Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Starfleet 1

Commanding the U.G.A.S. Defiant on a sweep of the Deneb III system, my orders were to hunt down and destroy 63 enemy ships in 58 days. So far I had made good on my mission. But I was trickling down to the appointed deadline and I had just one more Krellan ship to take down. It just so happened that that last Krellan ship was pounding me with phaser fire and I was down to my last few mega-ergs of power. The Defiant was all but crippled.

Redirecting all power to the forward shields, I ordered Defiant to hobble close to the Krellan. Another broadside of phaser fire whittled away my ship's defenses, leaving her a flaming hulk. Propelled by inertia, the Defiant came to rest beside her attacker.

The Defiant was holding on but the end was inevitable. I then drew my last trump card.

"Computer: Initiate self-destruct sequence."

Moments later, the Defiant turned into a small supernova, taking the Krellan down with her. My ship was gone, but my mission was a success.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my most memorable gaming moment. I'll admit that I sound like a dweeb, but nothing beats the thrill of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, real or otherwise.

The year was 1988 and the game was Starfleet I, a PC-DOS game by one Dr. Trevor Sorensen that was a thinly-veiled reference to Star Trek. I was a Trekkie and so were my friends. We passed around a bootleg copy of the game on 5-1/2" floppy disks.

It was text-based, archaic even for its time, but darn it! it was fun. It captured the mood of what it felt like to command a starship. The screen gave you a rundown of all the resources at your disposal: navigation, sensors, ship status reports, damage and repairs, shields, torpedoes, and phasers. You hopped from quadrant to quadrant, hunting down packs of nasty Krellans and their invisible allies, the Zaldrons.

One day, that floppy got hit by a virus and I kissed the game goodbye. Such a shame, too, as I had already hit the rank of commodore. For some reason, never got around to getting another copy from my friends. I think I was too traumatized at the prospect of restarting my Starfleet career from the bottom of the ladder.

A few years later, I saw some Windows-based knockoffs. They already had fancy graphics, and even the ship representation looked exactly like the USS Enterprise. But they never could capture the thrill that I felt with the text-based Starfleet.

So now, almost twenty years later, I discover that the original Starfleet game is available online and playable in Linux using a DOS emulator called DOSBox. I cannot adequately express how happy I am.

With several years of gaming behind me, and a better understanding of what makes a game great, I'm re-evaluating what it is that made Starfleet so exciting for me.

1) Tactical problem-solving. Starfleet placed you in a situation where you had to solve spatial problems with a bit of geometry and luck. The problems were very similar to each other -- combat, after all, took place in a 10x10 grid, with the only variables being your coordinates and your ship orientation -- but they were never the same.

2) Resource management. At the heart of it, Starfleet is a resource management game. Your starship takes in a maximum amount of 5000 units. You use some amount of power for each action that you take. It could be a small thing like firing torpedoes, firing a probe, or repairing damaged subsystems. Or it could be a big power drain like maintaining shields or going into hyperspace. The challenge then becomes one of maximizing power use until you can refuel at the next starbase.

3) Balanced gameplay. Oh, to be sure, Starfleet did not feature great AI, but for a game of its kind, it didn't need to. The combat situation were adequate puzzles in themselves. The random events -- saboteurs running loose on the decks, ion storms, probes, attacks on starbase -- heightened the tension. But the game was never too easy or too difficult. The deadline set for completing a mission was more or less adequate.

4) Flavor. Never mind that they couldn't say Klingons instead of Krellans, or Romulans instead of Zaldron. Everything about this game was really Star Trek. Engineering, Science Officers, shuttles, torpedoes, transporters, all the way down to the redshirts that the computer would blithely list as casualties after a direct hit.

5) Intuitive design. It was a major feat to be able to fit in all the information that you needed to play the role of starship captain on a screen that was only 80 columns by 25 rows. But Sorensen managed to do just that. One glance told you everything you needed to know: the strategic macro situation, the tactical combat situation, critical ship status, etc. All commands were one or two keystrokes away, with a helpful computer to guide you as to what the functions were.

Finally, I think it actually helped that the game was in text, instead of sporting fancy graphics as other knockoffs attempted in later years. Presented in text, the die-hard Trekkie could abstract the imagery from the symbols, and actually play out the visuals in his head. That, I think, ultimately allows players to write their own stories as they play the game.

And that's what makes a great game.

Beam me up, Scotty!


  1. hehehe i was eight years old then. had no computer then. only piko, patintero, and occasional habulan with cousins. but i do remember my first star trek game (i forget the title) had much better graphics than that. :-)

  2. cooooool,

    thanks for the link! but where didja get the manual for the 'copy protection' at the beginning of the game? i.e. when it asks you for what the xth word on page such and such is? i had to download it from underdogs.

    anyhoo, yah, brings back memories! i loved the fact that the game made 'leveling up' in ranks part of the process... that made it so addictive.

    great post. great game!