Captain’s Log, Final Entry
In my ongoing quest to find the best games attached to the Star Trek franchise, I’ve delved into the depths of history, the formative years of PC gaming, the “golden age” of the fifteen years ago, and the slow death of the franchise in gaming. Somehow, though, I always knew that we would come back to one of the earliest Star Trek games, one of the first I ever played.
The year was 1992. The company was Interplay.
In 1992, Star Trek games had been mainly text-based adventures developed by Simon & Schuster. Interplay, a newcomer to the franchise, had released Star Trek: 25th Anniversary for the NES the year before, a shaky, frustrating little adventure. Where, exactly, the franchise was going was unclear, but it hadn’t been doing too well at moving onto modern gaming platforms or PCs.
Turns out Interplay actually really did know what they were doing, though.
Star Trek: 25th Anniversary released for the PC in 1992, linked to the NES version in name only. As the name suggests, the game was released for the 25th anniversary of the Original Series, and featured the crew of the original Starship Enterprise in their television incarnations: gold, blue, and red shirts, brightly colored environments, Klingons with no head ridges, the whole nine.
The game combined flight combat with point-and-click adventure, using a system that turned the verbs the dominated the lower portion of LucasArts’ dominating SCUMM-built games (Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis released the same year) into a hotkeyed graphical representation, allowing the game’s visuals to take the whole screen. The flight combat, used on occasions when the Enterprise had to deal with Klingons, Romulans, or the game-only Elasi pirates, used the 3D bitmap techniques of Wing Commander. Unlike later games in the franchise, though, this was only a portion of the game, and only came up in certain levels – and then relatively briefly.
Most of the game is spent on away missions to ships, stations, and planets. In 25th Anniversary the away team always consists of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a redshirt, but the sequel, Judgment Rites, diversifies the away teams a little bit and gives some of the other cast more play. All of the “magnificent seven” are present regardless, and chatter on the bridge allows Scotty or Chekov to deliver some suitable lines. The CD-ROM versions of the games, delightfully, features the voices of the original cast, reading the well-written, copious scripts.
It may not show to look at it, but Star Trek: 25th Anniversary (and its 1993 sequel, Star Trek: Judgment Rites) is the best Star Trek game ever.
The brilliance of 25th Anniversary was in its approach: if you like, you can think of 25th Anniversary as the fourth year of the Enterprise‘s five-year mission (and Judgment Rites could be the fifth). The game plays like a truncated season of the TV series, with few elements missing, save maybe for Kirk’s girl of the week. Between the two games there are fifteen episodes, seven in 25th and eight in Judgment Rites, full of puzzles for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to solve, enemies to defeat or bypass, and command decisions to make.
Every single episode feels like it could plausibly be an unproduced episode of the series itself, though most of them would have required expensive sets or effects that would have been prohibitive to do in live action. Having played them all several times, there are few weak links, though there are some very challenging puzzles if you don’t know some extra facts. (Two episodes in 25th Anniversary have puzzles that require at least a basic understanding of base-x number systems.) Each episode begins with Kirk recording a captain’s log which fills the player in on what theEnterprise’s current mission is, occasionally augmented by a call from Starfleet Command.
Of course, none of these missions are ever as simple as they sound (and not all of them sound simple in the first place). Interplay’s pacing is often superb; the first mission, “Demon World,” opens with a brief war game against the USS Republic, which allows the player to get acquainted with the ship combat in a battle that isn’t life or death (the rest will be). After the battle ends, Starfleet hails the Enterprise with a mission to visit the colony on Pollux V, a fledgling religious settlement, which has come under attack by – you guessed it – demons. Obviously there is more to the situation than meets the eye, and Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a redshirt beam down to investigate. If you’re a fan of the Original Series, you might expect some bantering between Spock and McCoy about reason versus faith and any number of other things, and you wouldn’t be disappointed.
Many missions also include characters from episodes in the series, including an appearance of Harry Mudd, the hapless swindler, in an episode where he’s found an alien derelict and is trying to salvage anything useful he can from it, and (in Judgment Rites) an episode which sees the return of Trelane, the Q-like war-obsessed child, whose fascination with Earth conflicts has moved from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I. The latter, in an example of what these games (and Star Trek in general) sometimes do well, becomes an interesting commentary on the depiction of war in fiction – games included.
Another Fine Mess
One of the refreshing things about 25th Anniversary is the fact that you can lose. Many point-and-click adventures, especially these days, are unlosable. But as Captain Kirk said: “Risk is our business.” Aside from the possibility that the Enterprise will be destroyed in battle, most missions include some number of hazards, whether antagonists who might shoot or stab the away team or rocks that will tumble down on their heads if not disintegrated in the proper order. The redshirt is basically always along in order to die if he needs to (though losing him will hurt your score at the end of the episode), and players who get Kirk killed once or twice quickly learn to have the redshirt try certain actions first. Death doesn’t feel too cheap, though, since most of the hazards feel fairly logical. (“Oh, I probably shouldn’t have flooded the room with noxious gas while I was inside it!”)
There are plenty of other less-than-ideal outcomes to be had in the episodes, and Starfleet scores the crew’s performance accordingly. In the above screenshot, the glowing blue area is a holding cell where the crew of the tug Masada is being held after the ship was hijacked by the guys in the red berets. The cell is booby-trapped, and though Spock can figure out how to disarm the bomb safely and deactivate the force field, it is also possible to just walk up and try to turn it off – resulting in the death of the hostages. After an episode or two, learning to scan anything dangerous looking with a tricorder and talk to Spock and McCoy about options (this also doubles, occasionally, as a hint system of sorts) can make or break good episode scores. Get too low a score – and often this requires catastrophic failure on several counts – and Kirk will be removed from command of the Enterprise.
Love’s Labor Jeopardized
The fifteen episodes of 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites are pure Star Trek gaming bliss. They make you feel like you’ve uncovered a lost season of the series. They are so completely playable as games and tell exciting and meaningful adventure stories in the Original Series mold. They are superb games.
Interplay was working on a third game, The Secret of Vulcan Fury, for years. The plan was to update the game to 3D graphics and so forth, but the game entered development hell and, when Interplay went under, became a complete impossibility. For me, this remains one of the tragic cancellations of gaming history.
Looking back, these games seem like the prototype – or a prototype – for episodic gaming. As soon as that particular distribution method appeared, these are the games I thought of. And that’s probably why, no matter what Digital Extremes does with their upcoming Star Trek title, I’ll be immediately a bit disappointed. What I want to see is an episodic Star Trek game – possibly with a cast of its own, possibly based on one of the existing series. For me, that’s always been a dream game and, if I’m honest, a dream project.
So go see if you can find yourself some playable version of these games. If you are a Star Trek fan, you really owe it to yourself.