Sunday, July 10, 2011

Game 61: Star Command (1988)

I haven't given up on Sentinel Worlds, but my work has become so busy this summer that I can only play games in windows of 10-30 minutes at a time. That's no way to play Sentinel Worlds, whose learning curve--even with all the help you offered in the comments--is steep enough to require a dedicated day just to get into it.

I itched to jump to Ultima V since I thought I could leap right into it without having to learn the interface, but I figured I'd give Star Command a shot, especially since some anonymous commenter showed up yesterday to start me off with some hints. I'm pleased to say that it's a much more accessible game, and I think I can crank out a series of postings on it while I wait for life to return to normal.

Star Command is another SSI offering, developed by the same team that gave us Phantasie I-III, all competent games. Wikipedia says that it was based on a board game. The game takes place at an unidentified point in the "far future," long after Earth has been destroyed by some "hostile aliens." Humans live in a region of space known as "The Triangle," so named because it is the shape formed by the three ports of "Star Command," the military forces of humanity who are fighting losing wars on two frontiers: the Alpha Frontier, infested with organized pirates; the Beta Frontier, ruled by hostile insect aliens bent on the destruction of humanity. There are also rumors of other races and a civilization of robots.

The player controls eight characters who engage in missions for Star Command, "from your first anti-piracy patrol all the way through the climactic final mission to save mankind." There is apparently some randomization to the assignment of missions, which the game touts as allowing extensive replays.

The interesting character creation process hearkens to Space, one of the earliest CRPGs, which I once played (briefly) on an Apple II emulator site. Each character has seven attributes--strength, speed, accuracy, courage, willpower, Esper (psychic skill, basically), and intelligence--and is assigned to one of four classes: pilot, marine, soldier, and Esper (of which you can only have one). Each character also has a rank, from private to grand admiral, each of which receives a different monthly salary.

Private Nesmith's character sheet.

After creating the characters, you send them to basic training for eight years, where they can achieve levels in any of 12 basic skills, depending on their class. Sometimes they fail their classes and you lose the year. Other times, they succeed and gain a level or increased attributes. When they finish training, at the age of 28, they are ready to embark on missions.

A character wastes a year.

I had initially rolled what I thought was a really good party, but when I went to save the game, it asked me some copy protection questions and told me I was "WRONG!" even when I was sure I was right. It locked up after two failures, and I had to restart and recreate my characters. The second party didn't turn out quite as good as the first. I later discovered a work-around to the copy protection on a message board.

Called a "hornet," but looks kind of like a skeleton of a fat guy.

After party creation, the first step is to purchase a ship. Ships come in four varieties: scout ships, escorts, corvettes (I thought corvettes were Chevrolet models, but Wikipedia tells me that they're lightly armed warships; add another one to the list), and frigates. Each model has multiple classes. The only ones I could afford at the beginning were hornet- and wasp-class scout ships. The game manual indicated that they had the same stats but that the hornet-class ship cost a lot less, so I bought that one. I christened it the ISS "Protector."

After making the entire character- and ship-creation process a Galaxy Quest homage, I realized I was thinking of the wrong Tim Allen movie.

After the ship, I purchased a bewildering array of weapons, armor, and other equipment, both for the ship and for each crewmember. The manual had a table with the relative damage done by all the weapons--which come in multiple varieties--but I got sick of consulting it constantly and ended up buying largely random stuff.

I have no idea what the differences between all these things are.

When I was ready, I visited headquarter for my first mission, which turned out to be making a scientific survey of all the planets at a certain pair of coordinates and bringing back anything I found. I headed out of spaceport.

Sounds like the stuff legends are made of.

Exploration of the galaxy is through a tactical space map, not so far removed from either Sentinel Worlds or Starflight. There are different map levels, from entire-galaxy to individual-planet, and you move your ship throughout the region, keeping a careful eye on fuel (apparently, running out of fuel really, really sucks). You have a landing craft for descending on planets for espionage missions, scientific missions, or simple exploration.

The crew of the ISS Protector opens a pawn shop.

Shortly after arriving in the exploration area, I encountered a trio of spacecraft and hailed them. Star Command doesn't give you the dialogue options of Sentinel Worlds but is closer to the "postures" that you can adopt in Pool of Radiance. You can bribe or beg your way out of a fight, ask the other ships for favors, try to intimidate them into giving you things, or "impersonate a diety" [sic]. I asked for a truce, but the other ships laughed at me and we entered combat.

"Aliens! I am Richard Simmons! Bow before me!"

Combat is blessedly turn-based rather than real-time (as in Sentinel Worlds) and it involves several movement phases followed by a fighting phase. It isn't terribly hard; you try to take on the ships one-by-one and maneuver in such a way that your weapons outgun theirs and your armor outlasts theirs. I'll post a video when I get more experienced at it. Apparently, you can also attempt to board the ships, defeat the occupants in hand-to-hand combat, and tow the ship to spaceport as salvage, but I haven't tried that yet.

Enemy counters with Ritalin missile.

Later, when I returned to a Star Command station, I was told that the ships I had defeated were civilian ships and that I would be getting no credit for that. I don't know why they attacked me in the first place, then. The manual seems to suggest that once you encounter an enemy ship, there's essentially no way to avoid combat, although I guess you could just fly away without fighting after combat begins.

At least I didn't get court-martialed.

I was rewarded for completing the mission--rewards are based on rank--and given some extra credits. I'll see about buying some new stuff and heading out on the next mission!

Before I go, though, it's worth pausing to note the difficulty that both sci-fi games and sci-fi films have with three-dimensional space. This is the third space-oriented CRPG I've played in which navigation takes place on a two-dimensional map with two-dimensional coordinate systems. I realize the technological limitations of the era, but Star Command compounds the era with the designation of the "triangle" and its mention of linear "frontiers."

What's even more surprising is that sci-fi films and TV shows suffer the same two-dimensional thinking. One of the most absurd moments in sci-fi, in my opinion, comes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Kirk and Spock are talking about how they're going to defeat Khan in a crippled ship, and Spock notes that, "[Khan] is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking." Kirk has an "aha!" moment and realizes that they can out-navigate Khan and come up behind him. And what do they do? They manage to get into a position in which Khan passes over them, and then they sneak the Enterprise up behind him by descending out of the Nebula onto his plane of movement! They don't start shooting until they're perfectly lined up with him. You can see it from the starting point in this video:

For thinking, you can't get much more two-dimensional than that! How about firing at his underbelly? How about coming at him in such a way that you have a clear view of his saucer section and thus are less likely to miss?

But this, of course, is par for the course in Star Trek. Ships are always encountering each other while on the same plane. Never is one "upside-down" or "sideways" in comparison to the other. There's the absurd "Neutral Zone," which is presented on maps like this... if you couldn't just, you know, fly over or under it. Star Trek VI has the "shock wave" that shoots out from the destruction of Praxis and buffets Sulu's ship when a couple of maneuvering thrusters should have put them over or under it.

Other franchises aren't immune to this. If Moff Tarkin had maneuvered the Death Star from a slightly different trajectory, they wouldn't have to "clear" Yavin before they could fire on the rebel base. I seem to recall that the "blockade" in The Phantom Menace is very planar, too. Only in Farscape and Battlestar Galactica do we start to see battles in which the creators seem to realize that space is three-dimensional. (After writing all of this, I found that TVTropes has a page about this: "Two-D Space.")

I wish I could say that I've "returned," but my postings are going to continue to be erratic for the next few weeks. Real life won't stop getting in the way. I appreciate your patience in the meantime.

Don't let Gary Larson get any ideas from this screen. (Very obscure joke.)


  1. Well, the map of the neutral zone makes sense: We draw maps on earth as linear, though they may pass over a mountain range. Also stars are in a plane out from the galactic core, and given that the odds of two stars occluding each other if viewed from above, that is actually a pretty good choice of map for a 2d screen.

    But yeah, the chances of them meeting another ship on the right axis (or, you know, at all, given how big space is) are just about nil.

  2. Also: Can I tsk you for starting another new game? I guess I can forgive you, given how busy you are.

    Also I thought of what you could do with a book: First write it in LaTeX, so we get pretty kerning & microtype. Then use a style that lets you have big margins, and fill them with comments on how your opinions on the game have changed, reader comments, etc.

    Next step: Buy wife something nice with the $10.95 in royalties you get for the hundred hours work.

  3. Oh goodness, that title screen. It's like the Hulk is getting ready to deck a stormtrooper IN SPACE.

    As a general rule I've always felt that spacesuits should not be sleeveless. The sunglasses are a neat touch though.

  4. Dear CRPG Addict:

    Love the graphic from "The Enemy Below", err I mean "Balence of Terror".

    Love the Gary Larson joke too. I hope the game features neither disco dancing or Lorne Greene.

    The only television show that could show space accurately, that I know of, is Moonbase 3. For movies, see 2001: A Space Odyseey.

  5. The Cow Tools were scary enough. Hate to see what he'd do with the Insect tools.

  6. PetrusOctavianusJuly 11, 2011 at 9:39 AM

    Ha ha, that title screen looks ridiculous. Is that R2D2 surrendering to the right?

    The problem with space being represented in 2D was something that expecially bugged me in Frontier - Elite II. The game world is in 3D, but the map is in 2D. So it's impossible to plan a trip involving more than two star systems, since two distant star systems that look like they are close may in fact be far apart on the hidden Z axis, and there is no in-game way of finding this out before traveling to one of the two distant star systems. Combine this with a time limit on missions and you have a recipe for frustration...

    1. In my Frontier - Elite II (Amiga version) I could hold the mouse button and move the map in three dimensions. I really wanted to say that this game does 3d extremely well. And it's the only game I can think of in that regard.

  7. You have encountered Real Life! You see 1 Job, 1 Marriage, 1000 Chores

    Will your stalwart band choose to Fight or Run?

  8. The character creation system has a lot of similarities to the classic RPG "Traveller". Although this one sounds friendlier... in Traveller, you could have a character die in the creation process from old age.

  9. I can't believe no one has complemented you on the use of Galaxy Quest crew names. Inspired! One of the many reasons I read this blog.

    You play the games any order you want - your blog, your rules, change them if you wish.

  10. Not just old age: You could also die from wounds. In the edition I have at least there is an option to get some wound & get an honourable discharge instead.

  11. haha You had me at Richard Simmons. Alas, those civilians you blew up were my relatives. By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan, they shall be avenged!

  12. Been waiting for this one, played it through on my Amiga (the cover screen was much nicer). and then played it through a few more times as the years went by. Not sure what it was, the plethora of ships/guns, being able to kit out each ship and PC as I wished or just that massive star map. I was so sure if I could just explore every single star and planet there was some super cool easter egg, or BFG someplace (never did find one). On the game, Boarding enemy ships is almost the bread and butter of your income, you get much more cash when you tow those hulk back to port. boarding itself is a ground combat (much like the ground missions). Start with Pirate scouts, once you have cashed a few of those in your ready to start upgrading your gear.


  13. That was something I always loved about the X-Wing games: full 3d space. Enemies could be coming from any direction, and so could the player.

    What is very exciting about all this is that Wasteland has finally appeared on your upcoming games list :)

  14. Bah, had a nice comment typed up and it got eaten.

    Short version:
    - Civilian ships won't fire on you until you fire on them.
    - You can run away in space combat by just flying in a single direction until you get enough distance between you and the other ships.
    - Hyperspace will also get you out of combat, but uses up your precious fuel and won't always succeed the first time.
    - Ships that you can't see(off the normal screen) can't attack/be attacked. Use the 'Scan' option to see further out).
    - Boarding requires you to end your move phase on top of the only alive enemy ship in combat. If other ships flee or you manage to move far enough away from them that they are removed from combat, then that avoids having to blow them up.
    - Boarding then does a ground type combat of your crew against theirs, no retreating allowed.
    - When you win, you tow the ship(up to 9 at a time), get some of their fuel, and can continue exploring.
    - Aim, aim, aim! If you spend 3 turns aiming, you can boost most gunners accuracy almost to the 90% hit chance cap. Ammunition is expensive.

    Outfitting your group:
    - Early game I like Neutron Grenades. Light, cheap, and work pretty well.
    - Late game Panzerjaegel: fires 4 rocket bursts, can hit entire groups, and awesome damage potential. It just weighs a ton if you include enough reloads.
    - I tend to focus on buying good armor before buying good weapons- death is expensive and retreating to starport is time consuming.
    - Make sure to grab secondary items like Repair Kit(1 for your pilot with repair skill. You don't want to pay someone else to repair everything for you right?). Medkits keep your guys alive and can be used between combats.
    - Torches and environmental gear will become necessary later on(torches for locked doors; environmental gear for hostile atmospheres (non-human enemies).
    - You can store extra stuff on your ship, more than your guys can carry(like extra medkits, reloads for their weapons). You just have to manually transfer it to your guys when you need it.

  15. The 2d space thing always bugs me too. For the map there is little you can do though. To represent long distances you either need to compress one dimension to a flat plane rendering spatial distances obscured, or go with a sperical projection that either looses fine grain detail, long range detail, or readability.

    I like what Battlestar did as it was useful for tactical purposes, but it works because as a digital interface you can scale the view in or out as needed. A printed map of 3d space is, well, basically decoration. That said on solar system and galaxy scales things generally do fall on a plain.

    As for this game I am quite intrigued. One of the few games I'm tempted to play myself.


  16. 'Geek, you can tsk me all you want, but if I hadn't started a new game, I wouldn't be writing anything right now. It's the lesser of two evils.

    I clearly underestimated everyone's ability to grasp "Far Side" humor.

    "Galaxy Quest" is one of the most underrated films of the 1990s. Practically every line in it is quotable. If Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub, and Enrico Colantoni wanted to make more movies together, you wouldn't hear me complain.

    Whoever you are, 'Nym, thanks for all the tips. I finally got the civilian ship thing, although forcing you to begin combat just so you can wait and see if they fire on you is a bit of a cumbersome way to go about it. But I've taken to using the first turn to, as you say, "Aim, aim, aim!" so that if they do attack, I'll obliterate them.

    I particularly didn't know about the storage thing, so I really appreciate that long comment.

    1. I agree on "Galaxy Quest". Also, I love Sigourney Weaver. Random trivia: In this movie she only repeats what the ship's computer says. And in Futurama, she voiced the ship.

  17. I don't recall having to blow up civilian freighters very often; usually could just demand money or fuel repeatedly- it seems to not remember previous reactions short of them firing at you. If nothing else, just start demanding a truce and they leave peacefully. I think some of this is based off of the 'Intimidation' stat of your weapons; which is at least a nice touch of extra flair.

    Part of the reason why boarding is recommended, beyond just extra money per ship, is that it is much cheaper to kit out your squad with the best items than it is to build up your ship.

    Speaking of money, I doubt you'll ever hit the situation of having more than you know what to do with it. There are quite a few ways to earn money, but the best I could do was shortcut ahead on gearing at times. The most over-priced item in the game is the extra training sessions- spend huge piles of credits to get ONE character the same thing you get after each mission.

    Oh, and if you ever feel really bored, I believe that opening title screen animates.

    (This is the same anonymous that started this yesterday and the one with the wall of bullet points; I suppose I'll have to go and register with one of these profile sites at some point; I'll probably register with my normal handle of Kellandros).

  18. While I agree with you that 2D space is silly from a logic standpoint, I will paraphrase Aristotle's remark in the Poetics: "What is fun though illogical should always be preferred to what is logical though tedious."

    I have never played a space game where navigating a 3D starmap was anything but a drag.* Maybe, like Khan, my brain is too simplistic. But if you compare the essentially unnavigable 3D starmap of Star Control I to the easy-to-use 2D starmap of Star Control II, I can't see any possible basis for preferring the former. In fact, even Homeworld, which is generally considered to have handled 3D space better than any other game, was incredibly annoying for me to wrestle with, and the lack of any significant number of future games in that model -- despite an easy-to-copy interface -- strongly suggests I'm not alone in feeling that way.

    It's somewhat less justifiable in TV shows -- where the incredible frustration of trying to "read" a 3D point map on a 2D screen is eliminated -- but even then viewers are almost certainly going to prefer a 3D scene oriented on a 2D plane (i.e., the equivalent of a dogfight over water) to a 3D scene with no plane of orientation at all.

    The 3D starmap, like "true Newtonian movement at realistic velocities," is something that nerds may like in theory, but even nerds seldom like in practice.

    * Note that I distinguish between navigating a 3D starmap and navigating 3D space from the POV of a pilot. The latter is perfectly enjoyable; probably less fun than 2D space for one-on-one dog-fighting purposes (compare Star Control II's Super Melee), but more fun for large battles.

  19. The galaxy is basically a plane so....

  20. It just occurred to me: What does Killer Croc in bitch'n shades and purple short-shorts bump'n fists with a Clone Trooper next to a hot water heater have to do with Buzz Lightyear?

    - Giauz

    1. Huh, I really thought someone would have come up with a witty response by now. Oh well, here goes:

      Because Batman: The Animated Series was the best Batman, the villainous Killer Croc teamed up with George Lucas (in costume) to troll us over a decade later with the prequel trilogy, and the game must have been in development during the winter, double-trolling people to poor to afford heat or watch Star Wars.

      Just a (likely) theory.

  21. When I think about it, I really would love more games (especially space strategy games) to utilise 3D-Maps and gameplay. For that matter, I absolutely love Homeworld and Cataclysm, to games which let me go crazy in something that at least looked like real space. Normaly it doesn´t bother me if space is represented with a 2D-Map, but every time I played Homeworld I oftem wondered why real 3D-Space was so often completely absent from sci-fi games, or at least from maps.

    Is it really that much harder to make a user-friendly 3D-Map then a bogus 2D-Map? It´s just something that always anoys me without end.(Especially since games with exist with combat in 3D-Space. A readable 3D-Map should actually be easier to make then 3D-combat.)

    And by the way, the galaxy is not "basically a plane". Thats frankly nonsense. Spiral galaxies like ours are maybe a bit flat, but that´s not synonymous with a "plane". Since, you know, the galaxy is still thousands and thousands of lightyears thick -even far away from the core like we are.

    1. True, however you can represent it on a 2d map pretty well, since stars almost never occlude one another. Sure, you couldn't navigate by this map, but given that our maps of the earth are rather sucktastic due to 2d projections I don't see how this is any worse.

      Also boarders are unlikely to take shapes that are not fairly linear, due to supply and defence issues. The less 'flat' your boarder is the longer it is, making defence harder. I'd use 2 maps, one XY the other ZX if I really had to, with a line on each representing your trajectory, then you adjust one at a time.

  22. What did you mean when you said you were thinking of the wrong Tim Allen movie?

    1. I was thinking that the crew in Galaxy Quest worked for something like "star command" or "space command," largely because I could hear Tim Allen's voice saying something like "space command." It turns out that I was thinking of his character in Toy Story, not Galaxy Quest.


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