Monday, March 4, 2013

Game 92: Starflight II: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula (1989)

The Thrynn are looking a bit thinner since last time.

In Starflight, the Spemin were the spineless jellyfish of the galaxy. Literally. When you encountered them, you saw immediately that they were a bunch of blowhards who turned into groveling cowards at that slightest threat. One of their ships offered me the location of their secret homeworld just to avoid being destroyed themselves, encouraging me to "go there and destroy other Spemin, but spare us!"

The Spemin being Spemin-y in Starflight.

The little slimes had no sense of loyalty, either. When the Old Empire--the human civilization centered on Earth before it was destroyed--encountered them, they were in a pre-technological state. After the Old Empire helped boost their technology levels, a fascist Secret Society for Spemin Superiority gained power and attacked the Old Empire with its own weapons. But when the Numlox and Phlegmak attacked the Spemin, they came running to the Old Empire for protection--only to turn on the humans again when the war was over and they were safe. If they weren't such pathetic little slugs, I would have used one of the black egg bombs on their home planet in the last game.

So something was clearly amiss when, in the year 4638, nineteen years after the events of Starflight, the Spemin suddenly announced that they would be destroying the human world of Arth forthwith, "with considerable malice and forethought" and that they were giving the inhabitants of Arth "a final opportunity to grovel before us," in which case we would be allowed to "serve them as slaves and servants."

I'm just going to intersperse these startup screens with my recount of the backstory. Here's the main outpost.

Arth, as you may recall from the back story of Starflight, became the last refuge of humanity after Earth was destroyed by a host of malicious aliens fleeing the destruction of their worlds by a mysterious crystal planet--a planet which ultimately wiped out life on Earth, too. Earth had sent a number of colony ships into space, but only one--Noah 2, which landed on Arth--survived. Starflight had begun a few decades after humans on Arth rediscovered faster-than-light travel, and a ship of hardy adventurers began exploring the galaxy just in time to stop the crystal planet from destroy Arth.

Here I am creating my crew. I'll talk about this below.

The crystal planet turned out to be the home world of the Ancients, a crystalline life form that everyone thought had disappeared from the galaxy. It turned out they hadn't disappeared--in fact, they were all around us, in the form of "Endurium." Because of the Ancients' extremely slow metabolic state, none of the other races knew they were sentient, and they had been happily burning Endurium for fuel for faster-than-light travel. This remains the best plot twist of my CRPG-playing experience so far. (Here's my original posting on that revelation.)

Assigning the crew members to their stations.

I was happily surprised to find that humans didn't just shrug off this revelation: they banned the use of Endurium, which greatly curtailed our efforts to explore space. Unfortunately, this also affects our military strength, and as absurd as it seems, we're actually vulnerable to the Spemin, who have been mysteriously displaying far more advanced weaponry and shields than they had before, as well as a seemingly unlimited fuel supply called "Shyneum."

A little intelligence gathering determined that the Spemin's new technology originates from a previously-unexplored area of space, accessible via a "continuum flux" (this game's idea of a wormhole). The new area has a couple of dozen species, some of them hostile. Interstel has tasked my crew with finding the source of the Spemin's new technology and fuel and has started us off on an outpost in the new territory.

Outfitting and christening the ship.

So begins Starflight II, which was released only three years after Starflight but seems a lot longer. Starflight remains one of the best finds of my gaming project--I had never even heard of it before I started playing--and I'm delighted to be back in this addictive universe again.

The look and feel of Starflight II is close enough to its predecessor that it feels comfortable, though the manual promises some interesting additions to the first game's basic approach and gameplay. You begin the game in an outpost near the unexplored area of the galaxy, with a slightly different interface to the first game but the same main options: the outpost (get messages), bank, personnel (creation and training), crew assignment, trade depot, ship configuration, and docking bay.

Starting the game involves stepping through these various options:

  • Messages include the main quests and any other announcements that will affect gameplay. The game's sense of whimsy (which I think is rather goofy; I'd rather the game were a little more serious) comes through in the messages.

"Anything we can do for you...short of lowering the prices in starport, or excessively inconveniencing ourselves..." I guess I have to give this game credit for explicitly stating what so many RPGs simply hint at.

  • In personnel, you create a bunch of crewmembers from five races: humans, Velox (insectoid), Thrynn (reptilian), Elowan (plant-based), and Android. Each of the races has various strengths; for instance, Elowans excel at medicine and Thrynns at communication. You also spend money to train personnel in skills in this area. Androids can't be trained, but they start with relatively high skills.
  • In crew assignment, you assign the created crewmembers to their roles on the ship. I went with a human captain and science officer, a Velox navigator and engineer, a Thrynn communicator, and an Elowan doctor. The game has removed the restriction from Starflight in which a Thrynn and an Elowan couldn't serve on the same crew. I guess those races learned to get along.
  • Bypassing the trade depot because I had nothing to sell, I went to ship configuration and designated the ISS Laivas while purchasing some missile weapons and upgrading her engines. That took the gold I hadn't spend on a little crew training.
 
I was extremely eager to get out into the galaxy and start mining minerals and trading with the locals (currency is in "Shyneum Pieces"), so I blasted out of starport. It took me a while to re-accustom myself with the controls and conventions of the game, but once I did, gameplay was almost immediately fun.

You may recall from the first game that commands are organized under the headings of the crewmembers in charge of them, so under the "Captain" menu, you get a list of ships commands like landing, disembarking, and logging planets for colonization. The "Science Officer" scans and analyzes planets; the "Navigator" flies the ship and fights combats; the "Engineer" assesses damage and makes repairs; and the "Doctor" examines and treats patients. Together, these various roles come together to perform the common functions of the game:

  • Scanning, analyzing, and landing on various planets
  • Driving an ATV around the planets looking for artifacts, life forms, and minerals
  • Communicating with alien races
  • Trading goods with alien races
  • Fighting combats against hostile aliens

The skill at which these different crewmembers perform their duties is tied to their training levels. I soon realized the importance of getting more training for the science officer. When I visited some planets near starport, he wasn't able to tell me much about them.

What do you mean "not certain"? You need to get certain, Mister!

The consequences were that I landed on one planet with gravity so high that it crushed my ship and killed everyone. On another planet with five times Earth gravity, most of my crew was okay (though I wasted lot of fuel taking off), but my Elowan couldn't take it and was killed. I had to replace him back at starport.

I guess you should have assessed the gravity level before we landed, Mr. Mokslininkas.

But I was successful in general. I remembered how much fun it was to explore planets and find minerals. In Starflight, I got a tingle every time I saw that little mining symbol, even when I already had plenty of money.

Exploring and mining on my ATV.

On several planets, I mined platinum, tungsten, titanium, iron, gold, cobalt, and some other minerals. I also found a planet whose atmosphere, hydrosphere, and gravity made it suitable for colonization, and I logged it for a cash reward.


When I returned to starport, I was surprised to find that the trade depot wasn't interested in any of the minerals I'd picked up. I guess I have to find trading centers among the stars for that. But when I checked the outpost, I'd received so much cash for recommending the planet for colonization, I was able to train both the science officer and navigator up to their maximums for their primary skills.

This seemed to be too easy.

After this first, brief expedition, I decided to just mess around a bit. I found that combat hasn't really changed much since the first game, which is unfortunate, as it was the aspect of Starflight that I liked least. I encountered some aliens, but either they're loco, or I need to train my communications officer a bit better:

An alien Alka-Seltzer ad.

I got tossed round a bit by some continuum fluxes (wormholes) near the starport and had a devil of a time getting back.

I assume the area to my upper-right is the "cloud nebula."

Other innovations from Starflight include a greater variety of aliens (including non-spacefaring "stone age" cultures), and the ability of the science officer to scan for "culture" as well as sensory readings on planets. If the planet is inhabited, the scan tells you a bit about the civilization and how best to address them.


The game comes with a large galaxy map that marks locations of star systems and "trade buoys" as reported by the Humna Humna, a profiteering and trading race that has been helping humanity navigate this new system.

What do you bet there's something in the center there?

Now that I have my bearings, I look forward to getting started for "real." I don't have a bead on the main quest yet, so I'm going to explore some of these planets that have trade beacons, see if I can offload some of my cargo, find more planets to colonize, and make enough money to train my crew better and outfit my ship. I'm sure that along the way, I'll encounter aliens and start seeing starport notices that give hints on the quest.

From what I've found so far, the creators of Starflight II kept what was good about the original and didn't much with the engine or basic approach to gameplay very often. There are times when I criticize this (e.g., when Wizardry V offered the same experience as the first game seven years prior), but there are other times that I praise companies for knowing when to stick with a good thing, as with the Gold Box and Infinity Engine games. It's too bad that combat doesn't look improved--although I still have to experiment more--but I'm otherwise glad that Binary Systems didn't rush to fix what wasn't broken. Let's hope the story holds up as well as the first game as well.


34 comments:

  1. You are so going to love this. To me, the story is not *quite* as innovative as the first one, but still on a very high level.

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  2. Looking forward to this! I really enjoyed reading about Starflight.

    I'm also surprised nobody is kickstarting a remake (or spiritual successor) of Starflight. You'd think it would be pretty popular.

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    1. There a sequel called "Starflight 3: Mysteries of the Universe" in development by the fan community. They were allowed to use the Starflight IP by Rod McConnell, one of the creators of Starflight, on the condition that the project does not seek to monetize it, as the rights for that are tied up by EA.

      This has meant many many long years of slow, painful and fragmented development which has restarted many times and suffered many setbacks when contributors just disappear. I think at this point that there are just 2 coders working on it in their free time. I still take an interest and read their forum from time to time but through my >10 years of following their 'progress' I have little faith of it being anything beyond vaporware.

      The IP issue, along with the lack of any serious or coordinated commitment to develop the game, makes a Kickstarter project unlikely to succeed or even begin, although the community has discussed it.

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    2. I think the SF3 project has been going since the late '90s. It's pretty much vaporware.

      Someone else made a Starflight: The Lost Colony fan game, but I didn't get into it.

      Protostar was apparently made by some of the Starflight designers, but without rights to the Starflight name. It is considered a spiritual successor to Starflight, as is Star Control 2.

      I think a modern take on a Starflight game would be great. Actually, the Mass Effect series was reportedly influenced by Starflight, which was a fact that didn't surprise me when I learned it after having played ME1.

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    3. Oops, Captain Kal covered most of this already in his post just below this one >.<

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    4. No problem m8 :)

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  3. I always thought of the Starflight games, as "unofficial" Star Trek simulations. In fact when I first played "Starflight" I named my ship "Enterprise". I trully felt that I explored new worlds in that game.Star Control 2 and even Mass Effect (the first one, I haven't played 2 or 3), where heavily inspired by the Starflight games. There is an unofficial sequel called "Protostar: War on the Frontier" (http://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/protostar-war-on-the-frontier), and a fan remake called "Starflight - The Lost Colony" (https://sites.google.com/site/starflighttlc/), that takes place between SF1 and SF2 (but in another part of the Galaxy)


    I still prefer the Amiga version, over the Dos one (Nicer graphics, and a very convenient auto-mining feature).

    You will find some very quirky aliens in this game. And a twist when you complete it. And do not worry about these jelly blobs, the Spemin. You will find something that will even the odds.

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    1. You'd probably be amused, then, to learn that you can actually *encounter* the Enterprise in SF1 (just outward from the Staff constellation, if memory serves). It's one of several little easter eggs in that game that I remember stumbling across accidentally.

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  4. PetrusOctavianusMarch 4, 2013 at 6:04 AM

    Game mechanics haven't changed much from the first game, but it's a bit more streamlined and the new additions, like trade, works well. Getting filthy rich is no longer as easy as it was.
    I also found the artifacts more useful than the ones in SF1.

    The Starflight games are still among my favourite space games and I can really relate to "Starflight remains one of the best finds of my gaming project".
    I tried Star Control 2, but the ship combat was extremely twitchy and arcade like.
    Master of Orion is an excellent strategy game, with very well done tech research, ship building and space combat (similar combat to the Heroes of Might&Magic games), but lacks the humour, exploration and story which make the Starflight games so memorable.

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    1. Moo is a 4x game, one of their best qualities is that they let the game provide it's own narrative.

      I've mixed feelings towards attempts to add 'the eXperience' that genre due to it's replay factor. Static stories can only be told once, and humour can wear out it's welcome Minsc style.

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    2. PetrusOctavianusMarch 4, 2013 at 7:33 PM

      They each have their strengths, but MOO's main one is the replayability, and each game being different.

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    3. Besides the trading, the plethora of new artifacts and such was one of the things I remember being new about SF2. Another was the in-game maps (map overlays?) that provided suggested trade routes, and of course the much greater prevalence of nebulae.

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  5. Ahh... finally on Starflight 2! I found your blog when I was bored in another country for a few months and decided to play through Starflight & Starflight 2 again, and I've been avidly reading it since waiting for you to finally get to this moment! I grew up playing Starflight 2 but wasn't yet smart enough or old enough to understand and complete the plot, but that didn't stop me from spending hours upon hours of exploration, mining, trading and logging so that I already knew the game like the back of my hand when I eventually did go back to win it years later.

    After picking this up in your Starflight review, I'll have to point out - now that they're a more important part of the plot as you've seen - that they're actually the Spemin and not the "Spenim".

    I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of your experience playing this game, as I really feel that the exploration and discovery are what set this game series apart from the rest and it'll be fascinating to observe someone else going through that as I did so many years ago.

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    1. I not only made that mistake throughout my posting, I did it in the original Starflight postings. Thanks for sorting me out.

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    2. On the subject of article corrections, I think the currency is Shyneum "Pennies" rather than "Pieces".


      I've been looking forward to this as well, and I also grew up playing the Starflight games (especially the first) before I could fully grasp their complexities. I think I got the EGA version of SF1 for xmas 1987, not long after we got our first PC compatible, so I would have been 9 years old. The game is extremely nostalgic for me, as it was the first boxed commercial computer game that I ever owned. I remember being completely in awe of it, as it was much deeper than anything else I had encountered at the time (until I discovered UMoria, which was equally complex but in different ways). Even starting it up was an arcane process, as the game modified its own data files as you played, such that you needed to back up and restore copies of them in order to save your progress or start a new game (at a time when games that saved more than high scores were a rarity).

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  6. Tiny hint:

    When your crew gets surly, there are better options to fix the situation than rage quitting.

    I wish someone had told the 12 year old version of me that.

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    1. "Crew gets surly"? I don't even see a mechanism for that happening. Are you sure we're talking about the same game?

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    2. Yup, you'll know it the moment it starts happening. Never realized why until I read a walkthrough years later.

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    3. A salute to Burzmali for a helpful, non-spoiler hint

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    4. I remember that happening, but I no longer remember the details. Hopefully Chet figures it out so that he can remind me ;)

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  7. PetrusOctavianusMarch 4, 2013 at 8:42 AM

    This is the best introduction to a game manual I've seen:

    ULTIMATUM #4

    TO: ALL ARTHLINGS
    FROM: THE MASTER SPECIES OF THE UNIVERSE (the Spemin)

    WE HEREBY AND FORTHWITH GIVE NOTICE SUCH THAT UPON READING THIS NOTICE ALL THAT HAVE READ THIS NOTICE SHALL BE AWARE OF THE CONTENTS THEREIN, NAMELY, THOSE SALIENT AND RELEVANT POINTS THAT PERTAIN TO THE READER. NOTWITHSTANDING ANY OTHER POINTS AS WELL WHICH MIGHT ALSO BE INCLUDED IN THE NOTICE. THOSE POINTS BEING HERETOFORE UNDISCLOSED BY VIRTUE OF THE NOTICE NOT HAVING BEEN PRESENTED UNTIL SUCH TIME AS IT IS (PRESENTED).

    TO WIT,

    1. THE PLANET ARTH WILL SHORTLY BE ATTACKED AND COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY OBLITERATED, CAUSING THE SUBSEQUENT TERMINATION OF THOSE INHABITANTS THEREON, BY THE UNSTOPPABLE FORCE OF THE MIGHTY AND ALL-POWERFUL SECRET SPEMIN DEATH FLEET.

    2. THIS DESTRUCTION, WHICH SHALL OCCUR AT SOME UNSPECIFIED TIME IN THE NEAR FUTURE, SHALL BE DONE WITH CONSIDERABLE MALICE AND FORETHOUGHT AND SHALL INVOLVE THE COMPLETE AND TOTAL EXTERMINATION OF ALL LIFE ON THE PLANET NOT TO MENTION THE ANNIHILATION OF ANYTHING ELSE WHICH SHOULD BE DEEMED BY THE DESTRUCTEES TO BE OF VALUE IN ANY SENSE.

    3. DUE TO THE KIND, FORGIVING, GOD-LIKE, AND IN OTHER RESPECTS ADMIRABLE QUALITIES OF THE SUPREME SPEMIN MASTERS, IT HAS BEEN DECIDED TO ALLOW THE ARTHLINGS, NOT WITHSTANDING THEIR DISGUSTING SLIMELESS NATURE, A FINAL OPPORTUNITY TO GROVEL BEFORE US. SHOULD THIS BE DONE IMMEDIATELY AND WITH COMPLETE AND UTTER SINCERITY, THE DIVINE SPEMIN DEATHLORDS WILL CONSIDER BESTOWING UPON THE LOWLY ARTHLING SUBCREATURES THE GREAT HONOR OF SERVING US (THE SPEMIN) AS SLAVES AND SERVANTS.

    4. WHEREAS THIS ULTIMATUM IS CURRENTLY THE FOURTH ULTIMATUM ISSUED, THREE OTHERS HAVING BEEN ISSUED IN THE PAST. ALL OTHER ULTIMATUMS SHOULD BE CONSIDERED AS WARNINGS AND THIS ULTIMATUM SHOULD BE CONSIDERED THE FINAL AND REAL ONE. ANY PERSONS WHO READ THIS, BARRING THOSE INDIVIDUALS WHO ISSUED IT, MAY, IF THEY DEEM IT APPROPRIATE, TAKE IT UPON THEMSELVES TO SURRENDER AT ANY TIME BETWEEN THE TIME AT WHICH THEY READ IT AND THE TIME AT WHICH THEY ARE DESTROYED.

    SINCERELY,
    THE HIGH IMPERIAL DEATHMASTER OVERLORDS OF THE SPEMIN DEATHFLEET

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    1. It's funny, but I do wish the game took itself a little more seriously. There aren't many science fiction RPGs, and I don't know why the creators of the Starflight games were eager to make the game a parody of itself.

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    2. Still far less silly than Star Control 2, for what it's worth.

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    3. I see your point Addict, but to me it seems appropriate for the Spemin antagonists! Perhaps not from your own Arthan commanders, though.

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    4. As a lawyer, I have to say, as brilliant as the intro is, it annoys me that it says "MALICE AND FORETHOUGHT" and not "MALICE AFORETHOUT" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malice_aforethought), which presumably is the legalese they were shooting for. (If there were other malapropisms in the legalese, I'd assume this a second-order gag about the Spemin being incompetent even at their legalese, but I don't think it was intentional.)

      I don't think Star Control II is sillier than Starflight, incidentally, though both certainly have their senses of humor.

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    5. Silliness was just something that went with the territory in a lot of 80s and early 90s games. The designers back then all figured on being comedians, I guess. I kind of miss it now, though, since we've now got so many grimdark games with laughably awful stories.

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    6. I think I encountered the Starflight games at a young enough age that the humor didn't bother me. Unfortunately I waited to long to play games like M&M World of Xeen that I wanted badly to like, and I now can't stand their goofiness.

      Regarding the manual, I think the Starflight and Homeworld manuals are my favorite of all time. I'm not sure, however, of how much of my enjoyment from reading them was related to the fact that they share common themes of cultures discovering that they were not native to their worlds, and subsequently rediscovering the interstellar spaceflight technology of their forebears.

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  8. gah... I don't know why I thought this would be (first game) spoiler free. Ah well, guess this is another game posting I'll skip for now. Once I beat Starflight I'll come back to enjoy this one.

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  9. Gawd, I loved this game back in the day. I actually played it before the first Starflight, and when I did get to the predecessor, I couldn't help but be disappointed by how short and simple it seemed in comparison. The trading system is great, and all the alien races are really cool and memorable and...okay, if I don't shut up, I'll start giving spoilers. The only thing I regret is that I *cannot* figure out how to get the Mac version to work on a current system. It's the version I played, and the graphics/interface are WAY better than the DOS version.

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    1. PetrusOctavianusMarch 4, 2013 at 7:35 PM

      You could always try the Amiga version. It's definitely superior to the DOS version.

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    2. Are you related to "Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX," or are the two of you in some state of perpetual conflict?

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  10. I'm a huge Star Control 2/Ur-Quan Masters fan, and it's eye-opening to play Starflight (2) to notice how much (acknowledged) influence it had on the later game. I felt at home with the interface, travelling and landing/mining mechanics, and from reading the manual and your postings, the alien interaction and even the humour seems familiar.

    It is intriguingly different at the same time. It's cruder and less flashy of course, and SC2 is half an action game.

    LordKarnov42 pointed out the designers of Starflight and Star Control 2 worked on each other's games, so it's no wonder they're similar: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2010/09/starflight-mining-and-trade.html?showComment=1283877435096#c3294354839736463819

    There was a lot of SC2/UQM talk last time around, so I'll spare it. But I'll repeat it was just delightful to play a bit of this and see and feel the similarities. I'm glad I bought the Starflight games, I hope I can find time to play them some more.

    --Eino

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  11. The Thrynn and Elowan pictures on the title screen are directly taken from the updated graphics used in some ports of the first Starflight. I generally love those visuals, with the exception of Mechans who look like metallic stick figures.

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  12. Argh, unmarked Starflight ending spoiler! After staying clear of it in the original post, I ran straight into it here. On the other hand, I was probably kidding myself that I was going to play Starflight anytime soon.

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