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atari mania
Written by  :  J. P. Gray (120)
Written on  :  Dec 25, 2007
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars

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Snerg snerg snerg, and by the shimmering ball! This is the greatest game of all time.

The Good

The elegant title "Starflight" is a fitting evocation of this perfect space exploration sim's scope. Discover unique and fabulous alien races? Explore massive planets for ruins, minerals and powerful artifacts? Train an expert crew and patch together the most powerful ship in the galaxy? Decode lost layers of history that combine to form an exciting and profoundly effective sci fi plot? It's all here! It's all great! And it's all addictive.

One very affecting and glorious element present in all of Starflight's aspects is its concept of freedom. Freedom to explore, freedom to interact, freedom to do things your way at your own pace. The game can be completed almost instantly given the appropriate knowledge. The exciting part of the game is acquiring that knowledge, and it is provided in such a way that it makes full use of the player's imagination.

The player first gathers a crew, and launches from Spaceport to explore the galaxy. Immediately the player is provided with a few subtle hints about nearby alien activity and mysterious ruins on a local planet. From there, the universe of this game is a sandbox. But it isn't a "sandbox" in the increasingly dull "sim" mold, and it cheerfully sidesteps the disappointing "you found a +2 item!" reward systems or soulless "signpost" characters of most open-ended RPGs. It is immersive without stunning graphics, it is freewheeling despite the plot's linear nature, and it is incredibly convincing and addictive due to smart design. By far the critical component to all this success is that the game is designed to make demands on the player's imagination. The return on those demands is absolutely extraordinary.

The density of history in the game is a major factor. Evocative ruins and ancient messages are strewn all over the galaxy, with many planets providing evidence of either the seemingly inscrutable ancient civilization, or the decayed might of the Old Earth empire. As in epic Greek or Renaissance drama, events of such tantalizing grandeur cannot be effectively shown in the medium, so they are hinted at. A fragment of a message here, some information about the last base of an extinct planet-destroying invader race there, tips from the insect Veloxi captains about past galactic wars or a grand artifact of the ancients--all these leave the full visualization or conceptualization of the events to the player's imagination, which does a far better job with a little direction than any team of artists or writers could hope to accomplish.

Gamers make this point often with regard to text-based games, or games like Rogue or NetHack--sometimes a crude red "D" can inspire more fear and wonder in a player than a 3d bump/normal-mapped skeletally-animated dragon with four layers of texture/UV mapping, 5.1 roars and particle effect fiery breath. But that's not all--even given the best graphics money can buy, the story or background in modern games is often just spat out at the player in full detail, with disappointing cutscenes to fill in all the gaps, leaving the imagination no room to work its individualized magic. To make a geeky example, think how much more evocative and fascinating the Clone Wars seemed when their realization in the viewer's head was solely based on a few hinting lines of dialogue from Star Wars. And then think how dull and lacking in spirit all that heretofore fascinating past history became when fully realized and explained in film. A tragedy, I say! Trust in imagination is in dangerously short supply when producers and directors think they can show -everything-, down to the minutest detail and up to the most epic scope. As in all the best art, the creator should suggest a path for the imagination to go, and from even the crudest hints at form or ideas are wonderfully and magically filled in. This allows a productive dialogue between the creator -and- the audience, as opposed to the whole experience being defined under the purposed domination of the former. Feh!

All of Starflight works towards this end. The major plot is great in and of itself. The history of the ancients and the final truth of their existence is absolutely bursting with imaginative possibilities for the player, with no need to spell them out didactically. Knowledge of the Old Earth empire leads to fascinating artifacts, excavations of old battlefields, and the anthropological adventure of charting out an ancient civil war led by a human rebel named Harrison. The deadly secret of the silent and vicious Uhlek provides a great sideplot and the setting for Starflight's marvelous sequel all in one masterstroke. All this historical knowledge is not merely window dressing--it allows the player to unlock new areas in the game, discover useful items, and feel as though they are experiencing a living, breathing galaxy.

On that note each alien race has a personality not so much created by the semi-random blocks of text they spit out mechanically, but by the gaps in those blocks of text that the player is carefully guided to fill in.

A perfect example is the Spemin. The player at first may adopt an obsequious or friendly tone to these space blobs, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are fatuous bullies, and it's best to stand up to them. The wonderful shift in their attitude is fairly simple in terms of the programming, but to the player it is an intensely enjoyable (and very humorous) reward for figuring something out. It isn't a soulless item with increasingly higher arbitrary numbers that is your reward for most of the exploring you do in the game, it's a sense of accomplishment and more useful knowledge about the galaxy and its history, and the deadly threat that may exterminate almost all its denizens. The idea of the kind and wise Elowan or the cheerful but arrogant Veloxi going up in a puff of stardust means something to the player. Not because the player is told this should mean something, but because the player has decided it does.

There are so many unique planets to explore. So many colonizable worlds to recommend back to Starport for $$ and fame, so many cute asides from the developers (Rodium? Xenon and Borno? :-P), so much history and love in the game setting--it's just a wonder and a joy to play. Discovering Old Earth and its outposts, landing on a beautiful fractal world for the first time, fighting off humanoid hoppers and collecting valuable artifacts whilst finding old ruins and revealing last messages of lost civilizations. Greatness!

Modern game designers should take a close look at this game, and ask themselves what makes it so wonderful to so many different players. New players are discovering it and falling in love with it all the time, and it can truly be described as an ageless game.

The Bad

All the negative aspects in the end don't detract too much from the overall experience. The battle sequences are often pretty mindless, the mineral-mining aspect is a little too boring (though it is easily bypassed by instead searching for colonizable worlds for much more $$), and the ending is too short. You sometimes wish for your interactions with the alien races to have more lasting effects, but in the end this is understandable given the limitations of the era and of course keeping possibilities open to the player.

The Bottom Line

It is an interstellar tapestry on two 5.25" disks. It is love and imagination in blocky CGA. It is a glimpse of epic galactic history in fractals. It is the ultimate player experience, filled to bursting by Binary Systems with wit, love, and the most rewarding forms of interactivity. It cannot and will -never- be surpassed. It is an epochal masterwork for all fans of adventure or open-ended gameplay. There are two kinds of gamers--those who pay eternal homage to Starflight and those who haven't played it.

atari mania