Saturday, September 4, 2010

Game 24: Starflight (1986)

    
Starflight
United States
Binary Systems (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1986 for DOS; 1989 for Amiga and Commodore 64; 1990 for Atari ST and Macintosh; 1991 for SEGA Genesis
Date Started: 4 September 2010
      
Unless you count the awful non-RPG StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel or the last five minutes of Might & Magic, Starflight is the first science fiction CRPG that I've played since starting this blog. I confess that I have very little experience with sci-fi gaming in general, with the exception of the Knights of the Old Republic games, but I agree with George Lucas that these are better described as "space fantasy" than "science fiction." I therefore began Starflight with a little trepidation, but I can already see the potential. It says something when a 24-year-old game still inspires such dedication on the Internet; searching for the original game documents, I came across dozens upon dozens of active pages, mods, remakes, and tributes. This game has an enormous fan community. 
     
In an otherwise meticulously-crafted game, someone should have fired the manual writer.
        
Starflight's fascinating backstory (told in part through a mood-killingly goofy set of "religious writings" at the end of the manual) begins in the year 4620 on a planet called Arth, home to several races, including humans, androids, tree-like Elowans, dinosaur-looking Thrynns, and insectoid Veloxes. Isolated in space, the planet has just discovered, 15 years before the start of the game, that it was originally colonized by travelers from Earth calling themselves "Noah 2." At the time of colonization, Earth had become the seat of a galactic empire which collapsed during a Great Interstellar War with several alien races. Cut off from the empire and bombed, Arth collapsed to a "dark age" society but slowly regained technology over 1100 years. Arth recently recovered spaceflight, including faster-than-light travel using a rare crystaline element called Endurium. A scientific group on Arth called Interstel has used this technology to construct a fleet of starships and is now interested in exploring the galaxy. An original exploration mission involving 13 ships ended in disaster with only two ships returning, one of them having encountered distant ancestors of the Elowans and Thrynns (who hate each ohther). You begin the game as part of a second wave of exploration with 12,000 "monetary units" to outfit a ship and train a crew. 
      
The "main menu" of the game, presented as an interactive spaceport.
       
You begin the game in a spaceport with five doors labeled "Operations," "Ship Configuration," "Personnel," "Crew Assignment," "Bank," and "Trade Depot." In the "Operations" room, you find various notices, including an initial one that outlines your basic quest. 
     
"9. Prepare argument for copyright infringement suit."
In the "Ship Configuration" section, you purchase upgrades for the basic ship that Interstel has provided you with. The manual explains that Interstel doesn't have enough funds to just give you the best ship available, so you have to head out and mine planets for minerals and find other ways to make money. I could only purchase a few upgrades and still have a little left for crew training. You also name your ship in this section. "Personnel" is where you develop your characters. You can choose from any of the five races, but the game manual warns that you cannot have a crew with both a Thrynn and an Elowan. I decided to go with Elowans because the Thrynns seemed a little suspicious. Each race excels in a particular area: humans are good at science, Veloxes at navigation and engineering, Thrynns at communication, Elowans at communication and medicine. Androids are a special "race" because although they start with high statistics in navigation and engineering, they can't be trained past their starting point. The other races, you can spend money to boost their skills.
This Elowan is my medical officer. Toyed with calling him "Branches" but figured that would be a fairly obscure joke.
After creating your characters and training them with as much as you can afford, you head over to "Crew Assignment" and determine what role each crew member will play on the ship.
Yes, I went with a theme.
The roles correspond with the various skills, of course, but I'm not entirely sure what skills the "Captain" draws from. It also seems that you can assign multiple roles to the same character, so I'm not sure if there's any disadvantage to having only two or three characters and giving each multiple roles. In any event, I went with six separate characters. I also don't know if it makes sense to train the characters in skills that don't directly affect their assigned roles; naturally I'm going to train my communications officer in as much "communication" as I can afford, but does it help any of my other characters to have communications skills? I imagine the answers to these questions will become clear as I play, so I launched my newly christened ship. The game has a little copy protect scheme that depends on a codewheel, but I found a little applet that some awesome programmer named Pat Shearon made.
Exploring the solar system.
The game's learning curve started to hit me here. I really have no idea where to go. In the "Operations" room I got some hints about possible quests to be found in various parts of the galaxy, including a lost ship, mineral-rich planets, the ruins of the lost Old Empire, and some "alien activity." These come with coordinates, but I haven't figured out how to enter these coordinates or see what coordinates I'm currently at. Moreover, I got the sense from the game manual that I'd be better off trying to make some money and improve my ship and skills first, but this involves landing on planets, and landing on planets involves analyzing the various sensor readings you get when you fly over them. I haven't fully figured this out yet. ...except that landing on a planet with an atmosphere of ammonia is probably a bad idea? What I can tell you is that in space, you have a number of options based around your five officers. The doctor can examine and treat crew members; the communications officer can hail ships (haven't encountered any yet) or send a distress call; the engineer can assess damage and make repairs; the navigator can fly, raise shields, arm weapons (haven't bought any yet), and engage in combat; the science officer can take and analyze sensor readings.
The navigator's options.
The captain can order a landing or take-off, inspect the cargo, and make entries into the ship's log. This latter option is actually very cool: it's the first time in a CRPG (that I can remember) where the player can type his or her own notes and annotations. Even today, many CRPGs don't offer this capability. So my goals right now are to figure out how to land and mine minerals (or otherwise make money), figure out how to go to these various coordinates I've written down, and otherwise just explore without getting killed. On the latter note, the game promises to be a little difficult. I learned the hard way that you can't simply quit Starflight; if you do, it corrupts your save game file. You have to make sure to "save," but saving also makes you quit. You can only have one saved game at a time. Hence, I suspect if you die in Starflight, the death is permanent. However, the game manual recommends that you back up your saved games, so I'm toying with not regarding this as cheating. Oh, and I have to figure out the game map, which confounds me just to look at it. None of the planets (I think they're planets) are labeled, and I have no idea what the various lines, whorls, and colors mean. Again, Starflight seems very promising and fun if I can get past this learning curve. Remember, I'm forbidden from looking at walkthroughs, so I'd appreciate any (non-spoiler) tips in the comments.

42 comments:

  1. I could swear this game wasn't CGA when I beat it..

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  2. The lines, if I recall, have a wormhole on each end to jump back and forth. The green circles are nebulae, and just means that they are unmapped, basically. I think. The circles are the spheres of influence of various races.

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  3. Oh, and your home solar system is the one with the little purple arrow pointing to it. As for landing I don't recall. Also, get yourself an EGA version..!

    You don't actually get out of your ship, so the atmosphere shouldn't really matter, but I'm not sure. You choose Land when you're over a planet, then you'll over over the planet and see a map of it, from which you can choose where to drop down in your rover and roam around looking for minerals. I could be completely wrong. Sorry for the triple-posting, it's 2:00AM.

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  4. I really appreciate the hints, Karnov! Yes, the version I downloaded doesn't have an EGA option. I snooped around and found a later one that does. Now I just have to see if I can get it to recognize my save games from the first version.

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  5. Starflight! I have been looking forward to this one. Never played it myself, but it's a big influence on one of my favourite games - Star Control 2 (or Ur-Quan Masters as the open source re-release is called). I also sounds like an all-around cool game. So, I'll be reading what you have to say about it with great interest.

    --Eino

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  6. I never played this game, but I loved Starflight 2. I always wished for a remake of that one (although I suppose a remake would have the "real-time" ship combat too difficult for me).

    It sounds like this isn't too different from the sequel (although the graphics are much worse, I think). As I recall, I pretty well just explored at random with that one. It was great fun surveying solar systems and landing on planets filled with plants, animals, and minerals, filling up my hold with the more valuable of them. But then, I rarely finish an RPG, and sometimes I don't even bother with the main quest.

    I get sick to death of fantasy sometimes, and especially with magic, so I would love to see more space-based SF games. But then, I can't play most of them, anyway. As bad as I am at ALL "real-time" combat, I'm absolutely hopeless at shooting anything from a spaceship. :)

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  7. my first experience of starflight was on the sega genesis and is what originally got me interested in computer games. I spent way too many hours harvesting minerals, and just flying around. It is where i also learned what the word obsequious meant as you had to chose your posture when talking to other races. To let you know how dumb i was back then I loved the band Guns'N Roses so i named all my party members after people in the Band. There was Axel, Slash, Duff, Izzy, Matt and oh I forget the rest. Sweet Memories.

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    1. The Genesis version is pretty good, but I found some of the artifacts did different things than the pc or c64 version.

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    2. The genesis version is the good one. The gameplay is improved a lot and exploring planets is actually fun there.
      And you start with more money

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  8. While the C64 had far superior graphics to what I see here, you just outlined one feature to the DOS version that I'll swear didn't exist on the Commodore - a Captain's Log. I kept one anyway, writing it out by hand in old school books, back in '89 or so. I suppose the one advantage is that I still have those, where I likely wouldn't if I had recorded the information in game.

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  9. On the Captain's Log, although it seemed like an interesting concept, I never used it. It's just too much easier to have a little notepad window running next to DOSBox.

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  10. Branches= Give structure to trees.Doctor.
    Bones= Give structure to humans.Doctor from Star Trek. Aharhar.

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  11. Thanks, Anonymous. You have a talent for rendering things explicit.

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  12. That dark & chaotic manual writing seems a bit inspired by Monty Python.

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  13. I've been looking forward to your playthrough of Starflight. This game and is sequel SF2 are a couple of my all time favorites, I got such a kick from exploring the 1000's of stars, looking for resources and races to trade with.. learning about the various planets and starsystems, in fact I believe I "Learned" things from this game... the idea of a habitable zone for planets in each system, the different Star types.. BTW for any other SF lovers there is a fairly new (the forums are active to this day) fan-made version called "Starflight: The lost colonys" haven't played it yet but it looks to be as enjoyable as the origional (with somewhat more modern graphics) you can find it here.

    http://www.starflt.com

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  14. Thanks for plugging my mad programming skills! I wrote that little app years ago, glad people still use it. What a GREAT game.

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  15. Hey! Thanks for writing, Pat! I tried to track you down when I was playing the game, but the e-mail bounced back. Thanks again for providing that applet.

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  16. not sure if anyone still reading these but i loved this game never beat it but spent lots of time i lost arth once in my best game and ended up harrased by the interpol ships on the third time i said f it and attacked them i actually won and salvaged their ships ;)

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  17. Seeing the character names made burst into laughter. Kudos for that. Too bad there's no Chiana, though it makes sense since she wasn't part of the crew from the beginning.

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  18. Wow, I loved this game. I played for days, mining, exploring, etc., before realizing there was actually a plot that you were playing for. Good times. It was a great game! I wish they'd bring it back in a windows version.

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  19. EGA version?! Damn, I bought a legitimate copy at a second-hand computer store in the 1990s and it did not even have an EGA version. Suddenly I think it may not be a catastrophe that I lost the code wheel, now that I know there is a BEAUTIFUL 16-COLOR VERSION out there somewhere! So exciting!

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    1. If it's any consolation, the Amiga version is far superior to any DOS version. Not just sound and graphics, but the UI and saving system as well.

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    2. You and your Amigas, in my times all we had were stones on the ground. We had to use whole gymnasion to simulate even one battle! But honestly, it is incredible how advanced Amiga was compared to PC and other systems. Well, Motorola 68000 WAS great...

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    3. It's worse than you think. While DOS was CGA, and McIntosh was black and white, Amiga had 256 colors with HAM (hold and modify) that expanded colors to over 3000 variations. What made it so amazing is that the cpu, the operating system, the graphics chip and the sound chip were all separate chips on one board. It had dual busses. One for the processor and the other for the 3 other chips. And it was the first pc to have 1 meg of ram.

      The 68000 was great but the 68030 put Amiga into another bracket entirely. It completely owned the IBM PC which still hadn't started using Windows and the MacIntosh. IBM finally caught up using Windows 2.0 and Mac finally went color.

      What killed the Amiga is Commodore marketing it as a game machine, even though it's productivity software blew away LOTUS 123 and WordPerfect and WordStar.
      It's sound ability blew away MacIntosh as a music producer. It was the king of PC's until Windows 3.1 overcame it's popularity, again, because it was rejected by the business community as a "game machine." I remember reading that businessmen were saying, why would I even need a color pc, while Amiga users were making beautiful pie charts, in 256 colors, business was still basically monochrome.

      As for games, nothing could touch it except perhaps for that later Atari ST's. I still play some old Amiga games on my emulator.

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    4. The Amiga did very well as a professional machine. The core problems with it were less marketing and much more an issue with the machine being aggressively kludged together and much harder to work with as a consequence.

      Even if a Mac or PC clone couldn't match the audiovisual capabilities (and even that wasn't inherently true - VGA and Super VGA hit in 1987, pushing PC capabilities pretty close to what an Amiga could do if needed), either platform was much more likely to simply work.

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  20. You want an obscure joke? You should have called him Space Tree (the Space Tree) (in Space)!

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  21. Been a while since I've stopped the blog. I should catch up with the latest posts, but I recently played through the Genesis version. Thought I'd point out a couple of quick differences. There's no captain's log, you start with more money and easily max out stats before leaving Arth, and there's less of a back story in the manual. Can't wait to read the rest of the posts.

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  22. How did this version compare to the genesis one. I only played the genesis version. Never had a chance for the original.

    ---Keighn

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    1. This one is brutal. Forget where you parked the ship while mining, you die when you have to walk back to the ship because you ran out of energy. Then to add insult to injury, if you happen to find the ship and survive, when your return to Arth, they fine you $10,000 for losing the ATV.
      Say the wrong thing to an Alien and you're toast. Oh and forget to save before quitting...you have to start over from the beginning.
      Not for save scummers.

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  23. Ahhh... finally made it to this one. Starflight was a rival amongst equals compared to my primary CRPG love - Ultima. A great game that I played for hours on my trusty old Tandy 1000. It also supported the TGA graphics adapter, which was a lower powered EGA running at CGA resolutions specific to the Tandy.

    I think my original crew was named after TOS Star Trek... very original, but fitting for the fact that the Enterprise does make an appearance!

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    1. I'm playing it now and m crew is also named after TOS. And of course, is named the Enterprise.

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  24. Arth? What was the name of the second colony, Rth?

    The success of a leader always depends on how well he hides from everyone how he has no idea about anything he's doing.

    Just like being a parent!

    I just checked GOG, I have this game & its sequel, as well as a problem, apparently.

    I'll have to give it a go sometime, sounds like No Man's Sky, only with content.

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  25. I hope this is permissible under rule 1, there is currently an open Kickstarter campaign for starlight 3 on fig.

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    1. It's permissible, but I'll just say that I personally no longer support Kickstarter projects.

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  26. Regarding the graphics, that the C64 graphics are better is interesting because I remember that when the game initially came out, it was not available for the C64. If I recall correctly, EA stated that it was because they felt the C64 couldn't handle the game. I know the C64 usually had better graphics that the IBM PC versions of games, but it still seems odd.

    That being said, did anyone else find the C64 version to be buggy? I remember giving up on because it would always crash at certain point in the game (don't remember where).

    Anyways, just picked it up on gog.com, so maybe I'll have better luck this time.

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  27. It is funny how you say "I'm forbidden from looking at walkthroughs" but at the same time you look at the official map with all wormholes marked. It is supposed that you find them during your explorations, dialogs and in operation notices.

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    1. At the time, I didn't understand that the map in question didn't come with the game. Reconstructing the original game box as it was in 1986 isn't easy. GOG wasn't even around yet, I don't think.

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    2. The frequent use of extra material as copy protection in that era certainly doesn't help.

      A physical map that you simply can not beat the game without would be perfectly normal at that time, and telling the difference between that and the equivalent of a walkthrough is difficult.

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    3. I believe the original map was cloth, similar to the type of maps in the Ultima games.

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    4. My big brother had Starflight for PC back in the 80s, and I can assure you the original map for Starflight was glossy paper :)

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  28. Played this game with my buddy for way too many hours but had so much fun we couldn’t stop. Went on to SF2, and enjoyed it equally as well. Played the original DOS games on my Tandy 1000 without a hard disk drive! This was in the late eighties timeframe. Now I can play the same game using Dosbox and Windows 11. My characters are mainly TOS. Ship is the Enterprise. A lot of “oh I remember that” thoughts lol.

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