Monday, September 13, 2010

Starflight: Final Assessment

I never did figure out what the hell this was all about.
In Dungeons & Desktops, Matt Barton calls Starflight a "space exploration game" with "CRPG elements." A web site I visited post-victory, "Starflight: the Lost Colony," calls it an "open-ended simulation game." Though it's on both MobyGames's and Wikipedia's CRPG lists, and although I got addicted to it, I never really felt I was playing a CRPG. Aside from the title of my blog, I'm not sure how much I care. Starflight was a delightful surprise of a game--just the sort of game I started this project to find--and I had a lot of fun. Let's see if I come up with a score that reflects that.

This should be old news by now, but I'm using the GIMLET scale I outlined five months ago.

1. Game World. Absolutely top-notch. You have an entire galaxy to explore with a fascinating backstory that is sketched out in the manual but only fully revealed as you explore, find artifacts and messages, and talk to various races. The lore is unique and interesting, the final twist is amazing, and some mysteries persist even after you've won. Unlike almost every other game of the era, your actions measurably affect the game world and your relationships with the various alien races. I can't think of many games that do it better. Final score: 9.

This was a definite Sixth Sense moment.
2. Character Creation and Development. It's the lack of both that make me hesitate on the "CRPG" angle. Yes, you have up to six "characters," and yes, you can choose their names and races and incrementally train them. The problem is, once you load them into your ship, your characters cease to really exist as separate characters. They're just part of your ship, occupying its various roles. No one talks to them or refers to them individually. Although you can train them in various skills, you only really need to train them in the one skill that goes with their function, and you can maximize this fairly quickly. Except for the fact that you can't have Elowan and Thrynn in the same crew, and those races react to you depending on who you have, your choice of races affects nothing about the game. Final score: 2.

Going with a Star Trek theme just seemed way too obvious.

3. NPC Interaction. Reasonably excellent. You must establish meaningful communications with the various alien races to understand the game world, figure out the main quest, and learn the locations of planets and artifacts. The game gives you several "attitude" options when speaking to the aliens--hostile, friendly, and obsequious (there's a word you don't often encounter--and you have to carefully figure out what works best with which races. The aliens only speak to you for a limited time, so you have to choose your questions carefully. Although you don't really have "dialog options" in the manner of the Bioware/Black Isle games of the next decade, the dialog in Starflight is more advanced than anything else in this era except Ultima IV. Final score: 8.

4. Encounters and Foes. The "monsters" in Starflight are unique to this game, fully described, and very interesting, with their own personalities and attitudes. They behave completely differently depending on who they are and what you've done to them. Oddly for a CRPG, you can get entirely through Starflight without fighting a single battle, so concepts of "respawning" don't apply. Final score: 8.

Hmmm...maybe I should destroy their home planet, just for kicks.
5. Magic and Combat. This being a science fiction CRPG, there's no "magic" in the game, but there is some combat. I suppose you could fight extensively if you wanted to. Destroying enemy ships allows you to loot them for their minerals and fuel, and you have several races that are more than happy to fight you. But the mechanics of combat are extremely weak. Once you raise your shields and arm your weapons, you just point and shoot, and the interface to do so is clunky and nonresponsive. The weakest part of the game. Final score: 1.

It's like sort-of point and sort-of shoot.
6. Equipment. There are two types of "equipment" in this game: ship upgrades and artifacts. At the beginning stages, it's very satisfying to progressively upgrade your ship with better weapons, armor, engines, and cargo capacity. Artifacts are strewn across the planets, but very few of them actually do anything. Those that are helpful are always found in fixed locations, never randomized, which doesn't reward open exploration. You have to take the artifacts back to Starport to "analyze" them, which is always satisfyingly cryptic: you get some idea what the artifact is supposed to do, but you don't fully find out until you employ it in the field. My biggest complaint: the best artifacts are found close to the end of the game when you no longer need them. Final score: 5.

A fully equipped star ship.
7. Economy. There are several ways to make money in Starflight: mining for minerals, collecting life specimens, destroying and salvaging enemy ships, and finding suitable planets for colonization. To me, mining was absurdly addictive, and even towards the end of the game I couldn't suppress feelings of delight whenever I stumbled upon a particularly rich vein of minerals. But you lose the need for money about halfway through the game, when your characters are fully trained and your ship fully equipped and your finding more Endurium than you know what to do with. When you win the game, you get 500,000 credits that serve no purpose. Final score: 6.

8. Quests. The game has a compelling main quest with a great twist, but there is only one outcome, no opportunity for role-playing, and no side quests. Unusual for the era, the main quest is on a time limit (which turns out to be plenty of time). Final score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. I had no complaints at all with the EGA graphics, but we're still in the "painful era" for sound, and I played the game with the sound turned off. The controls leave a little to be desired. You essentially have to use the number pad to scroll your way through the menus, which takes an annoyingly long time in combat (you're rushing to get from "communications" to "navigation" to put your shields up). It would have been very helpful to hotkey certain actions, as most of the keyboard is unused. Final score: 3.

10. Gameplay. The gameplay is utterly open-ended, allowing you to explore the whole galaxy (to the limits of your fuel, anyway) right from the beginning. The pacing is good: I got addicted to it quickly and wouldn't had minded if it had lasted a few more hours, but it seemed to end at the right time. On the other hand, there's virtually no replayability except to mine new planets. [Later edit: reader Max points out that one replayability option is to choose Thrynn crewmembers and make friends with that race, getting different clues and reaching the endgame through a different route. Point taken, and final score increased.] On the question of difficulty, it's tough to evaluate. If you try to engage in combat, it's too hard, but other aspects are too easy. For instance, the manual makes a big deal about the horrible things that happen if you lose your Terrain Vehicle, run out of fuel and have to make a distress call, or recommend a bad planet for colonization, but really you'd have to be an idiot to do any of these things. Final score: 6.

The CRPG Addict is no idiot.

Final ranking: 53. This puts it with Ultima IV but not quite as high as Might & Magic I. I don't know how well this reflects the game. Perhaps I need to add an "addictiveness" handicap to my rankings, because there's just something ineffably compelling about Starflight. From the moment I started playing it, I played it for a few hours every night.

In 83 more games, I'll be playing Starflight II. I look forward to it.


  1. I don't know if this has been noted at all in any of the other Starflight postings (I rarely come in from Google Reader), but this guy seems to have an explanation for this games lackluster graphics:

    Can anyone else confirm/deny?

    Thanks again for keeping up with the blog. This game was really interesting!

  2. I don't know if it's true, but it's certainly a very plausible explanation. I'd like to see an example with an alien or a planet in the encounter window, though.

    I tend to be very easy-to-please graphically. I care much more about sound, which is too bad because it's practically another decade before it gets any good.

  3. Glad you enjoyed the game! It may not be a CRPG, but it's darn fun.

    You should check out the Sega Genesis version just as a comparison point to the PC sometime. The game play is a little more action-oriented, some elements were simplified while others more developed, and the sound is awesome... very spooky and otherworld-like.

    There is also the un-official third entry in the series "Protostar". It's unofficial because the original developers lost their creation to EA, who (probably fortunately) have shown little interest in reviving the series.

  4. Hey--I just discovered this blog and I am hooked. I am especially excited for some of my favorites that (hopefully) are right around the corner: War in Middle Earth, Might and Magic II (possibly my favorite CRPG ever) and the AD&D Gold Box games. Thanks for providing me yet another way to procrastinate at work!

  5. As far as replayability, I guess you could replay it to see what happens if you have a Thrynn crewmate... and blow up other races' homeworlds.

  6. I'm definitely going to try out the game after your postings. I'm not bothered that it isn't really a crpg. I'll probably try out the Amiga version if I can find it to see if it has some better sound.

  7. Starflight is one of a small number of games which are greater than the sum of their parts. Everything just *clicks*, and you wind up with a timeless classic that you want to revisit over and over again. Obviously this is a bit subjective, but a few other games I find similar are Star Control 2, System Shock and Deus Ex. Interestingly, the magic is difficult to recapture -- all three of those games had disappointing sequels.

  8. Kyle, you may not like SS2, personally, but it isn't generally regarded as a disappointment among fans of the first System Shock.
    Deus Ex 2, however, is a prime example of how to *not* do a sequel.

  9. Yep, I see "Protostar": 238 games away.

    Annoying Lawyer, you're in more luck than that. "War in MIddle Earth": 33 games; MMII: 37 games; Pool of Radiance: 43 games. A lot of the games in between are obscure or foreign, so they might end up as one-entry reviews or skipped entirely.

  10. You know, Max, I don't know what I was thinking. You're right. I was just thinking "replayability" in terms of the outcome of the main quest. It's actually quite replayable in the sense that you can befriend a different faction and perhaps reach the end through a different route. I'm going to update the posting.

  11. Calibrator, don't get me wrong, I liked SS2. Of the 'disappointing sequels' I referenced, it was IMHO the best. The parts set on the first ship are brilliant -- fully up to the quality of the original game, with a darn good RPG character development system grafted on top. But the game fell down once you made it onto the second ship -- the level design became linear and unimaginative.

    Put it this way. When I pull System Shock out for a replay, I do the whole thing. When I pull the sequel out, I stop after reaching the second ship. And I'm not the only person I know who does that. That says something.

  12. You know, Kyle, with the same argument you could call Half-Life 1 a disappointment. ;-)
    The last part on Xen is still being furiously hated by many fans...

    However, I know what you mean. Personally, I don't replay the last mission of the second Thief game, for example. I find the cathedral mission uninspired and downright tedious.
    But then again the other 90% of the game is so good that I'm able to forgive the game for it.
    With SS2 it's practically the same: The second ship is really nothing more than the conclusion and not "the other half" of the game. I can ignore this rather weak part and still feel that the game a worthy sequel, if not a revolutionary one.

  13. Really enjoyed reading these. Took me back to the countless hours I spent on StarFlight II. I especially like how your writing captures the mix of wonder, frustration, and surprise that makes these games such a great experience.

    Personally, I kind of think of the StarFlights and Star Controls as their own genre. But they are certainly CRPG enough, given the development and NPC interaction and effects on the game world. Can't wait to see what you think of the characters and storyline in Star Control II!

  14. Mmmh Starflight! I remember playing this game on my Amiga. That was when I realized my love for SF-themed adventures and RPGs. I think you should have tried the Amiga version instead because that one has some rather nice music. Other than than I think the Amiga graphics are pretty much the same as in the DOS version.

    What a great plot Starflight has! Comapring it to a game like Mass Effect would be an insult. Mass Effect has such a boring and stereotype Main plot!

    Do you plan to test-play Sentinel Worlds: Future Magic and it's (unofficial) sequel Hard Nova in the future by any chance? Would be looking forward to it. I think Hard Nova was really the first RPG that I ever completed fully.

  15. Sentinel Worlds is coming up in 44 games. Hard Nova in 104 games.

  16. Great to hear that! If you're going to start playing Sentinel Worlds on DOSBox you might want to try my Tandy sound fix for it ;)

    I also see Hired Guns in your future game list! Boy, I'm looking forward to that! :)

  17. Thanks, Sascha. I'll try to remember when I get there, but feel free to remind me when it's closer on my list.

  18. I always liked Starflight a lot, so I'm happy you liked it, too. And I liked Starflight II even more, with lots more aliens to interact with (though it seems like the purists of this world prefer Starflight I to II).

    However, I'm afraid there may not be many entries on Starflight II here. As far as I understand, you are colorblind. And the copy protection scheme in Starflight II went as follows: you had to place a cutout on a specific coordinate on the hardcopy starmap provided and count how many white and light blue stars (or some other combination of colors) were visible in the 40x40 sector cutout. It was called "calibrating the navigation computer", which kind of makes sense, but I'd assume this is completely impossible for colorblind people.

    Bottom line: get a cracked version, or see whether you can find a little .exe that gives you the answers here.

  19. I'm sure I'll figure it out somehow. That is a pretty obnoxious copy protect scheme, though.

  20. Try 34789 in SF2

  21. "For instance, the manual makes a big deal about the horrible things that happen if you lose your Terrain Vehicle [snip] or recommend a bad planet for colonization, but really you'd have to be an idiot to do any of these things."

    Hey, I resemble that remark!!!

  22. I can't tell you how many times I've thought of this game since I first played it (on my very first computer, too, a $500 Tandy from Radio Shack). I never finished it. No one I knew had ever finished it. I've probably thought about this game once or twice a month ever since the first time I played it...

    It's so utterly satisfying to FINALLY discover what happened in that game! Thanks for playing it so I don't have to.

  23. Glad to be of service, but this game really is worth playing, even if you know the ending.

  24. This is definitely the most interesting game I knew nothing about in your list so far. Even if it's not exactly an RPG, it seems to be the kind of game that's right up my alley.

  25. Truly a great game, and spiritual predecessor to my personal all-time favorite game in any genre.

    I enjoyed the write-up, especially section 7 talking about the mining. It described my own feelings perfectly.

    Overall, I thought the game was great, but needed a few tweaks here and there to be truly amazing. Your description found the same flaws, though the fact that it only dances with the term "CRPG" doesn't bother me.

  26. One other opinion: I'd love to be able to use this blog to help me figure out which games I'd like to play on my own as well as just to watch someone else play through. Getting the ending GIMLET and thoughts for a game would be a great way to evaluate which ones were worth my time. However, your use of spoilers on the last pages makes them far less useful for my purposes. Is there any way I could convince you remove them from just the final thoughts & GIMLET pages for future games? Or to have a "Spoiler free" description of some other kind?

    1. No, I'm not interested in editing past postings or changing the way that I post. But there's a spreadsheet you can link to from the upper right sidebar ("All game rankings so far") that just has the summary rankings and a few notes about the game (no spoilers).

    2. Fair enough. Thanks for pointing out the summary -- I hadn't looked at it, yet.

  27. Fantastic game, indeed more than the sum of its parts. It is the first in the relatively short line of "space opera" games. A grand story, several races, an economy, a focus not so much on action, but on interaction. Basically, the ship is your character and the races are the NPCs. These games are a different branch of RPGs. And they're just slighly differentiable from space action games like Wing Commander or Freelancer, or from make-your-own-career-games like Privateer and, of course, Elite. Then there are the space adventure games and there's not much difference between Starflight and, say, Project Nomad.
    SF1 is purer than SF2 and I thought that just before the endgame of SF2, the gameplay was beginning to get stale. But until then, it was a lot of fun.

  28. My feelings echo your own very closely. Great story, great exploration, but combat and character are lacking. There were a few alterations to the Genesis version, which I've noted over all the posts for this game. One positive one was different weapon types, and terrain vehicle upgrades. Also, I didn't see it mentioned, but you had to scan for minerals and dig at marked locations (in addition to scant available surface deposits). I also got sucked into the game, and spent at least one night playing through a six hour session. That feeling hasn't happened in quite a while.

    1. It's nice when that happens. All my games lately have felt like work.

      I'll read your full series when I get a chance. It's always fun to check out differences in platforms and time. It's too bad that they didn't use the intervening 5 years to improve combat.

  29. I think this game is best viewed as a single character CRPG, with that single character being the captain or even the ship and all of its parts.

    The crew superficially looks like the familiar multi-character party of other games, but functionally they really play the role of equipment, skills or attributes. They don't really do anything individually, they are just aspects of the whole.

    So it's not an underdeveloped multi-character CRPG, it's a somewhat unconventional single character CRPG.

    From that perspective it fits much more surely in the CRPG family. You explore a game world and interact with NPCs, you role play choices and solve quests, you fight (poorly implemented) combats, gain treasure, and use it to strengthen your character.

    So I think you are absolutely right to include this and its descendants in this project. (I've only played Ur-Quan Masters so far which is fantastic.)


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