and, after our meal, pulled out a jewel case and showed it to my mom. As a big fan of RTS games – he also introduced me to both Commandos and Total Annihilation – this was one of the best he’d played, he said. It would be right up my alley, he explained, but there was a bit of swearing in it, so he wanted to run it past her first. Fortunately, she trusted his judgment, and I was handed a copy of Z.

Its opening cutscene, where a pair of layabout robot soldiers called Brad and Allan are chastised by the loud-mouthed Commander Zod for slacking off, was more than enough to hook me in. But beyond its silly presentation and the charismatic crew of robots that make up your armed forces, what makes Z really tick minute to minute is its complete deviation from the traditional RTS formula of gathering resources and building out a base.

Battles in Z are all about territory control. Each map is divided into regions, and touching a region’s flag turns it to your area. When you control a region, you control the facilities within it – radar stations show nearby enemy troops, robot and vehicle factories let you expand your army, and so on. You decide what you want built, and the more territories you hold the faster it’ll get done; lose control of the region last-second, however, and that unit is now being made in the enemy’s name.

The units themselves are simple to learn and each come with distinct strengths and weaknesses, and there are some really interesting tricks that can make for some interesting strategies. Jeeps and Grunts, with their light machine guns, won’t stand up long against the heavier tanks and enemy turrets – but they have the ability to shoot the driver out, allowing your units to take it over for your side. It’s fast-paced, frantic – and it gets pretty tough at times – but once you’ve tried it, there’s nothing else quite like it.

Z (RTS game) - A screenshot of red units attacking the blue fort in this 1996 real-time strategy game from the Bitmap Brothers.

Z is on sale at an 87% discount on Steam until Thursday March 21. That means you’ll pay just $0.90/£0.64 for one of the best strategy games ever made. You can also get it in a bundle with sequel Z: Steel Soldiers for 85% off, at $2.24/£1.91 – the 2001 follow-up was a more traditional RTS, and inherently slightly less interesting as a result, but it’s a solid game in its own right if you want to go all-in.

For more of the best strategy games you might have missed in 2024, we’ve got a comprehensive lineup of the essentials. And if you’re of a mind to look back to those glory days of yore, we’ve got all the best old games and PC classics that you can still play today.

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