Monday, September 6, 2010

Starflight: Mining and Trade

Now doesn't that look better?

First off, thanks to reader LordKarnov42, who clued me in to the fact that an EGA version of Starflight exists. I found it and downloaded it. The screenshots should be a little improved over the ones I posted two days ago. This process forced me to finally do some Googling and learn about the history and chronology of different video standards (until yesterday, I wouldn't have been able to tell you that EGA was better than CGA). Now I have to do the same thing for sound.

As for the game itself, I'm starting to get the hang of it after a few false starts. I've yet to encounter any aliens, but I have explored several planets.

When you arrive at a new planet, you take a sensor reading that tells you about its atmosphere, gravity, weather, and climate. Your crew wears spacesuits and can survive in any atmosphere or weather, but you have to be careful about landing on planets with a strong gravity. When you choose to land, the game provides you with a Mercator map of the surface and asks you to select the landing coordinates (all planets have 180 degrees of latitude and 360 degrees of longitude, just like Earth). I haven't figured out how to choose the best coordinates (absent a specific clue) except that landing in water is rarely helpful.

Thankfully, we're not using a Lambert Conformal Conic projection.

On the surface of each planet, there seem to be three basic things that you can encounter:
  • Mineral deposits, which you can mine and take back to Starport to sell
  • Alien lifeforms, some of which attack you. You can try to stun or kill them, record their biometrics, and take them back to Starport as specimens.
  • Ruins of past expeditions or even the Old Empire, where you occasionally find messages or artifacts.
I spent most of my last playing session mining one of the planets in the first star system. When you land on the planet, you exit your ship in a Terrain Vehicle that has a fixed amount of fuel and cargo space. If you wander too far from your ship (I learned this the hard way), you can run out of fuel and lose your Terrain Vehicle and have to hike back, which generally causes damage to your crew. Whether there are any valuables near your landing site is the luck of the draw, I guess. Sometimes, I hunted in vain for anything, and other times I landed in the middle of a vein of ore.

Mother lode!

You can load only a certain volume of minerals into your Terrain Vehicle before you have to return to the ship and dump it in the cargo bay. Your ship, in turn, holds only a certain volume based on the number of cargo pods you have purchased. It obviously makes sense to fill your hold as much as possible before returning to Starport.

90%. That's what I like to see.

In a few trips to the third planet of the original solar system, I had enough money to equip my ship decently, buy enough fuel for an extended trip, and train my crew to the maximum of their key abilities (I still don't know if it makes sense spending money training the Captain). I even bought a couple of useful-sounding artifacts that were in the Trade Depot.

Selling minerals and items.

On each return to Starport, I got a series of new messages in the Operations Room, including this ominous-sounding one. Is this the game's main quest? Stopping the instability in the galaxy's stars?

Well, damn.

Other notices gave hints to quests or were just goofy.

I mined the hell out of the third planet of "our own system" but never found any ruins.

Finally, I felt comfortable leaving the original solar system. I discovered the key to doing that is just to fly to its edge. I didn't go far, however--only to a neighboring system where I had a clue about ruins of the Old Empire on one of the planets.

Following the coordinates provided by the clue, I landed on a high-gravity planet and did indeed find ruins. There was a message in one that gave coordinates for another set of ruins and made a clear references to Tribbles from the old Star Trek series.

...or as close to a reference as possible without violating the copyright.

I also bagged a few critters on the same planet.

Another notice had asked me to watch out for planets suitable for colonization. The game manual tells you what that means: gravity within a certain range, oxygen in the atmosphere, at least some water, biodiversity, minerals, and mild to moderate climate and weather. I found a good candidate in the second system, logged it for recommendation, and was rewarded with 30,000 monetary units when I returned to Starport.

I was a little vain in the name.

When I returned to Starport after my first interstellar trip, I had artifacts, a cargo hold full of minerals, and several creatures, and I was doing fairly well financially. I maxed out the number of cargo pods on my ship, Talyn, and bought several weapon, armor, and engine upgrades.

So do I like Starflight so far? Unquestionably yes. First, there's a real sense of danger in the spaceflights. You have to pay careful attention to things like fuel, gravity of planets, and proximity of alien creatures. If you don't, you die, and death in this game is permanent.

Second, there's an absurd amount of joy associated with finding a bunch of mines close together and filling your cargo hold with minerals. It reminds me of playing Pirates! as a kid and sailing into harbor with six ships overflowing with sugar, tobacco, and other goods.

My only quibble is that I'm not sure it's a CRPG. So far, there's no role-playing, as such, and the character development is very limited. But I'll reserve judgment on that point until I play longer and start encountering aliens. I hope my next post will be about that.


  1. Yes, that is the main quest, and if you really want to consider it a CRPG, imagine it's Wizardry in Space, except you mostly mine for gold instead of fighting things for gold. Sort of.

    You have your home base/town where you train your party, and get your [ship's] equipment, and you gradually explore the maze [cosmos] earning money to explore it further.

  2. Also, that thing about ruins on the third planet of your own system sticks out in my mind... so either I spent a while looking for it, or I looked for it and didn't find it. I have a terrible memory.

  3. Exploring the planet surfaces sounds extremely similar to Ur-Quan Masters, I am a bit surprised how it seems the same. This is very cool to read about!

    I wouldn't consider UQM an RPG - the differences to Starflight include the lack of creating your own characters and training their stats. Those things sound very RPG-y.


  4. Ur-Quan Masters is a source port of Star Control II. The lead designer of the Starflight games worked on Star Control II and one of the lead designers of Star Control II was credited under "Special Thanks" on both Starflight games.

  5. About the EGA standard:
    While this game looks much better than the CGA version it's not exactly maxing out EGA capabilities.
    In fact it looks in parts worse than the C64 version (the font is truly gruesome, IMHO) as it cuts the horizontal resolution in half.
    For a prettier EGA Sci-Fi RPG take a look at "Sentinel Worlds - Future Magic" from Westwood, but of course, graphics aren't everything.

    Is Starflight an RPG? IMHO it's as specialized as the click-fest Diablo, for example.
    Perhaps leaning a bit strongly into simulation territory but if that is your taste, why not?

    By the way, Starflight seems to be inspired by "Omnitrend's Universe" which was released in 1983/84 for the Atari and Apple II computers. It was comprehensive, hard to get into and expensive ($89.95). A curiosity today it was meant for thorough playing for an extended period of time - by hardened souls that didn't bother swapping six disks all the time. Definitely not quick blogging material - even if a PC conversion was published in 1987...

  6. Thanks LordKarnov42, I didn't know about the designers being credited (or thanked) in respective games - very cool.


  7. As I plough through your blog and learn about all the games that were around as I was growing up, I listen to music. I put on some ELO reading this - seemed appropriate.

  8. I never found ruins on the third planet either.

    I see that in the PC version there are a lot more artifacts; I never saw the small obelisk or the glowing disk (unless they were renamed). Also, being paid for bio-metric data doesn't happen in the Genesis port; you can only sell the stunned bodies.

  9. I like it how planets' graphics seem to be rendered using texels and stencil mask. Were they animated in any way? I suppose they were rotating?

  10. > "all planets have 180 degrees of latitude and 360 degrees of longitude, just like Earth"

    This amused me. If anyone is hoping that planets beyond our solar system will have different amounts of latitude is longitude, I fear they will be disappointed!

    1. In making that comment, I didn't mean to suggest that I expected anything different. I just thought readers might not know how geographic coordinate systems work on Earth. Specifically, I thought they might wonder why the coordinates have only half as many lines of latitude as longitude, so I added "just like on Earth" to remind that there's nothing odd about that.

      The specific number of whole degrees is a completely human invention anyway, so there's no particular reason we'd export the exact same system to other planets.

    2. > there's no particular reason we'd export the exact same system to other planets

      It's an interesting question (if I understand you right). If we really do have 360 degrees of longitude because the Earth's year is 365 days, would other worlds define different systems? My guess is: maybe, but not if they were colonized by humans. Planetary scientists have defined Earth-like lat/lon systems for the other planets in our solar system, so I imagine we'd keep that up outside the solar system, too. But for aliens, anything goes! (Except I guess Vulcans, who presumably use radians as soon as they're old enough to talk...).


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