Monday, May 6, 2024

Game 513: Centauri Alliance (1990)

Centauri Alliance
United States
Brøderbund Software, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for Apple II and Commodore 64
Date Started: 2 May 2024 
Most sites describe Centauri Alliance as "The Bard's Tale in space," but if you told me nothing about the two games and when they were released, I would assume that Centauri Alliance was first, and thus that The Bard's Tale was a "medieval Centauri Alliance." Alliance had releases only for the Commodore 64 and Apple II--dying platforms by 1990. The graphics somehow look worse than they were in 1985. There is no music, and sound is so rare that it might as well not have had any. Even the combat system, which someone plausibly saw as an advancement from The Bard's Tale, could equally plausibly be something that someone tried and then dismissed as too cumbersome.

Alliance was written by Michael Cranford, author of the first two Bard's Tale games. After he fell out with Interplay owner Brian Fargo, he took his services to Brøderbund. But where Interplay continued to advance throughout the 1980s, producing the excellent Wasteland in 1988 and Dragon Wars in 1990, Cranford seems to have had just one way of designing a game in mind.
Navigating the corridors of a dungeon spacestation.
None of this means that I won't like the game. By now, readers know that modest improvements in graphics and sound don't impress me much, and that I don't really care about music at all. But there are other things about the game that put me in a bad mood from the outset. First, while I can enjoy sci-fi when it's done imaginatively, I am less forgiving of half-assed sci-fi than I am half-assed fantasy. As much as I don't really want to play the same old game with humans, elves, and dwarves occupying roles as fighters, mages, and thieves, I much less want to play a game with obvious stand-ins for humans, elves, and dwarves occupying obvious stand-ins for roles of fighters, mages, and thieves.
It's too soon to say for sure, but so far Alliance seems to lean towards the "half-assed" side of the continuum. In addition to humans, we get the obligatory bird aliens (Valkyryn), reptile aliens (Manstrak), insect aliens (Acrturian), as well as stronger humans (Donsai) and an admittedly fairly original race of shapeshifters called the Praktor. There are four "disciplines": combat (fighter), tech (thief), psionics (mage), and metamorph (again, slightly original). Only Praktors can be metamorphs.
The Alliance gives us our first quest.
Each of these focuses has a handful of skills. For instance, combat breaks down into melee, thrown, sidearm, and master. Psionics can specialize in mind, body, matter, or energy. You should be able to fill the obvious spellcasting classes. Many of the spells are even identical to those in The Bard's Tale, although they have different codes. This isn't The Bard's Tale in space so much as The Bard's Tale with a space-themed substitution of nouns.
The Commodore 64 version of Alliance supports the import of characters from The Bard's Tale I, II, III, and Ultima III. I understand the Apple II version adds Wizardry I, II, and III and Might and Magic to that list. The idea is absurd. Not only are they all-fantasy games, but they're full of races, classes, items, and abilities that are incompatible with Alliance. I tried it with my winning Bard's Tale party (the only thing I had for the C64). Everyone came over as human except for my elf and gnome, who were translated as Valkyryn. Their experience points were capped at 8,000, but their attributes (which were almost all 18 by the end of The Bard's Tale) remained the same. Most of their equipment was stripped except for some odd choices; for instance, my half-orc hunter (now a human specializing in combat) kept his Shield Ring and Troll Ring. My hobbit bard (now also a human specializing in combat) kept two Fire Horns. A Magi Staff and the Specter Snare also came through on other characters. Anyway, I decided against continuing with an overpowered party and made my own.
My overpowered imported character.
The backstory sets the game in 2247, about 160 years after humans discovered near-light speed transportation and made their initial journey to Alpha Centauri and found a variety of sentient aliens. It turns out that the galaxy is teeming with races, most of them hostile to each other, and so humans joined with the other five playable races into the Centauri Alliance to protect their area of the galaxy.
But what did they call it?
The player characters are military veterans assigned to a special, off-the-books squad. Their first mission is to go to Omicron VII and assassinate a Donsai mercenary captain who has been selling Alliance secrets to the Daynab Confederation.
I created the following party:
  • Meatshield, a male Donsai combat specialist with melee skills.
  • Backup, a male human combat specialist with sidearm skills.
  • Blobia, a female Praktor metamorph.
  • Lugwrench a male Manstrak technician.
  • Shock, a female Valkyryn psionics specialist in the "mind" school.
  • Awe, a female Arcturian psionics specialist in the "body" school.
Creating my final character.
There are two additional slots for NPCs.

The party starts on Lunabase with a message to get to Omicron VII as soon as possible. Before then, they can buy weapons and armor at the nearby Alliance Armory and explore the base. Everyone started with around 1,000 credits. I favored armor over weapons and melee weapons over ranged weapons. After buying ranged weapons, you have to buy ammo separately, which is confusingly under the "Other" menu instead of "Weapons."
Sure. Makes perfect sense that you sell broadswords in space.
Lunabase is 16 x 16. In addition to the headquarters (inn) and armory, it has an academy (training review board), biotech facility (healer), and starport (exit). It also has a lot of random 1 x 1 and 2 x 1 buildings. A map of the base comes with the game, so I didn't bother to map it. There's also a crude in-game automap that erases the level once you've left.
The game's crude approach to mapping.
The manual warns that "like any port, there is a large element that feeds off the honesty and good work of others." Accordingly, you run into battles with enemies every once in a while (definitely less frequently than in Skara Brae). But for one exception, combat proceeds exactly like The Bard's Tale or its sequel; to wit:
The game tells you nothing about your foes except their names (e.g., Deathman, Skarvak, Vesta Marg, Metrak Scum, Minduran, Far Dractor). You have to figure out their strengths and weaknesses (including whether they have ranged weapons) from context.
Even the pre-combat messages are similar to The Bard's Tale.
  • Enemies can start up to 60 feet away from the party.
  • Enemies can attack in groups.
  • Each round, the party decides whether to attack, move, or flee.
  • If attacking, each character specifies an attack type each round, including melee attack, ranged attack, dodge, use an item, or use psionics, then specifies the enemy or enemy group on which to apply the attack.
  • After specifying an action for every character, you start the round. Your actions are threaded with the enemies' based on initiative. The results scroll by and the next round begins.
Targeting an enemy group in combat.
The major difference is that in Alliance, instead of being told how far away an enemy group is, you see them visually on a hex layout. This is something that sounds like an improvement until you realize that it swaps the ease of selecting your target from a menu with the annoyance of either having to arrow to or joystick over the appropriate hex. Since nothing else interesting happens on this map and the party only ever occupies a single hex, all the map does is add length and annoyance to the combat process.
Combat actions scroll by.
I stayed on the station until everyone had enough experience to "level up," which translates here into adding additional skills, additional maximum health, and additional maximum psi power.
Specialize or be a generalist?
Oddly, you don't seem to get money from combat. Instead, you get paid for advancing. It seems to be 1,000 credits per level. After I advanced once, I returned to the store and bought everyone a ranged weapon, because occasionally you get weird configurations like the one below in which you cannot get your character into melee range. I won't be able to use the weapons until I give characters points in the skill, though.
An all-melee party is screwed here.
Psionic abilities are basically spells. They can be cast outside of combat. There are four classes--mind, body, matter, and energy--and each has 10 levels of spells with 4 spells per level. Each is called with a five-letter code, one more than The Bard's Tale and one more than necessary. I have Level 1 "Mind" spells: SPSEN (Spatial Sense), PSIAS (Psi Assault), MINDS (Mind Shield), and INVIS (Invisibility). My Level 1 "Body" spells are: INSHL (Insta-Heal), JOLT! (Jolt), EXOSK (Exo-Skeleton), and METFI (Meta-Fist). So far, everything is short-range and affects only one target.

Unfortunately, that's all I can tell you for now because every time I try to enter the spaceport, the game crashes. I get no message. Just nothing happens at all. I can't activate any of the controls, turn, open character sheets, and so forth. So I'll have to fiddle with different settings or perhaps try the Apple II version.

Some other miscellaneous notes:
  • There is no way that I can find to pool or distribute cash. That's going to be annoying.
  • The game came in a hexagonal box.
No one minds wasting 32% of the packing space in the future!
  • I didn't explore metamorphing in this first session, but the character has 19 forms he can change into, including "Stonewalker," "Beta Wolf," and "Atomic Ant." Naturally, these have strengths and weaknesses I'll have to explore.
  • Like The Bard's Tale II, the game makes a distinction between saving the party and saving the game.
  • I guess some of the things that can fill the NPC slots are robots that you can buy at the armory for several thousand credits.
I somehow missed Centauri Alliance on my first and second passes through 1990, for reasons I find hard to explain. It's a fairly well-known game by a well-known author from a well-known publisher. There's no question that it's an RPG. I guess I should be surprised that my list doesn't have more such errors.
Time so far: 1 hour
Playing out of: duty*
This is something new I decided to introduce. Valid options are "love," "duty," "desperation," and "rage." It might change from one entry to the next on the same game.


  1. Good party names - I'm looking forward to the action figures

  2. Holy moly, this really *does* sounds like Bard's Tale in space. I hope this doesn't end up being too much of a slog... although at least it doesn't start the player with essentially end-game levels of power like BT2 and 3, so maybe that'll help.

  3. stepped pyramidsMay 6, 2024 at 1:47 AM

    This is the last game Cranford would program (he would design one more game, the horror adventure Dark Seed), and it had been 4 years since he worked on Bard's Tale II. He was working on his master's in divinity at the time and would leave the game industry entirely once it was completed. So I think it's not too much of a stretch to say 1) his skills were probably not up to date and 2) this was probably mostly a way to pay his way through school.

    Also, the C64 was yesterday's news in the US but remained popular in Europe for longer, and as we've seen from all the European Bard's Tale clones there was plenty of appetite for this kind of game. Makes sense that Broderbund would give it a shot on that basis.

  4. I was curious to try this game when learning of its existence not too long ago (a 1990 game for C64 and Apple II only? madness!) and I started playing it when it came up on the list.

    I'm not sure I will finish it though, due to balance issues in the midgame, tedious beehive design of many of the maps and for it being surprisingly dry for a scifi rpg with supposedly rich lore and setting coming from a well known publisher and developer (insert Starfield joke here).

    I was able to go quite far with few issues with the Apple II version using Applewin, sometimes there is text scrolling too fast regardless of which speed the emulator is set on (it happened 4/5 times in many hours), I had a systematic crash (which I found was due to my party inventory being full the finding a key item) and a recoverable softlock bug (covered by the usual godsend A.S.S. guide).

    I'm not sure about the C64 version, but in the one I played you can create a full party of 8 characters, leaving the last two slots free for NPC is just a recommendation.

    Good luck!

  5. I'm mildly bothered by the name "Omicron 7". Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet and usually means the 15th of something, e.g. "Omicron Persei 8" meaning the 8th planet of the 15th star system in the Perseus constellation, or famously "Alpha Centauri" being the 1st star system in the Centaur constellation. So Omicron 7 means the 15th of the 7th of... what exactly?

    In other words, Astronomy Does Not Work That Way! Good Night!

    1. Great Futurama reference - and I learned something from it. So thank you!

    2. Omicron Theta was Data's homeworld.

    3. AlphabeticalAnonymousMay 6, 2024 at 8:39 AM

      Yes, but Star Trek and its spin-offs have been notoriously loose (in the astronomy world, anyway) with their choices of names. Their use of real, named systems such as "Wolf 359" is the exception rather than the rule. But we can always just assume that the naming of stars & planets finally changed once humanity actually started venturing beyond our solar system.

    4. I think they're pretty loose with absolutely everything astronomical in nature :p

    5. I'll add that the "Centauri" in Alpha Centauri is a genitive (i.e. it means "of the Centaurus"). I suppose that makes the game's title *technically* correct (except we don't normally use genitives in English) but I get the impression that the author didn't know that.

    6. There's a real system called Omicron Andromedae. What does "Omicron" mean in that context?

    7. Omicron Andromedae just means that it's the 15th brightest star in the constellation Andromeda.

    8. AlphabeticalAnonymousMay 8, 2024 at 10:45 AM

      Right. The Greek letter indicates the approximate apparent, relative brightness of the star at visible wavelengths as seen from Earth; the constellation name indicates the part of the sky it's in. A somewhat odd naming scheme, but one that we astronomers do actually still use (and it at least rolls off of the tongue slightly better than some alternative names for the same star, e.g. "Gaia DR3 1931192500887330688").

  6. I like the new "Playing out of" "tag" for the entries. It gives a little insight in your mood while writing - and could help to comment to your posts more appropriate.

  7. "Valid options are "love," "duty," "desperation," and "rage."" - What about spite though?

    1. anticipation, curiousity, dread, masochism?

    2. I want to second adding "spite", mostly because it'd be a great reminder of my favorite old Simpsons joke (where the receptionist at the Big Brother charity asks Homer why he wants to become a big brother.)

    3. The Wargaming ScribeMay 6, 2024 at 4:09 PM

      I feel Chet should have indicated which Jazz piece to listen to while reading each article.

    4. Parts 4, 1, 2, and 3 of A Love Supreme, respectively.

    5. I'll be flexible. I'm sure I'll think of a lot of additions as we go along.

    6. I've never been able to stand good music in the background. The only things I want to do while jazz is playing are a) listen and b) drink.

    7. 'You like to take drugs and hear music? My album is engineered...'

      ILL BILL - What's wrong with Bill?

  8. AlphabeticalAnonymousMay 6, 2024 at 8:42 AM

    I'm always more of a science-fiction fan than a fantasy fan (although years of reading this blog is slowly changing my views on that!), so I'll be interested to see how this one goes.

    I'll definitely be expecting more Babylon 5 references as the play-through continues, though. That "Awe" character is nearly the spitting image of the bug-crime-lord who ruled Down Below.

    1. If you mean you think Awe looks like a reference to N'Grath...the chronology definitely doesn't work out, as Babylon 5 didn't come out till 1993 (and N'Grath first appeared in Soul Hunter in 1994).

    2. AlphabeticalAnonymousMay 6, 2024 at 8:45 PM

      @Delvin: I do understand the chronology involved. I was hoping for a B5 reference or two in the play-through narrative, not (obviously, I thought) from the game itself.

    3. this one unfortunately looks middle of the road at best, but also bear in mind what Chet says clearly: the same conventions that he forgives and welcomes in fantasy irritates him in science fiction. Which I think is unfair because devs and designers are constrained by models that must be recognisable.

    4. "Forgives AND WELCOMES" was an unnecessary and incorrect addition to what I said.

  9. This game feels utterly bizarre, both in its existence and its status as a game you haven't played up until this time, because I can't imagine how it wasn't on Wikipedia or Mobygames the first time around you were doing non-DOS games. The importation is weird, because half of those aren't even games relating to this one, yet the game itself feels like a reskinned Bard's Tale with improvements that are actually negatives.

  10. Does the hex layout of the combat map make any attempt to reflect the layout of the corridors/rooms where the encounter started? I'm struggling to figure out how it came up with that "guy on an island" combat map...

    1. I need to get some more experience with it, but I don't think so. There really is no wall configuration would result in that "island" pattern, but there might be something else going on, like maybe you get the island if you're at a four-way intersection or something.

    2. Anyone remember the MMI spell, 'Make Room'? (There was a time when I wished the reverse - take characters out of melee, not put them in it!)

  11. I played through this on my Apple a few years ago. I had had it since back in the day but I never really got past the opening area so I figured it was time to actually put some effort in. I was a huge fan of the Bards Tale series (especially the first two) so I figured this would be 'Bards Tale in Space' which was an appealing idea to me. I really REALLY tried to like the game but it has way too many balance issues and the writing feels stiff and rushed. There's also no good way to over level yourself past the difficult areas so you can get stuck if you invested in the wrong party. Even using a walkthrough I found the ending areas to be tough (and I thought BT1 and 2 were pretty easy). The game really needed a month or so of testing and balancing to fix it but I get the feeling that it was rushed out the door.

    Incidentally the Apple II version supports the Apple Mouse which is how I recommend playing (not sure if the C64 version supports the C64 mouse or not). That way you can click directly onto the hex you want instead of scrolling. That alone will save you hours of time.


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