Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This
week month, we're diving into the greatest sci-fi franchise of all time (with the word 'Trek' in it), generation by generation. First up, it's The Original Series.
While traditional Star Trek may have had its life support equipment yanked out in recent years, it remains one of the most beloved and most influential sci-fi universes of all time - at least until soldiers start going into battle armed with lightsabers and the Force, or aliens turn up and reveal that Lexx was a documentary. Five main TV shows. Eleven movies. Hundreds of novels and spin-offs. And of course, games. So many games, from adventures to shooters to strategy to cards.
Surprising nobody, most of them are pretty mediocre - Star Trek never really got its Jedi Knight or its X-Wing. In trying to find a winning formula though, developers have cranked out some fun, weird and even clever ideas over the decades - and this month, we're going to be looking at some of them. Each week we'll focus on one from a different era of the show (ignoring Enterprise because there aren't any for that), and take a quick tour round some of the others. And to start things off on a positive note, here's that rarest of treasures: a genuinely good licensed game. I know. I'm scared too...
But first, let's slap down a bit of context...
One of the most unusual things about at least the official games based on The Original Series is how late they arrived on the scene. That's excusable of course - games did exist in the 1960s when it first ran, but they were limited to stuff like Spacewar! or versions of Pong played on oscilloscopes . Still, it means they had a certain nostalgia element to them even when they were brand new.
The earliest, an arcade game called Strategic Operations Simulator, showed up in 1985 - very late when when you remember Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the air in 1987. Between those events, there were only a couple of text adventures to wave the tacky little UFP flag - The Promethean Prophecy and The Kobayashi Alternative. They're more simulation than most adventures, and very open ended, involving resource management and the skills of the crew and some interesting ideas. They're also harder than a horny Horta and... huh? No, I don't have a girlfriend. Why do you ask?
Until those, the best known Star Trek game was completely unofficial, and managed to spread for decades until lawyers finally decided to give a damn about people ripping off their licenses. It was written in 1971 on a university mainframe and subsequently ported and re-written for just about everything - the best known PC version being the slightly more graphical version EGATrek, seen above. In the game, you control the Enterprise on a mission to patrol the galaxy and hunt Klingons, just like the very war-like Federation did back in the original series. Cough. It was about scanning and staying supplied at starbases, and trying to clear the enemies in the most efficient way possible for bonus points. Paramount finally dropped the hammer on the game when it bothered to care, but not terminally. EGATrek for instance simply swapped out Klingons for "Mongols" and all was well in the galaxy.
It wasn't until the early 90s that we finally saw a truly worthy Star Trek game, though there were a few attempts in the late 80s. 1989 offered the first Next Generation game, an adventure called The Transinium Challenge that used CGA graphics and is basically a disaster area. The same year brought a movie tie-in based on Star Trek V that just consisted of the words "WE'RE SORRY" flashing on and off on an otherwise blank screen. Or not. It should have done. And there were a couple more too, though the most memorable has to be the unleaded nightmare fuel that was The Rebel Universe.
Not so much for the game, mind. No. For the portraits...
Finally, things changed. In 1991, Star Trek: The Next Generation had finally escaped its desperately awful early seasons and started being good, and the franchise as a whole was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Interplay's contribution was the imaginatively named Star Trek: 25th Anniversary... which actually missed it, and came out in 1992 on PC, but never mind. For the first time, Star Trek had a PC game it could be proud of. Voices from all the original cast. A mix of shooter and adventure perfectly in the spirit of the original. Redshirts to take into dangerous situations to be shot first. Kirk even sat in his chair correctly. As an adventure, it definitely has its issues - but as a Star Trek game, it got it .
Judgment Rites came out the next year, and refined the format a little. Both are structured like the TV show, split into multiple episodes with their own settings and characters. In 25th Anniversary, they're all completely independent. Judgment Rites adds a bit of an arc, with the idea that the crew (and other players in the galaxy, sadly not including the Pakled) are being tested by a group of aliens called the Brassicans - a strong contender for the most insufferable space elves in recorded history.
The big downsides of both games are that they involve a lot of pixel-hunting, and the puzzles often aren't particularly intuitive - a problem shared by lots of sci-fi games that fill their worlds with Arglebargletrons and whatever. They're very much in the spirit of original series episodes though, with lots of chatter between the characters and endearingly silly premises. One in Judgment Rites for instance sees the return of Trelane, the Squire of Gothos, who's taken an interest in World War 1 and created his own simulation of it. There aren't many sci-fi games that kick off an adventure with you space-dogfighting an out of place Fokker. (Who coincidentally is flying a World War 1 era plane. Badoom-tsssh.)
What makes the individual adventures so much fun though is how flexible the adventure is. Take for instance the first mission in Judgment Rites - Federation. It kicks off like most, with the crew just chatting in deep space and awaiting a mission. Instead, a Swirly-Whirly-Spacey-Thing opens up and spits out a Federation ship whose dying captain babbles about the entire Federation being destroyed in eight days. Since there are no distracting green ladies to get in the way, Kirk leaps into action and decides to investigate the station at the heart of the upcoming apocalypse.
(It doesn't help that Enterprise's previous destination was - and I quote - the "Glorious Pebbles Scientific Academy", which nobody wants to go to. They take it very badly if you snigger every time someone says their name, or asks if Bam-Bam is doing okay with his Klingon Opera Studies.)
On arrival, Enterprise is immediately attacked by an Elasi frigate, and Kirk gets a chance to test his diplomacy skills. You usually get a choice of conversation options, which can often - though not always - be split into three categories: Things Kirk Would Actually Say, Things Kirk Would Like To Say, and What The HELL? This opening dialogue for instance gives us this glorious trifecta:
Kirk Would Actually Say: "Forget it."
Kirk Would Like To Say: "Give us five minutes to decide."
What The HELL? "No matter how good your ships are, they are still being captained by lice-ridden Elasi hypocrites. I would lose all self-respect surrendering to a person like you!"
This specific decision doesn't matter too much, mind; they attack anyway. Both of these Star Trek games have a simple combat system that's a bit like Wing Commander, but benefits from taking place on the actual bridge. You don't simply raise shields for instance, you order Sulu to raise shields, then spin round, lock on and fire. It's not exactly Bridge Commander , but for its era, it's okay.
Leaving the debris behind, Kirk, Spock and McCoy decide to throw caution to the wind by beaming down to the station without a red-shirt to draw fire. Needless to say, it turns out to be a trap. An old enemy of Kirk's called Dr. Bredell has taken over the place and wastes no time locking the Enterprise in a tractor beam and throwing the trio in a cell to await the end of his plan. Mwah-ha-and-indeed-ha.
Ironically, in the cell, things start to open up. There's a guard by the door, and with the right dialogue options, you can persuade him to help you out. It involves reminding him of his dead father and living up to his memory. You only get one shot at this diplomatic path, with the alternative being to try and break out. When he spots it, he comes in to stop you, and gets a quick dose of the Vulcan Nerve Pinch to the neck - this being too early for what Chuck at SF Debris calls the "Off-Button Hypospray".
Every mission in the Star Trek adventures is scored out of 100, with your goal being to not only finish them, but finish them properly . Using force instead of diplomacy for instance will often work, but it's not exactly the Federation way. If you do pull a phaser, it's usually better to use Stun instead of Kill... though you will find some enemies who'll laugh that off and return the favour. I really like this about the games. With enough pixel-bitching, it's easy enough to get a good score, but you know there's more you could probably have done had you been more careful, quicker on the draw, or thought a little more.
(And by 'thought a little more', I really mean 'had psychic powers', obviously.)
Much of this mission consists of avoiding or stunning the security team - using your communicator for instance will just draw guards to your presence - and figuring out Bredell's scheme to shoot Earth with a Big Bang Cannon. Fun bits include wandering into his quarters and seeing that he actually has a dartboard with Kirk's face on it, a computer being protected by a chess puzzle whose solution is to lose - much to Spock's disapproval - and being knocked out with deadly Wanker Gas.
To win, you first get into the Security Room by collecting a few life-size dummies... a bit wasteful when redshirts are available, but needs must and all that... to help ambush the welcoming committee, and persuade them that Bredell is being more than a little bit of a dick with his 'destroy the universe' idea. That done, you break into his room and switch off his evil plan and the day is saved (especially if you remembered to deal with his escape shuttle) and everyone heads back to the Enterprise for tea and medals and a rousing round of The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins . Well, the first bit, anyway.
Every episode in the two games follows a similar pattern - some fights, lots of adventure, and a ton of different stories and settings to enjoy. The puzzles and interface may not be great, and by god do you get bored of using tricorders on things, but the dialogue and teaming up with different crew-members really makes them feel like Star Trek adventures, from the snark to the completely gratuitous way that Chekov is constantly talking about alien wessels and reminding everyone he's Russian.
As for the
Brassieres Brassicans, they finally show up for real in the last two chapters - "Though This Be Madness...." and "...Yet There Is Method In It". These consist of a series of increasingly obnoxious tests handed down by a bunch of aliens resembling splashes of snot, with no greater purpose than to decide whether or not they want to rejoin society - as if anyone would want them in it. For some bizarre reason their big plan is to learn about other cultures with questions, but since they have specific ideas of what they want to hear and it's all couched in riddles anyway, this whole element is rendered utterly pointless.
The only really clever one is the last, which is a twist on the Prisoner's Dilemma , or the Everlasting Gobstoppers bit from the first Willy Wonka movie if you want to be more cultural about it. Kirk is told he's proved himself, and handed a disc of strategically important scans of Klingon space for his trouble. Unbeknownst to him though, a Klingon also being tested has been handed something similar for Federation space. The challenge is to see whether either of them will turn down the offer on the grounds that it's Just Not Cricket. At which point the
Brass Monkeys Brassicans admit that they're both blank and they were just screwing with everyone one last time, and aren't they just a bunch of cards?
Yes. There's a reason these idiots never showed up again. Sadly, it's not that Kirk decided "Oh, to hell with this! " and went on a crazed phaser rampage. Though that would have been a much better ending than the one you actually get, which consists of everyone congratulating themselves on a successful first contact, and a message from Starfleet that pretty much says "Yeah, you did okay, we guess..."
Want to see the rest of the game? Here's a full long-play...
One more Star Trek adventure was planned, The Secret Of Vulcan Fury , though for various reasons it was cancelled during development. This was a big disappointment for fans, as it was due to ratchet up the production quality dramatically, feature a story by Star Trek writer DC Fontana, and generally be cool. Instead, we had to wait until JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot to find out what the secret of Vulcan fury was... and it turned out to be insulting Spock's mother. A little underwhelming, I think you'll agree.
The Original Series did however return a few times in non-adventure formats, including the interactive movie/simulator hybrid Starfleet Academy and a phenomenally complicated ship-combat game called Starfleet Command . Its final appearance was in the truly awful Star Trek: Legacy , which brought all the series' captains together - including Enterprise's Jonathan "Duchess" Archer - and then realised it had no idea what to do with them except waste everyone's time and money.
Next week, we jump forwards in time to see how The Next Generation fared. With big-budget movie licenses and more advanced technology on its side, there was no excuse for its games not to excel... but then, we are talking about the show that taught the world to love the facepalm...