Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sentinel Worlds: Final Rating

Hey, EA: the only things I must do are pay taxes and die.

Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic
Electronic Arts (1988)
Date Started: 3 July 2011
Date Ended: 15 May 2012
Total Hours: 22
Final Rating: 36
Difficulty: Moderate

Look, I respect all of you and I really value your presence on my blog. Your opinions, views, philosophies, suggestions, and tactics have greatly enhanced my experience playing these games. I hope you all stick around forever. So I hope you don't take it personally when I say that Sentinel Worlds was the dumbest @#$%ing game.
 
I sensed it the first time I played, and indeed I said something in the first paragraph of my first posting. It has a dumb plot, a dumb interface, a dumb approach to combat, dumb dialogue, dumb exposition, and a final "battle" so dumb it beggars description.

I grant you that on the stupidity scale, Ultima II still beats Sentinel Worlds. But Sentinel Worlds has far less of an excuse: It came six years later, and it had great examples, like Starflight--which Electronic Arts freaking made!--to use for inspiration.

Let's break it down and see if we can figure out why it's so bad, but I feel like Sentinel Worlds might be a rare game that's actually worse than the sum of its parts.

1. Game World. I do give it some credit here. There aren't many science fiction CRPGs, and this one starts with a reasonably good backstory as your crew comes out of cryogenic sleep, far from Earth, to deal with mysterious raiders attacking shipping lanes. You have a clear mission and a mystery to unravel. But the story that is revealed during the course of the game is nonsensical and poorly written. The Sentinels, the spell book, the Key of Thor, the aliens, and Malcolm Trandle seem like plot points tossed in randomly, and none of their stories are fleshed out enough--which is particularly unforgivable, since the game manifestly had a way to offer exposition through the paragraphs book. The world is also quite small, featuring only three planets. Score: 5.

The world was disappointingly small after Starflight's entire galaxy of planets.
 
2. Character Creation and Development. Flawed, but not bad. You allocate points to your attributes during the creation process. There are 20 levels in the game, and only the most serious grinders would make it through all of them. Leveling comes at a good pace, and for the first 10 or 12 levels, it brings solid rewards as you allocate skill points. It collapses towards the end when you run out of useful skills to give points to; the cap of 7 for each skill seems arbitrary. Attributes play a solid role in the game: my medic ended up with the most experience because I gave him 20 dexterity, which allowed him to reload nearly instantaneously. Only charisma seemed to be a useless statistic. The combat skills were vital, but there were a host of other skills of dubious use, including ATV repair, bribery (I only found two characters to bribe in the game), and observation (never figured out what it did). Score: 4.

By the end, I was just channeling skill points into random skills.

3. NPC Interaction. This could have been a lot better than it was. At first glance, it seems to anticipate the detailed dialogue screens that Bioware made famous starting in Baldur's Gate, except using the paragraphs book for longer bits of dialogue and exposition. In practice, it didn't work out that way. Each NPC has extremely limited dialogue, and they have an annoying way of cutting you off in the middle of your conversation, requiring you to wander around until enough time has passed that they'll talk to you again. There are no real "choices" in the dialogue, just topics. Finally, there are only about a dozen key NPCs in the game. The game could have been better with a lot more NPCs offering bits of lore and context, perhaps fleshing out the ridiculous Sentinel/Key storyline in more detail. As it is, I'd call it a missed opportunity--although still better than the one-liners offered in many CRPGs of the era. Score: 5.

No. I returned the book to the sentinels.

4.  Encounters and Foes. Here are where things begin to go downhill. There are two moments in the game where you have to cripple a raider vessel and board it, the first time to interrogate a raider and the second time to mind-probe him to find out the location of his secret base. These moments were a comparative joy, because they offered the only chance to do something interesting. The entire rest of the game was SPACE to target, ENTER to attack, no matter what the enemy. The monsters were interchangeable dots, some shooting and some attacking with melee weapons, but hardly even worth looking in the lower-right corner to see their names. There are no scripted encounters and no role-playing in the game. My bullet points in this category include "areas respawn at some point after they are cleared." Well, enemies do respawn in this game, constantly, but since areas are never "cleared" it doesn't quite match what I had in mind. Score: 3.

If I don't move, little red dots will keep coming down the corridor indefinitely.


5. Magic and Combat. The game lives up to its name by offering "magic" of a sort, as late in the game your characters get the ability to use their "light" to cast a variety of spells, along with a reserve of "energy." I only used this ability once, to solve the mind-probing quest. The key problem is that in the time it would take to open up the spell list and choose one, your targeted enemy has inevitably been gunned down by one of your other party members.

Even the toughest enemies in this game don't last more than a few hits. With one exception, they're only really dangerous in volume. The times I died, it was because enemies overwhelmed me before my medic could keep up, and I'm not sure the spells would have helped.

This was a nice idea, but as far as I could tell, it did nothing.

Neither ship combat or melee combat are tactical in this game. For the most part, the computer does the fighting for you as soon as you see enemies, and the control you have over a single character in melee combat is annoying rather than meaningful. I suppose there are some tactics in how you position yourself in various rooms and hallways, but it's the dullest sort of tactic, and difficult to implement because you don't really know when a new pack of enemies is suddenly going to respawn from behind or to the side of you. All in all, combat in this game was a real chore.

But worse than the slog of regular combat were the couple of times that the game decided to do something original. After slaughtering thousands of interchangeable mooks in the raider base, I'm suddenly faced with a unconquerable former NPC at the end of a corridor, forcing me to result to save-scumming to defeat her. And there is absolutely no excuse for the idiocy of the final "battle" against Malcolm. Score: 3.

6. Equipment. Very basic. The game offers weapons of five types: contact (bludgeoning), edged, projectile, and blaster. Each takes its own kind of ammunition, and you have to watch your ammo stores carefully lest you run out. Early on, it's best to channel each character's skills into one of the weapon types and specialize. You don't find blasters until late in the game, but almost every new map otherwise brings an equipment upgrade, so that wasn't so bad.

There are seven different types of armor. For both weapons and armor, the game makes it clear in the manual which does the most damage and which offers the best protection. You also find a host of other miscellaneous objects for which there seems to be no purpose but to sell them. Since they were the best way to make money late in the game, though, I didn't complain. None of the items are very well-described, there are no special items or "useable" items. Score: 3.

Those $900 crysprisms really set me back towards the end. I probably should have stuck with projectile weapons.

7. Economy. This is probably the category that I liked best in the game. You know from my previous postings that I like a) different ways to  make money, and b) plenty of things to spend it on. One of my biggest pet peeves is getting to the end of a game and having millions of gold pieces (or dollars) unspent. Sentinel Worlds works well on both of these major criteria. You can make money by running science foundation missions, mining minerals, killing raider ships, and raiding storerooms and armories. You spend it on equipment and ammunition (ammunition for blasters is particularly expensive), ship repairs, and attribute boosts in the Towers of Caldorre. You can only raise your attributes a certain number of times, and you can only carry 8 units of ammunition at a time, so it's theoretically possible that you could run out of reasons to make more money, but I never came anywhere near this point. Score: 7.

Until the end, I took an odd pleasure in mining, even though it was the least lucrative of the money-making options.

8. Quests. The main quest presents a paradox. I praise it for offering something different than "kill the evil wizard" and yet I condemn it for offering something worse. The galling thing is that the elements are there for a fairly decent plot. I enjoyed it at the beginning. You've arrived in a distant system with a mission to track down the source of some mysterious, violent raids. Early on, you're taken about the yacht of the region's trade magnate, who offers some advice. The game then takes a turn towards the mystical by introducing the god-like Sentinels and one of their renegade brethren. This is not a quest that, on the surface, sounds bad, and yet the game manages to bollix it up at every point with horrible writing, weird names and allusions, and inexplicable plot developments. To name a few:

  • What was going on with that Shadar guy? Was he just supposed to be a typical sub-boss? If so, why give him this weird back story about really being named Paul? Why did that other NPC have to be his brother?
  • About midway through the game, my crew suddenly encounters aliens. Did we know there were aliens? The manual doesn't say anything about them. Shouldn't that be a huge discovery for mankind?
  • Why does Taylor, the NPC from Norjaenn, show up in the raider base trying to kill me? And why is she the toughest foe in the entire game?
  • Why is the Key of Thor called that? What is it, really? Why is it even necessary to the plot?
  • Why does the spell book talk?
  • What are the Sentinels and Malcolm even doing out here?
  • What is Malcolm's relationship to the Towers of Caldorre? Are the services there really just illusions? Is the dexterity I gained in the tennis club also an illusion?
  • What were the aliens digging for on Caldorre? How did that relate to Malcolm?
  • What is Malcolm's issue with Grager? Was the whole probably-an-enemy-of-Grager thing just supposed to be a red herring?
  • Should we read anything into the leader of the Sentinels looking like a Native American?
  • Why is the Sentinels' place being guarded by aliens?
  • How does a godlike alien being come by the name "Malcolm"?

Now, if some of these things were supposed to be mysteries, that's fine. Nothing wrong with a little mystery to create a sense of wonder. But it doesn't feel like they're mysteries; it just feels like bad plotting. There's a serious lesson to be learned in analyzing this game.

Aside from that, the main quest has only one outcome, there are no role-playing opportunities, and there are no side-quests. Score: 2.

9.  Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics were more than tolerable. The sound didn't impress me. Lots of things that felt like they should have sound (e.g., going into hyperspace) didn't, and lots of the things that did have sound (e.g., running the ATV) got on my nerves. I should note that each class of weapon makes a different sound, which did help combat a bit because I could tell what I was getting attacked by. It wasn't high-quality sound, but very little in the era is.

If you don't pay attention to what he's saying, the graphics aren't too bad.

I felt the interface was pretty awful, though. The main game screen is far too small, making both ship and melee combat difficult, as either you or your enemy has a good chance of leaving the screen. The character screens were unnaturally cumbersome when it came to viewing and swapping gear. Here's a tip for developers: use a letter like (T)rade to trade equipment rather than a random number like 3. The hybrid top-down/first-person interface in dungeons made me seasick. Score: 3.

10. Gameplay. The game starts off feeling non-linear as you try to find the threads of the main quest, but it turns linear very quickly. As I covered recently, much of the second half of the game consists of extremely tiresome slogs through enormous dungeons, with enemies constantly respawning around you. Even worse, you have to visit the same huge dungeon--the raider base--twice, navigating your way both in and out. I really wanted to strangle the developers during this section. I can't see any reason to replay the game because there would be no variance in plot or order of events. The only things I can really give it credit for are 1) it doesn't take too long, and 2) there are (rare) parts that offer a satisfying challenge. Score: 3.

The sum of the individual scores is 38, but we have to talk about some adjustments before we go. First, we're going to deduct a point for the final "battle." That and BattleTech vie for the stupidest endgames I've ever experienced, and I docked BattleTech a point for it, so it would only be fair to do it here. Second, there's the writing. I've rarely encountered such distractingly bad writing in a game. It couldn't have been any worse if Malcolm Trandle had sent a message to the federation that "all your base are belong to us."

Let's take a look at the paragraph in which the Key of Thor offers his exposition on Malcolm and his plots:

At the mention of Malcolm's name, the light from the Key seems to dim, and his response is almost a whisper: "He used to be a Sentinel. No, more than that: he was one of the greatest of them. He led them across the universe, finding and nurturing beings of light on a thousand different worlds. I was one of those beings."

The Key takes a long pause before continuing. "The light within him was once so brilliant that he could have lit up the galaxy. I never knew what happened to him. None of us did. Perhaps power corrupts, or perhaps it is the destiny of every being, given enough aeons, to stray from its path. All I know is that when the Sentinels came to a planet called Earth, Malcolm began to change. Instead of nurturing the people of Earth, he commanded them. Instead of gathering them for meditation and reflection, he gathered them as an army. Before long, he stormed the temple of the Sentinels, stole me, stole the sacred book of magic, and fled to this forsaken corner of the universe, leaving ruin behind him."

Now, if you're thinking that this doesn't sound too bad, thanks! I re-wrote it. Here's what the book actually says:

Why, he is one in whom the light shines with a fierce dark intensity that I have never before seen. He is called Malcolm Trandle and he was once a Sentinel. Surely you must not judge the Sentinels harshly by comparing them to Malcolm, for he left their ways for the ways of evil. The Sentinels are the keepers of the light. They find those in whom the Light shines brightly and they nurture it. Why, they found me many, many aeons ago, on a far distant world where all have my appearance, but where I was the only one in whom the light shone brightly. There was another in whom it shine darkly and he they destroyed.

In Malcolm Trandle the light once shone brightly. Once it shone with a radiance that would illuminate a galaxy. But when the Sentinels took up residence on a planet called Earth by its people. Malcolm began to change. A darkness crept into him and he began to treat the poor primitives who lived on that world as cattle and playthings. Before any of the other Sentinels knew what had transpired, Malcolm had gathered a small army of these pitiful savages and decided that he should be the ruler of the Sentinels. He stole me from the dwelling of Kedro, and he stole the book of spells as well. You see, although the light shines brightly in me, I wield it but slightly. Those around me, however, can wield it far beyond their normal capacity. Malcolm feared Kedro as long as Kedro had me with him. And Malcolm feared the book even more. Ahh, how he feared the book! So he stole us and brought us to this light forsaken corner of the cosmos.

Do I have to explain why this paragraph is horrible? It jumps all over the place. The Key sounds like Rain Main. We have the bit about light shining with a "dark intensity." Oh, and I'm not sure I appreciate the Key's patronizing tone. If the "poor primitives" called the planet "Earth," they must have lived fairly close to the modern era, and yet the Key calls them "pitiful savages." The Key also needs to learn proper comma and hyphen usage and to standardize his capitalization of "light." Now, it might be forgivable if all of these things were just characterizations of the Key, but all of the language in the game is like this. Couldn't EA have just contracted an English major?

In any event, I'm lowering the final score of the game to 36 based on these two factors.

I forgive you if you think I've been a little hard on the game. It does have its charm, as a rare science-fiction CRPG and one that at least attempts something original. One of my frequent commenters, Amy Lunitari, liked it enough to make an astonishing 53-video "let's play" of the game, and I had fun (in some cases, morbid fun) watching some of the videos after I won. She spends a huge chunk of them going through the raider base, and my understanding is that she only recorded them after she had already been through once.

My favorite moment comes at 05:38 in Part 39, when she's wandering down a corridor. There's a red dot just ahead, but she must figure it's one of the standard goons she's been killing for hours. Suddenly, Taylor blasts her lead character to ribbons. You can actually picture Amy sitting there stunned as she says, "What?...Whoa...That's insane." She then spends the rest of the video and much of the next one simply trying to get past Taylor. Watching it is a riot to me because we had the exact same reactions, and we tried the exact same things to get past Taylor before settling upon the exact same solution. Amy's characters are much higher levels than mine, though (how did you get their hit points so high?!), which means I think I had a lot more reloads.

Ah, it's in these moments that I bask in our collective CRPG experiences, even if we do have different conclusions about the game.

The next game--Star Command--ought to offer an interesting contrast to Sentinel Worlds. Let's get to it.

80 comments:

  1. The only thing I knew about this game coming in was that when Computer Gaming World did their issue #150 anniversary special issue full of top 150s/50s/25s/10s, they picked Sentinel Worlds #1 in the worst ending category.

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  2. You had me, hook, line and sinker, with the rewritten paragraphs. I literally thought to myself, "That wasn't too bad" before I saw the actual writing.

    In any case, good job working your way through this. It's been a brutal return for you, but, hey, two more done. Before you know it.. you may even play a game you enjoy again!

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  3. Based on what you describe, I'm suspecting that the game uses processor-based timing for some of its events. In other words, I suspect that the speed with which monsters were being spawned was faster due to the fact that you are playing the game on a much faster processor than was available in that game's era. This is further supported by the fact that your NPCs killed monsters before you could even get the spell menu open.
    In old games, the "delay" between events would often be handled by telling the application to count to a particular number before continuing -- for example, delay (60000). Back in the era of the x86 processor, that could actually take a while. With today's processors, counting to 60000 happens essentially instantly.
    While I'm not certain this was impacting your game play, there are some indicators it may have been an issue. I know you can use DosBox to slow some applications down (though I haven't used that myself) and this may be something to keep an eye for in the future.
    Thanks for the entertaining post.

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  4. Heh, sounds like Sargeras in World of Warcraft's back-story, but dumber:

    http://www.wowwiki.com/Sargeras

    Summary is the Titans roamed the universe creating things; Sargeras was their general in rooting out chaos and evil. After millenia he began to question the meaning of order against the never ending evil he kept encountering, and finally decided the only true order would be to wipe everything out; so he released all the evils he had ever imprisoned and turned them into an army.


    ----------------
    On a side note, I'm kind of afraid of how Star Command will get ranked in the end- I don't think it has the gross flaws this one did, but the gameworld there is far sparser- lots of stars and planets with little to do or interact with.

    Is it better to be mediocre or strive for greatness and flop?

    Heck, fuel requirements (to move and to run away from combat) make it practically impossible to even explore the far reaches (short of mapping out every planet that sells fuel; which I ended up starting to do- it seems like at least one planet per 2 squares of travel).

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    1. I got started with Star Command again yesterday, and I still like it. I'm not sure what caused me to bypass it in the first place. The fuel thing is a big deal, though.

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    2. Well, it doesn't become an issue until after about 4-5 missions- before that everything is within the triangle or easily reachable with a little planning.

      Just remember there are alternate ways to get fuel- from freighters, from a ship you board and defeat, and buying from the occasional rare planet. And you can 'force' ships to run away by moving far enough away from some but not all of those in the current combat(roughly 3-4 squares past the long range scan can see).

      In the early game, the insects are far less of a threat than the pirates- less guns and smaller crews. And experiment with grenades- they make great backup weapons if nothing else.

      I've kept the small starter ship for longer than would seem possible by tooling around in the sub-sector view to try to force a random ship encounter to board and steal their fuel in order to reach things more than the 100 units of fuel round trip. Just don't try that in unknown space zones.

      Oh, and when you get to a special environment to explore, if the overhead map is not mostly blank then your game copy has been played previously- unfortunately Star Command seems to overwrite the actual game files, so that any subsequent new games have some of the progress you've previously made saved(puzzles solved, areas mapped, sealed doors blown open). You'd have to have original, unplayed disks to start fully fresh. I think the online zip files you could find probably qualify.

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    3. Do you want me to go back through your old post again for any hints and compile them?

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    4. Go ahead, thanks. I probably repeated the same info multiple times.

      I'm trying to avoid overly meta-gaming in what info I give- I normally only use the same handful of weapons, same specific armor and gearing choices, same stat preferences; early grinding and character re-rolling, and waiting until the last minute for doing upgrades and buying required tools. This was the game I've played too often, so I've noticed a lot of little things to take advantage of.

      I suppose I'll wait until the roundup to see what our host reads out of the combat system as most effective.

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    5. Kellandros, I'm not sure that Canageek wasn't speaking to me. If so, thanks, but I decided to be less infantile this time around and just read the old postings and comments. I've got a pretty good list of tips for SC.

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  5. Just being pedantic:
    Date Finished - you did mean 15th of MAY?
    :-)
    Keep up the good work and many, many thanks for your efforts.

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  6. Hey good re-write of the original dialogue. If I need a writer for my game I will contact you first.

    Nice Gimlet too, do you have any English ancestry?
    You're American (i think) but you use the term bollocks :D

    I did have this game on my to-play list but now I dont think I will. Im currently playing bards tale and enjoying it.

    looking forward to the next post

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    1. A lot of us bloody Americanos use British slang, sometimes just so we can talk filthy and not let anyone around us know how vile we're being :) And some of us are Anglophiles (I visited the UK like 7 times when I was in the USAF... I got to see the Queen's hat one time when the Royal Family was out for a Do (closest I could get was to see her round yellow hat).

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    2. Sometimes there's a word or phrase from another language/dialect that just works better. I find myself throwing in the occasional French/Spanish/British/Australian saying occasionally.

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    3. I've spent a fair amount of time in the U.K., but I've used "bollocks" as a noun, "bollix" as a verb, and an occasional "bloody" for as long as I can remember. I don't like to swear, and they all serve as acceptable substitutes (while still comical) for more obscene versions.

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  7. Yeah, that game sounded like quite the pile of radioactive penguin feces. I don't understand why there are so very few sci-fi RPGs that are worth playing. Besides Buck Rogers, KotOR, and Starflight, all that's there are not really sci-fi, like the original Fallouts, Martian Dreams, and the like. You'd think they'd at least have made a decent Trekkie RPG.

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    1. Am I parsing you incorrectly, or are you claiming that Fallout is not a science fiction game? That does not seem like a supportable thesis, except in the sense that few if any science fiction games feature no "magical" elements.

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    2. Star Trek isn't really Science Fiction, but it most certainly is Sci-Fi, as is Fallout. Trying to figure out where the magic was in that one...

      There are few Hard Science Fiction RPGs (That is, everything obeys the laws of physics as we know them) as it greatly limits the scope of the setting. Not to say it couldn't work; There are lots of Hard science fiction novels you could base it on, just not many physics nerds writing (or buying) RPGs.

      Also, I've been informed by Michael A Stackpole that Neuromancer is definitely an RPG, and Neuromancer is most definitely science fiction. Not science fiction I *like* but it fulfills the fundamental criteria of examining social or human issues through the lens of the future.

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    3. So... Out of curiosity what Science Fiction you do like and how do you separate Science Fiction and Sci-Fi?

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    4. Old generation Science Fiction(they preferred Speculative Fiction) like Heinlein were about taking an idea and applying it to the real world. Like a device that can tell when someone's life will end and its effects on society. Life Insurance companies try to shut it down as unproven and harmful to their business; the owner responds that every industry can be superseded by new technology and ideas(like steam engines vs. internal combustion).

      Generally the hand-waved details are minimized to what is required to tell the story(often primarily FTL drives). Fantasy just throws up its hands and says 'magic!'

      Sci-fi is a label I normally see applied to the range of things that combine futuristic technology(realistic or not), disproven science (like aether in space, or toxic waste causing beneficial mutations), unexplained things and events(like the weirder parts of the original Star Trek with reality warping powers like dumping the crew into the Old West), and straight up magic.

      Generally Sci-fi is also derogatorily applied to B-movies and pulp novels.

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    5. That is a very good definition of Hard Science fiction. Generally Science Fiction which takes a realistic view of the universe, even if it handwaves things, is also allowed, for example Ray Bradbury.

      More; Things with pointy-eared aliens that are just like humans BUT, mono-climatic planets, universal translators and similar things aren't generally approved of.

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    6. I have a lot of trouble respecting any distinction between sci-fi and science fiction, as it reminds me of the long public debates on this topic back in the 1980s. There are too many shades of grey between the two to make the distinction worthwhile.

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    7. It's a silly distinction. Sci-fi is an abbreviation of science fiction. Some people don't like the abbreviation or think it sounds dumb or something, which is fine, but it's not a different thing.

      There are certainly different styles and subgenres of science fiction, but I'd think it would be much more productive to delineate what separates them from the others instead of assigning them a particular abbreviation of the core term.

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    8. Writer and editor Forrest J. Ackerman actually coined the term, "sci-fi," which is similar to the term "hi-fi," which was popular at the time. As science fiction grew more popular, sci-fi was a term often given to movies and films that were seen as being less than serious work (space monsters, flying saucers), whereas SF was seen as being more plausible and believable; that our future could actually develop in such a way. It seemed to start out as professionals scoffing at non-professional work as "sci-fi," but now some non-fans of the genre use sci-fi with a negative connotation as well, somewhat similar to how the word "Trekkies" is used. Go figure. I took a Science Fiction literature course in college, and I we spent one whole class discussing only this.

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    9. Most athours of the real thing have moved to "Speculative Fiction" I think.

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    10. Yes, it depends on the author. To further confuse things, speculative fiction is also sometimes abbreviated "SF." *rolls eyes*

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    11. Well, that change was made so authors like Ray Bradbury who are very respectable authors, but not hard science authors in the vein of Asimov, Niven or Heinlein would be included, since they are Speculating on the future, not using science itself.

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  8. I didn't comment much lately because the game looked quite dumb indeed and I didnt have much to say... but thanks for this review which was a good read with a few laughs! Looking forward on you moving to something more engaging, though it's not your fault, it's a streak of mediocre games lately :(.

    PS: your rating says 35 at the top and 36 at the bottom.

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    1. Thanks, man. It was supposed to be 36 all around. I fixed it.

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  9. you need to play a kickass enjoyable game, say... MAGIC CANDLE! :)

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    1. Maybe if we keep pressing the point, he'll play it out of turn!

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  10. I must say, as painful as the origination text was, "cattle and playthings." is a really nice turn of phrase, though I think "chattel and playthings" would have been better.

    Well, I've never played Magic Candle. I've read the manual though (Let me know by Sat evening if you want a scan of it; I'm going home for the weekend and *might* be able to get to that box).
    I can tell you it has a *great* manual, or at least I thought it did when I was in elementary school. It gives a background on each NPC in the starting town, why they want to fight the whatever, and so on.
    It even goes into detail on how halflings are the best at living in the wilderness, and that the night the princess spent with several of them was as comfortable as any bed in the castle. Or something like that.

    I'd actually like to see more detail on manuals. I used to read them, even the thick ones, but now I don't, since they are so painfully written (I tried recently, looking stuff up while my brother played the game. Oh frack; I've read less dry, technical writing in scientific papers.
    But I hear old school gamers waxing poetic about manuals, and remember the hours, literally hours, I'd spend reading my Dad's C64 manuals as a kid.

    Also if anyone has an original C64 monitor they don't want...we um, dropped ours while moving the table it was on and aren't sure if it still works. We have more then one C64, but only the one monitor.

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    1. I'm not sure if this will help you but I used to have my C64 connected to a tv. If you can get ahold of a small, old tv, it should do the trick if you're unable to find a monitor.

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    2. Monitors are fairly common on eBay, though a little pricey. I bought a Commodore 1702 a week ago for my Atari 800XL, works great.

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  11. How can a game be bad if it provokes such psyche-probing questions as "Is the dexterity I gained in the tennis club also an illusion?" And you say games aren't art!

    Superb analysis, and a tremendously fun read. Call me crazy, I still want to try the game some day.

    --Eino

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    1. If I wrote enough to intrigue you, I say job well done.

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    2. You sure wrote enough to warn me not to play it. Anyway, if you like lots of really good dialogue and an awesome plot, or plots, you'd love Star Control 2. There are many NPCs (races) throughout the universe, and they're all "unique" ha-ha-ha-ha-ha...!

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    3. Star Control 2 is indeed a great game. The plot is as good as any rpg and game play is mostly fun.

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  12. Some thoughts as I read through this entry (and no, I'm not offended at all, and will of course, remain a reader/commenter here):

    EA did not make Starflight. That was Binary Systems. (Geniuses!) EA merely published the game.

    2) My medic received far more experience as well, but I noticed that it was because he was healing as well as fighting. He was double-timing the XP meter.

    5) Agreed on the second paragraph, however my healer could always heal fast enough. The only time there was danger was when a member or two was separated by the medic by a door or something. Then it was practically instant death.

    The energy battles were so poorly implemented. Nowhere in the manual does it say what to do with these. I don't know if there was a clue book or hotline for this game, but I can't imagine anyone finishing the game without one, back in the day. Having to guess to use the left and right arrow keys? Sheesh.

    "Morbid fun!" Ha ha! Well, as long as you enjoyed watching, I don't much mind why you enjoyed it. :) Our reactions and strategies being much the same is very funny. Oh, and IIRC, I increased the hit points of my party by having a lot of sessions at the gym (i.e. strength training). ;)

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    1. Your post reminds me yet again how much I need to learn about the video game industry--specifically the differences between developers and publishers.

      You're right about the medic. When I said, "couldn't keep up," I should have clarified that I meant cases in which the medic was out of range and such. That was the most common scenario. Frigging doors.

      I figured out the energy battle with Malcolm by just pounding on random keys, but it's still inexcusable that the instructions don't appear in the manual, on the screen, or in the paragraphs book.

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    2. Making things more confusing is that some companies are both, and will often license games out. So you will have the first game developed by X and published by Y, then they decide they actually want to make money and become a publisher. The second game is developed by X and published by X. Then the third game they just want to cash in on the name and is developed by Z and published by X.

      Example: Track the history of who published and developed Baldur's Game, BGII, Icewind dale, IWD2 and Planescape: Torment. Also the expansion packs. Ping-pong, ping-pong.

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    3. I'm glad I'm not the only one confused. When you start BG, you're confronted by logos for Bioware, Black Isle, Interplay, and Wizards of the Coast. Christ, people! Give me some sense of who actually MADE this game!

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  13. What would that battle with Malcolm look like in real life, hmm?

    MT: "OH! My light is so dark, your light's light can't even touch it!"

    Romom: "Men, I feel compelled to order a simultaneous barage of headshots on this guy, but the temptation to just wait and see what happens is overwhelming."

    Crew: "INDEED!"

    MT: "Your light may be strong, Future Magic Super Team, but I will... PUSH you DOWN into... Oblivion?"

    Romom: "Is he really... no way, he's clearly constipated and trying to force it out. Men, escourt him to the bathroom before the nice area rug is ruined."

    Crew: (lifts feet to step toward MT)

    Yeah, you know what happens next (just awful endgame battle/content all around).

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  14. Developer/Publisher confusion is an especially sore point for developers, as you might expect.

    Mobygames lists developer and publisher separately, useful to check, not just for accuracy's sake but so you can see the carreer trajectory of some luminaries if you list the stuff they've developed. The publishers change a lot, but certain developer personalities are responsible for quite a wide range of beloved early PC games.

    Thank you for covering this game! I've tried to get into it once or twice because I had heard good things about it and the EGA art in it is very good (though most of it traced from movies, as noted). But the systems just seemed either broken or functional but ineptly implemented and I didn't want invest enough time to see if it got better. All my questions have been answered. Thank you to Amy K. as well for the full video playthrough!

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    1. No problemo. I figured I could fill a void there. :)

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  15. Addict, you got me on the rewrite until right when I finished it!

    I'm glad I wasn't the only one simply not comprehending what the game was saying! What's embarrassing is that the dialogue from the "Key" sounds like a sincere effort to sound weighty and dramatic, but it just comes off as incompetent and amateurish.

    Canageek, that scan of the Magic Candle would be much appreciated. I can only find a text version of it on the net, and from the text it sure reads like it would be purrty, too.

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    1. Try and email me on the weekend if possible. This name @gmail.com

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  16. The best game manual ever made has to be Nintendo's Official Strategy Guide to A Link to the Past! That manual is almost better than the game which itself is one of the best games ever. However I find that I enjoy the A Link to the Past comic more than the actual game these days, because the comic has more developed characters.

    Maybe back in the day we didn't care about the story or the exact dialogue, we just wanted to play a game. And the only value of dialogue back then was if there were any hints in it, not the quality of writing.

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    1. I just happen to have that very manual right here with me. Yes, it is glorious and kept me obsessed in my imaginings of all the neat stuff that transpired before and after ALttP (considering Ocarina of Time takes place before it and the first Zelda comes some time afterward, but this was around 2005-2008 before Nintendo started filling details/retconning with Skyward Sword and the Official LoZ Timeline).

      I also have a Prima guide for Ocarina of Time that is beautifully illustrated (handdrawn colored maps of everything and character drawings), plus the writer makes it pretty amusing to read.

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    2. I am not ashamed to admit I still read my Secret of Mana strategy guide while "taking care of business", so to speak. It's 60% storybook, 40% strategy guide.

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    3. Lies! The best manual ever is clearly the one for Arcanum!

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  17. Perhaps you intended for us to watch the entire video you linked to from Amy's Let's Play, but in case you didn't, I thought I'd let you know that you can link directly to a specific time in YouTube videos. If you append #t=XXmYYs to the end of the video address, it will start at time XX:YY. For example, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty8_0HUYa3E#t=05m38s will take you directly to the spot in Amy's video that you mentioned.

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    1. Nooo, watch it all! Ha ha. ;P

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    2. Thanks, 'Nym. I appreciate the tip.

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    3. And btw, if you wanna loop youtube videos you can go to innategamer.tk/videolooper , so if you want people to first see one part of a video, then another, and then watch a third part five time, you can do it there. Just a stupid project of mine.

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  18. Well, you definitely had me convinced that you were bonkers because you thought the writing was bad. I kept thinking that it needed a bit of light editing and some tweaking, but wasn't the worst I had ever read.

    Then, when I found out you rewrote it, my mouth fell open because I knew I'd been duped. When I read the real paragraphs, I immediately felt your pain. I couldn't even get through them. Wow, that is some monumentally bad writing.

    You are a brave soul, CRPG Addict, for carrying this burden for us. (In other words, there's no way in hell I would play this game again after reading your review. I guess I was just a lot more forgiving in my youth).

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    1. I'm glad that little gimmick worked. I'm not a professional writer, exactly, so I worried that you'd all think my "revised" paragraphs were worse than the originals.

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    2. I can't wait till you get the opportunity to comment about the writing in Star Control 2, it's got really good NPCs and some flavored dialogue.

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  19. Continuation of previous "what would that battle with Malcolm look like in real life" thought (but going for the epic instead of the rediculousness that it was):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkv-c3np4fM&feature=related#t=07m45s

    Yes, that is exactly what would add a little more awesome to SW's bitter end.

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    1. That's not a bad analog. I don't know the characters or the circumstances in that video, but I do know that the one character's survival seems to be utterly arbitrary. "Oh, it turns out that Character A had more POWER." Oh, okay.

      I disliked the end of the Harry Potter series for the same reason--not that I liked much of what happened before the end.

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    2. Yeah, you would have to watch the series

      (Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender; it had the name before James Cameron secured the rights to it to avoid any confusion with the mentioned series, which is why the so-far just as quality Legend of Korra sequel series doesn't have Avatar in the title)
      , and I highly recommend it as even my favorite reviewer, Paul Tassi of Unreality Mag and Forbes, declares it his all-time favorite animation series.

      The scene I linked was part of what many considered a deus ex machina, but it fit for me. Also, if you listen to the (video edited for helium effect) background dialogue, it's not so much about the main character having more power but surviving having his mind destroyed (I think even the clouds being split was also in his mind, as might be evidenced in the sequel series). Consequently, both characters were alive at series end.

      Anywho, man, ya gotta get into Avatar! Stat!

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  20. I must be the sole exception here but on actually reading out loud (with appropriate theatricality) the original dialogue you transcribed really isn't that horrible. Granted, the punctuation is atrocious, but it does genuinely sound like a real person trying to explain a complex topic of history (when they are not used to doing so, i.e. this is not a trained history teacher speaking, but just some guy's personal history he is trying to recount). There is a certain gritty realism to it that I find charming. Your rewrite does sound more like what one would expect out of a video game, more rehearsed and polished.

    From reading all your reviews of the game, it reminds me of a personal passion project for a few individuals (as many games of that era were ... watch the credit sequence and count how many different names actually show up. Some of the earliest games have only 1-3 names. Compare that to today when even the simplest of games have 1000s of names in the credits). I am a big fan of tabletop gaming (D&D, Shadowrun, WoD just to name a few). That sort of dialogue is what you would imagine coming spontaneously out of the mouth of the DM/GM as he is playing some important NPC. It has a far more organic feel to it. If you were to read the pre-written dialogue out of a game module, it feels much more artificial.

    ...I was thinking about making a comparison between the over-polished Dungeons and Dragons movie (the one with the Wayans brother in it ... shudder) and the Gamers: Dorkness Rising but I'm not sure it would really illustrate the point as the two movies really are different genres.

    I really do enjoy your blog. I've been reading for a few months now, vicariously reliving some of my old memories through your write-ups. I even went back and replayed Ultima IV on the NES because of it ... discovering that they really dumbed down the game from the CRPG version (no final "Infinity" question, and no dialogue options for example). I generally prefer your reviews of games I know and so far I have not felt compelled to try any of the old games that you have reviewed that I have not played (with the possible exception of the Wizardry games, although if I want to play that style of game I usually just pop Etrian Odyssey into my DS). I'm really looking forward to reviews of the 90s games.

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    1. Thanks, `Nym. I was trying to quantify my feelings about the "unpolished" text, but failed to do so for some reason. You hit the nail right on the head here. (Interestingly enough, I played quite a bit of tabletop D&D.)

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    2. There's something to what you say, but I still think that games ought to be a little more polished, just in the way that dialogue in films and television removes all the "Ums," mumbles, false starts, and half-spoken phrases. Realism isn't generally a virtue in fictional dialogue. Dialogue that sounds over-polished (as perhaps my rewrite did) is also bad writing--just in another way.

      You do make me realize that in criticizing games like this, I'm criticizing a small group of real people. SW was probably a labor of love for a little team of dedicated friends, and I'd be sorry if they showed up on my blog 25 years later and found me trashing what they thought at the time was their magnum opus. Perhaps I could stand to use less invective.

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    3. I have no problem with the criticisms. I made a little old-style interactive fiction game myself, and received quite a bit of negative comments on it. There were a few (about 10%, from what I gather) that did like it. Whenever you put out a game, movie, book (etc.), someone will dislike it, and they'll say so. Your criticisms are constructive, which is good. Even if it doesn't help Karl Buiter and Co., it may be helpful to someone trying to make a similar game to this (it would have to be an indie game, I'd think). Whether it's Wizard Wars or Skyrim, there are always ways to improve.

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    4. I agree Amy K., people will always say bad things about everything. One always has to remember that criticism is not inherently a bad thing. I do not feel that the CRPG Addict's been overly unfair in his review of any game so far. Most would probably agree that too many old games are viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and CRPGA has given far more of a chance to most of those games than the average modern gamer would (even those of us who fondly remember the old games).

      In short, I do not believe that the CRPGA has been excessively harsh or mean-spirited in his comments on games.

      For all we know, one of the people who worked on SW was reading your review last night and had a nice little nostalgia trip of his own: remembering the good times up late at night coding with his friends; the crazy brainstorming sessions they had together ("hey I know, we should make this Shadar guy look like Jack Nicholson from the Shining ... Here's Johnny"). Maybe he hung his head in shame thinking "dang .. I was such a noob back then". Who knows what he/she was thinking.

      Everyone needs to remember, this blog is the opinions of one person. Other people may have thought this game was great (although since it never got a sequel that seems unlikely).

      I don't know how to write anything "in short" ><

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  21. Look man, I really do like what you're doing and all, but - to put it bluntly - either cuss, or don't cuss. This "@#$%" stuff is utterly imbecilic. If you want to express yourself without using cusswords, that's cool, but actually express yourself. "@#$%" isn't even a euphemism, which makes it even less interesting and creative than the elementary school cop-out of "you're a shit...take mushroom, tee hee hee hee".

    It's cloying in the utmost, and nothing turns me off more, as a reader. It comes across like you're just co-opting the strong convictions implied, rather than actually feeling them (the rationale being that if you actually felt them, you'd use the words necessary to communicate your feelings, as opposed to just acting like a comic writer filling in the speech bubble of his Opinion Man™ character).

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    1. How about this: I want to express the spirit of the obscenity while not causing my blog to be blocked by obscenity filters?

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    2. I agree--leave of the cuss words; they are truly juvenile.

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    3. Meh, let the man write however he wants.

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  22. Is it possible that all the unfinished plot lines were supposed to come together in SW2 before your ship crashed into the prison planet or iceberg, I forget which....not defending what seems a horrible game, but since the "win" screen did mention a sequel it might be an idea.

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  23. Oh my God. You just made me realize that one of my childhood favorite games was crap and all the depth I felt was just out of my grasp was an illusion.

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    1. Hey, I still like it. I got much further as an adult though. I never even found the Key of Thor back then. :)

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  24. Hello. I realize this blog entry is a year old but I finished this game when it came out. I was in high school at the time ...

    ... the best way to get past Taylor is to use "Erase attacker skill" special ability on her as soon as she's in range. After that, she can't hit the broad side of a barn with her precious thermo caster. You can stand right next to her and taunt her all day until you eventually smack her down. That's what I did. it works well. It is the one and only place in the entire game that this particular special ability is at all useful.

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    1. It's been too long for me to effectively argue with you, but I thought I tried ALL the magic spells before attacking Taylor and found them of no use at all. And I'm pretty sure Amy did, too. In any event, thanks for commenting--it may help readers who come along later.

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    2. Sure, no problem!

      It may be that the random number generator hated you. I got past her three times, and after using "erase attacker skill" on her , she never hit me once. But it's possible that "erased skill" does not mean "no chance whatsoever, ever, of hitting." It may only mean "greatly reduced chance of hitting" -- and as you know, the RNGs of these games have a way of pulling out nasty numbers when you need them least.

      Or another possibility is that you may have not been in range of her when you fired it off. I think I opened up the menu, walked up to her, waited until she took her first shot, THEN fired the special ability. That shut her down. But it may not work on an enemy until they are actually in combat with you.

      Something else ... you may have noticed something peculiar on Caldorre. It can be a somewhat creepy experience, once you have the mind probe ability, to land in the Caldorrean towers and try to mind probe the ordinary Caldorrean citizens. What you get is significantly different from what you would get on Norjean ... complete, total emptiness. There's nothing there.

      It turns out there's only a handful of living people in the towers, off-planet NPCs who are stopping over at Caldorre for one reason or another. Most of the people there are simply illusions, fabrications. You can see them, and touch them, and interact with them, but when you look into their minds there is nothing there ! Creepy.

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  25. Thanks for your posts. I have to say this was one of my favorites as a kid, but that could be because it was one of the only ones I owned. Not sure if you're aware, but there was a guide/walkthrough published for the game right after it came out which took the form of a first person novel told by the captain of the ship (the player in other words). It's a pretty good read. I have it buried somewhere in the attic - if I ever dig it up i'll let you know. but basically he does the same thing to beat Taylor - wipe her skills away with a spell.

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  26. Well, the title screen didn't lie. Star Wars, AND Aliens, AND Terminator IN SPACE! Top-down AND 3d perspective! Random pop culture references, a mini-game! Those must have been the 80s.... I took the game off my playlist.
    The deep dialogue trees.... Fallout did them before Baldur's Gate. If everyone dares you to play and enjoy (!) Magic Candle, I'll do the same for Fallout. But the other commentors were also right: Star Control 2 also had deep dialogue. The pacing is a refined version of Starflight with more sophisticated NPC interaction. Starflight had the better background history and a better feeling of space exploration though.

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  27. Honestly, I loved this game. It probably wasn't the best game in the world, but at the time I had it, it was just one of those games you could pick up and play at any point, and you were right in the action. I still haven't beaten it... though I got to the last battle, and then wiped my machine again, but I've probably gone and re-gone through the game up to various points at least a few dozen times. There's a lot of hidden things throughout many of the worlds... and I always thought that was cool. The universe wasn't as diverse as Starflight, that's for sure... but I always thought there'd be a sequel in which you'd move on to another sector or solar system.

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