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Star Control 2

This was perhaps the first game that I played extensively with a friend, and the first game that I wrote what we now call a FAQ on.  Of course, it was more just a series of notes to myself for places, names and stardates, but still, that I even took the game seriously enough to take notes on it was new to my little Cro-Magnon mind.  My friend even made a huge star chart out of several sheets of graph paper, complete with color coding, coordinates and racial locations.

I ran StarCon2 from DOS, and even in my younger days, the nerd in me appreciated how well the naming scheme fit into the lame 8 character folder name limit.  I probably still have the StarCon2.exe file on at least two older computers.  The game maintains a spot of honor on my game shelf.  What does it have to teach designers today?

First and foremost, the game gave a great sense that the player affected the galaxy. A big part of this was the fact that time marched on, no matter what the player did, and certain “scheduled” events happened even if the player wasn’t there. That sense that “life goes on”, or that the player wasn’t the center of the universe, made it all the sweeter when the player actually managed to make a difference, like saving a species from extermination, or helping to create a new species. This, of course, gave the game replay value, as determining the best way to save everyone took a few stabs, and careful planning. In this, the GameFAQs era, such would be a matter of looking up someone’s FAQ on the game… but then, there was no such resource, so making the discovery of these scheduled events, and how to manipulate them, was a glorious thing.

Much of the game was about exploration and discovery. The search for the Rainbow Worlds was one such nugget; if you found one of them by happenstance, or followed vague clues, you found a hostile world that was astoundingly rich in resources. If you dug a little more, and asked a few more questions, you could find a couple more of these gems. If you dug even more, and did a little lore diving, you would find the pattern that let you pinpoint all ten of the worlds. Again, such charting is subverted by a simple FAQ, or a few times playing through, but for the explorer content to take the game on its own terms, there were many things like this to be found.  Characters would drop hints about other species, and following up on conversation trees and historical lectures paid off with clues for more things to do and see, as well as a deeper appreciation for the universe of StarCon.

The music was awesome, even on tinny little speakers.  It was one good reason to have one of the then-coveted Sound Blaster cards.  Today, there are remixes available from the Precursors, and listening to them last week, I found that it’s still some of my favorite game music.  It’s lighter fare than an Uematsu or Mitsuda collection, and as with all great game music, it offers a very clear connection with events and characters that make the game unforgettable.  (The Star Trek riffs are also a nice little aural Easter Egg.)

The graphics were great for a 640×480 game, with a decent and consistent UI and excellent story and character paintings.  Of course it was all very stylized and cartoony, but in the age when Sierra Adventure games were the epitome of game art, it fit right in.  I still miss that era, since no amount of normal mapping and pixel shader bling can make up for the sheer art competency that was required for those games to really shine.  Those artists pulled off more with their limited toolset than they really should have been able to, and I respect their efforts greatly.

The setting and mood were a tasty mix of high adventure in the vein of the old Star Trek (Shatner Kirk, that is) mixed with a hefty dose of humor.  Alien races had clear identities and themes, with definite “voices” conveyed with unique fonts and syntax.  To date, I still use the Orz term *frumple* in casual communication.  It confused my wife for the longest time.  If you don’t find something to like in the Pkunk, there’s a bit of your soul that is screaming for attention, you should find it.  There’s also something deeply satisfying in talking a Shofixti down from using their Glory Device.  Meeting the Ilwrath (aptly named) is suitably creepy, and while combat is inevitable, at least you can choose to pump your foe for information before fighting, or jump straight to insults and ordnance.  First contact with these diverse aliens is usually a great bit of storytelling, and the way that you can cause interactions between the races is still something that I don’t see in modern games.  (For instance, you can manipulate some races to obliterate each other, making scavenging operations easier.  Cold, but effective.)  Also, talking to some aliens can make previous contacts interesting, as they are cast in a new light.  The Arilou are especially enigmatic, and their interaction with the Orz can be enlightening.

Oh, and tangentially?  This sort of thing will never fly in an MMO.  You can’t give players that much power.  Single player games still rule in storytelling as a result.

The wide variety of different ships for combat provided by the aliens makes the “Melee” combat a ton of fun.  Notably, Star Control (the original) was mostly about this sort of one-on-one combat, with only a small side of storytelling.  That StarCon 2 made *both* work is icing on the cake.  Here, again, the Pkunk shine.  It’s hard not to love a race that recharges their starship batteries by insulting their opponents, and who have a chance to spontaneously reincarnate with a fresh ship on destruction.  Each ship has its uses, and pitting your team of ships against a friend’s team can provide hours of fun.  Team construction is based on a point-based balancing system, with each ship worth a certain amount of points, and each player given an equal amount of points to use (or not use, for that matter, making handicapping easy).  The differences between primary and secondary weapons, ship handling and even physics make for interesting combat tactics, especially when you down an opponent ship and they pop in with another type with different tactics that may be the rock to your scissors.  (Though overall, the balance is more akin to Pokemon’s deeper, nuanced system of strengths and weaknesses, rather than a true RPS triangle.)

All in all, it’s a fantastic game, a collection of great game design ideas, rolled up in fun visuals and great writing.

—–

I’ve downloaded the open source version of the game, released in 2002, more than once now, but only recently installed it.  The game holds up well, and while there are some things that I’d change about the UI (notably, the rerelease makes planetary landing much better), and the visuals are notably just 640×480, it’s still a fantastic game to play.  And it’s free.

As I note in a comment to a Rampant Coyote post over here, I’d pay decent money for a Nintendo DS port of the game.  It’s one that I’d buy before 95% of the current crop of games, and there are design elements that I wish had been adopted by the blockbusters of the modern era.  (Among them the nearly unlimited saves, dynamic universe, witty writing, and simple but fun physics-influenced combat.)

Oh, and Star Control 3 doesn’t count.  That game was just… not good.  I’ll leave it at that.

Bottom line, I can’t recommend Star Control 2 enough, and since getting your hands on it is now extremely easy (and free!), it is one that any serious gamer or game designer should spend a bit of time with.

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