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Starflight and the open-ended RPG

I remember the first time I saw Mass Effect in action, months ago. Here was a game where you could travel from solar system to solar system, exploring worlds in your ATV and interacting with alien races. And I couldn’t help but feel that I had done this before, years ago, with the Genesis.

Starflight screen, filched from Wikipedia Starflight is a now-obscure EA game that originally saw release on Microsoft’s old DOS platform, before being ported to the Genesis and a slew of other computers systems, where you essentially traveled through the galaxy, exploring planets, meeting aliens, and either talking with them and getting information or blasting each other to bits. Part of the appeal of the game is simply how fleshed out the world is; each of the alien races have histories together, and each will tell you slightly different stories about one other and themselves. Some will come after you for having a particular species of crew member on your vessel, while others will just try to blow you away immediately.

There is a story, and a fascinating one, but you aren’t presented with it through a series of events like most RPGs. All you get off the bat is that an ancient colony ship was found on your planet, Arth, which is populated by members of several sentient species. The ship has been reverse engineered, your vessel has been constructed, and you’re to go out and explore. That said, there is an objective here, but everything is revealed organically. Offhanded remarks by aliens, ancient ruins found through the galaxy, and the periodic bulletin from the Interstel Corporation drive the story more than anything. It’s this style that may be the game’s greatest strength, and is sadly something few games have followed up with since. But by the time you’ve pieced everything together—which probably will require a notepad—you’ll know what happened to put your people on Arth in the first place, the fate of the mysterious Ancient alien race, and how everything is really just a matter of perspective. The game makes you think in a way good sci-fi can.

The sequel, Starflight 2, was only released on DOS platforms; much more recently, a fan driven effort has been underway to produce a new game, The Lost Colony:

At the very least, the original Starflight 2 continued with the tongue-in-cheek humor of the first game, which included a series of bulletins back and forth between a loan shark and its client, a race speaking entirely in binary code, and—in the computer versions—an appearance by Star Trek’s Enterprise itself. The game bears many similarities to Star Control 2, released in the mid-90s. Perhaps the similarities to Mass Effect, too, were intentional, as Jason Attard of Bioware said that he had put a lot of time into both Starflights and Star Control 2.

But perhaps in the oddest twist of fate, Mass Effect is now owned by EA. If that means the return of the Elowan, Mechan 9, or Veloxi in a new game, sign me up!

12 responses to “Starflight and the open-ended RPG” »

  1. Man, Starflight was so good. Starflight 2 took and refined its features to make a truly amazing game world and experience. Star Control 2 was the next spiritual follow-up, worked on by many of the same people as those who did Starflight.

    I tried the Genesis version a couple years ago and found that Starflight didn’t quite hold up as well as I had thought and also that the Genesis version wasn’t quite as good as the Mac version I played growing up. My thoughts on the game are here and here , if you’re curious.

  2. Jenn Frank says:

    Heeeeyyyy! David, your retrospective was really lovely. As a Star Control fan, I think I really need to check this out. The Mac version, not the Genesis version, of course.

    • Jason Chapman says:

      Hi there Jenn. Been for nearly 20 years trying to find a reasonable remake of Starflight. As David says Mass Effect is the closest modern graphical rendition of what the whole nostalgia of starflight ever captivated. During the 3DO era Star Control involved playing this game with one of my best friends also playing the Genesis version of Starflight where that game alone took nearly 5-7 years of hunting for, just for that platform alone. This April I plan to attend University for the Video Game design course offered at this school near me. One of the games I wish to develop is a very awesome rendition of the limitless open ended concept that Starflight literally set the benchmark to. Another incredibly awesome game if you enjoy the spirit of venturing through the unknown is ELITE. I was introduced to this game nearly 20+ years ago now and to myself is the truest ancestor to games like Freelancer, and Grand Theft Auto. An open ended FREE version of ELITE is OOLITE (http://oolite.org) I believe. The wonderful feature about this game is that from the design up it was perfectly designed to allow other enthusiasts in the community to incorporate user created addons. I hope that this information is helpful as OOLITE currently is the only game I’ve been playing for nearly three months straight. If you ever wished to discuss games some more, I’d love to hear what you enjoyed most of STAR CONTROL II for instance, as the company that I am newly a part of as a major partner, I’m dead focused on creating games with an unparalleled concept of replay value.. Many thanks for reading this and hope my info is helpful. Please feel free to reply I love talking with other game enthusiasts. take care… Jason

  3. I played Starflight to death on the Atari ST – at the time, my bro was reviewing it for the magazine he wrote for at the time. I remember being fascinated by it, as it was by far the biggest, most sprawling space adventure game I had ever come across. I remember being excited by the possibilities the painfully slow “3D” landing routine was – imagining that one day, that sequence would be smooth as silk, and I’d “really” be able to explore those planets in full, proper 3D.

    We’re getting there, definitely. Mass Effect was totally a step in the right direction, and I got very strong Starflight/Star Control vibes from it. They haven’t got it QUITE right yet, but this is something that will come with time.

    The other space game I have extremely fond memories of, which no-one else in the world seems to remember, is Origin’s Space Rogue. This was a 3D flatshaded fly-and-trade-and-shoot game with the twist that any time you landed on a base, it became a top-down Origin RPG that looked like Ultima in space – complete with plenty of narrative, dialogue and subplots. I have a vivid memory of a lengthy subquest involving shuttling back and forth between two sisters in neighbouring star systems to deliver messages. It was, in terms of game design, quite dull, but the fact that the writing was actually quite good somehow made it more compelling.

    Plus it had a space station that was almost literally an aircraft carrier – like, the ship – in space.

  4. Jon Conley says:

    Did Star Control 2 have a two-player combat mode? I seem to recall being able to do this in that game. A sort of top-down Asteroids combat model.

    And I distinctly remember a ‘Bird of Prey’-style Klingon rip-off ship that could cloak.

    Was this Star Control 2, or has my memory failed me?

  5. hanford says:

    It’s this style that may be the game’s greatest strength, and is sadly something few games have followed up with since.

    Sounds a lot like how the old Ultimas (3 thru, say, 6?) unfolded. They weren’t about cutscenes, massive swaths of exposition, or guiding you through linear events. It really revealed the story through witnessing how things affected the world and through very small dialog bits that painted only postage-stamp-sized pictures of what was going on. It didn’t feel like you were in a linear movie, of even a “world filled with triggered events”. It felt like you were simply exploring a place that things happened in. One of the reasons the Ultimas are my favorites.

    And you’re right … very few games have ever doe it that way.

  6. Jenn Frank says:

    Did Star Control 2 have a two-player combat mode? I seem to recall being able to do this in that game. A sort of top-down Asteroids combat model.

    I didn’t play the original, but I believe so, if only because the more recent Ur-Quan Masters—the SC2 remake—features online multiplayer.

    • Kevin Bunch says:

      I don’t know about Star Control 2, but I know the first one did have that top down Spacewar-esque combat mode. I’d like to give the second one a whirl sometime, since I hear it’s fantastic, but because I have to fight to get any PC games running (let alone older ones) it’d probably have to wait til I can get my hands on the 3DO version.

      I liked your retrospectives, David! I actually started on the Genesis one a couple years ago, when a friend of mine downloaded the bugfixed ROM of it on a whim. Our little group was obsessed with the game for about a week, just exploring and uncovering the plot. I’ve never tried the computer versions for the aforementioned reasons, and only played the second one for a bit (such a weird interface compared to the Genesis), but I get the impression that regardless of medium, the Starflights are just fantastic.

      I’m not used to getting so much direct feedback on a post! Thanks for giving me a place to write, Jenn!

  7. Mark says:

    Kevin: Actually, the Ur-Quan Masters remake of Star Control 2 runs nicely on any PC or Mac. So you have no excuse not to play it now. :)

  8. According to some guy who commented on my blog, the Mac or Amiga versions of Starflight are supposed to be the best editions. I am heartened to know that someone took the trouble of bug-fixing the Genesis version, because a few things would have really frustrated me had I not played the game before.

  9. Rob says:

    Gazurtoid-whining orb-Sol: Ahh, the good ol’ code wheel! I, too, remember being struck by the sheer vastness of the Starflight universe, and the overwhelming sense of adventure, accomplishment, satisfaction—and the odd dash of frustration—that it elicited as (apologies to Douglas Adams) the answers to life, the universe, and everything unfolded one mission at a time—all in glorious highly pixelated ega. God knows how many times I finally shut down the 8086 at 3:00 in the morning, all the while hoping my fiance wouldn’t catch me crawling into bed so late!

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