Thursday, September 10, 2015
Flight Simulator: Star Trek: 25th Anniversary (Mac, PC)
Star Trek: 25th Anniversary is the reason the video game section of this project exists. It is, as far as I'm concerned, *the* Star Trek video game because it was *my* Star Trek video game, or at least my first. In true 25th Anniversary fashion, it missed the actual date itself by a good year and a half, possibly even longer depending on which platform you played it on. But with time unbound such things are as trivialities and we can make moments last as long as they need to.
Star Trek: 25th Anniversary was released between 1992 and 1993 on a number of platforms: It came out on DOS first, and was eventually ported to the Amiga and Macintosh. Much, much later it was re-released a few times on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, but I played the original release. There was a different game also called Star Trek: 25th Anniversary made for the NES and Game Boy in 1991 but (and this is an extreme rarity in my history with video games), it's the version that came out on home computers that I remember, not the console one. In particular, it's the Macintosh release: My first computer was one of the original Macintosh Classics...I can't remember the actual model, but it must have been able to support some form of colour graphics considering it could run this game. I loved that machine dearly and a huge portion of my formative gaming memories were kindled on it: This game, the planetarium programme Voyager II, Cyan Worlds' beguiling Spelunx and the Caves of Mr. Seudo (which anticipates their much more famous Myst), the Carmen Sandiego games...They were all there among the first slate of video games I actually got to own for myself.
Some years later, I'm going to guess around 1995, I came home one night to find my computer had been replaced by one of the first generation of the new Power Macs, the ones where they started using those PowerPC chip architectures. That machine was as big and bulky and 90s as my old one had been sleek and compact and 80s and I wasn't entirely sure what to make of that...I appreciated having a more powerful computer to play around with, but I still deeply missed that plucky little machine I had loved so much. This new one seemed to tower over me while my old one had felt just the right size. Although I'll certainly give the Power Mac points for longevity-I still have it, and dug it out in anticipation for this essay. After locating some irritatingly misplaced power cords, I fired it up and was playing Star Trek: 25th Anniversary within minutes. Everything still works as well as they day I first got it.
Apart from my personal sentimentality, my having the Macintosh version of this game is actually relevant in two important respects: One, because I actually still have the original game running on more or less original hardware, this sadly means I couldn't get any screenshots of my personal copy to share with you. There's probably a way to get media like that from old computer hardware, but I don't know how to do it without emulators and regardless I certainly wouldn't have had the time or resources to set it up. Thankfully, it seems this game is surprisingly popular and well-known enough there's a bunch of screenshots and gameplay videos of it floating around the Internet you could find if you were interested. Secondly, and I just found this out comparatively recently, it seems later versions included the actual voices of the Original Series cast members reprising their roles, meaning this game and its sequel are technically their final ensemble performance. Either this was specific to the PC version or a feature of one of the later CD-ROM re-releases (I have the version that came on 3.5” floppy disks), but either way that was something that was never part of my experiences with the game.
Speaking of the Original Series, It's here where you could say my Star Trek “fandom” as it were truly began to crystallize: This game was very possibly the first bit of Star Trek ephemera I got that wasn't directly linked to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as a result this was my first introduction to the Original Series crew and the work that defined my early impressions of who they were and what I thought they were like. Perhaps appropriately then, the spectre of the recent Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country looms very large over this game, and it is in fact far more of a piece with that tone and feel of film then it is with the actual Original Series.
The bridge is what stands out to me the most: While the crew still wear their technicolor prep school-esque uniforms from the show, the bridge seems to be quite clearly based on the one from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which means it's darkly lit and set really low, surrounded by walls with constantly blinking and flashing monitors. There are still a few design notes that nod to the Original Series, like Kirk's captain's chair and that red handrail that goes around the perimeter of the room, though I wouldn't have known that back then. I really like this look for Kirk's Enterprise: It gives the ship a pared-down, utilitarian feel while still keeping a sense of 1980s technofuturism to the aesthetic. Actually, I think I prefer the way the Enterprise looks here then to any other depiction of this story-For the longest time I always pictured it looking the way it does in this game rather then in any of the Original Series or Original Series-inspired TV episodes or movies. I was really disappointed to see the real sets when I finally got to see the show in the late 90s and early 2000s on the Sci-Fi channel because by that point they looked so fake and uninspiring to me. The material realities of television production simply could not live up to my own imagination.
As you may have gathered, the fact that I played this game before I'd ever seen any of the Original Series episodes or movies is kind of significant (well...I may have watched “The Trouble with Tribbles” before playing this come to think of it, as I seem to recall renting it and “By Any Other Name” from the local video store along with possibly some season 1 Star Trek: The Next Generation stuff 'round about the time the latter show was first coming to VHS. That would have been 1991, and this game came out the year later, but I can't recall for certain). It's this version of the Original Series (even down to the 16-bit remix of the theme song) that I remember most fondly. And yet even so...While at once I was interested to get a first-hand look at what this “Other” Star Trek thing my relatives kept talking about was, at the same time the fact that this wasn't Star Trek: The Next Generation, wasn't the thing I *really* watched and liked, was a niggling bit of reality that would always gnaw at me in subtle ways.
Even back then while I fully understood and recognised that this was the thing turning 25, that this was its birthday and that's what we ought to be celebrating, I just couldn't help myself from thinking it would have been nice had something called Star Trek: 25th Anniversary acknowledged *all* of Star Trek. Especially as until very recently “Star Trek” and Star Trek: The Next Generation had been synonymous in my mind. During lulls between missions I would furtively start hunting around for little Easter eggs developer Interplay might have slipped into the game. On the bridge you could click on various crewmembers to activate different ship's functions, and Spock had access to the ship's computer. You could type something into a little search bar that popped up (say, “Klingons”), and the game would give you a mini in-universe encyclopedia entry on whatever you searched for. Sometimes I'd type in things like “Captain Picard” or “USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D” knowing full well I'd get no results just on the off-chance something might come up.
The game itself is a fun hybrid between point-and-click adventure game and sci-fi space flight and combat simulator. It's divided into various “episodes”, with each one being a mission using one or both styles. Perhaps the one and only concession to fanwank and revisionist fan history in all of the 25th Anniversary is the conceit that this game and its sequel comprise those infamous last two years of the five-year mission. Even to this day Original Series fans stubbornly insist on ignoring the fact D.C. Fontana has already told this story, though you can enjoy the games themselves perfectly well while disregarding that little bit of pandering. Hell, I'll go one further and retcon the entire Original Series: As far as I'm concerned this game, it's sequel, the Animated Series and select aspects of the film series are the only “canon” accounts of the story of Captain Kirk and his crew.
OK, I'll allow “The Trouble with Tribbles” too, because I'm generous.
The mission (or “episode”, if you will) I remember most vividly is the first one, “Demon World”, because I could never get past it back in the day and since I kept replaying it over and over again it's permanently burned onto my mind. It starts out with the Enterprise participating in a war games simulation with the USS Republic, which is a damn sight harder than I remembered and than it has any right to be. This serves as the introduction to the space combat part of the game, and you have to raise shields, activate weapons and chase the Republic around a sector of space using a radar screen between the helm and navigation consoles. When you get hit, and you will, you'll have to open up the damage repair menu (the D key in my game, though it took me awhile to remember the controls: It was like straining my mind forcing it to remember some arcane bit of magickal knowledge) and tell Scotty which part of the ship you want him to focus on repairing. Of course, by the time you do that you'll have likely taken several more hits from the Republic and gone down in flames before you can even react.
But when that thing appears on screen and you unload a volley of phaser and photon torpedo fire right into its face and are rewarded by seeing that telltale red and orange explosion effect, it's incredibly satisfying. Probably way more than it should be.
This was one of the games I used to play with my cousin a lot whenever he would come over to visit, and the only one that was mine. He was my introduction to a lot of things in the outside world, especially when it came to pop culture, so I always looked forward to those visits and treasured them very deeply. And just for the record, he was five years older and way more experienced with video games, and even *he* got his ass kicked with alarming regularity by the Republic. Even so, it was always a ton of fun to just keep replaying that section over and over regardless: If I'm honest, this was probably our favourite part of the whole game. But could you blame us? The music was exciting, the graphics were busy and evocative and it was tense playing cat-and-mouse like that.
In fact, the space combat stuff was so much fun we'd oftentimes throw the whole mission and just go looking for trouble. Star Trek: 25th Anniversary employed a form of copy protection where, after you got your mission briefing from Starfleet Command to travel to a specific planet, you'd have to consult a star chart only included in the instruction manual to find out where on the map that planet was located as the in-game stellar cartography map had no names or other identifying information. We never saw it as copy protection back then; to us it was just one more thing you had to do that added to the immersion of the game (once we figured out what we were supposed to do, that is, as the game gave no indication whatsoever you were meant to consult the instruction manual).
Anyway, the idea was that if you picked the wrong star system, you'd go “off-course” and trespass into Klingon, Romulan or Elasi Pirate territory and get blown to oblivion by an enormous fleet of starships. So, we'd *deliberately do that*: Pick a star system at random, go to warp and see how long we could survive the inevitable onslaught. At first, I hasten to add, it came out of a perfectly innocent desire to explore-Travel to uncharted star systems, Explore Strange New Worlds and all that, you know? But after about the third or fourth “Captain Kirk! You have trespassed into Klingon/Romulan/Elasi territory! Prepare to get royally fucked up!” It became kind of like a self-imposed endurance mode: I don't think you could ever win encounters like that (and if you could we managed it so infrequently I can't remember ever having done it), but it was fun to see how long you could last. Of the Romulan Birds-of-Prey, my cousin once memorably remarked something to the effect of “There's like a gazillion of them. We're going down.”
The Elasi Pirates were always my favourite to run into. They were an original culture designed for this game-A fallen planetary civilization made up of a kind of Mad Max-esque warring group of pirates and raiders sailing around in cobbled-together starships that resembled heavily modified Klingon Battle Cruisers. Though again, I couldn't have known that back then-I remember always wondering why I'd never seen them referenced or mentioned anywhere else in Star Trek as they were always such a memorable and iconic part of this game for me. I seem to remember them being the hardest to run into: For whatever reason they always seemed to be rarer encounters than the Klingons or the Romulans, even though to me they were the third Major Rival Faction of the Original Series. Speaking of the Klingons and Romulans, this was also naturally the first time (or one of the first times depending on how badly I've screwed up my personal history and am misremembering it) I'd gotten to see what they looked like prior to their redesigns from Star Trek: The Next Generation: I liked them, especially the starship designs, but granted they were different and still held a personal preference for the ones I had known before.
Once you managed to figure out how the navigation worked (or were finally able to tear yourself away from suicidally hurling yourself at a wall of enemy starships at warp speed) the point-and-click adventure side of the game became more evident. In each episode, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a redshirt beam down to a planet or over to a starship to help solve a particular problem. I think the idea is you're supposed to be controlling Kirk and issuing orders, but I always got the sense you were playing the landing party more broadly. Each character has an inventory with specific set of items you'll need to use in specific situations, and you can position where everyone is standing at any given time and tell them to interact with different objects throughout the world.
The idea of having a literally nameless redshirt is a tipoff to a tied old Star Trek joke, and yes, they can die in a myriad of horrible ways. I can proudly say, however, I have never lost a single person during a serious playthrough of this game: If there was ever a time one of my security officers got killed or hurt, that was it-The game was over and I would just reset. I never found it “funny” that a redshirt might die because I had no prior experience with the Original Series such that I would recognise that as a joke. To me it was a mistake, a tragic one, and I would obviously have to not do what I did the next time because I couldn't stand to see anyone die, even a nameless security officer.
And anyway, I was fine with resetting because it meant I got to fight the Republic again.
In “Demon World”, the landing party has to investigate reports of Demon sightings on Pollux V. Upon beaming down, the landing party learns Pollux V is governed by a monastic order and that they're currently fearing an invasion of apparent “Demons” into their “Heaven”. The landing party discovers an injured monk by the name of Brother Chub, who was attacked by the Demons and has developed an infection that can only be cured by distilling a hypo-dytoxin out of some local berries. They're directed to a series of mines north of the central establishment where the berries grow, but the monks are afraid to visit because that's also where they say the Demons reside. So the first thing you have to do is go to the mines on the top of a mountain, get the berries and bring them back so McCoy can make the dytoxin.
This is actually way more difficult than it sounds, because this is a point-and-click adventure game, and I can't tell you how many frustrated hours I spent when I was younger trying to figure out how to advance this damn quest. Finding the berries is the easy part: You just walk up the mountain a bit, fight some Klingons and pick up a severed hand. The trouble comes when you go back down, because actually making the dytoxin isn't as simple as you think it is. If I recall correctly, you have to have McCoy make it even though Brother Stephen, the guy who sent you, is standing right next to the machine and specifically asks for the berries. So naturally (well, at least for me), you'd want to give him the berries, which, if I'm remembering correctly, he either proceeds to do jack shit with or you can't even give him them in to begin with. So you then proceed to walk around like a dumbass for hours until you give up, reset the game and fight the Republic again.
As is typical for this kind of game, the challenge isn't in solving the puzzle yourself so much as it is in figuring out how the developer *wants* you to solve the puzzle and implementing the solution *they* had designed it around instead of coming up with a solution yourself. Obviously the nature of video games necessitating a pre-programmed set of specific actions limits the possibilities for freeform experimentation here, but I find it especially clumsy, awkward, counter-intuitive and immersion breaking in this genre. In my view, the truly excellent examples of game design work in tandem with the player's own psychology: The trick is designing a puzzle in such an elegant and intuitive way that the most natural and instinctive solution a player will come to is also the one you've programmed to be the correct one. In essence, you're subtly manipulating the player into doing what you want them to do while making them feel like they're figuring things out on their own. Which, in a sense, they are: It's just sort of a performative demonstration of how the process works. Hence, I suppose, the term video game. For me, that goes a long way towards helping me feel like I'm a part of the world the game creates and its artistry instead of just constantly being aware of the reality that I'm frittering away my time with a prettified computer generated logic switch.
(The other annoying thing about this part of the game is that it's a really sensitive and temperamental process to actually select the juice synthesizer itself: You have to click on the *exact right* pixel of a spot, or else it won't work, you assume you've made a mistake somewhere and waste *even more* time.)
If you finally manage to figure all that out, you can poke around the citadel or whatever a bit and learn it's likely Pollux V had other inhabitants. If you go back up the mountain to find a cave with a door out front, you can blast away the rock barrier in front of it and use the severed hand to open the door. Inside, you'll meet a group of peaceful little green men called Nauains, who are the planet's original inhabitants. In prehistoric times they learned of an inevitable series of meteoroid strikes and built an underground sanctuary to preserve their knowledge and people. The “Demons” the people were seeing were part of an automated defense system the Nauians use to keep intruders away, but once they learn of the landing party's peaceful intentions, they agree to share their technology with the other inhabitants of the planet and apply for Federation citizenship.
There are other episodes and missions to check out, including one that explores the culture of the Elasi Pirates, but “Demon World” will always be the part of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary that I'll instantly think of whenever someone mentions the game. And perhaps it's fitting that, as of this writing, it's now available through GOG.com when we're almost as far from it as it was from the original Star Trek. I'm grateful that video games allow me to relive so many of the most precious moments of my life: Star Trek: 25th Anniversary takes me back to when my love for Star Trek was at its most unfettered and profound, and I can re-experience that any time I turn it on. Perhaps you have similar memories of this game or this time of your own, but even if you don't, I would humbly hope that playing this game even today can bring you a fraction of the joy it's brought me for so many years.
Check out Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and its sequels Star Trek: Judgment Rites and Star Trek Starfleet Academy at GOG.com! They are also on Steam.