Friday, July 23, 2010

Backtracking: StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel (1983)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.

As we've seen, the earliest CRPGs were text-based. Later, there were CRPGs that had graphics that, while they were nowhere near the capabilities of modern graphics engines, were "good enough" to not distract you from the game.

In between these two stages was a transitory stage, mercifully brief, in which the graphics, sound, and inputs are so bad that you wish the designers had just gone with text. The games from this era are virtually unplayable today, except has historical curios, because you can't stop retching at them. Ultima II falls into this category. So, regrettably, does StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel.

StarQuest is an early "roguelike" game. I am indebted entirely to Mobygames's description of the plot, as I can't seem to find a manual anywhere.

In Rescue at Rigel, you take the part of Sudden Smith, a human adventurer teleported down by transporter beam inside a six-floor, sixty-room complex inhabited by an alien race, the Tollah. Scattered throughout the base, which has been hollowed out of an asteroid orbiting Rigel, ten humans are held captive, one in each of ten different rooms. While you can adjust the difficulty of the task, the object in all cases is the same: to search the complex, find and release as many of the prisoners as possible (by activating the transporter beam, which will teleport them back up to the ship), and get out alive-in an hour or less.

Shooting a "common tollah" with a ray gun. How dare Ebert suggest this isn't art.

In this blog so far, I have played a number of games that I thought were pointless or goofy (my worst venom remains for Ultima II; I can't believe that was part of such an otherwise excellent series), but I've never played any as painful as StarQuest. I'm not knocking it--I'm sure it was a joy at the time. But unlike just about any CRPG I've reviewed in this blog, there is no way on heaven or earth that this game could be remotely "fun" to modern players. Movement is extraordinarily cumbersome (you hit "L" or "R" until you're facing the right direction and then type the number of steps you want to move) and the controls are often nonresponsive. The quest is extremely basic--you wander around until you find 10 humans and hit "T" to transport them home.

Saving a hostage from know what? Screw this.

You encounter a series of creatures--aliens, monsters, robots--that you simply blast by hitting "F" or "B" on the keyboard--no skill about it. As far as I can tell, there's hardly any reason to fight them because you can just wander out of the room. There's nothing to find but hostages and monsters, your character never gets any better know what? This isn't even a CRPG, really. Forget what I said about it being a "roguelike"--it just looks like a roguelike. It has none of the elements that make up a true CRPG. I'm going to have to look at Mobygames's classifications with a jaundiced eye from now on.

Any key? How about ALT-F4?


  1. Hehe, a great post. I was looking forward to reading about an early scifi crpg. Looks like it wasn't one!


  2. I disagree somewhat - perhaps just because out of nostalgia as Ultima 2 was the very first RPG I played. It was the C64 version a friend had (I had an Atari 400 at the time).
    Compared to other stuff of the time it *was* playable, though, and while it certainly was goofy (especially the NPCs) it did show the prospects of CRPGs: Exploring, talking to NPCs, zapping enemies and it had a basic plot.
    It also was a good conversion as it was comparably fast, had some sound effects and most importantly: Full screen graphics - not the POS gray background with only a handful of sprites many early RPGs had (yes, Epyx and Avalon Hill - I mean you!).
    Of course it still was no match for U3 and U4 (both of which we also played on his C64) but we only found that out years later -- not in advance.
    Exciting times back then for sure.

  3. Calibrator, you make some good points. As absurd as I find many of its elements, Ultima II was definitely a seminal game. My general approach, though (admittedly violated in some areas), has been to evaluate CRPGs on the basis of how enjoyable they are NOW, not when they were first released. I mean, if you can't enjoy Ultima III or IV today just because they're "old," you're as uncultured as someone who can't enjoy Dickens or Beethoven or Frank Capra for the same reasons (part of the point of my "Good Enough" posting). It is, however, nearly impossible to enjoy Ultima II today, and my vitriol was written from that perspective.

  4. Oh, I understood that completely and kept that in mind (as I only recently discovered your most interesting blog).
    That's why I only disagree somewhat - I also find some of U2's features weird to say the least. I actually did back then and I do even stronger now.
    Example: The space travel part for example was something I never could comfortably live with and I always had the feeling that Garriott included it just because he wanted to have a 3D star effect in the game. Perhaps he just hadn't really found the right scope of the game, how epic it can and should be.

    Also, U2 was AFAIK the very first RPG they completely wrote in assembly language whereas U1 was still mostly BASIC - so the major progress they made was a technical one. The problem with that is that we can't really value that today as our emulators can be adjusted so that the game always runs fast enough (often too fast).

    Finally, the PC version of U2 stinks, graphically, if you play it on a CGA-compatible display.
    The only proper way to enjoy it, I guess, is having it display it's CGA-graphics on a real CGA-monitor to be able to display more than the well-known four CGA-colors. See for screenshots.
    The good C64-conversion will always show it's 16 color text mode so there is a slight advantage here (back then the resolution was the same).
    Of course this doesn't change the fact that U2 originally was an Apple II game (=six hardware colors in Hi-Res mode).

    What we have in U2 is what you described very aptly above as a transitory stage - or rather "the missing link of Ultima": It was a primitive CRPG in assembly language whereas U1 = primitive CRPG in BASIC and U3 = advanced CRPG in assembly language.
    So it was more playable because of technical reasons but it's playability was questionable.
    To speculate further, it may have to do with the problems Garriott had with his new publisher at the time: Sierra On-Line, who gave him a hard time. I have a hunch that he wanted to finish the game quickly to be done with them (he published U3 himself under the Origin name).

    Oh, and yes: Frankly, I wouldn't play U2 today.
    If I wanted to replay old CRPGs then I'd start with U3 which I consider the biggest progress of the old series thanks to it's party system, tactical fights, way better maps (with line of sight), logical NPCs and better implemented plot (albeit still primitive).
    The only thing I never liked in U3 to U5 was the 3D dungeons but they were apparently fashionable back then - I consider all of them playable today.

    All the best for your blog!

  5. Was it really that bad?

    This looks just like Temple of Apshai except it is set in Space. Even the ludicrous movement controls are the same.


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