Friday, September 30, 2022

Revisiting: Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary (1988)

I'm not sure why this game puts its chapter number on the other side of the colon. It would make so much more sense as Star Saga One: Beyond the Boundary.
Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary
United States
Masterplay Publishing Corporation (developer and publisher)
Released 1988 for Apple II, Apple IIGS, and DOS
Date Started: 25 January 2011 (19 July 2022 for the restart)
Date Ended: 25 September 2022
Total Hours: 25 (including 6 in 2011)
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 31
Ranking at Time of Posting: 312/483 (65%)
The first decade and half of CRPGs saw many attempts to blend the virtual with the physical. One of the earliest commercial RPG series, Dunjonquest, provided a book of textual descriptions to accompany the player's investigations of rooms, monsters, and treasures. The Gold Box series would famously adapt this idea in its "Adventurer's Journals." But even games without numbered paragraphs often featured physical maps and physical manuals, usually with original artwork, to complete the gameplay experience. Some editions of Ultima shipped with ankhs and moonstones.
There's an extent to which these physical supplements were necessitated by technology rather than any desire to provide the player with something tactile. And certainly, when issues of storage space were all but eliminated in the mid-1990s, the tendency was to abandon anything physical--a tendency that only accelerated when players started to download their games. But I think it's a mistake to regard physical maps and manuals as something that solely existed because developers wanted to save floppy disk space for graphics and mechanics. I can't think of any game for which having a physical map to reference off-screen does not enhance the experience. As for journals and other texts, I have long been of the opinion that the computer is a better place for them since they can be informed by in-game variables (e.g., player name, sex, and choices) without requiring the publisher to have printed multiple paragraphs with only slight variations. I still feel that way, and yet I recognize that there is something exciting about the screen telling you to read Paragraph #360 in Book #6, and the player excitedly shuffling through the pages.
The Star Saga games came in boxes weighing several pounds. [Photo by Ernst Krogtoft.]
Perhaps no game offers this experience to a more intense degree than Star Saga, whose accompanying books of text run to nearly 800 pages. In a truncated 2011 review, I rejected it as a CRPG not because of the "RPG" part but because of the "C" part. While I'm not sure I entirely agree with that opinion today, I get where it came from. When 80% of your playing time is spent reading text from a book, it's hard to argue that you're really "playing." In any event, because I did play it, and numbered it, I've been carrying it as a loss for 11 years. I decided recently to remedy that. After all, I thought, how hard can it be to just read a book and report on its conclusion?
Most of the "gameplay" is reading paragraphs like this.
Star Saga was the creation of three Harvard University students: Rick Dutton, Walt Freitag, and Mike Massimilla. The trio started a live-action role-playing game called "Rekon" that they played once a year over long weekends. Massimilla met Andrew Greenberg, co-author of Wizardry, at a bridge tournament and invited him to join the group at their second "Rekon" weekend. Greenberg apparently felt the plot of the game had enough marketability that the group should turn it into a computer game. All four of them are credited with "game concept, design, and execution," with no separate credits for writing and programming, so I'm not sure who did what. Masterplay was created specifically for this game and its sequel, with Greenberg as president. Greenberg's old Wizardry colleagues, Roe Adams and Robert Woodhead, were two of the game's playtesters.
If you played all six characters and started in 1988, I imagine you might be finishing just now.
The broad plot of the series has elements that we've seen before in Starflight (1986) and would again in games like Star Control (1992), Planet's Edge (1992), and Mass Effect (2007), and in television like Babylon 5. Humanity is one of the galaxy's younger races. Technology may have progressed, but people are still the same. There are stories of godlike creator races who assisted the evolution of younger species. Shadows are gathering, and an ancient enemy is coming out of its slumber. But if you've heard the broad strokes before, Star Saga still does a reasonably good job with the specifics. I'm not much of a science fiction buff, so I can't say with authority that the details of the planets and races you encounter are "original," but they were original to me--and highly imaginative. The texts are reasonably well-written (bad or annoying text would absolutely destroy a game like this), and in the rare times the game strays into humor, it's situational rather than slapstick.
The game takes place in 2815, nearly 600 years after the invention of a hyperdrive made it possible to travel between stars. Humanity has colonized a local cluster called the Nine Worlds (which include "Harvard, a university planet") and other colonies throughout the galaxy. In 2490, explorers brought a "Space Plague" back to the Nine Worlds, which so decimated the home planets that humans created a great Boundary around them. Anyone can leave via the Boundary, but no one can return. A Space Patrol shoots down anyone who tries. The solution worked, but cut off from the rest of the universe, humanity has grown stagnant. Meanwhile, colonies outside the Boundary have become "Ghost Worlds," fighting for their survival while enjoying a black market smuggling trade with the Nine Worlds.
My quest is laid out in a character booklet.
Six characters have various reasons for traveling Beyond the Boundary:
  • Laran Darkwatch, a disciple of the Final Church of Man, seeks a holy relic that will reveal the Final Truth
  • Jean G. Clerc wants to build the Ultimate Spaceship, which will require alien technology.
  • Valentine Stewart, scion of a mafia family from Wellmet, just wants to have some adventures before being chained to a desk forever.
  • Corin Stoneseeker is a member of a clan that seeks the Core Stone, an artifact lost twenty generations ago.
  • M. J. Turner is a Space Patrol enforcer, sent outside the Boundary as punishment.
  • Professor Lee Dambroke wants to learn about alien civilizations and abilities.
Note that all of the names could be male or female, and the game goes out of its way to avoid specifying sex for many of its NPCs as well.
Once the game begins, each character has one turn to accomplish as much as possible. A turn has seven "phases," and each action takes up a certain number of phases. Moving between "trisectors" in the galaxy takes one phase. Landing on a new planet takes seven phases. Trading at the commodities market may take three or four. Learning an alien language might take 10. It's rare that you can line up exactly seven phases' worth of actions in a single turn; more likely, you go over that amount and end up borrowing phases from the next turn.
In one turn, I take off from one planet, travel across four sectors, and land on another. This gives me a paragraph to read.
You don't find out the results of each action immediately. Instead, after you've lined up everything you want to do in a turn, you execute them all at once. This is so like the approach to combat in Wizardry that I can't believe there isn't some influence. The approach creates some weird situations. For instance, you might say you want to visit the market, then blast off for another planet and maybe even travel a couple of sectors. Then, during the execution phase, something happens during your visit to the market that gives you a new option on the planet. Now you have to turn around and go back.
The computer portion of the game keeps decent track of where you are, what you've done, and what you have. (When you revisit a planet, you get a different paragraph than when you first visited.) Most of your options are usually right there on the screen. Occasionally, however, the book gives you a code for you to type in when you've met certain conditions; for instance, when you have the items necessary to assemble a particular piece of technology. Some of these codes require you to be at a particular location, but others allow you to type anywhere. 
Typing in the special code to build the Super Space Suit.
The map is clever, and I would admire it more if it weren't for my colorblindness. The galaxy is divided into 400 triangular, numbered "trisectors," each of them blue, yellow, orange, red, green, or violet. No two triangles of the same color are ever adjacent. Each trisector is touched by a maximum of three other trisectors, and they all have different colors. Thus, traveling a path through the galaxy is a simple matter of choosing a sequence of colors to move from each trisector to the next. This works great if you're not constantly confusing yellow with orange, orange with red, red with green, and blue with violet. Fortunately, the game also tells you the number of each trisector you select, and you can back out of an option if you choose the wrong one. The map that comes with the game has all the planets in the galaxy marked (and all of the Ghost Worlds named); if there's ever an unmarked planet, I never found it. Thus, unlike some space exploration games, it's relatively clear which travel paths will bear fruit.
A section of the map. To get from Bugeye to Wellmet, I would go yellow, orange, violet, blue, red, orange, blue (you have to go around the "Space Wall").
For me, by far the weirdest thing about Star Saga is the idea that it could be a group game. Up to six players can play the game at the same time, each taking a turn at the computer, but they're supposed to keep secret their experiences and the nature of their quests. The paragraphs are not read aloud. I can't imagine anything more excruciating than trying to play this game with even one other player, just sitting there as she silently reads her pages before taking my turn to do the same thing. Characters can't interact during the game except to exchange cargo, and many of the plot points don't make sense if you imagine there are multiple characters visiting each planet. [Ed. I heard directly from one of the authors, Mike Massimilla, that I misunderstood this part of the instructions. See this comment below.]
Various options on the planet Fiara.
For the most part, the characters don't have unique paragraphs. Each character's visit to each planet goes about the same as any other's. Thus, one of the game's weaknesses is that you can't really "role-play" your character. The text speaks frequently in the character's voice, and the character often makes decisions within the text with no input from the player.
I played to the end with Corin Stoneseeker, only saving and reloading when I was ready to quit the game for the session. I rolled with a number of punches, including repeatedly losing my entire cargo hold to Silverbeard the Pirate, but I never died. The manual says death is possible, but I never experienced it. When I lost combats, the only penalties were getting kicked back to the previous stage and, occasionally, losing some cargo. The game is otherwise quite forgiving. Food and fuel exist, but only as cargo items for trade. You never have to worry about starvation, running out of fuel, or permanently damaging any of your ship's systems. Neither your character nor your ship has any hit points or damage status. Combat is entirely binary: you win or you lose.
Silverbeard is a constant menace.
When I started playing, I kept a detailed log of each turn and a summary of everything the paragraph book said. I assumed it would take a few dozen turns at most. After I crossed 100 turns, my notes became more abbreviated, and I stopped entirely after 200. I won at 378 turns. A lot of those turns simply involve flying from one place to another.
The main quests aren't all that complicated in the number of steps they require. I only experienced Corin's directly, but I got a sense of how the others would fare based on what I discovered while playing Corin. To win the game, Corin just needs to:
1. Visit Director Colmaris on Bugeye. He gives you items that belonged to your aunt, the last Core Stone seeker. They include a Flexion Glove for actually handling the stone. A note suggests that you check out the Frog Leg Nebula in Sector 133. Colmaris also gives a vague warning about something strange happening in the galaxy.
2. Fly to Wellmet, a Ghost World. Visit the tavern, where you meet a mysterious figure who gives you the "lost maps of Vanessa Chang," a famous traveler of three centuries ago. This gives you the ability to use the second, large map that comes with the game rather than the small initial one.
The results of my visit with Colmaris.
(These first steps are controlled by the computer. You don't get freedom to make your own choices until after the Wellmet meeting.)
3. Fly to Sector 133. There, you find an asteroid in the middle of a nebula. The asteroid hosts the wreckage of a crashed ship broadcasting a distress signal.
Trading in the Commodity Market on Wellmet.
4. Blow the hatch to get into the ship. This is resolved as a combat.
5. Find the room from which the signal is broadcasting. You get a warning that you'll die of radiation poisoning unless you have a Super Space Suit.
Fortunately, a tractor beam was enough.
6. Fly to the planet Firthe, which has an underwater civilization. Get the plans for the Super Space Suit from the aliens.
7. Collect the materials necessary to build the Super Space Suit.
8. Enter the captain's cabin in the crashed ship on the asteroid. You find the large, green, scaly, reptilian alien who stole the Core Stone from your ancestor. The stone is keeping him alive, but he's so weak with age that he can't move. You take the stone from him.
9. Return to the Nine Worlds, cross the Boundary, and fight off the Space Patrol.
It took me a long time to get the upgrades I needed to win this encounter.
10. Return to your homeworld of Atlantis. Your clan celebrates the return of the stone, but then you learn that your quest isn't over. You need to Save Humanity with the stone by visiting the place where your ancestor found it in the first place: a place called Outpost on the Arm of the galaxy. Visiting this location requires you to install a Tri-Axis Drive. Your clan gives you a key component for it.
11. Find the "recipe" for the Tri-Axis Drive on the abandoned planet of Corbis. Assemble the necessary components and build the drive.
12. Fly to Outpost, which turns out to be the pirate Silverbeard's headquarters. Defeat his defenses in a series of battles, then land at Outpost and learn the secrets of the galaxy.
The game's conclusion has about seven battles in a row, each requiring different offensive and defensive equipment.
I assume the quests for the other characters are identical starting with Step 9. This sequence may seem easy, but there are several difficult parts. First, finding the recipes for the Tri-Axis Drive and (in my case) the Super Space Suit could be difficult. I found them while randomly exploring planets. I didn't get any hints about them, but perhaps those hints exist somewhere.

Second is the problem of assembling the items that you need for your technology upgrades. Some of them are common and traded in numerous spaceports; some can be mined for free on various planets; some are extremely rare. Again, you have to visit pretty much every planet and note what resources you can find and trade there. You also have to deal with limits in your cargo hold (you get 10 bays by default) and either work within those limits or spend resources upgrading your storage space. One of the ingredients I needed for the Super Space Suit was Primordial Soup, which I found for trade on one planet, but it required like five items to trade for it.
I build the Tri-Axis Booster from several items, including the unique Flame Jewel.
While you're assembling all your items, you have the occasional problem of Silverbeard coming along and forcing you to surrender three cargo units or fight him and risk losing everything (he's very difficult to beat). There's a space station you can conquer to store excess items, but even that requires winning some difficult combats against its defenses first.
Finally, you have to win at least one personal combat and multiple ship combats. Both personal and ship combats are "fought" the same way. You don't really do any fighting: there are no options. Instead, you have a fixed threshold that you have to achieve for either an offensive score, a defensive score, or both. Much of the game is spent acquiring upgrades and special abilities to bolster both scores. Again, many of the upgrades require certain cargo items. You pretty much have to get all of them to win. I was repeatedly repelled by the Space Patrol while trying to revisit the Nine Worlds in Step 9, and then again repeatedly defeated by Silverbeard's defenses in Step 12, until I'd visited most of the worlds and found or purchased most of the upgrades.
A personal combat that I lost because my offensive score wasn't high enough.

A ship combat towards the end of the game that I won.
To take an example, on the planet Crater, you can purchase Boarding Robots (an offensive resource) for 1 unit of radioactives, 1 unit of medicine, and 1 unit of iron. You can mine unlimited radioactives on the asteroid in the Frog Leg Nebula and you can mine unlimited iron on Yrebe (if you've found them). Flying to both from Crater takes about eight turns. As for medicine, I never found a place where you could find unlimited amounts, but you can trade for it on Firthe if you have crystals, and you can get crystals on Jacquar for radioactives. Now I know what to do: fly to Yrebe and mine iron, then fly to the Frog Leg Nebula and mine two units of radioactives, then fly to Jacquar and trade one unit of radioactives for crystals, then fly to Firthe and trade one unit of crystals for medicine, then fly to Crater to get the upgrade. If at any time, Silverbeard appears, I have to start over. I dare say that most of the game involves flying around to assemble the right materials for one upgrade or another. The game lets you buy drone ships to do some of the trading for you (functionally allowing you to visit multiple planets' markets without having to fly there), but they themselves cost precious goods.
I prepare to trade four cargo items for a Turbo Navigation system.
The game meets my definitions of an RPG, but in weird ways. You develop your character not through regular experience or leveling but by acquiring special abilities like Telekinesis, Whurffle (a precognitive ability), Confuse Enemy Computers, and Levitation. Some of these abilities help in encounters; others help in combat. You also develop by acquiring the aforementioned offensive and defensive items. Combat does depend upon these abilities and items, and there's otherwise no randomness to combat or gameplay at all. I don't think a single moment in Star Saga depends upon the roll of a die. 
Some of the abilities my character had by the end of the game.
The best part of playing the game is probably landing on each planet for the first time and learning what it has in store. Some of the vignettes on these planets are highly evocative and, again, original to me, though I suspect you'll tell me that some of them are drawn from famous sci-fi plots. A few choice examples:
  • The planet Gironde is an industrial world populated by machines. They were put in place centuries ago by the Installer, who gave them a directive not to attempt space travel. The machines tell you that if they, or you, try to leave the planet, something called the Supervisors will attack. Sure enough, if you try to leave, you're swarmed by enemy vessels and forced to land. Through investigation, you determine that the Supervisors aren't real. Instead, every computer on the planet (including your ship's, from the moment you made contact) is infected by a virus that makes them hallucinate Supervisor ships, including mimicking the damage they would take if the Supervisors fired upon them. You have to wipe and reboot your computer to get away. You can have a discussion about all of this with the leader of the planet, called the Core, but it just raises questions about whether the fact that the Supervisors are code makes them any less "real" and whether the Core's inability to override its own programming makes it any less "sentient."
A few options while fighting the Supervisors on Gironde. "Shutting down" causes the Supervisor ships to disappear, leading you to realize that they were only in the computer's imagination.
  • A planet of purple aliens called the Alkonese. Centuries ago, a race of visiting gods gave them a precognitive ability that lets them sense and avoid danger. But as "progress involves risks and sacrifices," this ability has made them lazy and self-indulgent.
  • A planet with two continents, one pristine and undeveloped, the other an industrial hellscape. The latter is the home of a race of cyborgs who love where they live and regard the residents of the untouched paradise as "barbarians." I visit the barbarians and find a group of unmodified aliens who are desperate to get to the industrial continent. Apparently, an advanced race visited the planet long ago and gave them a machine called the Constructor, which can replace any biological body part with a bionic one. The machine created a caste society in which the wealthy residents partly or completely replaced their bodies and the poor ones had to remain mortal. The need to keep using the Constructor has suppressed their development of space travel. A space station orbiting the planet turns out to be the "enhanced" body of the planet's former leader.
  • A human colony called Drofflic where the economy is driven by a live-action role-playing game called "Trundling." Players go through taverns, fight "monsters," and collect "treasure" under the guidance of a "cavern master." This is a clear reference to the authors and their annual "Rekon" game.
  • The planet Para-Para has an underground research facility run by a shadowy military contractor whose personnel routinely sneak across the Boundary and back. There, you catch a glimpse of the man who mysteriously gave you Vanessa Chang's maps. You can have a romance here with a scientist named Dr. Peterson (no first name or sex is given). You learn that the Space Plague was bio-engineered and it was never cured; it just mysteriously stopped killing people. (It creeps me out a bit to think that in a six-player game, Dr. Peterson sleeps with every character.)
Not every planet worked for me. There's one in which the "planet" is actually the contorted body of a single creature who comes from a planet of random mutations. His mutation was to keep growing and growing beyond the ability of any planet to contain him. But even when the game shoots and misses, it never does so in a goofy way. There are moments of situational comedy, but nothing outright slapstick. Either Greenberg wasn't responsible for some of the Wizardry series' excesses or his co-authors curbed them for this project.
The game rarely offers images in the booklets. Here, you're supposed to figure out which spaceport is safe to land at based on the visible condition of the port.
There's a Big Story going on behind each character's individual quests, and I gather that it was meant to be told in a trilogy. Most of the game's exposition happens in the winning paragraphs, once you've fought your way onto Outpost, but a lot of it is hinted on individual planets, especially if you end up following the trail of Vanessa Chang.
You find Chang's ship, the Lockerbait, on Outpost. Her journal indicates that she achieved Tri-Axis technology centuries ago and used it to explore areas outside the known galaxy called the Fringe. There, they encountered a hostile race of reptilian aliens called the Clathrans. (They are clearly the same type of alien as the one who stole the Core Stone.) The Clathrans defeated, captured, and imprisoned the Lockerbait crew. The Clathrans were inexplicably repulsed by the humans, so much so that some of them had to be ordered to touch the humans even to take them prisoner. Because they were clearly out to destroy humanity, Chang's crew refused to reveal the coordinates of the Nine Worlds, even under torture. The crew eventually escaped, but was forced to leave their helmsman, John Silverbeard, behind. (He apparently escaped later, set up the defenses at Outpost to keep the Clathrans from finding Chang's ship, and then went insane and became a pirate.) The ship they stole wasn't capable of hyperspace, so they had to enter hibernation while they returned to the Nine Worlds. When they woke up and made their way slowly back home, they learned that the Space Plague--clearly the work of the Clathrans--had already devastated the home worlds. Chang came up with the plan to create the Boundary, less to prevent another Space Plague than to keep the Clathrans from finding the home worlds. She hoped that humanity would use the intervening centuries to improve its technology and be ready to face The Clathran Menace, which became the subtitle of Star Saga: Two.
Reception to Star Saga was mostly positive. In the August 1988 Computer Gaming World, William "Biff" Kritzen loved it, calling it "the most unique and well-written role-playing experience yet to appear in a computer game." He acknowledges that it would have been nice to have some combat options, but otherwise thinks that the game "stand[s] up to any human-gamemastered role-playing game on the market today," which clearly goes a bit too far. In October of the year, the magazine gave the game a "special award for literary achievement." Reviewer Gregg Keizer in the August 1988 Compute! disagrees with me, calling the game "far more a social event than a computer game" and saying that "it's lackluster without interaction." (I obviously didn't play it that way, but I still don't get it. If you follow the rules laid out in the manual, I don't see where there's much interaction.) Dragon gave it 3.5 stars in the February 1989 issue. This is low for the magazine, but the review doesn't have anything negative to say except the lack of much computer involvement in what's ostensibly a computer game.
I end my own coverage on the same sentiment. It doesn't seem to me that the authors used a computer for what a computer is good for. That someone involved in such an amazingly tactical game as Wizardry couldn't come up with a better combat system boggles the mind. Just a little probability and a few tactical choices would have enhanced the game and, even better, made better use of the technology. It seems unlikely to me that they couldn't have done it, and more likely that it simply wasn't the kind of game they were shooting for. What's left is much more "reading" than "playing." No one has posted an LP of the game on YouTube, and it would be absurd if they did.

I adjusted some of my GIMLET scores after experiencing the full game. It does best in "Game World" (7), but I was overly generous with "Character Development," "NPCs," "Encounters," "Combat" and "Equipment" the first time and ended up lowering those by a point or two. On the other hand, I was inexplicably miserly with the score of 1 that I gave to "Gameplay," particulary since the game is very nonlinear and replayable, and both the duration and difficulty are mostly on-target. I elevated the score to 6, which ended up leaving the game with its original total score of 31.
The paragraph containing the endgame text.
I rejected the second game without playing it, assuming it had the same definition problems as the first. I might revisit that decision just to see how the story continues. Unfortunately, the authors never managed to finish the third planned game in the Star Saga trilogy, so I assume it ends on a cliffhanger. (Low sales led Masterplay to sell the rights in 1990 to Cinemaware, whose re-releases of the first two games sold worse than the originals.) The Internet tells me that the second game has a few more features than the first while offering about the same amount of text. It's impressive that the authors managed to write so much in just a year.
For some reason, I didn't think to review the comments to my original entry on Star Saga until after I'd finished most of this entry. It was there that I was reminded that CRPG contributor Zenic Reverie blogged about playing the game in a series of 2012-2013 entries starting here. His blog is worth reading if you want to learn more about the specific planets and paragraphs.


  1. I have really great memories about both these games, but that might be a bit rosy tinted because I played them with my parents as a child.

    But even though there are technically little interactions between players I think they work much better when played with multiple cooperative players & sharing information & trading with each other. Plus speculating about the plot.

    If you could set up something like that, it might give you a different perspective. Or maybe play 2-3 characters in parallel to simulate it. There is a definite loss of experiencing playing it with a single characters - the individual stories mesh together with each other and the main plot in several cases.

    I am still really sad about the third part never being finished - it pretty much has the effects you expect.

    Another thought about storing text on disc: I think back when the game was released reading long texts on the old CRTs wasn't really that pleasant. Of course, people did it with text adventures but it definitely caused more eye strain than paper.

    In the case of Star Saga it also ties into the multiplayer aspect. When there is no event being resolved on-screen, one player can read his texts while the next one enters his turn.

    1. Given the storage options at that time, it would have taken several extra discs for the Apple II... I think around that time, most of them would have been able to hold 140k. 800 double spaced type written pages would be about 400k! That would require two discs on the typical 360k DOS drives. I was only vaguely familiar with these, Chet! Thanks for going back to a deeper dive!

    2. "800 double spaced type written pages would be about 400k" sounded weird to me, so I looked it up and did the math; apparently there is an ISO standard defining a typewritten double-spaced page as 1800 characters, which means - and this is such a coincidence I can't fully accept it - that 800 pages is in fact 1.44 million bytes, which is, of course, the capacity of the high density 3.5" PC floppy disks that were the last generation of floppy disk to gain mass market acceptance. (Maybe... I'm not sure if the "1.44 MB" used to describe floppy disk capacity is decimal megabytes or binary ones; disks are funny like that)

    3. Strangely enough, the 1.44MB printed on old 3.5" floppies is neither binary or decimal (a standard that didn't even exist at the time). The actual capacity of an IBM formatted 3.5" HD floppy is 1,474,560 bytes, which is 1.41 MB in the binary system, or (roughly) 1.47 decimal. The 1.44 value is obtained by simply doubling the .72 MB of the immediately previous format.

  2. "There's an extent to which these physical supplements were necessitated by technology rather than any desire to provide the player with something tactile."

    I think it's the other way around; there was a need to provide players with something tactile that could be used for copy protection, and that something then needed to have enough content to discourage anyone from making copies of it. The fact that this additional content could bew used to enhance the gameplay was mostly just a side effect. CD-ROM removed the need for copy protection (for a while, anyway) which led to decline of the physical accessories.

    "in games like Star Control (1992)"

    Do you mean Star Control (1991) or Star Control 2 (1992)? The statement is equally true for both games, but the first one is an action/strategy hybrid and therefore outside of the scope of this blog.

    "Humanity has colonized a local cluster called the Nine Worlds"

    This is not at all similar to the concept of the Nine Realms from Norse mythology.

    1. Star Control 2 is the one the crpgaddict played and reviewed, so it's the one referred to.

    2. "Extra physical bits as anti-piracy" is certainly true by the early 1990s, but I think earlier on there were other reasons, sometimes technical, sometimes just a bonus. For example, I had Lord of the Rings on the Commodore 64 that came with a copy of the first novel; you didn't need it to play the game (although it probably helped) and it had no copy protection value.

  3. "I can't imagine anything more excruciating than trying to play this game with even one other player, just sitting there as she silently reads her pages before taking my turn to do the same thing."

    I'm not great at waiting for things, but really liked games with long turns. It lead to my brother/friend and I playing two games at once - sometimes two of the same game, sometimes different games. Alternatively, we'd just have a gameboy or some such to play by ourselves between turns.

  4. everyone still wondering about which spaceport is safe to visit, or is it just me?

    I think it's the third one, because the first one looks rough and beat up, and the second looks like the entrance area is too small to safely land in. But what do I know?

    1. It is indeed the third one. The first one is out because of the condition of the ground, the second not because the entrance is too small but because there's moss growing on the control tower.

    2. Maybe a reflection of the evil space moss in Foundation? I think it was in Foundation and Earth... but has been a long time!

    3. That's right -- they had to hose Golan Trevize down with a heat ray, or some such. A nice end to the series, though certainly of far different tone than the initial trilogy!

    4. My guess was that the third looked the safest, but maybe it was a trap and the second was better.

  5. Is there any reason given why the individual characters should not trade information with one another (other than maybe lack of proper communication technology would make such a task unfeasible, but I hadn't seen that stated anywhere)? I mean except for maybe the Space Patrol Enforcer and the "scion of a Mafia family", it doesn't seem like the characters goals or backgrounds would conflict with one another, so I don't really see why characters/players shouldn't cooperate to reach their goals (especially since the actual endgame turns out to be in everyone's interest anyway).

  6. I'm no expert either, but the stories sound original enough to me, even if the real-life Gironde is far from an industrial world populated by machines.
    The "planet" which actually is the contorted body of a single creature reminded me of the Moander dimension in 'Pools of Darkness' (though the scale probably isn't the same).

    Josh Lawrence / "JJ Sonick", who was one of those who created a 'kit' to more easily play this (not sure if it can still be found on the net), also blogged about it on his Apple page ( as mentioned in the comments to the first entry. In general, I'd recommend anyone interested in the game to read that comment section, too.

    @Chet: Since you re-read it, you might already have seen that in July 2012, a year and a half after your first entry, you commented on it thus:
    "I had a vague idea of surprising everyone by going back to SS1 and blasting through it in a couple of days to prepare myself for SS2, but form your posting, that suggests it'll take like 27 hours, so screw that."
    Luckily, in the end it 'only' took you 25 hours... .

    1. Hi Busca, thanks for the mention! The Home of the Underdogs pages where the kit used to be hosted are on the Wayback Machine, but the file isn't, so I've reuploaded it here:

      The kit also comes with "starweb", made by Home of the Underdogs contributor Ranger55, which allows you to enter a passage number and the correct passage will be pulled up for you. The passage scans are low resolution, though using it might be a more pleasant experience that switching between and searching within the much-nicer scans of the separate passage booklet pdfs that are available on Mocag ( I don't think starweb was ever made for Star Saga Two, though, so Mocag's the place for those passages ( ).

      For a Windows app developed using the 20+ years-old "The Games Factory" program, the kit amazingly still runs for me in Win 10, but it's UI is clunky (definitely need to read the Readme) and it's at a small, fixed resolution.

      Fortunately, there's a more modern solution. Tabletop Simulator is a free app on Stream and Steam Workshop user Serena made a mod of the Star Saga map for it:

      Thank you Chet for revisiting this fascinating game!

    2. Oops, sorry, Tabletop Simulator is not free, but the mods are.

    3. Thank you very much, Josh. Funny how many different parts played their role in preserving the materials of that game: you, Home of the Underdogs, Ranger55, the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History, Tabletop Simulator modder Serena, and the comment section of the CRPGAddict blog.

    4. I would agree with that, I have read quite a bit of SF and the stories don't ring a bell.

  7. The mention of "Harvard, a university planet" reminds me of the Oxford system in the 1993 space sim "Privateer", where there was another "university planet".

  8. What even is a "space wall"?

    1. a wall of space

    2. From the manual: "Good question. The only thing know for certain is that they present an impassable barrier to any ship using any sort of hyperdrive . . . Oddly enough they don't seem to exist in 'normal' space, only in hyperspace. A ship using just rockets and thrusters can go right through them---but rockets and thrusters are so slow that it's faster to use a hyperdrive and go around the Space Walls."

    3. Space has the "problem" (for game designers, anyway) of not having any terrain to present obstacles. The path between any two (2D, of course) points is a straight line. This is "boring", evidently. So they always come up with contrived obstacles like nebulas, flying right through a star or bouncing too close to a supernova.

      “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”

      ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

    4. "Space is very big, Captain."

      - T'Pol, Star Trek: Enterprise

  9. I have played these games a good number of times - probably every character at least once - usually during my annual weeklong visits to a Florida friend. I've always lamented that SS3 never came out for storyline closure! As for playing alone vs. in a group - the group makes the game! Yes, there is a lot of (usually silent) reading going on, but nothing says you can't share. In any case, while one person is taking their turns, I guarantee the other players are working out their next moves, especially after the introductory portion of the game when you actually have to start planning what you're during and in which order, so you're rarely sitting around just waiting for your turn. (If you are, it's probably your turn to go refresh the snacks.) If I recall correctly, there are also some times when it's important (or at least useful) to be the FIRST player to land on a planet or meet a race or do whatever, so there's an element of competitiveness as well. I have these games sitting in my closet and would play them again in a heartbeat if I had an interested group. I never even considered playing them solo, and while now I'm tempted to just to reexperience the story, I'd get depressed all over again because of the unintended cliffhangers.

  10. Thank you for going through this one. I've had both of these games on my game shelf since forever (Apple IIgs versions) but never played them as I assumed they were supposed to be multiplayer games with a very limited (if non-existent) single player mode. I'm glad to see that this isn't the case.

    Every year at VCF I muse about bringing them along to see if I could get a 6 person game going (as I assumed that was the only real way to play), but it appears that these take longer than a few hours to get through. If a single player game took 25 hours I can only imagine how long it would take for 6 people to win.

  11. this seems charming, though certainly clunky. the plots of the planets feel very much like material for Star Trek episodes, or (to go back to the source) for short stories published in headier sci-fi magazines in the 60s and 70s. which isn't to say they must be ripped off from something --- i just suspect the creators were immersed in that world, and used their LARP/CRPG to play around with concepts in that vein. neat to read about.

    1. I also thought "Star Trek" (TOS), especially for Gironde. That description reminded me of the old episode "A Taste of Armageddon," in which two planets fight a 'war' that is simulated entirely by computer. Though there are plenty of differences: there the inhabitants (i) weren't robots, (ii) knew that the war was a simulation, and (iii) dutifully reported to the death chambers when the computer told them their number was up.

  12. >For me, by far the weirdest thing about Star Saga is the idea that it could be a group game. Up to six players can play the game at the same time, each taking a turn at the computer, but they're supposed to keep secret their experiences and the nature of their quests.

    It plays _much_ better as "play by (e)mail" format. Pass around a save file to the next person, they can spend their time thinking about what to do. A little like Diplomacy.

    1. That's a neat idea, I wonder if anyone has ever tried that?

    2. I played it with two dear online friends that way. Took months but it was hugely satisfying. Sometimes we'd all be online and pass turns around pretty quickly, others it'd be more sporadic. It's true that you end up having common cause, but there's really no way to know that going in so that does lead to some caution about sharing information. Or it did for us.

  13. AlphabeticalAnonymousSeptember 30, 2022 at 3:07 PM

    I guess I wasn't paying attention when the switch happened -- when did the site's top banner change, and what's the source of the planetary-orbit-like background?

    1. There are two banners - fantasy and sci-fi - both made by a reader called Sebastian. Chet has put the latter one up when he is playing / blogging about a game from that category.

      AFAIK (and according to the comment section there) it was used for the first time for "Planet's Edge" in March 2020.

    2. AlphabeticalAnonymousSeptember 30, 2022 at 4:12 PM

      Thanks for the quick reply -- I had gotten too used to the "Fate map" banner and didn't realize there were multiple banner themes.

    3. PS: The star system is 'Alpha Virginis' in 'Star Control II', from Chet's coverage of that game.

  14. Fascinating game. I missed your original entries on it and never heard about it before. It truly is a product of its time, which makes it all the more fascinating.

  15. I owned this game as a kid. I always found it interesting--mostly because it was so different than what you normally saw on the Apple II--but I don't think I ever came close to finishing it.

    Incidentally, while researching a post for my own blog, I came across an earlier game that used a similar mechanic to the "Star Saga" games. BrainBank, Inc., created a game a couple years earlier called "Murder by the Dozen," which was published by CBS Software. This was, as the name suggests, a mystery game. Basically the game came with 12 different mystery stories. Multiple players navigated a computer-generated map, visiting different locations to question suspects and gather clues. The game would then refer each player to numbered entries in the printed game manuals. Like "Star Saga," the players were not supposed to share anything they read.

  16. Up to six players can play the game at the same time, each taking a turn at the computer

    More evidence that gaming of the era simply *expected* that you would play with friends. So, so much of it took it as a given that the whole point of playing games was to interact with other humans. But eventually the single player idea took off. So much so that Sid Meier famously refused to make Civilization single player, saying the people who play games don't have friends. (He eventually relented and made CivNet.)

    I can't imagine anything more excruciating than trying to play this game with even one other player

    What if you and your brother both want to play on the computer at the same time? You can have a fight, or you can both play the game. Which sounds better?

    otherwise thinks that the game "stand[s] up to any human-gamemastered role-playing game on the market today," which clearly goes a bit too far.

    I don't know, man...the state of DMing in 1988? Today entire books have been written on DMing and there are countless video tutorials. Then? Well, you could read Gary Gygax's confusing thoughts, I guess. But what he wrote down was not at all how they actually played in Lake Geneva. Dick.

    1. So much so that Sid Meier famously refused to make Civilization multi player

    2. The "people who play computer games have no friends" quote is sourced from two years after Civ was released, and was more a comment on the small size of the potential multiplayer community than anything else.

      There's a reason it wasn't until Civilization 4 that multiplayer was included in the base release - both Civ II and Civ III had it added via expansion pack.

    3. Way back when, I actually played a hacked version of Civ 1 my big brother brought home from college that had hot swap multi-player somehow added. I think it was called MultiCiv?

  17. "Greenberg's old Wizardry colleagues, Roe Adams and Robert Woodhead, were two of the game's playtesters."

    Which reminds me....


    1. When Chet is on his deathbed, this will still disturb him.

    2. With any luck it'll disturb him enough to come back from the dead, fight his way out of his tomb (those pesky do-gooders!) and resume blogging.

  18. The story confuses me. If the plague is already there, why create a boundary? And how do you go on an adventure "before being chained to a desk forever" when you can't come back? Or does being chained to a desk forever mean something else in a mafia family?

    1. In that particular case, the character is from Wellmet, which is already outside the Boundary. His story must not include returning to the Nine Worlds, or else he has some other reason for doing so that comes up during the game.

      But I agree the story has some other plot holes. I was never sure how the Boundary helped. If the point was to keep the Clathrans from ever learning Earth's coordinates, you'd think they'd let people IN but not OUT instead of the opposite.

    2. Think the idea is that they've eradicated the plague within their own region, and are terrified of it coming back. So they ban any possible inroad.

    3. The origin and point of the Boundary gets discussed a bit more in the 2nd game.

  19. I like how despite taking place long in the future, Primordial Soup, which is something I think we can make today, is hard enough to find in a scifi setting that only one planet has it. You'd think any planet with a university would have it...

  20. Thank you for writing about this game again. It seems like such an intriguing, earnest and innovative effort.

    I assume that nowadays, the game will attract only very few new players (who have no previous history with the game). But going by the player reports in the comments to this and your earlier entry, it seems to have been successful in its niche, from an artistic point of view.

    If I understand your earlier post and the comments correctly, the positions of the planets are randomized in each game, which keeps replays interesting.

    The game has been described as something between a board game and a computer game, with the map, the books and the computer playing the bookkeeping "game master". This reminds me of two trends in modern hobbyist board games: Some board games use text paragraphs to tell a continuous story, and some board games ship with apps for smartphones/tablets to manage the game and to keep information hidden from the players.

    Indeed, the game has a BGG entry:

    Does anyone have a link to the "map kit" / "searchable browser-based index" / "application that uses the game map and allows you to maneuver your little tokens around the screen" created by JJ Sonick?

    1. Hi Bitmap, JJ Sonick here. See my reply to Busca above!

  21. This is the kind of game that would be really intriguing to play in a mobile format

    1. Yes, this sort of solo play experience is all over the place on mobile now with interactive fiction with skills and inventory and whatnot, although no one has really tried to make those into an asynchronous multiplayer experience, which really was where much of the charm of this game resides. Shared experiences always being the most fun.

  22. I have fond memories of playing Star Saga with friends. This was in 2000s, so we had several laptops with the scanned texts, so there wasn't too much waiting, and we discussed and theorized rather liberally. It was a very good experience, but more on the side of sci-fi themed evening with friends than roleplaying. We did wonder if Star Control 2 had been directly influenced by Star Saga.

  23. A friend and I found this works remarkably well remote play off a Windows VM. Take two turns at a time (finish the prior turn, start a new one), then text 'tag' to each other when finished. If we were both active at the same time, you'd just plan out your next turn or fiddle around on your phone between turns. If we weren't both active, it was no worse than any other asynchronous experience.

    We'd occasionally plan to meet up to trade goods (semi-co-op is where the game shines), but would otherwise largely refrain from table talk other than discuss a particularly funny planet after we'd both visited.

    We managed to play through both games in just a few months and it was a lot of fun. We did actually make a few aborted attempts back in the day to play in person with both 3 and 4 player games, but never finished. The shared play experience was just fine and a lot of fun, but it was just tough to keep getting together with that same group. Remote asynchronous play is definitely the way to go.

  24. This is so cool! Mike Massimilla (one of the designers of the game) is my dad, and it's amazing to think he and his friends made this and that people still play it today. Let me know if you have any questions you'd like me to ask him about it.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I don't think I had any specific questions, but if he has time to look over this article, I'd love to hear any corrections or any bits of trivia he can remember from game development, such as the sources of some of the plots or names.

      I'm going to have an article on Star Saga II eventually, and it's probable I'll have more questions after that, particularly since I know your father and his friends intended to make a trilogy. If you or your father could shoot me an email ( so I have a way to get in touch, I'd really appreciate it.

    2. Hello! I'm not sure if you'll see this comment after nearly a year, but I am such a huge fan of Star Saga and someone that has long been sad about the cliffhanger at the end of Star Saga 2. I even introduced a friend to the game last year and they loved it and also are craving more information about where the story was planning to go. I would love to ask your father some questions I have about what was planned for Star Saga 3, if that offer is still open!

  25. I got an email from Mike Massimilla, one of the authors, which I am pasting below. I'll be in touch with him when Star Saga 2 comes up for consideration:


    You got it most of it right! Something you missed in your solo playthrough, which some of your commenters explained, was that the game was designed mainly to be played by groups. It was a rough attempt to put the LARP experience in a box. Players were supposed to cooperate by freely discussing their experiences. If there was a rule in the rulebook that said players couldn’t do this, I think that rule only applied to the first few turns of the game, as the characters haven’t physically met each other yet. When the characters meet in the tavern on Wellmet (part of the scripted walkthrough), they exchange subspace radio frequencies and agree to work together. I think there was also an option for the characters’ spaceships to meet in the same trisector and trade cargo. This makes the game easier and less grindy than playing solo, particularly for large groups. Our most avid fans were people who played the game in groups of 4, 5, or 6. Unfortunately there weren’t enough of those people to keep the series going.

    You might want to try playing SS2 with multiple players. It’s a different experience. Particularly since #2 is more difficult, and may feel punishing if you play it solo.

    After you are done with #2, I would be happy to share the general ideas about what we planned to include in #3.

    I was the main software engineer / programmer. Walt and Rick were the main authors and game designers. Andy was the business lead / producer. Though, we all did some of everything. Andy’s wife Sheila (at the time) enhanced and polished a lot of the text (she was an English major), and added a lot of humor. Gerry Seixas did QA on both the game and its production.

    In order to facilitate the programming, I invented a planet “language” so that the authors (all of us) could write the “code” for the planets in a high level layman’s syntax. A condensed version of this “planet code” was stored on the floppy disks, and when a player landed on a planet, was loaded into the limited memory of the Apple II or IBM PC Compatible, after flushing out the code for the player’s previous planet. Even with this system, fitting the program and its data into the memory of those computers was a challenge.

    Your review makes an interesting point about Dr. Peterson.

    1. I can't say how cool it is that you've heard from one of the original developers. I'd love to hear what was planned for #3 - it's one of my biggest missing game sequel regrets in all my years of gaming. I was INVESTED in the storylines all 6 characters (I've played 1-2 at least once through for each one). I need closure!


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