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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.