Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Starflight (Genesis)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros:A fairly complex game, with great game play and tremendous replay value Cons:Sub-par graphics and horrible sound effects, this game hasn't aged well

The original version of Starflight was written by Greg Johnson back in 1986. Back then, it took him and four other people 15 man-years and a huge bankroll to complete the game. Greg also worked on Electronic Arts' humor award winning Caveman Ugh-Lympics. Starflight was converted for use on the Sega Genesis by BlueSky.

Starflight is mostly a space exploration game. There is some combat involved, especially later in the game, but it never tries to be one of those Wing Commander type games where you just shoot everything.

You start out with a ship, a terrain vehicle, and 50,000 MU (monitary units). You are not entirely sure what your whole purpose is, and instead get the rather trek-ish task of seeking out new life, new civilizations, and boldly going where no man has gone before. You will soon find out, however, that your solar system's star is going to explode soon, and you must try to find other inhabitable planets to transfer colonists to.

Starflight really has three distinct sections. The first section is the star port. The star port itself is rather ugly. It is a very small hallway, with a handful of doors in front of you. You simply walk to whichever door you want, and push up to enter. The second part is in space, and the third part is a planet's surface.

The first door in the space port is where you get your mission briefings. All mission briefings you get will be received at the star port as well. These briefings are like hints or ideas, pointing you in the direction you must go next. You should usually try to read all of these, as you will find it a tremendous help during your journey.

In the second door, you can (and must) hire some sort of crew at the star port. You can have between one and five crew members, and you get to choose between the different races. Humans are your average all around race, and score highly in science. Veloxi are insect-like creatures, they start with high marks in navigation and engineering.

Thrynn are large bipedal lizards, who score high in communication. Elowan are plant people, who also score highly in communication, but also in medicine. These two races are at war with each other, and while you can recruit one of each on board your ship, it may hamper your progress later on when you are trying to communicate with other members of their species.

Crew members also must be trained, and each species will increase skills at a different rate. If you choose a raise that starts with high marks (50 points) in a given skill, it's maximum skill level will be 250. This is not very expensive really, and you should have each person to their maximum for their specialty very quickly.

Each specialty is very important to your mission. The science officer is responsible for scanning and analysis of planets you come across. You receive rewards if you recommend an inhabitable planet, but you are penalized if you recommend a bad planet and make them waste their time. Scanning a planet is also a good way to see what types of minerals are on it before you land. The science officer also scans alien ships when you encounter them, to determine which alien race the ship belongs to.

The navigation officer is in charge of landing the ship, reading star maps, and controlling weapons and shields. Raising and lowering shields, and arming or disarming weapons will effect how aliens react towards you, so the navigator is very important. If your navigator is not very skilled, it will also take you longer to find your place on the star map.

The engineering officer is in charge of repairing ship damage, as well as cataloging the cargo hold's inventory. He can use cargo to repair certain areas, such as weapons or engines, while you are deep in space. If you can wait, it is usually more cost effective to wait until you dock at the star port though. He also keeps a running list of any alien artifacts you may have acquired during your trip.

The communications officer does just what he should, communicates. When you stumble across an enemy ship, you can make the communications officer hail them, or respond to their hail. There are three different postures to take with an alien: obsequious, friendly, or hostile. Different aliens respond in different ways, depending on which posture you use.

Lastly, we have the medical officer. When a crew member becomes injured, make sure to have the medical officer treat them. Wounds do not heal immediately, but instead slowly heal over time. The rate of healing depends on the medical officer's skill level.

In the next door, you can buy and sell minerals. The majority of your income will be from traveling to other planets and mining them, then coming back here to sell your cargo. You might also want to keep a little bit of a few key minerals on board, to repair your ship with if it becomes damaged. Endurium is one of the most expensive minerals, and it is used as fuel to power your ship.

The next door is where you can upgrade your ship. Armor, shields, and engines are all available here. You can also purchase a variety of weapons, ranging from the cheap little pulse cannon, all the way up to a monstrous phaser. Cargo pods are another thing sold here, which you should max out as soon as possible. Your ship can carry up to 16 of these, and the more you have, the more minerals you can carry back to the star port in a single trip.

This is also the place to upgrade your terrain vehicle. You will be spending a lot of time in the terrain vehicle, as it is what you use after you land on a planet. You drive around in the terrain vehicle, looking for minerals to mine and bring home. Perform a "mineral scan", which uses up 10 fuel, and you will have an overlay of the map with red and yellow spots on it. These spots indicate where you can dig and find minerals. When you fill up the terrain vehicle with minerals, drive back and embark upon your ship, and they will be transferred to the ship's cargo hold instead, and you can go fill up the terrain vehicle again.

Terrain vehicle upgrades are important. Pontoons allow you to drive on water, and ice runners allow you to travel on ice. Turbo chargers allow you to move faster, and extra cargo... well, lets you hold extra cargo. You can also get a wide angle stunner, allowing you to fire projectiles in front of you like normal, as well as diagonally in front of you in both directions.

Shoot projectiles at creatures to stun them, then store them in your cargo hold. You will receive money for them, just the same as minerals. You would be surprised how much money you can get for some of them at the star port. Artifacts are also pretty valuable. These can be found by searching through any ruins you find on planets.

The last door in the space port is just the exit. It leads back to your ship, so that you may leave. Always remember to make sure you have some Endurium for fuel before you take off. Also make sure your ship is in good shape. If your engines die, it will cost you a lot of money to get towed back to the space port if you send a distress call.

If your ship is destroyed in a fight with aliens, it's game over. If you get destroyed by a creature on a planet's surface, it's over. If you land on a planet with crushing gravity, it's over. Realizing this, remember to save often! You can always move away from creatures, and scan planets to check the gravity, but why take a chance? There are two save slots, and they are there for a reason.

The Starflight universe is extremely large. When you leave the star port, you will be in your solar system. If you fly to the edge of the map, you will be able to fly to other solar systems. See all those hundreds of dots on the map? Yep, each and every one is a solar system. Each solar system has a handful of planets in it. You got it, this game is huge.

Luckily for us, there are "flux" locations scattered about. These are basically worm holes, and when you enter one, you will be transported to another flux location somewhere else on the map. These never change, and always lead to the same place. After you have used a flux location, a line is drawn on your star map depicting where it leads to. Use these to conserve time and fuel, and explore a lot more of the map.

The planet's surfaces are pretty wide open as well. They are extremely varied, from earth-like planets to gas giants, from lava encrusted planets to ice balls in the sky. Scattered across the planets are varied minerals, creatures, ruins, etc. Sometimes you will see a hammer symbol on the surface. This means there is a mineral out-cropping sticking up above the ground, so run it over to collect the minerals.

I've mostly explained the graphics already through the review, but I will summarize here. The space port is a small 2D hallway with very ugly pictures. Your big blocky character walks slowly from one end to the other to get to the correct door that you wish to enter.

Space is a vast and wide open area. You control a little ship, which is actually not too ugly, and fly around in any direction you want. It's still 2D, but you have complete freedom to go wherever you want. Gravity from planets and stars affects the ship when you get near them, making it more realistic.

The planet's surface is also pretty nice looking. You can see ice, lava, water, forests, and deserts. When a storm blows across the planet, you can see the wind blowing really strong, and your terrain vehicle gets pushed in the direction the wind is blowing. You can dig down into the sand with your mineral digging arm to keep yourself from blowing too far away from where you want to be.

The sound effects are where I have to give this game low marks. The sound effects are so bad, you will find yourself turning the television down or muting it. They were probably pretty good sound effects for the original Starflight, but since it was made in 1986, that's not saying much. The music.. well, there really isn't that much music in the game, so I'm not quite sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. I guess it's a good thing, if it was going to be anything like the sound effects.

There is also a short story by Robert Silverberg, inspired by his experience with Starflight. This accounts for 33 pages of Starflight's 143 page instruction book!

Overall I think Starflight is a really great game. It is an often overlooked classic that I believe everyone should own. If you have a working Genesis, make sure to pick this one up. If you like Starflight, you also might enjoy Freelancer or Microsoft Flight Simulator.

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