Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Starflight - Exploring the axe constellation

All the nostalgia brought up by playing Wing Commander inspired some nostalgia for additional older games I played. Through clicking around on some websites, I came upon a game that was near and dear to me in 8th grade: Starflight.

Technically I have the most nostalgia for Starflight 2. The second Starflight was the first one I played. I think I had just been flipping through a catalog of games for the Mac the paragraph on Starflight 2 really inrigued me. I remember I was debating between that and another game set in space and fortunately I chose this one. My Aunt and Uncle got that game for me for Channukah and I was immediately hooked. After finishing up Starflight 2, I pored through catalogs to find that the original game also got a Mac port and I think that was acquired for my birthday.

Starflight basically started a whole new genre of games. It more or less began the space exploration adventure genre that was pretty much realized to perfection in Star Control II (which I will say, without hyperbole, is one of the best games ever made.) The concept of Starflight was basically putting together a crew, outfitting your ship, exploring the galaxy, discovering new star systems and planets, collecting minerals, life forms, and artifacts, and interacting with new alien species. Starflight, its sequel, and then Star Control II just did such a great job of creating a great mood and atmosphere.

In Starflight, the four intelligent species on the planet Arth have recently discovered that they were seeded there by a colony ship from an old empire that was in danger of being destroyed by hostile alien races. This discovery also led to the rediscovery of faster than light travel and the construction of the first new faster than light ships. Interstel, a commercial organization, has agreed to provide you with a space ship and some intial capital so that you can explore the galaxy and bring back minerals and new life forms to further commercial and scientific interests on Arth. Shortly after your first voyage, scientists detect anomalies in Arth's sun and determine that in ten months, it will undergo a nova-like flare destroying all life in the system. Your mission now becomes determining the cause of this flare and finding a way to stop it. While doing this, you will encounter the alien species from the old empire and those that attacked it. You will discover the secret of the ancients, a species only known by its ruins, and their connection to endurium, the fuel used for faster than light travel.

Starflight succeeds largely because the exploration mechanic works so well. Each planet feels different, either in size, atmosphere, or biological or mineral content. In the course of exploration you meet aliens and must find the best way to (generally) befriend them and get information out of them. From these aliens, you get clues as to planets to search and locations as to where you can find new and wonderful artifacts to help your ship or your quest. The galaxy feels well-populated with planets and aliens and yet there is a key component of loneliness to the affair. You never encounter another ship from Arth (I think the instruction manual indicates that only about ten or so were sent out) so it really feels like it is you against the galaxy. Its vastness can be overwhelming, but by careful exploration and ingenious piecing together of clues, you can find all sorts of neat stuff.

This game was published by Electronic Arts back when they were interested in publishing unique and innovative games and when they became the Sega Genesis' largest third-party publisher, this game got a port. I was peripherally aware of the Genesis port because my friend Max told me about it and I knew that mining and combat were enhanced from the computer version. Upon acquiring a Genesis four years ago, it went on my list for games that I had to have. I was ecstatic when I managed to find a copy with box and instruction manual (although I didn't realize at the time, unfortunately without the map).

The Genesis version, so far, remains fairly true to the computer game original, although I was surprised to see that time hadn't treated the game as well as I had remembered. I was surprised since Star Control II is very similar and hold up fine to this day. I think the pacing, at least of the first Starflight, just isn't as great as I remembered it. A lot of time is spent going from system to system and planet to planet looking for minerals and there isn't a lot of reward for this. Star Control II starts out pretty much the same way, but there always seems to be something to buy with your mineral wealth or some more genuine improvements to make while in Starflight the improvements are fewer and less noticable. Also, the universe just seems to be emptier and a bit less interesting.

One thing the Genesis version definitely does improve upon from the original is the interface. After playing a bit of the Genesis version of Starflight and not finding it as fun as I had remembered, I thought maybe I would prefer Starflight 2 since I knew its story and aliens were better. Well, after playing with the DOS version for a little bit, I found I was fighting with the interface. You have to use the keyboard to select between different menus and are constantly hopping between menus for common things like maneuver, combat, land, and hail. I never realized how much superior the Mac ports of Starflight were with their mouse interface. Being able to click on the menus is so much easier. And it did away with the "maneuver" command, assuming that would be the default and you would always want to be maneuvering. The Genesis version does a similar thing in that you can always control your ship using the directional pad with no need to select maneuver in the menus. Also, the biggest improvement is that the game pauses when you bring up the menu. Getting attacked by aliens while trying to find raise shields or combat was always frustrating. The Genesis interface still isn't perfect as much of the commands can be streamlined away. This is evidence by Star Control II automatically communicating with a ship when encountered and then going straight into combat if that ship becomes hostile to you.

As I said earlier, the main enchancements in the genesis version (besides improved graphics) are in mining and combat. Planet landings in general are more interesting because you need to control the descent of your ship and you can move your main ship around the planet a bit without doing a full take-off and landing. You also now have a mineral scanner which can find underground deposits of minerals that your terrain vehicle can dig for. While the prettier planets and more maneuverability on them are nice, the extra mineral searching really doesn't add anything. I haven't experienced much combat, but the new variety of weapons and controls similar to Star Control II seem to make it much better.

One change that really bugs me in the Genesis version is that pretty much all the back story has been cut so someone going into the game will have little clue what is going on. There was never any elaborate back story immediately presented to you when you started the game, but the instruction booklet of Starflight laid everything out. It was presented as a briefing and gave you the history of the old empire as gleaned from the recent discoveries. You knew about why there were different species on Arth, how they got there, and a bit of what to expect outside. The Genesis Starflight booklet, while about as thick as its PC counterpart had all that backstory replaced by a short in-universe story by some science fiction writer. I mean, it's a good story, but it does nothing to motivate your exploration of the universe. Old-fogie rant: Why can't instruction booklets today have the same care and love as ones from even ten years ago?

There also appears to be some bug in the game as I have made the Mechans hostile to me and I have no clue how. I had a game saved just before an encounter with them. In the encounter, they were friendly and considered me to be the Noah 9 expedition. Every subsequent encounter with them has them attacking me with no chance to communicate.

So, this game isn't quite as good as I remember it, but the exploration and especially speaking with alien races is pretty damn fun. The game isn't that long if you know what you are doing. I'm playing as if I don't, but I've already discovered the three items I need to win the game. Now I just need to discover their locations or at least how to get to them.


Anonymous said...

hey! i'm going to cali this weekend and won't be back until is the website i was talking about where i made extra summer cash. Later! the website is here

Anonymous said...

The genesis version came with a 150 page mini novel and strategy guide outlining the history and mission brief. I have it at home :)