Fallout Break: Star Command

By the end of the second day of Fallout 3, I was at level 18.  I had not been to The Pitt yet, and the main quest was just about to the one-quarter/one-third point of finding Dad.  I had been doing a lot of wandering, dusting off the old quests for advantages I wanted while taking in a bit of a sample of the new, and after a solid 13-hour binge yesterday, I had to face facts: I was burnt-out again.

I’m busy all day on Wednesday, so I’ll get back to justifying my $30 Fallout 3 expansion purchase on Thursday.  In the meanwhile, I needed something to do, and I decided that something to do would be research into better games of tomorrow by checking out some more games from an era where clones were not so dominant.

The game I ended up checking out was SSI’s Star Command (not to be confused with the 1996 game from GT Interactive).

Technicalities

As you may have noticed, I tend to gravitate heavily around space adventure/RPG games, and in my 26-years of playing games, there were a few gems I regret missing.  I went over Hard Nova not long ago.  A couple more were Sundog: Frozen Legacy and Star Command.

Sundog: Frozen Legacy is currently not accessible without an Atari ST emulator, something I won’t be bothered with both because it’s slightly sketchier territory and due to the technical fiddling involved.  Somebody’s working on recreating it, and when/if they finish, I would be tickled to try it.

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If you wait long enough, it shows a few frames of exciting fighting animation. In 1988 that would have floored many players.

I did manage to get my hands on SSI’s Star Command.  The copy protection routine is broken, even the right answers are wrong, and I’m not sure if the cause is an emulation issue or a software issue.  The consequence is I can’t save my games, but at least I can get a good sample of how the game plays.

Overview

As for what makes Star Command interesting, it would have to be the scope.  You roll up a crew made up of 2 pilots and 6 ground explorers, outfit them with equipment and a ship, and you’re now free to explore the galaxy, meet life from new civilizations, and generally all that good space opera stuff.

It’s hard to explain to people of other perspectives on games that not many these days have that kind of ambition.  Yes, there have been games involving space exploration, even some that let you go planetside.  Yes, there have been Sci-Fi RPGs.  However, bringing together all those parts into an entertaining whole is very unusual.

From what I’ve seen of the game, the core borrows partly from the Bards Tale series in a few fundamentals: the crew lineup (perhaps that’s more of a Wizardry invention), the animated pane of encounters, and the general turn-per-turn exchange in combat.   while branching out on a considerable amount of new territory.

Unsurprisingly, considering Star Command was made by the same designer, Star Command borrows even heavier from the Phantasie series.  This can be seen especially in the unique area maps, where the player moves their party room-by-room and has special encounters along the way.

Space Stations / Commerce

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Space Station Interface (currently in the ship weapon buying menu)

There are three main space stations, belonging to the Star Command organization your crew is affiliated with, which serve as the starting points as well as main refitting points in the game.

There’s no real walking through these stations.  Like most of the game (as it was the style for games of the time) it’s all menu driven with keypresses.   In this case, that’s not just the technically easier programming style, but probably a good call as it cuts down on needless travel time.

These three space stations serve the function of various inns and shops you would find in an RPG town from the era.  For example:

  • Instead of inns, the personnel section allows you can create or dismiss new characters.
  • Shops are replaced with extensive purchasing support for ships, ship equipment, and personal equipment.
  • There’s a medical section that takes the place of hte temples, including the ability to purchase clones (this game’s version of ressurection.)
  • The headquarters section is where your current mission can be found — this spans 17 missions in the storyline, some of them randomized.

By today’s standards, the interface is extremely obtuse.  For example, if you’re given a message “dropship not ready” that probably means your copilot needs some piloting skill – you’re supposed to realize your pilot stays behind in the main ship.  Try to leave a station and you might given the error your ship is “not ready” – it could mean you just need to refuel it, or it could mean something is wrong with your ship.

The reason for the obtuseness for the interface and largely menu-driven design had a lot to do with how things were programmed back then.  This game was made in a largely procedural language – Quickbasic, in fact – and was ported across many different platforms.

Space Travel

Upon leaving the starbase, your intrepid crue moves the instant you tap a cursor key.  That looks like a selection box is the actual move being performed, spending precious starship fuel in the process.

Being stranded without fuel will require days before your ship is discovered and towed for a hefty fine — in a nice touch, some of your crew members might starve to death in that event.

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The way space travel is fairly interesting in that it basically involves in “upscanning” and “downscanning,” which basically has to do with the level of zoom you’re viewing the galaxy with.

Scan out completely, and you see a spiral formation of stars.  Scan in further, and you see nearby stars.  Scan in on a collection of stars, and you’ll see the stars and planets.  Scan in on a planet, and now you have the option to attempt to interact with that planet.

Conflict

Whether in space or on the ground, combat is initiated by random encounter.

As you travel the universe, there’s a chance you will encounter other ships.   You may open communications with them to do things such as plead, ask, or demand truces, fuel, or surrender.

When visiting planets, if a high-tech society is detected, you can perform espionage.  However, this has a chance of kicking off a combat encounter on the planet.  I have yet to run into an encounter performing a scientific expedition to a low-tech or uninhabited planet – presumably because my crew could defeat them easily.

Combat on the ground begins by identifying the four kinds of terrain: passible, impassible, defense bonus, and offensive bonus – which icon represents which will shift from planet to planet.    Combat in space begins by showing the ships around you.   Both kinds of combat have communication phases, the ground combat at the beginning and the ship combat after every 6th move.

The reason why I seem to have such difficulty keeping them apart is because combat is fairly identical between ground or in the air.  You move around with the cursor keys and are eventually given the option to fire at everything in range.  The ship combat has the added focus of allowing you to rotate your ship to determine which shield will be hit and which weapon arcs are exposed, but your crew is pretty assigned to mans the guns of your ship in the same way as if they were engaged in ground combat.

Commerce

So far, I’ve discovered quite a few ways to make money in this game.  Performing espionage or scientific missions both recover things which you can sell back at the station.  Performing missions nets some cash, and you’re also given an allowance based on the rank of your crew members.  Destroying non-civilian ships is also worth money.  I’ve read that trading can be done, tool.

One of the more interesting features about the game is the amount of creativity shown to generate a staggering amount of equipment to buy.

  • There’s several weapons between the categories of light (bullets, needlers, electronic, ion, grenade) heavy (flame, rocket, laser) chemical, or explosive.  On top of this, there’s sighting hardware (including the “Compusight Aiming Assistant,”) miscellanious equipment (such as medkits or motion sensors) and armor (such as “Biphase Carbide Armor” ).
  • There’s 9 kinds of ships you can purchase for your crew to fly about in, with 6 weapons bays that can be filled with several kinds of missiles, torpedos, and beam weapons, as well as different kinds of shields and armor.

Note that games of this era tended to keep the statistics for all the items in the paper manual – without the manual, you won’t know what something does until it is equipped on the character.

The awesome names of the equipment may have been a bit easier to get away with because it’s all text-driven.  You never see any of the equipment, but there is some fairly robust projectile graphics.  Some of these are really well done – raking an enemy ship with hypervelocity rockets produces a whistle of appreciation even today.  Sure, it’s low resolution EGA graphics, but those explosions somehow captured a certain majesty about them.

To take another pot shot at 20-year-old interface design, it is a bit of a hassle trying to keep everything straight.  There is no sorting of equipment, you’re basically just selling everything in a list in a manner little better than an old school JRPG.

Overall

It’s interesting to see how all the parts of Star Command came together in one slick implemenation.

Surely, this is motivation for me to consider when putting together my own game.  The main reason I end up stumping myself is I’m a really picky guy, but if I could just calm down and have fun, something as cool as Star Command would be within my reach to create.

3 Responses

  1. […] May 19th, I was sick of it again.  I gave another old game, Star Command, a spin. […]

  2. For Star Command copy protection just type the letter ‘a’ for each underline and it will work. So if they want you to enter a word with four letters just enter ‘aaaa’.

  3. @John – THANK YOU! I remember playing this game LONG ago and have been loving DOSbox and coming back to the games granting me some fond memories of times (and games) past (the old SSI D&D games for example). I created a party with attributes >50 in all catagories, and successful trainings (no desk duties) and couldn’t save it :(. Spent all my money on a ship and forgot to arm myself. Some pirates in the first mission decimated me…
    the aaaa solutions worked. I was getting set to go find my diskettes I was getting hooked on this again.

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