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Starflight (Genesis)

81
MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.0
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168604)
Written on  :  Sep 06, 2013
Platform  :  Genesis
Rating  :  4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars

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Summary

Monumental achievement of the era

The Good

Some hardcore, old-school gamers feel that 1980s were the best decade in gaming. They argue that games were more imaginative, more open-ended, more original at that time, catering less to mainstream public and instead trying to incarnate their creators' ideas in a most direct, uncompromising way, limited only by technology. They also say that most of today's genres were in fact defined, and sometimes nearly perfected during that decade.

While God knows that the eighties had its share of terrible games nobody would look at twice, it is true that some of the most impressive feats in the history of video games were performed at that time by tiny development studios driven by talent and passion of their idealistic founders. And it is true that in many ways their games were more ambitious, more radical even, with aspirations of unseen grandeur that, in some cases, were never surpassed.

Starflight is one of those titans of its era. Together with Elite, it pretty much invented the space exploration genre. It was among the first games with a truly astonishing, huge world, and it was the realization of a virtual space traveler's dream: explore a vast galaxy in any way you want to, travel wherever you wish, do whatever you want. It is a vertigo-inducing, grandiose piece of work, an entire universe converted into bytes, a world expressed through minimalistic graphics, sci-fi novel series material created by five guys with the help of an energetic producer and his team.

There is an important distinction between the two giants of their generation that makes me prefer Starflight without hesitation. Elite used the unlimited space exploration concept to define the space combat and trading simulation genre, inspiring famous games such as Privateer. Starflight, on the other hand, is actually more of a role-playing game - at least it feels like one, since you are building up your ship and crew members for plot-related purposes, you become richer because you want to unravel the mystery of the universe, and communicating with aliens is at least as important to you as blasting them to pieces.

Starflight is much less combat-oriented than Elite or, for example, its descendant Space Rogue. It is also much less of a simulation game. You won't have to deal with confusing first-person navigation and battles that are tough because you haven't understood the latest mathematic equations needed to become the world's finest space pilot. It is also significantly more plot-driven, though the plot is well-hidden and it's up to you to uncover it. But at least you don't need esoteric knowledge of economy in different star systems to be able to go wherever you want to and unravel the story at your own pace.

In my opinion Starflight has a much more interesting world than any space trading simulation I've tried playing. No wonder, since it aspired to create a world first and foremost, a world that would evoke a sense of wonder and excitement. The heart of the game are its aliens and the communication with them. The whole game is actually built like a quest, and everything you do has one ultimate goal - to understand what happened to the galaxy, and do it by receiving information from the aliens. Your efforts are not based on cold, selfish motivations such as becoming the best trader or the most feared pilot. No, you are a brave explorer, a fearless captain beyond fear and reproach (emulating Star Trek to the point of plagiarizing its famous "to boldly go" phrase), a commander of a skillful crew entrusted to your management.

Similarities to Star Trek end when you actually discover and begin communicating with the alien races. You realize then that the world created by Starflight is more exotic, and ultimately more interesting. Most aliens in Star Trek simulated various human nations or factions, and were suspiciously close to humans. I have nothing against that kind of sci-fi, but I want more radical stuff in a video game dedicated to space exploration. Thankfully, Starflight delivers a strong alien cast, with each race having its own personality, preferences, and communication methods. It is fascinating to train your communicator so that he can fully decipher alien languages, but it is even cooler and more rewarding to succeed in a conversation because you, the player, has made the right choices. Alien encounters are singularly tense and brilliantly suspenseful, as you try your best not to offend them and get the much-needed information - or, with a killer ship upgraded with the highest-level weapons, you do everything you can to provoke them and then obliterate them in a battle, if you so wish.

There are friendly and hostile aliens, but most of them are somewhere in the middle, and they hold vital pieces of information you'll want to lay your hands on. You'll need to follow clues and understand their sensibilities to succeed. You'll fall prey to aggressive conquerors, intimidate cowardly bullies, break your head over seemingly meaningless mathematical questions, and receive logs written entirely in binary system.

The plot is well-hidden, well-encrypted in the midst of enigmas and information you haven't yet uncovered - but it is there. Starflight is great in weaving its plot into the gameplay - you can understand what's happening only if you persevere and play smart, following clues on your own. This creates a grand feeling of responsibility, since trivial details can mean life and death in certain situations, and the game refuses to hold your hand and explain to you what is "important" and what is not. Once you unravel the whole story, you'll be surprised at the ramifications of a plot twist that explains a lot of things while leaving you with an uneasy moral dilemma.

Starflight combines all these awe-inspiring structural and gameplay-related elements with simple activities that can get extremely addictive. For once, you can land on any planet and just drive your terrain vehicle around until your run out of fuel. There are various minerals you should collect, since this is pretty much your only source of money. And you'll need this money to train your crew, buy fuel, and outfit your ship. Even though it doesn't sound particularly exciting, hunting for rare minerals and satisfying your virtual greed by collecting everything you can become a nearly exhilarating process. And how about capturing animals and bringing them to starbase, discovering rare artifacts, and perhaps stumbling upon an ancient ruin or two with more cryptic clues shedding more light on the plot?

Interestingly, the Genesis version of Starflight can be considered the best of all - a rare case when a console conversion tops its strictly PC-style prototype or at least contributes to it. The great news is that this version doesn't omit anything significant - the universe is still gigantic, exploration still unlimited, and nothing is dumbed-down. On the contrary: there are more weapons for the ship, interesting equipment for the terrain vehicle, more realistic planet surface exploration and mining with weather that physically affects navigation, manually controlled landing, and more satisfying combat. Plus, of course, much better graphics and sound effects. Perhaps more importantly, the only things that were in fact simplified are those that shouldn't have been there in the first place - tedious non-interactive take-off and landing sequences, as well as excessive menu-rummaging for simple commands.

Very few games followed the great path Starflight has trodden. It has a sequel that seems to resemble that original very much, but its principles found a new incarnation in its spiritual successor Star Control II. Each of these two great games have advantages and disadvantages when compared to each other, but it is important to note that without Starflight, the more popular Star Control II would have never existed.

The Bad

Starflight is one of the early examples of truly open-ended, "sandbox" games. Unlike later games of that variety, it doesn't mark mission-advancing spots on your map. It generally doesn't do anything to make your life easier: you have to survive and solve everything on your own. Games weren't very user-friendly at that time and demanded plenty of patience: there were less of them, and one game was supposed to occupy you for a very long time, so everything needed to beat it had to be obfuscated or made difficult to achieve through other means. Unless you are playing the Genesis version, the interface is cumbersome and detracts from the experience. Playing Starflight with a walkthrough may ruin the joy of discovery, but can facilitate progression and at least cut down your time expenses. Without a guide, however, it is extremely hard to succeed.

There is something meditative about the game that may not suit everyone's preferences. It is hard to define Starflight as belonging to any established genre: it does have an RPG angle, but it is mostly an exploration game, and sometimes it is hard to connect to it, hard to follow familiar gameplay patterns because it eschews most of them. In the end, one might even begin doubting the whole thing and ask oneself whether repetitive planet mining is really the most rewarding activity out there. Indeed, for those who don't get hooked by the game's plot-related secrets and who isn't eager to master alien communication and get to the bottom of the mystery, Starflight might not work at all. It is not a combat simulator like Elite or a thrilling arcade game like Star Control II - its battles are best avoided and were clearly an afterthought. It is basically a game where you just wander around doing small things. And yet it it so, so much more - but there is something transcendental, intangible in whatever that "more" constitutes.

Lastly, the PC version has to be the worst of the bunch. No offense to nostalgic dudes for whom that one version was the source of endless bliss in their childhood years, but its save system is a sadistic trap. Basically, anything except saving your game and quitting it will erase all progress. Seriously, this is not a bug and I've searched websites extensively to confirm that: if you happen to die under any circumstances you'll have to start all over again. There is a way to circumvent that by regularly backing up your game files, but why bother if you can play the Amiga version with several save slots designed to be used by normal human beings, or the updated Genesis version?

The Bottom Line

Starflight is a real phenomenon. Few other games in history could so elegantly capture the spirit of exciting space exploration, blending utmost simplicity and astonishing complexity in a union of open-ended, addictive gameplay. Maybe Star Control II was a more attractive game, but its spiritual father should be honored and revered in every gaming shrine.