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Star Trek | How We Made The Rebel Universe Videogame

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Back in the 1980s, a British company set out on a two-year mission to bring the flavor of the original Star Trek TV series to computer screens, little realizing the problems and changes that would happen along the way.

The Rebel Universe was not the first official Star Trek game, but it was eagerly anticipated after it was announced by Beyond in 1986. It was 20 years since the debut of the original series, and the fourth of the movies featuring the original cast (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) was earning good money at the box office. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, had also returned to Paramount to begin developing a new TV series – Star Trek: The Next Generation. Contracts were signed with Simon & Schuster in New York, acting on behalf of Paramount. The pressure was on to deliver a good game…

As Told By

The announcement of the game, based on the original TV series, took place at the Personal Computer World Show 1986 held at Olympia. The Beyond stand was made to represent half of the Enterprise bridge, in a semi-circle with a roof above it bearing the famous ship’s number. Around the wall at the back of the stand were framed pictures of the main Trek characters that appeared in the game. The grabs were taken from VHS videos by Beyond and then enlarged and framed for the show. 

The ST version came first, programmed by G. P. Everitt (nicknamed Kenny after the DJ) and Steve Cain, who had previously been at Denton Designs. Their other projects included Black Lamp on the ST and Amiga, and they would later go on to work at Psygnosis. Sadly, Steve Cain passed away in 2006 from lung cancer shortly after retiring from the games industry. His career took him to many companies, from the original Imagine here in the UK to Acclaim, and he was one of the founding members of Denton Designs. Colleagues who worked with him remember him as larger than life, with a great sense of humor that never left him even during his illness.

Beyond may have started the project, but ultimately it would be Firebird who published it, having purchased the label from EMAP. Pete Moreland took charge as the project manager at Firebird and is also a fan of the TV show. “I love The Original Series; The Next Generation was okay – the rest has been crap.” Pete still has a framed Spock picture from the 1986 announcement on his wall at home.

The mock Enterprise hull at the Personal Computer World Show, 1986.

One of the key decisions made was to bring in Mike Singleton to help with the game design. After all these years, Pete Moreland is vague about when and why this happened. “Simon Goodwin would have made that decision, I guess. I can’t tell you how early. I really don’t remember.” This meant delays for two other projects – Dark Sceptre, a role-playing game Mike was developing for Firebird, and Eye of the Moon (the third game in the Lords of Midnight series, eventually canceled – Beyond had published the first two games, Lords of Midnight and follow-up Doomdark’s Revenge). 

Richard Hewison remembers the game well, as he was working at Firebird during the development. “I was a play-tester on the C64 and PC conversions. The PC conversion was completed first, followed by the C64. Steven Elward, an Australian who had moved to the UK, did the PC version and ‘Foo’ [Fouad Katan] was responsible for the C64. He also ran the software development company Bits and had previously coded Empire for Firebird.”

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Main Screen On

An important aspect of the game was portraying the different characters on the bridge of the Enterprise, and their department’s responsibility. The “multivision” screen layout gave one main picture (where options were selected, and the action happened) with sub-screens around the edge available at a click. This allowed you to switch between tasks quickly, and to have quick access to recently used screens. The pointer used by the game was the Star Trek logo worn on the shirts of the characters.

Clicking on McCoy, for example, brought up the medical status of the senior crew. Mr. Sulu oversaw navigation, with the course plotted on a rotating starfield. Arriving at the planet, you would get a static picture of Enterprise in orbit.

To get down to the planet, the player must decide which characters are going to form the “landing party” by moving the heads onto the transporter platform. On the surface, you would encounter a series of problems to be negotiated. The landing party members could give advice by clicking on them, and then an action (such as use phaser) would be selected.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Star Trek game without the enemies  – the Klingons and Romulans. Red alert sirens sound and targets appear on the radar screen (which bears a strong resemblance to the classic Elite radar display, with the moving T’s showing height and direction.) Clicking on an enemy shows the tactical display and the wireframe ship to target. Then it’s a case of selecting photon torpedoes or phaser banks (awkwardly, these are chosen from a separate sub-screen) and blasting it to bits. 

Another interesting aspect of the design is that there are several ways to complete the game, from finding certain objects to destroying a planet. Fortunately, there is a load/save game option to take the frustration out of making progress.

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Analysis, Mr. Spock

Pete Moreland had a variety of responsibilities as project manager, including the production schedules, consulting with the development team, and organizing the playtesting. Dealing with Simon & Schuster proved difficult, as Pete remembers.

“They could have been easier to deal with, but on the other hand, it’s an important property so you would expect them to be stringent. There were cases where they would complain about one pixel or something. But there again I have done the same, he who is without sin…”

Pete Moreland

When asked about the myth that the length of Spock’s ears caused a massive delay, he is quite succinct: “No, it’s not true.”

Richard elaborates on that relationship, and how the game was received. “Being officially licensed, each significant version had to be posted to Simon & Schuster in the US for comments. Most of the hard work had already been done on the original ST version, so the PC and C64 conversions were fairly straightforward. The game got mixed reviews when it was originally released for the ST, probably because the expectations had been so high, and the game was infamously late. The PC conversion also didn’t go down too well, but back then the PC couldn’t really cope with games when compared to the ST or Amiga.” 

The finished packaging for Firebird’s original Amiga ST release. | Firebird, 1986.

“The C64 conversion on the other hand got much better reviews. Technically it was about as good as it could be on the C64, and the whole game was present and accounted for – including the wireframe 3D battle sections, which the machine wasn’t particularly good at.

“The main problem with the game was that the arcade and adventure sections were extremely simplistic, and the adventure element was also a bit linear. Time after time you would beam your party down to a planet and encounter a door, another door, a janitor robot, and a force field generator! You would randomly select a member of your party and their suggestions would always be the same – e.g. Sulu would always suggest shooting, Uhura would normally suggest beaming signals. Using items collected elsewhere to get around specific obstacles did give the player some feeling of achievement, but it was usually short-lived.

“The arcade section was also poor. Selecting a target and then hitting the fire button (without overloading the phasers) was hardly an exciting or skillful pastime. Ultimately, both the shooting section and the adventure elements became a repetitive chore.”

Richard Hewison

Pete Moreland’s summary of the game is very similar to Richard’s views. “Looked gorgeous, nicely coded… but the gameplay was boring.”

Set Course

Reaching the shelves was a long trek. It became a long-running joke in computer magazines that Star Trek would never arrive or take as long as the original five-year mission of the Enterprise crew. Mel Croucher, in his Zzap! series 100 All-Time Computer Greats, made repeated reference to the delayed release. “Star Trek to be released in 1187 AD” was one such quip, when a press release had stated it would be released in September – without stating the year.

Just when Firebird thought the release was imminent, a compatibility problem further hindered them. “The original ST release of the game didn’t work on TOS 1.09 machines that Atari manufactured in mid-1987 onwards (the single-sided Atari 520STFM). For a while, it only ran on TOS 1.08, and Firebird had to produce a fixed version,” Richard says.

Some lucky punters got an extra bonus in the box – a cloth badge/patch of USS Enterprise. “I’m not sure if this was meant to be a ‘limited edition’ kind of thing as I definitely don’t remember it being advertised as such. It might have simply been due to only having so many badges produced, and when they ran out that was it.”

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Parallel Universes

Richard mentions other formats that could have seen a version of the game. “An Amiga version was never produced, despite rumors to the contrary. ST and Amiga versions of games usually went hand in hand, but for reasons that I never discovered the Amiga version failed to materialize. Originally, there were plans to also release the game on the Spectrum and Amstrad CPC. Timothy Walter was coding the Amstrad CPC version, and Anthony Taglione (aka Tag) started the Spectrum version. In the early days of the game’s development, they were the only versions available!

“The ST development was way behind schedule, but technical considerations ultimately doomed both Z80 versions. I can clearly remember seeing the Enterprise bridge and some of the “multivision” system working on the Spectrum +3 disc version, but that was about it.”

Richard Hewison’s tips article in Commodore User erroneously credits him as the programmer.

Richard remembers a funny incident after the game was released. “Commodore User magazine (asked for some playing tips for the C64 conversion the month following their review. I was the most qualified person in Telecomsoft to write them, so I typed up as much as I could without getting too specific. It was amusing to see the article when it was eventually published, as I was credited by the magazine as being the programmer!”


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Andrew Fisher became a Star Trek fan after watching repeats of The Original Series in the 1980s, before falling in love with The Next Generation. A Commodore 64 user since 1985, he began writing in the 1990s for Commodore Force and Commodore Format, and since 2004 has been a regular contributor to RetroGamer.


Find him on Twitter @merman1974

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