Friday, September 18, 2009

Super Star Trek -- Neolithic Gaming

“Retro-gaming” is a highly-mutable term. Pulling out the tangle of cords that is your old Atari 2600? Retro-gaming, certainly. Blistering your fingers on that old NES controller? Sure. But how about the PS one? The Gamecube, even?

Semantics aside, there can be no doubt that logging some time with Super Star Trek counts as retro-gaming.

Yes, that’s an actual screenshot. A far cry from this, yes?

I first heard about SST when I was a young kid and my dad would tell tales of playing it on some massive old rig at work. (“During breaks”, of course.) Various incarnations of this game could be found on various boxes and home computers throughout the seventies. It was distributed for home use the old-fashioned way – by publishing the complete BASIC code in a magazine. A few hours of careful transcription and you were ready for… what exactly?

What on earth would motivate a modern gamer to keep playing this thing after a few curious moments? Sure, download a new version, tool around a bit, have a laugh. But to actually play? What could this code-snippet possibly have to offer?

It comes down to three aspects, few of which remain in today’s games.:

#1 – Turn-based play. Sure, it’s still out there, even on consoles, but there’s not much of it around. Spending some time with a game that allows you to leave it alone for a few hours while you consider whether or not you want to use your last photon torpedo on that distant klingon warbird (represented by a capital “K”) has a completely different feel. SST combines tactical turn-based play with the map size and freedom of a larger-scale strategy game.

#2 – Randomness. As you direct the Enterprise (that’s the “E”) around the charted galaxy, just about everything can go wrong. You are quite often yanked across the board by a “tractor beam” and placed in the middle of a firefight – not good if you’re on your way to a starbase (“B”) to reload. Sometimes the transporter will just flat out fail without warning, and the last sound your away team will hear is Scotty wailing that he’s losing them. A star (“*”) in your sector can go nova and toss you across the map like an empty can of Tab. Etc. And when I say “etc”, I mean it; much of the strategy in this game is focused on how to prepare for the worst that merciless random-number-generation can deal out.

#3 – The promotion system. Every lasting game needs a rewards system, and in SST it comes as a notification that you have been promoted to the next difficulty level. Sure, you could start at the hardest setting or keep on riddling away at the easiest, but getting the word that you have saved the Federation and are ready for harder trials makes the challenge all the more fun. When the player reaches the Expert level and scores well enough, the program will print a plaque. That’s right – something you can hang on your cube wall to show the world how awesome you are at Super Star Trek. Smitty over in networking will never live it down.

A large part of my personal enjoyment of this game comes from the hard-core, early-days-of-computing, Soul of a New Machine feel. After few rounds of typing in your commands (“pho 3 2 1 5 4 8 7”, for example) and squinting at the box of numbers and periods that serves as the starchart, you’ll feel your sideburns growing and your shirt sleeves shortening. There’s a romance to that green-texted era, the first time in history that true geekiness could be used for something other than HAM radio and Monty Python references. This is the time of legends, when Our People began. Which is why I can’t help but feel a flush of embarrassed pride over this:

Download it here.


Greg said...


Uncompetative said...

This was the first videogame I ever played. Yet much more significantly, it was the first program of any real length that I read through, partially understood, then realised the true potential of computing as a kind of magic box into which your incantations could create an illusory world that contained artificial life with which you could interact. Truly, mind-blowing.

It is no accident that I became a videogame designer as a result. Thanks for the nostalgia trip...