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Expert Analysis

Star Trek | Starflight - The Best TOS Videogame That Wasn’t

Star Trek fandom was in a strange place in the mid-’80s. The original series’ initial run was long gone, with fans left to sate their Trek appetite on limited TV and VHS video appearances. In cinemas, the unofficial rule regarding the movies had just begun to kick in. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and third movie, The Search for Spock (1984), demonstrated for some the maligned ‘odd number is bad’ theory, while second outing The Wrath of Khan (1982) shone a lone beacon as the sole even-numbered ‘good’ entry so far. Soon, a fresh series in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the fourth movie The Voyage Home (1986) would re-invigorate the franchise. But in 1985, it was looking a bit grim for fans.

Early Star Trek Games

For gamers, it was worse. Ever since 1971, when three students at the University of California devised a text-based space strategy game on its SDS Sigma 7 mainframe computer, unofficial Star Trek games had flowed from developers eager to recreate their favourite sci-fi series without bothering about any nonsense such as an official licence from Paramount. “Those computer people who happen to be Trekkies have adopted the Star Trek theme as their own,” said the description of Byte Magazine’s Star Trek listing in its March 1977 issue. 

“Everybody under the sun has been programming games based loosely on Star Trek.”

Byte Magazine (1977)

Despite a 1982 arcade game from SEGA (punchily titled Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator) that lent a beautifully clean vector display to the starship battles, there was precious little gaming for Trekkers during the ’80s, bar publisher Simon & Schuster with text adventures that eschewed graphics almost as much as that innocent mainframe effort from 15 years earlier. The untapped world of Star Trek waited for the game that would most do it justice: a space-based exploration story where the player combined tasks such as managing a crew, discovering new worlds, negotiating with aliens and combating them where necessary.

In 1986, it finally came, and as with the majority of Star Trek videogames up to this point, it came from the fans – and was totally unofficial.

A trade ad for the 1983 cockpit model of Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. | SEGA, 1983.

Taking (Star)flight

We warp back to 1982 and a new software company called Ambient Designs, latterly Binary Systems. Founded by Rod McConnell, the purpose of this short-lived venture was to create an ambitious sci-fi RPG for publisher Electronic Arts. The original concept for what would become Starflight was devised by genre nut Jim Yarbrough; together with McConnell the pair slowly developed the idea, enlisting technical and design help in the process. 

The result, released in 1986, was Starflight and it is truly a modern concept created in the mid-’80s. Taking control of a sleek starship, the player enlists and assigns the various crewmembers before exploring space as they see fit. There is no set path. The whole galaxy is open and ready to be searched, yet behind this brave new world of exploration and discovery, there’s a potentially cataclysmic event brewing. Stars are flaring up throughout the galaxy, destroying any planets within their fiery reach. Today, for fans of epic RPGs, it’s easy to trace a direct line from Starflight to the Mass Effect series in particular. In 1986, 21 years before BioWare’s hit, the common line was to a TV series from ten years earlier.  

The evocative cover of Starflight, showing the ship’s familiar nacelles. | Electronic Arts, 1986.

Starflight begins aboard a circular starbase orbiting the player’s familiar-sounding home planet of Arth. From here, personnel files can be created and accessed, and the important roles aboard the starship assigned. This amounts to six critical – and recognizable – positions: engineer, navigator, communications, science officer, doctor and captain. Across the rotunda is the Interstel operations room, and starting the game will instigate an informative notice from the corporation. Here, in black type, are the instructions and primary objectives of this space adventure, and an obvious indicator of Starflight’s chief influence: “At this stage of the operation our primary goal is to gather information,” states the notice, before listing the eight goals of the mission. “Seek out and explore strange new worlds. Establish contact with any sentients. Record alien life-form data. Bring back any valuable minerals.” 

And in case you are still unsure on where all of this is heading: “Boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Further information is scant. As with Captain Kirk and the crew of USS Enterprise, this is a mission of discovery and path-finding. Knowledge, or rather the acquisition of knowledge, is the primary driver – knowledge about alien cultures, history and the worlds they inhabit. To add an extra frisson to the mission, two previous spacecraft have disappeared and smaller scouts have begun to report back a modicum of useful information. A high density of minerals has been discovered within the mountainous region of one planet; another area, given the coordinates 135,84, has been red-flagged due to the disappearance of earlier space ships. And most pertinently, there lies evidence of an ancient civilization inside another sector. These are the scraps of knowledge that strike a chord inside the pioneering mind as this particular space adventure begins. 

And no space adventure is complete without a spaceship.

The Starship and Crew

The ship configuration room aboard the star base yields a page full of familiarity to a Star Trek fan. Most striking is the ship’s design. Two lengthy engine sections connect to a central hub and from this long neck protrudes the bulbous bridge section – much smaller than Enterprise, but undoubtedly similar. Weaponry can be purchased, and these consist of missiles (in other words, photon torpedoes) and laser cannons (phasers), together with the defensive options, shields and armor. Most appropriately, acquiring shields puts a cosy red line around the starship’s picture before a short stroll to the docking bay sees your avatar disintegrate in the traditional transporter style – let the mission begin.

The fictional planet of Arth, despite the presence of additional intelligent species to humans, is similarly placed as the Earth of early Star Trek. A handful of unsuccessful scouting missions aside, the player and their crew are the trailblazers, forging a path into space that will thrust them into unknown regions and encountering weird new worlds and cultures. Unlike gaming forerunners such as Elite, the famous 8-bit space trading game, in Starflight it’s all about the starship and the crew that run it. Configuration of these is entirely at the player’s whim, although careful use of the right race for the right job is probably a wise option. It’s a given in Star Trek that the wise and logical Vulcans make good science officers; in Starflight, putting one of the insectoid Veloxians in charge of navigation will help avoid any sticky situations and aid the deduction of which planets are ripe for mineral excavation.

After launching from the space station, the universe is opened up to explore, and it is here that the core of Starflight is revealed. Space, that inky-black and never-ending stretch of cold vacuum is yours to survey, but as with those quintessential dilithium crystals of classic Trek, there’s a need to constantly manage resources against the inquisitive darts into the unknown. The key here is endurium, a valuable mineral used as fuel, and vital for space travel. Mysteriously powerful and capable of yielding immense power – just like dilithium crystals – endurium, it transpires, is a focal point of Starflight’s plot, and one of the most shocking revelations from any sci-fi computer game. But with the game easily available to buy on, there will be no further spoilers here.

Upon discovering a new world, it’s time to park up in orbit and get Spock (or whatever else you’ve happened to call your science officer) to work on the sensors. This initial scan reveals the planet’s density and the valuable minerals it contains. Disembarking to the surface deploys the land vehicle, leaving the landing party at the whim of random events such as storms and alien encounters, but eager to find minerals and supplies. In regular space, the player’s space ship can be manoeuvred throughout each location, with interstellar travel (I.E. warp speed) transporting the crew to further locations on the star map. In deep space, the ship will occasionally encounter alien craft which often pester for a communicated response. In true Star Trek fashion, some species are aggressive, or react badly to an obsequious reply. Others will be more helpful, or at least deceptively so.

An alien encounter to be resolved. | Electronic Arts, 1986.

Ethos and Inspirations

In Bitmap Books’ excellent tome, A Guide To Computer Role-Playing Games, Thomas Henshell wrote this of Starflight: “Starflight perfectly captures what made Star Trek so endearing: exploring, negotiating with alien races and life-and-death space battles.” When the US edition of PC Gamer magazine released its 50 top PC games of all time in October of 1998, the then-12 year old Starflight orbited proudly at number 36. “Before Interplay released its wonderful Star Trek 25th Anniversary adventure game, Starflight was the most authentic Star Trek experience you could have on a PC – and it wasn’t even a Star Trek game,” noted the description. But with the common trope of shooting dominating games in the ‘80s and beyond, even point and click adventures such as the Interplay game could not deny that Starflight was Star Trek in every way but its name.

Yet while its developers were clearly influenced by the TV show – there was too much depth to the game to simply call back to one particular source. “Of course, Star Trek was a big influence – note the references to ‘boldly go’ within the game, on the box, and in the marketing literature,” observed co-designer Alec Kercso earlier this year. “But beyond that, yes, a lot of our influence definitely came from classic literature. I was a fan of Keith Laumer, particularly his Retief series, and some of his humorous perspective definitely bled into my work on the game.” A game with the breadth of Starflight cannot rely on a sole source, especially with the team behind it fans of different branches of the genre. Electronic Arts assistant producer Roland Kippenhan had the role of playtesting the original PC-DOS build of Starflight.

“While I probably didn’t name the characters after Star Trek – my typical was to name characters after my real-life friends – I certainly loved Star Trek. I took home a PC, keyboard and monitor on a Friday. It was exciting because it had a hard drive! I was living in a tiny place, and my roommate was a big gamer too. Between Friday night and Monday morning we played forty plus hours of Starflight. It was unlike anything we had ever played before.” Roland still remembers his first encounter with the Uhlek – Starflight’s belligerent species with more than a hint of Klingon. “Starflight was incredible, a really brilliant game,” he concludes.

An official sequel, Starflight 2, followed in 1989, adding more sub-plots and Elite-style trading options before a fondly-remembered Sega Mega Drive port appeared a few years later, replete with updated graphics and speedier gameplay. Furthermore, other game series, such as Accolade’s Star Control, clearly owe a debt to the Electronic Arts game, despite purer, more combat-focused gameplay. Technically, the original was also a ground-breaking title with its procedurally-generated galaxy and deep combination of styles, each requiring consideration, planning and – in the case of the real-time conversations with alien species – quick wits.

That latter skill is an oft-underappreciated trait of Star Trek’s most famous captain, James Tiberius Kirk, and one of the most important anchoring tenets from Starflight to the show, summing up the joint themes running behind them. Both, while relying on inferior technology to show their aims, are about relationships and the values that we assign to them. Solving problems, whether they be a fuel shortage, cantankerous aliens or finding out more about a lost culture is one of the core principles of both Star Trek and Starflight.

And ultimately Starflight, at its most evocative, remains a tale of the vast unexplored expanse of space, the final frontier, and mankind’s insatiable desire for knowledge. And like Star Trek, it’s presented as a positive journey of discovery – and an unequivocally bold one at that. 

Shoutout to Companion Member Matt Pollari for the great feedback and article ideas. Keep ’em coming guys!

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Graeme has been writing about old videogames for over ten years for publications such as Retro Gamer and Fusion Books and online with Eurogamer and Antstream Arcade. He’s also a sci-fi nut and is still gutted that Tasha Yar got killed by an oil slick in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s first season.

You can follow him on Twitter @Wizwords

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