Saturday, July 6, 2013

Game 105: Space Rogue (1989)

Space Rogue
United States
ORIGIN Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for DOS, Apple II, Commodore 64, 
Date Started: 6 July 2013
A number of readers have questioned Space Rogue's RPG credentials. It is admittedly not a classic RPG: The PC doesn't gain in experience and levels, the combat is mostly action-oriented, and there's no "equipment" in the standard sense, making it fail my criteria for an RPG on the surface. However, Starflight has the same problems, and you all would have organized a DDoS attack on my site if I hadn't played it. You have to make certain allowances for the different nature of science fiction RPGs, and in this case those allowances come with recognizing the ship as part of the "character" and the equipment upgrades that come with the ship a part of "character development." Plus, the game has NPC dialogue with choices, which rarely occurs outside an RPG.
I confess that when I first heard the title, I imagined that it would be some version of Rogue, but set in space, which of course isn't anywhere close to what it is. Instead, it feels more like a science fiction version of Pirates! coupled with the the NPC dialogue system of 2400 A.D.

The game is set in a region of space called the "Far Arm"; a network of nine planetary systems linked through "Malir Gates," which allow access to hyperspace. The well-written back story (supplemented by a pre-game sequence) describes how the protagonist, the son of a jeweler, had always dreamed of traveling through space. When he came of age, he joined the merchant marines and was assigned to his first ship, Princess Blue. After a year experiencing the wonders of the universe and the ship's technology, the protagonist was assigned to board and investigate a derelict ship, the Jolly Roger, that the Princess Blue found floating in space. While he was aboard the empty vessel, a group of "Manchi" ships appeared and, without warning or provocation, destroyed the Princess Blue. Left alone in space, the protagonist takes possession of the Jolly Roger and heads towards the nearest starbase to start investigating what happened to his ship and friends.

Space Rogue has only a few gameplay mechanisms and dynamics. The first, and the one I explored the most during this opening session, is trade. It is unsophisticated. There are a number of outposts scattered about the nine systems, and each buys and sells various goods for different prices. The goods available to buy at specific outposts are randomized upon each visit, but there is hardly any variance (maybe 10%) in the prices from visit to visit. This means that, for instance, if you find dilithium for sale at Hiathra, it will always be around $50, and you can always sell it at MiCon for around $85. It's just a matter of taking notes. Pirates! had things like pirate raids, plagues, Indian attacks, and gold rushes that affected the price of goods at various ports over time, but there's nothing that complex here.

"X-rated holos" sell for $90 on MiCon and $160 on Hiathra. It's not that I want to be a pornographer, but I can't resist those margins.

A couple of logistical barriers keep you from getting too rich too quickly. First, you actually have to take the time to travel from one base to another. Even within a single system, the navigation and docking maneuvers can take a little while. Between systems, where you have to navigate Malir Gates, it takes a really long time and is prone to bad things happening. Second, you have very limited cargo capacity. You start with room for only three or four items at a time, and even maxing out on cargo pods at $150 each gives you room for only eight items. Trading eight units of dilithium between Hiathra and MiCon nets only about $280. You soon learn to look for the items that provide the best buying/selling ratios in terms of raw dollars.

Keeping a log of prices at each station is the way to excel at trade.

Occasionally, goods "spoil" between ports, ruining your investment for that haul. With all of these logistical barriers, it took me about three hours focusing solely on trade to make $5000, enough to buy decent weapons and shields for my ship.

Some of the items in which you can trade are contraband--risky because the authorities do a random check of your cargo every time you dock. A robot sold me some "forged cargo papers" to use in such instances, but I haven't tested them yet.

Space flight and combat make up the second major dynamic of the game. In flying, you can switch between "cockpit" mode, where you see things in 3D view and have to do all the flying yourself, and "navigation" mode, where you set a destination and let the ship plot the course and fly itself there. But when you arrive, you have to take over and go to "cockpit" mode to dock the ship, so there's no way to complete the entire game on autopilot.

Flying on autopilot to the MiCon base. That "ALERT" notice is always on my screen, regardless of whether there's an actual alert.

I find the "cockpit" mode navigation difficult and frustrating, and clearly intended for players with a joystick. On the numeric keypad, 4 and 6 adjust the yaw, 8 and 2 adjust the pitch, and 1 and 3 adjust the roll. The + and - keys adjust speed. The problem is, it's not a simple matter of holding the key the way you want to turn and then letting it go when you've turned enough. Instead, these keys control the speed at which you turn, so if you hold down the "4" key for a few seconds, you'll be in an uncontrolled counter-clockwise spin. Pressing "6" at this point doesn't cancel the spin; it just slows it. You have to hit "6" enough times to counter the effects of all the times (or seconds) you hit "4" before you finally slow down and then reverse direction. Fortunately, the "S" key stops all rotation; otherwise, I'd find the ship impossible control. As it is, it's quite difficult.

Approaching the Hiartha station. The gauge in the lower left indicates my current thrust; the one in the lower right indicates my armor. For some reason, I have a nearby corsair targeted, but I'm not going to attack it. Instead, I need to carefully maneuver between the outer "wings" of the station and land  on the gray section of the interior.

Docking with starports is a complex maneuver. You can't simply run right into them; that's "crashing." You have to identify the specific point where docking takes place, often signaled by nothing more than a different color, and aim directly for that.

The drunk pilot flies into port. This is speeded up about 2-3X.

The top-down navigation in spaceport actually mimics the shape of the station from the exterior. Note how my "dock" is on the interior ring of the station.

Combat in space is like maneuvering but with the added need to hit the SPACE bar to fire missiles or lasers. You can also enter "Newtonian" control mode during combat, allowing you to strafe enemies or suddenly turn on your axis (without affecting the direction of your thrust) to shoot at enemies behind you. I haven't had many reasons to engage in combat just yet--only a few random attacks by pirates--so I haven't fully mastered it.

Attacking the underside of a ship within an asteroid field. I can't hit the "screen capture" button quick enough to get the laser shots in there. I'll have to take video later.

Incidentally, I find it easy to accidentally hit SPACE and fire lasers while approaching a space port, at which point I get this message:

There are other objects in space. In an asteroid field, you have to shoot the asteroids to avoid losing your ship's armor. There are planets, but I don't think there's any way to productively interact with them; the manual specifically says that your ship can't take the stress of landing on them. There are stars, but you'd really have to try to fly into them.

What happened when I tried to land on a planet.

Curiously, the "Hawking Drives" on the Jolly Roger seem to require no fuel at all. There's no fuel meter nor any place to purchase fuel in the game. One logistical consideration that you don't have to worry about.

The third game dynamic involves exploring starbases in iconographic mode and talking with NPCs.

Exploring a room on the Hiartha base. There's an NPC to my lower left and lots of empty suits and bookcases to search throughout the room, but the "key card" I found in this suit was the only thing I found on the entire base.

The NPC dialogue system is not as advanced as in other Origin titles, but you do have some options, with consequences to the choices that you make.

In addition to pre-determined dialogue choices, you have an "Other" option with key NPCs, allowing you to ask about keywords given to you by other NPCs. There aren't many NPCs in the game, though--maybe four or five per station. There are a couple other things you can do while exploring stations, like interacting with shopkeepers (this is where you trade) and searching bookcases and chests and such. I hardly ever find anything. The interface here is very reminiscent of 2400 A.D. from a few years ago.

I had to break into this storage area, but I didn't find a single thing in all the containers that I searched.

In terms of the main storyline of the game, I started by getting my official "pilot's license" from the Imperium (the government that runs the Far Arm) from a functionary named Orellian on the Hiathra base (the first base you visit). Getting it involved answering some physics questions. If these ansers were anywhere in the documentation, I didn't find them, but fortunately I had Wikipedia. Getting the license allowed me to purchase equipment for my ship.

How many people know this answer? The first question was the number of light years in a parsec; the second was the spectral type of the hottest star.

On the MiCon base, an NPC named Sir Eld asked me to bring a statuette to Orellian. Once I'd done so, he gave me some trading advice ("buy low, sell high" was particularly welcome; I'd been doing it all wrong!) and a "stealth box" to help keep me hidden from pirates.

To be fair, he also gave me more targeted advice.

That seemed to exhaust my opportunities in the first sector, so I made my way to the Malir Gate to jump to the Deneb system and see if I could speak to Duchess Avenstar, whom everyone seems to adore. Navigating Malir Gates is tricky. You have to fly through a twisty wormhole. If you go outside the tunnel, the jump is rendered "faulty," and you end up back where you started but with decreased armor. And you have to navigate the tunnel quite quickly, because the "gasses" in the wormhole continually eat away at your armor. Go too slow, and your ship will be destroyed. It took me a few tries.

Flying through the rings of a wormhole. It gets a lot twistier than this, but I was too busy during those moments to take screen shots.

I found Avenstar on the Deneb Prime base, and the encounter was interesting. She made me hold a "Sphere of Truth" that she said would kill me instantly if I lied (but after the conversation, she admitted it was a hoax). After a few questions about my ship and how I got it...

...Avenstar told me that I was "the one" but she wouldn't elaborate. She sent me out the door and told me to return when I have "become a seasoned warrior."

According to the manual, my options for doing this are a) piracy and b) bounty hunting. I don't fully understand the mechanisms for either. I did destroy a pirate ship at one point (or maybe it was a Manchi ship), but no one hastened to give me a reward for it. By next time, I should know what I'm doing.

I assume that becoming a successful pirate or bounty hunter affects your "repute" and your status with the various factions.

Some other potentially-interesting plot threads and quests are developing. Some NPCs talk about a "Black Hand Cult," a group of psionic assassins, and there are rumors that Avenstar is under their spell. There is, of course, the Manchi threat; the Manchi are clearly aliens, but the game has given me no clues as to their motives or what they look like. A robot wants me to find his lost love, a maid robot, who's in danger of being reprogrammed into a trash compactor.

"Interfaced perfectly" is more than I needed to know.

The game seems to feature the right amount of difficulty. I've had some misfortune, but nothing game-breaking. You can only save in space, and there's no "load" option, which means that if you want to try different dialogue options with NPCs, you really have to want it, because you'll have to go through the process of killing the game, restarting, answering the copy protection question again, re-docking with the starport, and finding the NPC.

Finally, Space Rogue features a reasonably-complex minigame called HIVE which you can find at terminals in bars. HIVE casts you in the role of a pilot whose ship has crash-landed on an alien planet. He's immediately attacked by insects and has to blast them to escape. The gameplay is primitive--just face the enemy and shoot--but it's still a fun little diversion. I'm not sure if it serves any story purpose within the game; it feels like perhaps it was the result of an interface mechanic (planetary exploration) that never got implemented in the main game.

In general, Space Rogue feels like a minor game, with a few innovative elements, that I'll be happy to play to the end but that I hope doesn't last overly long.


  1. Sounds like a disappointment to me - and I always was curious about this title. So thanks for tackling it for me. ;-)

    At least Designer & programmer Paul Neurath went on to bigger things in the future (ha ha): He was one of the designers of the Ultima Underworld games.

    According to Mobygames he worked on another 3D space shooter/sim before:
    "Deep Space: Operation Copernicus" - so that's where he got his know-how for the 3D sequences.

    Right now he is apparently with Zynga - one of final repositories of old game designers (the others are EA and Microsoft).

    1. Neurath was also the founder and Creative Director of Looking Glass Studios (called Blue Sky Productions when they made Ultima Underworld).

  2. Any Origin RPG game that isn't an Ultima game never seems to quite hit the mark. They're good games, but not great games.

    1. That's been my impression, too. We've had a slew of Origin games this year that all have intriguing ideas but are flawed in some way that prevents them from being truly enjoyable.

  3. Your screenshots look really familiar to me. I think I played this game at one point quite a while ago. All I remember is really really hating the Malir gates. But that's mostly because I suck at real-time navigation like that and kept failing the jumps (and as you said, the controls aren't too great). I think I gave up on the game after failing a Malir jump too often.

  4. 'I find the "cockpit" mode navigation difficult and frustrating, and clearly intended for players with a joystick.'

    Why not get a joystick then? Or even hook up an Xbox 360 controller to the computer (my former roommate used to do this). Is there any particular reason to force yourself to play with mouse & keyboard?

    1. My initial reason was that I didn't have a controller. Then I remembered that I bought a Logitech controller to try with Dragons of Flame back in December. I found that. Now my reason is I can't get it to work. Something isn't connecting between the Logitech Profiler, DOSBox, and the game, and for this game, I don't know if I want to take the time to figure out what it is.

    2. Ah, come on, take the time to figure it out. Many games of this era are better with a joystick than a keyboard and mouse. You're the guy who wants to play all the old games as they were meant to be played...spend a few hours becoming a master of DOSbox. A good craftsman knows his tools inside and out.

    3. I don't know if it would be any easier to work with (or if it works with non-360 controllers), but perhaps try with xpadder?

  5. I found this game to be quite enjoyable. After a while you master the space combat, docking and worm gates. Especially when you've built up a strong ship/character.

    Not sure how the story matches up but for a 12 year old it was good fun at the time :)

  6. It sounds a lot like the old space combat and trading game Elite (which I played a lot) but with the addition of top down exploration on the space stations.

    1. Yup, even the docking sequence and the message for shooting up a base.

      I wonder if Elite was a stripped down C64/Amiga port.

    2. No. Elite is from 1984 and served as inspiration for Space Rogue.

    3. Yeah, I think so too: it's pretty much a space trading and combat game, a genre which Elite kick-started back in 1984, with some additional elements bolted on top.

      I don't normally think of this sort of game as "RPG", but if this one has enough elements to give it some RPG credentials... why not? I'm not a stickler when it comes to categorizing and defining game genres.

      P.S. "How many people know this answer? For what it's worth, I do. Also, it's cool the game devs got things right with the parsec being a measure of distance, not time (Yes, I'm looking at you, Han Solo, and give me none of your retconned explanations). :D

    4. @Giuseppe but then the devs went and forgot the "s" on "homo sapiens" :)

    5. Ah, yeah. I noticed that too, but then forgot about it. :)

    6. On the other hand it is equally common to think a light year is a measure of distance.

    7. *measure of time* I meant. Meh.

    8. If I remember, technically a isn't exactly distance, or not a consistent distance.

      It is the measurement of parralax visible from Earth. As the Earth orbits the sun, stars appear to shift in position, the most extreme case is when we flip sides of the sun.

      It is the best mechanism we have for figuring out how far away stars are, by measuring the angle of change in their position at different times of the year.

      But it is purely tied to the Earth and our particular orbit. I would expect light-years to be a more universal measurement for dealing with multiple planets and alien species.

  7. About the Alert signs, can it be that your color blindness works against you again? The Alert sign in those screenshots are green. If it changes color to red when there is an alert you might not notice the difference.

    Note that I haven't played the game so I don't know if this is the case.

    1. If I remember correctly, when your ship is attacked, it changes color to red. You have to play the game with a joypad or a joystick (and use Control+J to activate it). And remap some keys to it (so you can control your speed, while you are piloting the ship).

      " I'm not sure if it serves any story purpose within the game; it feels like perhaps it was the result of an interface mechanic (planetary exploration) that never got implemented in the main game."

      I think it serves!!!

  8. "How many people know this answer?" - is this some joke I'm not getting? I always thought force equation is something that everyone who's been through high school should know...

    1. I think everyone who's been through high school has seen it at some point; whether they retain it after not using it for x decades is another matter.

    2. I never took physics in high school. I guess I'm in the minority on that.

    3. What I mean is that it's not such an esoteric concept that it's unreasonable to expect people to know it. Quite the opposite, actually - it's fundamental and very simple. Unlike two other questions Addict lists - about parsecs and star type - that are pretty esoteric. Which that makes me wonder even more why the force one was chosen to illustrate this point.

    4. Ah, I keep forgetting that the american education is heavy on electives. In Russia physics in high school is compulsory (as are almost all subjects for that matter ;))

    5. Yes, in the United States, children are allowed to decide what to study. Increasingly, American society seems to believe that providing no guidance for children will enable to them become more fulfilled adults. What is actually happening is that each generation gets more self-entitled, self-centered, and lazy.

      Most Americans have no concept of hard work and believe that "the rich" should pay more taxes so they can have free healthcare and more time to watch television. Over the next 100 years, China and India are going to take our jobs and then Indian corporations will be hiring Americans to staff their call centers.

    6. Russian heavily standardised and overloaded with subjects education doesn't do much good in terms of character building either. It's extremely demotivating.

      I disagree with your second paragraph completely (chinese are a bad role model) but have no desire to start a political discussion, so let's just leave it there.

    7. Thinking strictly from a teenagers' perspective, I'm not sure if I should envy American kids. In high-school we covered pretty much all classical physics fields and also some notions of modern physics. Yet today I have very little practical use for all that knowledge.

      Same with most of the great many things I had to study in high-school. What's the point in knowing every capital on the planet or every important mountain range if you don't go on to become a geographer? What's the point of knowing the periodic table of elements by heart, being able to name every Alkali metal or every halogen, if you don't have any interest in becoming a chemist? Or learning about Plato's allegory of the cave if philosophy is about as interesting to you as watching paint dry.

      I imagine it's similar in most Eastern European countries.

    8. Our system has one thing going for it: this kind of education makes it a lot easier to change your professional field midlife (and I speak from experience, having gone from programming to culture studies). Is it worth all that stress and tedium? Probably not. At least, I believe, the same effect could be achieved with much less.

    9. @Dave:
      “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” - Socrates (supposedly)

      Imagine how supremely wonderful people our distant ancestors must have been, for today's youth to STILL manage to be even worse than whatever generation you happen to like :P

      Not touching the political stuff with a 10 ft. pole...

    10. What China and India have in common is nothing to do with education. China's education system is a pathetic cripple radically different from that of India. What these two nations have in common is an overwhelming population advantage. It should come as no surprise that China is rapidly gaining a stronger economy. An economy is simply the production and consumption of goods, and China has five times as many people to be doing the producing and the consuming, India even more. It's the same reason why the United States and Russia rose to such prominence, and why Brazil dominates the South American political and economic landscape, why Germany leads the European economy even compared to similarly developed nations like the United Kingdom and France.

      There are factors to the economy besides population, of course, primarily infrastructure and natural resources. Once a nation is sufficiently large, however, natural resources become irrelevant because everyone has access to an extraordinarily diverse amount of materials and can easily trade with others to get more. Likewise, infrastructure has made an incredible difference between America and China in the past, but China can replicate existing infrastructure far faster than America or anyone else could ever hope to invent new infrastructure. In the end the race will be decided by population, and there can be no reversing the advantage held by China and India in that theater.

      Nothing can stop the ascent of China and India. Even an attempted genocide would fail for the same reason: We simply do not have the population to hope to successfully invade either of these two, let alone both. We might dominate the skies and the oceans for as long as we like, but until we put boots on the ground, we won't be exterminating anything. And that's assuming we would actually commit atrocity on such an incredible scale simply to maintain our position as global superpower.

    11. I personally think this discussion should end before the entire comment section gets derailed.


    12. “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority;".....

      Remember, Greece >failed<. Pointing back at a collapsed civilization's musings about their young people losing self-discipline and willingness to work is not at all a good counter-example. If anything, it strengthens the original argument.

      We know civilizations fail. They have done so many times. Finding that strong a correlation should worry you, not make you sanguine.

    13. Well, it took about four centuries from Socrates to the earliest event you can consider the fall of Ancient Greece (I mean Roman conquest, and it's disputable since Greek culture actually continued on after that), so we can safely assume that it had nothing to do with his contemplation of contemporary youth ;)

    14. Reading Greek history is so frustrating. Think what the ancient greeks could have accomplished if the city states weren't almost constantly (except when the Persians threatened them all) fighting each other...

    15. Damn, just realised I used the wrong word. Probably got condemnation and contempt mixed up ))

    16. @Malor: What VK said.

      Secondly, it wasn't meant as a counterexample, it was meant to be an example of how old people will always (or at least very often) complain how things and people were better in "their day".

  9. I remember buying and playing this game on the Apple II. I must not have gotten very far because I don't remember much about it.

    The trading part of most of space games almost always seesm quite boring to me, like playing with a spreadsheet. I recall one game that threw in an interesting twist, I think it was Sundog - the screen that showed you the items for sale was constantly updating - each item for sale (with price and quantity available) would only display for a few seconds before being replaced by another item. A really good deal might never show up again. This added a nice tension to the item trading.

  10. I guess this means Uncharted Waters falls under the criteria because it's basically a Pirates! variant too.

    1. Uncharted Waters is easily one of my favorite games. The sequel, New Horizons, seems universally acclaimed (especially the SNES version) but to me it's quite a horrible game due to there being zero challenge whatsoever.

  11. Saw this as I was reading this morning. Apparently they help people who are color blind to "see" colors. Since I know you have that issue and it has come up in gaming and affects the way you interact with the games I figured I'd point it out. I honestly have no idea whether or not these really help, but I enjoy your blog alot and figured the least I could do would be to tell you of something I didn't know existed on the off chance that you didn't also know it existed.

    1. Given that DOSBox emulates the CGA/EGA/VGA adapter, I'm surprised that no one has patched in a color-blind mode. It should be feasible to have DOSbox boost the contrast and/or shift the hue of the pallet the game requests to keep it out of troublesome areas of the spectrum.

  12. "Your ship blaze[s] down from the heavens like a fiery meteor. ... It's a wondrous sight."

    Not enough games focus on the ephemeral beauty of your party's death. This is much more poetic than "The monsters rejoice" or whatever. Do you get fun messages for any of your other deaths?

  13. A minor point, but I have a vague recollection that the Manchi are the alien insects in the Hive game. Could be wrong though, or just an unsupported assumption.

  14. Man, I love the idea of this game, and Elite, but the having to use a joystick and fly a ship as always a turnoff. I want to be the captain, not the pilot! I've found a few space trading games on various platform. There was an OK on on PalmOS that had a better PC version, but it had a weak plot and was very easy. There is one on android that seems to be mostly faction management. Both had boring combat where you just click attack over and over. There is one on PC where you trade around the solar system and make extra money in fps segments. The structure always has you on deadlines though, instead of trading freely, which sucks. Oh, and there was a sweet flash game called Caravaneer that had great combat, and a cool inventory/caravan managment bit, but I could never figure out the trading. Anyone have suggestions fo rmodern trading games? Sorry about the lack of names, I am on my phone.

    I love the Liaden Universe novels due to them basically being Elite, with Balance of Trade being my favourite due to that aspect.

    1. This is a decent game, and very overlooked IMO. I bought it when it was new and played it through to the end. One of the first RPG's I finished. And it definitely is an RPG, you do level up, the ship, and to a lesser extent your character by the objects you uncover as you work through the games story tasks, in your quests to complete the story, which was quite good for the time.

      By the way, the Manchi are insect like aliens that have been portrayed as monstrous by the humans, who are at war with them. The in game arcade machine is one of the propaganda tools used by the humans. You do encounter the Manchi in the RPG portions later on in the games story.


    Sorry. I just couldn't believe nobody had said it in the last 7 years.

  16. Ha, I had a similar thought but forgot it by the time I got through the other comments. :)

  17. It might be coincidence, or some sort of confirmation bias on my part, but the dialogue interface in this looks like a precursor to the one used in Ultima Underworld.

    Makes me want to track down Paul Neurath's other games to see the evolution of his style... although I might skip the recent Underworld sequel, which sadly sounds awful.


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