Thursday, March 21, 2013

Starflight II: Final Rating

Apparently, humans wear less clothing in the future, even when exploring alien planets.

Starflight II: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula
United States
Binary Systems (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1989 for DOS; 1991 for Amiga and Macintosh
Date Started: 4 March 2013
Date Ended: 18 March 2013
Total Hours: 22
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 53
Ranking at Time of Posting: 85/92 (92%)
Ranking at Game #455: 440/455 (97%)

Starflight II feels very much like an expansion to Starflight. You could read that sentence as a wildly positive statement or a slightly disappointed one, and indeed I feel both as I write this final posting. On the one hand, the developers didn't screw up anything that made the first game so much fun. On the other, they didn't really continue the spirit of innovation that Starflight so thoroughly exemplified.

Perhaps unfairly, I'd hoped that in the three years between games, the developers would have used the technological advances to provide a bigger galaxy, more tactics in combat, a greater variety of encounters, some side-quests on the many planets, and just overall more depth to the gameplay. I especially hoped they'd introduce more traditional CRPG elements, and would make the crew seem like characters and not just part of the ship. Instead, the game's few innovations--the trading system, a slightly different combat mechanism, and swapping crewmembers with the Dweenle--added only slightly to the basic Starflight template and fixed none of the problems that prevented the first game from being a great CRPG as well as a great game.

I hate to dwell on the negatives. I realize my postings on this game have been almost insufferably gloomy, and I honestly don't know why. It's a fun game. It kept me locked to my computer until the wee hours on several nights. Few other games of the era, or any era, allow such open exploration of such a large game world. And the story is one of the best we've seen, outperforming everything else in 1989 (so far) except perhaps The Magic Candle. And yet I'd still hoped for a little more.

On the GIMLET, I don't intend to look at my final rating for Starflight until I'm finished, but if everything goes as I expect, the final scores shouldn't be much different. The first game had a slightly better story, the second a slightly better economy and equipment selection. Everything else is very much the same.

1. Game World. The game world and story remains the best part of the Starflight series. You have an entire galaxy to explore, and a good reason to explore it. As you do, you uncover tantalizing bits of history and lore that slowly come together in a galactic puzzle. It's one of the few games of the era that you could imagine being developed into a compelling book or film. I love the idea of a somewhat ineffectual and absurd enemy suddenly becoming a threat, as if North Korea suddenly unveiled a fleet of stealth bombers. The neat thing is that the game doesn't hammer you over the head with the plot, as a modern game might with multiple cinematic cut scenes, and if you're not paying attention, you could still "win" the game without fully understanding what's happening. The final twists, while not quite as jaw-dropping as Starflight, are still some of the best we've seen. I have to save perfect scores for later games that really flesh out the game world, but this one deserves a relatively high score of 8.

Exploring new planets never really got old, even if I wished there was more stuff on them.

2. Character Creation and Development. Not really improved since Starflight, which is too bad. The game starts with a good idea: that performance in things like communication, analyzing sensor readings, and finding continuum fluxes should be based on the skill level of the assigned crewmember. But it screws this up by making training so cheap and the consequences of less-than-perfect scores so severe, that you'd be crazy not to sell off some equipment and get your science officer, navigator, and communicator up to 250 in their respective skills ASAP. It also makes secondary skills essentially worthless for each character, with the captain the most worthless of all, needing no skills at all to do his job. As with the first game, you cease thinking of the crew as individual characters from the moment they occupy their slots. There are some role-playing consequences of a couple of races: humans go loopy in the nebula, and Elowan have terrible survival rates. But neither is enough to really "matter" the way that having Thrynn or Elowan members in the first game affected encounters. I'd go so far as to say that the game's approach to characters is so poor that it causes it to skirt the line of a "CRPG." Score: 2.

Training crewmembers is the game's entire approach to character development, and even then it only matters for one skill per character--and no skills at all for the captain.

3. NPC Interaction. This is another area that hasn't changed much from Starflight, but in this category that's actually a positive. With its "postures" and question categories, Starflight and Starflight II remain the closest thing to "dialogue options" that we start to see in the mid-1990s. You have to test out different postures with different races, find out what works, watch their responses carefully, and ask the right follow-up questions to get all the clues and lore you need to finish the game. It's possible to miss entire threads of discussion, as evidenced by my failure to communicate with the G'nunk at all and several threads I read about in a walkthrough regarding the Tandelou and Humna Humna. I much appreciated the new "replay" feature and used it extensively.

Talking to NPC aliens is vital to filling in the history of the galaxy.

The only "problem" with all of this is that the postures become a Machiavellian exercise of figuring out what's likely to allow you to squeeze the most out of the alien races and not a way of "role-playing." And some variance in what postures worked best in certain situations would have been helpful, rather than aliens that always respond best to one posture or another.

I also feel like I'm being a little generous in extending the concept of an "NPC" to entire races rather than individual characters. There are no memorable individuals among the people you meet in the game, including no NPCs at all among your companions back at starport. It would have been nice to occasionally encounter an alien captain who bucked the trend. But as a whole, the races were memorable if a bit silly. The multiple-personality species, the hostile G'nunk, and the bizarrely-religious Tandelou felt truly alien.

The ability to trade crewmembers with other races was interesting though not really well-implemented. All I got from trading with the Dweenle was a doctor who never stopped whining about how no one liked him. I'm sorry I missed what happened from trading with the G'nunk or even talking with them; apparently, I would have learned more about Spemin and Umanu weapons, gotten the clue as to the mining drone, and received a warning on the gas slug. Score: 7.

You're not the first mate, jackass. You're the doctor.

4. Encounters and Foes. This category blends with "NPCs" in this game, so I've said most of what I can say about it. Both the NPC races and the non-NPC foes (the Umanu, the hostile Leghk, and the Uhl) are equally memorable, well-described, and well-integrated into the game's lore. Each encounter in space is a slightly nerve-wracking experience, as you try to juggle scanning and hailing while watching for signs of hostility and trying to determine if you should raise shields and arm weapons.

Planet-side, things aren't quite as much fun. You encounter groups of aliens wandering around planets in vehicles and on foot, but you can't have any contact with them. There are about a dozen races who exist only on planets, and while their images are neat to look at when trading, it would have been nice to have a deeper level of interaction. Score: 7.

Killing Spemin with my ATV's laser wasn't nearly as fun as shooting them down in space.

5. Combat. Still the weakest part of the game. It's all action-based, with no depth to the tactics. As PetrusOctavianus pointed out, it's extremely binary: either you're hopelessly outmatched and you die, or you're able to wear away the enemy by dancing around the periphery of the battlefield. It was also binary in another way for me: I either died or escaped combat unscathed. This meant that throughout the game, my engineer had essentially nothing to do.

The game removed a little of the frustration from Starflight by having you automatically shoot at the closest enemy rather than having to turn and point at him, but I still felt the controls were clumsy and unresponsive. Finally, we have the issue that combat is basically unnecessary throughout the game--you don't even get any decent loot from it--until the final battle, where you face a dozen ships.

For such a cerebral, logistic game, I don't know why the developers didn't take a more statistics-based approach to combat. It would have been a lot more fun if you'd seen combat only from the bridge of the ship, with the various ship's officers shouting reports and the captain having to make tactical decisions. Very disappointing. Score: 2.

One of many massive space battles in which all I did was fly around and hit SPACE.

6. Equipment. There's no personal equipment in the game, like a regular CRPG, but there's lots of equipment for the ship, and buying upgrades is fun enough that I think the game deserves a reasonably high score. It's also fun to make notes, chase leads, and slowly collect artifacts from various corners of the galaxy, seeing slow but palpable boosts to effectiveness and convenience along the way. The psychic scanner and planet teleporter turned out to be extremely good rewards for a long series of trades, and yet they weren't so powerful that they broke the game. I also liked that the various items weren't strictly necessary. I ended the game without finding a "mineral drone" (I never even heard about it), the trade routes map from the Humna Humna (should have given them more Shyneum, I guess), or the shield nullifier from the G'nunk. Score: 6.

My end-game ship.

7. Economy. Definitely the one area improved from Starflight. The trading system was original and interesting, and required careful note-taking. There are enough things to buy with money (if nothing else, you have to keep stocked on fuel) that I didn't feel too rich, even at the end. I also like that there were several ways to make money: mining and trading ore, trading specialty goods, capturing and selling life forms, and logging colonizable planets.

That said, I think the game sabotaged its trading and mining system a bit by making it so lucrative to identify planets for colonization. I made about 70% of my money that way even though I spent the least amount of time on that activity. I wish there had been more of a point to all of the careful note-taking I did on trade goods; there should have been more game time in which I loaded up with cargo on one planet to haul it to another. For the same reason, it never made sense to waste a lot of time bartering even though the game introduced a complex system for doing so. Score: 7.

8. Quests. The main quest is compelling and multi-staged, and yet flexible enough that you can collect intelligence from a variety of sources. There's even a bit of a choice at the end: whether to let the Uhl live and relocate, or kill him (it doesn't seem to affect anything, though). I really wish the game had built in some side-quests, though. The huge and open game world would have been perfect for a kind-of radiant quest system in which you solved local problems, destroyed space pirates, helped injured vessels, and so forth. I suppose you can see the identification and selling of certain prized trade goods as kind of a "side-quest," but I think the developers could have done a lot more with the world and mechanics they constructed. Score: 4.

Yet another piece of the main quest.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I found the graphics (with the occasional animation) pretty enough. The sound was piercing and annoying, and I left it off for most of the game. Aside from combat, I thought the interface was the worst part of the game. There are few enough commands that they could have been mapped to individual keys rather than requiring the player to scroll through a cumbersome menu. Commands are unresponsive in crucial times, like in combat (although there might be some emulator issues here), and there's no excuse for changing--completely flipping, in some cases--the "execute," "pause," and "move on to another option" functions of the ENTER and SPACE keys. It is unclear at numerous places when someone has more to say and you needed to hit SPACE to continue, or when he's done talking and SPACE moves you to a different command. Worst of all is the "playback" feature in which you can review your previous conversations with different species. The otherwise-useful feature offers no way to escape from it once it's selected, meaning if you choose it accidentally (or have already found the information you're seeking), you have to finish scrolling through the entirety of your conversation--but you can't hit SPACE to do that too quickly, or you might end up accidentally selecting it again. Score: 3.

10. Gameplay. The game features exceptional world nonlinearity even as the quest itself is pretty linear. It felt like it lasted just the right amount of time, and at pretty much the right difficulty level. There were times I felt challenged, but rarely did I feel frustrated. I wouldn't call it enormously replayable, but it would be fun to see what happens with the G'nunk as well as some of the artifacts I never found. Score: 7.

I was right: the final score of 53 turns out to match Starflight exactly. It jives with my assessment that in totality, Starflight II is equally as good a game as Starflight, just slightly less impressive because it was developed three years later. I had hoped it would be more like the Ultima series, which between IV (1985) and V (1988) kept its focus on a great game world, plot, and quest, but introduced significantly more advanced and enjoyable elements to things like combat, dungeon exploration, and inventory.

Chris Lombardi's review in the December 1989 issue of Computer Gaming World (p. 18) echoes mine. He praises the open game world, the interactions with the alien species, the plot, and the general sense of exploration while criticizing the simplistic combat and often-frustrating interface. (There was a lot of discussion of the saving system--supporting only one save file, deleting it upon entire party death--and a tough copy-protection system, neither of which I experienced in my version.) But he concludes that "the world of Starflight 2 is one of the most colorful worlds ever crammed into a computer."

The magazine also granted the game the title of "Role-Playing Game of the Year" in September 1990, with the other nominees being Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Princess, Dragon Wars, Keys of Maramon, and Ultima VI. Their concept of related "years" is a bit different than mine, and I haven't played all of these games, but to me Starflight II fails in enough classic RPG categories--while still being a fun game--that I'd be hard-pressed to rank it above some of the other games I've already played in 1989, including The Magic Candle, The Dark Heart of Uukrul, and even Chaos Strikes Back, although it technically has a higher score than all of them.

I should mention that CGW turned on them a bit in their November 1996 superlative issue, listing it among the 15 "Least Rewarding Endings of All Time," but their excuse--"If your crew was destroyed, you lost your saved game files, as well"--is a little unfair. That's not really about the ending of the game.

Starflight II was the second and last of two games developed by Binary Systems, a company formed, according to MobyGames, by "five guys who met in college." Greg Johnson is credited as the lead developer. He would later go on to develop Star Control and Star Control II, both of which seem to have questionable CRPG credentials but are on my list anyway for 1990 and 1992. They are often given as spiritual descendants of Starflight, so I look forward to checking them out. Johnson also designed the popular ToeJam & Earl series for consoles, which a lot of people seem to love but sounds like absolute torture to me; thankfully, they're not CRPGs.

I'm also looking forward to Protostar: War on the Frontier (1993), originally developed as Starflight III by Tsunami Media but changed when their contract with Electronic Arts fell through. I'm a little leery since none of the developers are the same, but it supposedly features very similar gameplay with more advanced graphics, sound, and combat. There's also a page online promising a fan-made Starflight III: Mysteries of the Universe, but it's been up since 1997 and not updated since November 2011, so I'm not holding my breath.
Starflight II was one of my "anchors" for 1989: a game I was pretty sure I would enjoy, placed strategically among games that I either didn't think I'd enjoy or didn't know either way.  My next doesn't come up until Dragon Wars, and there are at least five games I know next-to-nothing about in between, starting with Knights of Legend.


  1. I skipped both the Star Control games as well as Protostar from my chronological play list. SC 1 because it's just a twitchy arcade game IIRC, and SC 2 because it has the same (I think) combat as SC 1, which is even worse than the combat in Starflight (IMO, at least).
    So I will look forward to your playthroughs of them. SC 2 should be good if you can get used to the combat.

    1. Yes, Star Control is not an RPG by any definition of the word. It's just an arcade game with a light strategy game bolted on top. I might even go as far as to say that Star Control is first and foremost a multiplayer arcade game.

      Star Control 2 is similar to Starflights. However the combat engine is the arcade combat from Star Control and you play as the captain with the crew beign just another attribute of the ship. So I suppose some might consider it even less of an rpg.

      I personally am very fond of Star Control 2, and it is very likely you'll enjoy it as well, if you can tolerate the arcade combat.

    2. I agree. Besides, as others have said below, most of the combat of SC2 can be avoided.

      That's what I did when I played SC2 last year. Highly enjoyable game, even though I never could make myself like the combat system.

    3. Well, it's always nice when I can dump a game from my massive list. SC1 is gone. I look forward to SC2.

    4. Star Control 2 has RPG elements similar to those of Starflight. Its combat is definitely not worse than Starflight however... while it is clearly arcade based, and you might not like it, it is much more advanced than Starflight. It is really not that hard either once you get used to it, and you can avoid a lot of it. Definitely give it a try - I really liked it. SC1 was basically an arcade game with a bit of strategy so no loss there.

  2. SC2 does have rather twitchy combat, but early on you can flee from essentially every combat, and once you fully upgrade your flagship combat becomes easy anyhow. I think there are only 3 (4 if you count the one in the first 5 minutes) fights in SC2 that are mandatory. I have never played SC1, but as for SC2, even though its CRPG credentials are a little questionable (Character development would get a 0) I would still recommend the Addict keep it on his list for the same reason Pirates stayed there, because it is a very fine game and "close enough".

  3. If Starflight is an RPG, then so is Star Control 2. Think of SC2 as Starflight with a good combat system and dialogues to choose instead of postures. Star Control 2 is one of the most enjoyable games I've ever played -- and one of the few games I enjoy RE-playing.

  4. I have tried a little of SC1, and a tetch of Sc2, and I HAVE SC3 (well, in spirit, it is) on my HD, but never tried it. Will be very interested in seeing what you have to say.

    I still want to try Sf1 and SF2 even though I may never, after reading your blog. I might go onto Protostar though... never tried that nor read anything about it, really...

    Four- No, not funny.

  5. A similar game worth considering is Nomad ( that was published in 1993.

    1. Hmmm. MobyGames doesn't classify it as an RPG, but reading the description, it sounds so similar to Starflight that I may have to go with the "if I played one, I have to play the other" route.

    2. Nomad is a personal favorite of mine, it certainly deserves a look, though I suspect you will decide it is not an RPG.

    3. Nomad is an awesome game, and I think it's just as much an RPG as Starflight or Star Control 2.

      However, I can see you dropping it, especially if you don't consider the X Series of space sims as being RPGs, because they're almost the same type of game.

  6. Everybody's already said it, but SC1 isn't an RPG at all, and I question the accuracy of the list that said it was. Both Mobygames and Wikipedia say Action / Strategy, and they're right. There's not a hint of role-playing there, beyond the side you pick determining your units.

    It isn't even necessary to play it to get an understanding of SC2. I know because I played them 'backwards' myself.

    1. I think perhaps I put SC1 on the list myself, thinking that if it had ANY RPG elements, I should play it since I'd be playing SC2. But based on what everyone's said in this forum--particularly from your comment that it isn't necessary for SC2--I feel safe deleting it.

  7. Tried to play SF1 a few years back but I never got very far since I found the interface so clumsy and annoying. Now reading the Addicts account of both SF1 and SF2, I feel sad since it seems I missed a very interesting game, plotwise.

    However, having played SC1, SC2 and SC3 and comparing my recollection of the plots with Addicts synopsis of the two SF games, I feel embarrassed on behalf of the developers of SC. It is almost as if they had no original ideas. To me, everything, regarding the plot, seems to be recycled from SF in some form. I won't go into details in order not to spoil.

    As to the CRPG credentials of the SC games: They're less CRPGs than the two SF games. I think this has been pretty well established in the previous comments.

  8. Save system:

    My recollection is of the save game system in SF2 is totally different from that of those magazine writers. Both SF1 and SF2 modify the game data files during gameplay (due apparently to being written in FORTH, a language that supports self-modifying code). This means that as soon as you launch the game, that copy of the game files becomes its own living, in-progress game.

    Both Starflight games supplied DOS .BAT scripts to help you back up the game files, allowing you to save as many game states as you want. Starflight 2 did this better by having you launch the game via a .BAT script that gives you a nice menu interface for backing up and restoring game states.

    Fan-made games:

    There's a fan-made Starflight game that did get released, named "Starflight: The Lost Colony". I found that it had too many differences from the originals to keep my attention for more than a few minutes, though.

    Star Control:

    I was scared off of the Star Control series due to the fact that the first was just a modernized Space War (top-down arcade-style space dueling) style of game. I played it briefly as a teenager; I had a few hours of fun and then moved on to something else. CRPGAddict should skip this one unless there is an historical interest in the series.

    I finally played a little bit of the second game last year, and found it surprisingly similar to Starflight in many ways (except for that same annoying arcade combat and almost too much dialogue at the beginning). I didn't manage to stick with it because I was playing on a handheld game system, which is never amenable to games that require taking notes.

    I haven't checked out the third game at all, so I don't know anything about it.

    1. Starflight: The Lost Colony is one of those games for which I'm going to have to set some kind of policy before the Internet Age comes along. If I allow every freeware/shareware game or fan remake to appear on my list, I'll be absolutely overwhelmed. On the other hand, I don't want to eschew indie games, and some fan remakes--like Chaos Strikes Back, which I just played--are quite good.

      It's hard to reconcile the various recollections on the saving system that I'm finding all over the Internet (plus my own experience). Different versions, perhaps?

    2. The CSB you played is not a remake, it's a port of the engine. It's similar to Trickster playing classic adventure games on scummvm, identical to the original but without compatiblity hassles and usually a nicer save game handling.

      In my humble opinion your policy about using updated engines should be "without hesitation". Indie/fan sequels OTOH, that's an open question.


    3. @CRPGAddict: I would suggest maybe doing fan games as an occasional side/filler project, kind of like you did for pre-PC RPGs. Might help break things up if you end up mired in some longer games later on.

    4. About fan remakes, Starflight seems to have one mod made by some brave souls. As it seems to combine SF1 and 2 to single game, probably doesn't incite itch to revisit nor do I know enough about game if listed modifications to mechanics are necessary.

    5. The Lost Colony is absolutely terrible, so don't sweat it.

  9. You should play Star Control II if only because it is a paradigmatic example of your "player putting the clues together for himself." As other posters have noted, SC2 feels very much like a refinement and in some ways a retread of Star Flight -- and indeed many of the clues you assemble involve similar tropes (constellation names and so on). But, for my money, the writing is markedly better, the set-up is a bit stronger and less campy, the graphics are gorgeous, and the combat is really fun. I realize the last point is divisive, but it's basically a souped-up version of the original Space War. Obviously, you have to enjoy arcade-style combat, but as long as you're going to have it, having it with a robust and organic rock-paper-scissors structure with each race having a ship with distinct advantages and disadvantages is a lot better than, like, spamming missiles or whatever.

    Star Control II had a lot more impact on players, too, than Starfligt, so simply from a historical standpoint, I think it's useful to play. It's perenially on top 10 all-time lists, etc.

    1. Which reminds me: The source code to the 3DO version of Star Control II was officially released at some point, and the open source community has turned it into a high-quality portable codebase:

  10. "Starflight III: Mysteries of the Universe, but it's been up since 1997 and not updated since November 2011, so I'm not holding my breath."

    Actually, the forum has an Annoucement post dated from December of 2012 showing off the combat system. So some sort of progress seems to have been made.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I just looked at the main page and the updated dates listed there. I didn't realize the "Interstel Comm Center" had a bunch of forum posts beneath it.

    2. It's really a vaporware project. I've been casually following it on and off since the late '90s, and lost track of how many team changes and engine rewrites they've gone through. The problem seems to be that there's no coherent design direction or driving force behind the project, so they're just fiddling around with making super-complex realistic-physics-simulation 3D combat systems in esoteric languages/engines instead of just making a good Starflight game.

  11. I think that "mineral drone" was the single solitary thing I missed when I played the game back in the day. The Humna Humna (?) told me what planet was on and exactly where it was, supposedly, but I swear I went exactly where I was supposed to and didn't find it. Irksome.

    It's too bad you missed out on the G'nunk; it's funny to have "allies" at whom you have to constantly scream threats for them to like you. Also, as you may know, you can get a G'nunk crew member. In return, I traded them my Dweenle. I felt sort of bad about that, but I also thought it was kind of hilarious. Hell, who knows, maybe having to operate in this new environment will help him to finally buck the fug up.

    1. Huh. I was given to understand from the comments on my postings that the reason I couldn't talk with the G'nunk is that I had a Dweenle in the crew. It soiunds like from what you were saying, that wasn't the issue after all.

    2. Hmm, interesting. I am quite certain I did this--possibly I obliviously bypassed the restriction by making friends with the G'nunk BEFORE recruiting a Dweenle? Or maybe the Mac version was slightly different than the DOS in that regard? I really couldn't say.

    3. That's possible. Parlay with the G'nunk, then recruit the Dweenle, then swap the Dweenle for the G'nunk.

      I just read over that sentence five times. Jesus Christ. I'm 40 years old. What am I doing with my life?

    4. Providing entertainment and thought provoking discussion in exchange for some insubstantial gratitude and more thought provoking discussion.

      Hell we are short some drinks and a dimly lit room from making this a good weekend activity.

  12. 'The magazine also granted the game the title of "Role-Playing Game of the Year" in September 1990, with the other nominees being , Dragon Wars, Keys of Maramon, and Ultima VI.'

    "Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Princess" an RPG? Seriously? Am I living in sort of alternate universe or parallel dimension? "Keys of Maramon" and "Dragon Wars", though both plays like arcade games, at least have some RPG elements in them.

    To even put it in the same league as "Ultima VI"? Riiiiggghht... It's like putting a slice of Cthulhu into your bacon sandwich.

    1. I didn't play the game specifically because I couldn't find any signs of RPG elements. It was odd to see it on the same list.

    2. Exactly! Now, "Circuit's Edge", on the other hand... but what the hell, I've a personal bias. =P

    3. Huh? Dragon Wars didn't play like an arcade game; it was more like Bard's Tale. Are you confusing it with the console game Dragon Warrior?

      Keys of Maramon sunded so boring that I skipped it myself.

      As for Ultima VI, I had to wait for the Ultima 6 Project to be completed before playing it, using the Dungeon Siege engine. The original U6 was pretty, but it was a step back compared to U5 when it comes to UI and combat, and the view area was claustrophobic.

    4. I just have to state my disagreement with Petrus about Ultima 6. I my opinion U6 had the best UI and combat of all the Ultimas.

      I would rather state: U7 was pretty, but it was a step back compared to U6 when it comes to combat and some aspects of the UI, and the view area was claustrophobic.

    5. @Petrus: Dragon Warrior doesn't play like an arcade game, it's more like Ultima.

    6. Chet, which one are you saying that you didn't play?

      I thought Dragon Wars used the same engine as one of the other well-known Wizardry-subgenre series?

      Dragon Warrior is basically like Ultima, except with the dungeon exploration being in the same top-down style as the overworld and town exploration.

    7. Sorry, that was unclear. I didn't play Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Princess. Everything else is still coming up.

  13. SF2 was one of my first games when I got a PC at age 14. That and Ultima VI occupied many a late night in 1989. Personally I liked SF2 better than SF1 but I recently replayed it on DOSBox and thought the interface is really annoying and the combat is terrible - I think we were easily impressed 20+ years ago.

    I also tried Protostar on DOSBox a few years ago, I thought it was terrible. Maybe I missed something. Just aimlessly flying from planet to planet looking for a clue as to what to do next. Most of the aliens don't have anything interesting to say until you make friends with them or otherwise impress them. Combat was ridiculously difficult - kind of like a clunky version of Wing Commander except it took like 10 minutes to kill a single enemy. Also felt it was necessary to avail myself of a cheat to get unlimited money, because otherwise I kept running out of fuel. I gave up on this game maybe halfway through.

    1. I ended up running out of fuel a lot the couple of times I tried Protostar as well.

      I found there was a key that seemed to warp you back to the starport with no penalty, which I thought was strange. Was it a cheat, or a way of making up for poor game design?

      I've never been able to get into Protostar, despite wanting to consider it as an unofficial Starflight 3. I think they don't give you the same density of clues/leads as you get in the Starflight games, and the mining minigame is more cumbersome (but still not as bad as what they did to arcade-ify the poor Genesis version of Starflight 1).

    2. I'm playing Protostar right now. I feel that it lacks the richness and dimensionality of Starflight, Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, or Ur Quan Masters -- it was clearly rushed. For instance, the manual is exceedingly thin (although in part, the repetitive NPC conversation system makes up for that). It also shows in the user interface. For example, in the exchange center, you can back out one layer at a time from two layers deep using "E" for exit, but to return to the station you must mouse over and click the exit option, or else up/down arrow to it and hit return to exit. These little inconsistencies are unfortunate, as they detract from immersion.

      The manual says that crewmember skill levels affects outcome, but since I haven't discovered how to view crewmember skill level, this leaves the impression that the crewmember skill feature may have been unimplemented. If skill is a hidden parameter, that limits the player's ability or desire to improve it. It seems that the only remaining way to improve capability is to upgrade the ship. This is in contrast to the previous Starflights, where ship upgrades were critical, but also the crew's experience really mattered, particularly with communications and navigation.

      As noted elsewhere, the economy is quite effective. Money is very tight for a while, until you stumble across a fuel-rich planet. Then money becomes reasonably tight but manageable, trading labor (I mean real work, which is not particularly fun) for a better economic position. However, that seems reasonably consistent with "grinding" in other genres.

      Regarding space combat, your turn of phrase was brilliant -- "a kind of like a clunky version of Wing Commander." Wing Commander's Soundblaster-based joystick control was so flawless and intuitive that I went all-in with a Hands-On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) for Wing Commander. The immersion was unbeatable. In contrast, I was about 20 minutes into my first Protostar space combat when I hit pause and searched for a joystick feature, to no avail. A painful 20 minutes later I was victorious, but that was not my definition of fun. Mighty hero and savior of the galaxy that I am, now I turn tail and run any time I see a green dot approaching my craft.

      It's worth noting that this combat experience occurred after I had fully outfitted my ship. Once you've bought level III gear, there's nowhere else to go, so almost all of your money can go back to supporting the resistance.

      All told, Protostar is fun, but I think it's fair to say that its predecessors saw a lot more love, and this seems a bit like a "catch the gold ring" sort of sequel.

  14. Are you going to play original Star Control 2 or Ur-Quan Masters? I suggest using UQM for ease of use either way. It can be played in classic/DOS mode for authenticity, but the voice acting and fixes are so good I suggest playing full-on UQM!

    1. I didn't even know there was a difference until I read your comment. I don't have any particular plans for games that won't come up for three years in the future, but I'll evaluate the two versions (and find this comment again) as the time approaches.

    2. If it makes a difference, UQM originates from official source code, so it's only one step away from the "pureness" of emulation.

    3. I think you'd do yourself a favor by playing The Ur-Quan Masters. It's basically the 3DO version of the game – which includes absolutely stellar spoken dialog – minus the bugs. Otherwise it's very faithful to the original PC version.

  15. Defining the crpg vibe seems kind of hard.
    In this game you could care for your crew (they can die).
    You could level them up and it actually increase their chance of survivability (it's not just about fight).
    The story is above anything (beside the 1st) you played so far, with dialogue playing a huge part.
    Inventory management and a huge world to explore freely is a plus.

    For all this points I would consider this a Crpg. The leveling is dumbed down but it obviously has it's importance. And the equipment is about the ship but it also change your gameplay drastically.

    And may be it's the point: How your "rules to define a crpg" actually impact how thing REALLY resolve in the game.

    1/No puzzle based inventory. If the combat are always the same with a "+10 sword of awesome" and your "dirty knife", it's a "fake" inventory. While if a tier 5 ship can survive a fight a tier 1 could not, it's more satisfying to have this kind of inventory.

    2/character development. As you stated, in Starflight it essential to have the max stat to survive. So it's basic development, but at least it really matter to win the game. On the other hand there's a lot of "crpg" where you could win with lvl 1 character, either because leveling doesn't really matter, or the gears is more important, or the game scale stupidly to your level.

    3/ stat driven combat. Obviously Starfligh failed on this one. But the inventory/ship play a small role.

    On a side note, the gameworld and story driven approach should make up for some lack in the crpg aspect.

    In the end, it feel like "Pirates!". You care for your character/crew. You have a story. A free world. Fight are action based on the sea or with sword, but your stats help tremendously. And Trading .. How can you not seems to "play a role" when you can trade goods and make money out of it? Damn, any game with a decent trading system should be named a crpg :]

    1. "Pirates!" in space? I'd never thought of it that way, but it does kind of fit.

      Pirates! is more of a sandbox game, though, with less emphasis on story.

    2. I thought about Pirates! several times while playing SF2, wishing that each game had taken things from the other. For instance, it would have been nice to have characters and skill levels on my pirate ship, and an overarching story. For SF2, it would have been nice to have some of Pirates!'s random missions and quests and better tactics in combat (not that they were great even in Pirates!).

    3. the modern remake of Pirates! actually resolves both of these issues to an extent, by adding in an overarching goal (find your abducted family members) and a few ways to upgrade your ship (in port or with specialty crewmen, whom you have to "impress" first)

  16. Might and Magic X is announced :)

  17. Normally wouldn't do the whole game linking thing, but Star Control had been brought up several times in here.

    Just saw that's weekend sale includes all 3 Star Control Games:
    First 2 as a bundle, then the third on its own.

    1. Do you need to own SC2 to play UQM?

      I've heard SC3 is terrible, so beware of that one. They probably should have just bundled it in with the other two.

    2. While Star Control 3 is not a good game, it still has tangible cRPG elements. It's also newer than the others so a long way off on the list. By the time he is ready to play it, it will be on deep deep discount.

    3. It's actually on sale on GOG this weekend for under $2.50, which is probably as cheap as you'll ever find it.

    4. No, UQM is free. Toys for Bob released the source code to the designers, which actually included a TFB intern.

  18. The space exploration RPG's were criminally undermade in my opinion. Starflight, Star Control 2 and Planet's Edge: they're some of my favorites of all time and a welcome break from the traditional fantasy ones.

  19. Not to be critical, but "Both the NPC races adn the non-NPC foes". Just so you can correct it.

    1. Thanks. I fixed it. Perhaps I should whip up a little "corrections submission form" so we don't have to clutter the comments with these.

    2. You can delete comments after they are no longer relevant you know. ;)

  20. One minor improvement which I don't think anyone mentioned is that it looks like the game runs in VGA rather than EGA but it appears they only used the extended palette for the alien portraits - the rest of the interface looks unchanged which is a shame.

  21. > Johnson also designed the popular ToeJam & Earl series for
    > consoles, which a lot of people seem to love but sounds
    > like absolute torture to me; thankfully, they're not CRPGs.

    While not true of more recent games in the series, the first Toejam & Earl could absolutely be considered a CRPG, but for the fact that it wasn't released on computers. That said, it would fail two of your three "skip reservations" (no character leveling, no attributes). The most simple way of describing it would be as a "real-time Roguelike" - TJ&E is to NetHack as Command & Conquer is to Panzer General, with procedurally-generated maps, enemy-layouts, and item-placements.

    I'm sure there are other sources that already do a better job of explaining the first Toejam & Earl game than I could manage right now, but if nothing else it merits a brief nod of recognition as one of the early examples of a Roguelike being ported to a wide console-playing audience of the 90s.

    The sequels are pure platforming dogcrap, though, and certainly not worth playing, regardless of this blog's focus.

    1. I don't know why, but I have a really tough time enjoying games in which I play a cartoonish, alien, or animal protagonist. No matter how good the gameplay (assuming they are good), I could never get into Sonic, Spyro, or any game in which I play an animal or something that Pixar would turn into a film.

      I read the Wikipedia article on ToeJam & Earl, and while I see what they mean about it being inspired by Rogue, it strikes me that said inspiration extends to everything BUT the RPG elements.

  22. Statistics-wise, a G'nunk crewmember is excellent: They have durability of 10 and learning rate of 8, and they can reach maximum medical skill. However, they are even more bothersome than having a Dweenle in your crew. They complain whenever you speak to someone with a friendly posture, and using an obsequious stance actually makes the G'nunk commit suicide! They also like to raise the shields and arm weapons on your ship on their own. And if you were wondering which species of the G'nunk conglomerate you get, it's the giant blue caterpillar thing with sharp teeth.

  23. Regarding Character Creation and Development

    In this kind of games I actually consider the whole "expedition" my character, and the crew members as attributes/equipment. Under that lens Starflight games´character development is a bit more rewarding.

    1. Yes, this. I just made a similar argument in the Rating post for the original Star Flight. I think they clearly play like single character CRPGs that just handle some aspects in an unorthodox manner. I don't think there's a lot of difference between something like this and Ultima Underworld.

  24. And now, obscure Starflight 2 trivia!
    JFK assassination theory hidden in Starflight 2 code.

    P.S. Thanks for writing this blog. I always look forward to your future entries.

  25. i think it's very difficult to follow up something like the twist in starflight 1, and i think the developers did an admirable job, given the twist here, but everything else after would just have paled in comparison.

    either way, i feel like your gimlet for this one is fair again: what the game lost, plot wise, it seemed to make up in it's economy, so it all balanced out in the end.

    i've been spoiled, so the game's plot wouldn't hit me the right way, and i'm afraid the combat would have me tearing my hair out, but having read through your entries on both games, i'm now curious enough to at least /try/ them.


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