Sunday, January 17, 2016
Flight Simulator: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Game Boy, NES)
If you were a casual Star Trek: The Next Generation fan in the 80s and early 90s looking for a video game based on your favourite TV show, your options were severely limited. Star Trek computer and video games were overwhelmingly dominated by the Original Series (much like the franchise in general), and if you wanted a game specifically based on The Next Generation, you pretty much had only two options: There was a trivia game released in 1990 that was just what it sounds like: A bunch of trivia questions based on the show's early seasons. The year before that there was the rather more intriguing Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Transinium Challenge, a sort of hybrid third-person adventure detective game that put you in the shoes of Commander Riker investigating a series of attacks on a friendly outpost.
This was all very well and good, but from my perspective back then there was just one problem: Both Star Trek: The Next Generation Trivia and The Transinium Challenge were DOS games, and PC games were things far, far above my family's pay grade and class level. I'm not sure we even *owned* a personal computer in 1989 come to think of it, and once we finally did get one it was a Macintosh, a platform that is famously well known for its excellent pedigree when it comes to PC gaming. My...history with PC gaming is something that continues to this day, and I could fill a book with all the indignities I've lived through involving Steam, system requirements, hard drives, graphics cards, hardware standards, trolling modders and planned obsolescence. Suffice to say, DOS may as well have been a strange and unfamiliar ancient runic language as far as I was and am concerned.
Regular readers of the blog will of course know I eventually did get to experience a computerized representation of the Star Trek universe through the wonderful Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, which satiated my need for a Star Trek video game for awhile at least. But as precious as that game has always been to me, it was destined from the beginning to be little more than a temporary solution, because that game was all about the Original Series, and I wasn't. I needed an actual video game based on the world I knew and loved, and, even had I known they existed back then (which I didn't), DOS games from four years ago simply weren't going to cut it. And it would also be really nice if this game would come out for a proper video game console instead of the computer, because that would vastly increase the odds of my getting to play it.
In my opinion, consoles are the natural home of video games. For one thing they have always been, and will always be, significantly cheaper than a high-end PC built for gaming. They're also designed for one thing and one thing only, playing video games, which means they do that one thing extremely well. The single biggest barrier to my truly getting into PC gaming, apart from the unacceptably ghastly financial investment, is mouse and keyboard controls. For anything other than text adventures, point-and-click games or first person shooters I find them hideously clunky, awkward and unintuitive (and I even find mouse and keyboard an imperfect solution for FPS games because my fingers always feel cramped and limited on the WASD keys-I'll take a control stick any day). On consoles, you don't have to worry about any of that, nor do you have to worry about building your machine to spec because the games are designed for the hardware instead of the other way around. It's also nice to not have to shell out a small fortune to replace worn out hard drives or engage in a data backup daisy chain process that frightens and intimidates me even today.
(Seriously! At the moment of writing, the hard drive on the very laptop I write this on needs to be replaced, and the necessary replacement drive *alone* costs the same as a whole new video game console!)
But there's also a biographical reason I have a zealous preference for console gaming, and that's because I grew up with it. My cousin was the one who introduced me to the world of video games, and although a PC gamer himself, the way he did so was through the home consoles of the era. As big a fan of the medium of video games as I was and still am, I started my own collection comparatively late for people my age. My parents, admirably wanting to foster in me a love of nature, the outdoors and genuine experiences were very apprehensive about video games for a very long time, fearing they would consume all of my time and interest at the expense of other things. It took a great many years of seeing me playing video games with my cousin or at the arcade machines in the bar and having a well-adjusted relationship with them for my parents to finally relent and get me a video game console of my own. This means that while I was intimately familiar with things like Pong consoles, Game & Watch, the Atari 2600, the NES and the SEGA Genesis, these were experiences I could only have at my cousin's house and were out of reach for my own personal everyday enjoyment.
*My* video game console, that is the one I personally owned, was the Game Boy. Although I started getting home consoles in later years to play catch up (my collection of physical games media is actually far less extensive than you perhaps might think it is given the way I talk about video games), the Game Boy was the first real console I got to own and therefore the one that's always been the most precious to me. That was the one that my dad got me for Christmas one year and that was the one that became my first real gateway into what's become possibly my favourite form of creative expression. In many ways it had to be, because it was peering over my cousin's shoulder as he played his own Game Boy huddled under the lamp on my mom's end table (the Game Boy wasn't backlit until friggin' 2005!) that comprised some of my most powerfully formative emotions surrounding video games. The Game Boy was also portable, which meant I could take it anywhere, and I was and still am a very active (some would say restlessly unsettled) person. And I've no doubt the fact the Game Boy was considerably cheaper than the home consoles of the day was some manner of help in swaying my parents.
(I've been staunchly loyal to and a fierce advocate for handheld gaming ever since, and this is currently manifesting in my torrid, potentially doomed love affair with the New Nintendo 3DS. As I write this I'm also struck by the similarity between the words “portable” and “portal”: Because that's what the Game Boy and its lineage have always been-Portals to the Otherworld that can fit in your pocket and travel with you anywhere. But that's another intellectual exercise.)
You'll hopefully forgive the lengthy digression away from Star Trek this post has become, but the point is all of this builds to what for me was yet another in a long line of life changing events surrounding Star Trek: The release of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the Game Boy in 1993. I find it entirely fitting that the first real Star Trek: The Next Generation video game of note (well, for me at any rate) came out on the Game Boy first. Regardless of how good they might have been, Star Trek: The Next Generation Trivia and Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Transinium Challenge were always going to be limited to fairly niche audiences. Namely, people affluent and nerdy enough to at once be into Star Trek, afford a DOS PC in 1989 and know how to run the damn thing. And in spite of how ahistorical the narrative actually is, there was still a little of the lingering stigma (at least in the United States) of home consoles being primarily children's toys.
But the Game Boy? It was perfectly acceptable and expected to see it in the hands of everyone except the most conservative sets: Kids, teenagers, young adults of all stripes, moms and other working women, athletes and shut-ins alike. The Game Boy was for everyone. Tetris and Super Mario Land were the Clash of Clans and Candy Crush of their day, except they weren't immoral and barely legal exploitative Skinner box exercises in engendering social control through manipulating addiction cycles. And so of course Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show that never was a cult series in spite of the revisionist history surrounding it, that was well-known and well-loved all around the world and at the absolute peak of its popularity in 1993, would make its real video game debut on the Game Boy.
I still remember walking into an Electronics Boutique at my local mall and seeing this game on the shelves. My face must have lit up like the morning sun. To think, for the very first time I could finally carry a part of my show and my universe with me on my video game console! It was one of the best video game experiences I've ever had. And this was something of a historical milestone in games media not just for me, but for others as well. As of this writing, not even Wikipedia has an entry on The Transinium Challenge: You have to go to hardcore niche (gaming or Star Trek) sites to find info on that. But they do have a page on this humble Game Boy game, and when many people of my age and perspective think about the “first” Star Trek: The Next Generation game, this is the one that tends to come to our mind. Sheltered as I was growing up I never knew this back then, but last year (as of this writing) during the Game Boy's 25th Anniversary festivities, I was pleasantly, but hugely, surprised to see this game cited as an old favourite and reliable constant for my fellow Game Boy aficionados.
But this does make sense-Apart from the stature Star Trek: The Next Generation had as a pop culture phenomenon then, 1993 was also significant year for the Game Boy. This was early enough in the fourth generation (home console generation that is-Handhelds traditionally operated under a separate hardware cycle unto their own) where the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was getting all the buzz, but older systems like the SEGA Genesis and original NES were still very much in the pop consciousness, though their lustre was on the wane. The NES in particular was effectively at the end of its life, but it still had a massive install base and level of awareness, usually among poorer people or the younger relatives of those who had moved on to the SNES and had the older machines entrusted to them. This meant that while there were still games being made for it, supporting the NES was very much an afterthought for publishers and developers. This led to the curious phenomenon of certain games being developed for the much more ubiquitous and evergreen Game Boy first, and then ported to the NES later, a complete inversion of the traditional relationship between home consoles and handhelds.
What normally happens is that the handheld, being based on a stripped-down version of the hardware architecture from the previous generation, would get similarly pared down ports of older home console games. The Game Boy was designed as a kind of portable NES, but released after the TurboGrafix-16 and SEGA Genesis unofficially launched the fourth generation, and while Nintendo was well into development of the SNES. This meant that in its early years, the Game Boy had a reputation among gamers for getting inferior versions of NES games due to their roughly comparable builds. Although this was largely an unjust negative stigma leveled against the Game Boy and handheld gaming in general from the hardcore gamerz contingent (an early precursor of the mentality that would turn “casual gamer” into a slur in the 2000s), any remote justification for this reputation was completely gone by 1993, when games that launched on both systems would become wild successes on the Game Boy and utterly fizzle out on the NES.
DuckTales 2, for example, was the sequel to a game that's considered an acclaimed classic of the NES library. Although critics consider the sequel even better than the original, its 1993 release meant that it barely saw any traffic at all on that platform. The Game Boy version, by contrast, sold over a million copies. This is what explains Star Trek: The Next Generation's reception on Game Boy: There was, in fact an NES version of this game that was also released, but, in keeping with the times, it's actually a port of the handheld version instead of the other way around. And while the home console release is mostly seen as a historical footnote from the final days of the NES, the Game Boy game is considered something of a minor classic by fans. Which is as it should be: I have both versions and, to be honest, the NES port is in most respects a deeply inferior one.
I guess this means this is the part of the game review where I actually talk about the game!
The most memorable part of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary to me was always the space combat sections. So naturally, the first thing that immediately grabbed me about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that it's pretty much *nothing* but that, over and over again forever! Well, that's an exaggeration. In truth, the game has a robust variety of different mission types, it's just the combat ones seem to be the ones that come up the most. This might have something to do with the fact that the missions pretty much all boil down to either warping somewhere to get in a space dogfight with some alien starships, or warping somewhere to beam someone or something from one place to another place, sometimes both at the same time. But the game gets a surprising amount of mileage out of this structure: Each mission opens with a briefing letting you know where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to do, and it's all based around a randomized execution of this formula, so the game changes each time to turn it on.
So, you might be warping somewhere to stop an “invasion fleet” (by blasting the fuck out of it), or you might be stopping pirates from interfering trade routes (by blasting the fuck out of them) or rescuing a freighter being attacked by hostile aliens (by blasting the fuck out of them). Alternatively, you could be escorting an ambassador from one planet to another, evacuating scientists on a research station about to explode, or evacuating the colonists on a planet ravaged by a plague. Either way, the difficulty increases with each mission you complete as you “advance in rank”. One particularly memorable potential mission involves you crossing the Neutral Zone to rescue a Federation espionage agent who's cover has been blown, just like in “Face of the Enemy”. Except this time, you first have to deal with an aggressive Romulan Warbird pursuing you both by blasting the fuck out of it.
As frankly horrific as this all sounds for a Star Trek: The Next Generation game (I mean at *no point* is there *ever* the option for a peaceful resolution to a conflict; negotiation and diplomacy are *literally* not programmed into the game), I'll be honest with you: In 1993, on the Game Boy, this was perfectly acceptable. Space combat is always fun and the novelty of finally having an accessible Star Trek: The Next Generation video game was more than enough to carry the experience. It still holds up well: It was and is a great way to get a short burst of Star Trek: The Next Generation on the go in a simple, self-explanatory way, and the random nature of the mission system means there's far more depth and replayability to the experience than you might think there would be at first glance. In fact, to this day it's still one of the handheld games I like to keep within reach and in regular rotation at all times. Furthermore, the game's random nature also becomes an allegory for what I feel is one of the most important distinguishing truths about video games as a medium: No two playthroughs will ever be truly the same.
(This is, however, far less acceptable for a home console game, and I'd be willing to bet that's a big part of the reason for the comparative failure of the NES version. If I'd spent $50 for this as an NES game back in the day instead of $25-$30 for it as a Game Boy one, I'd probably have been pretty upset. I'll get back to that a little later on.)
What's less defensible, I'm afraid, is the framing device. You see, the premise of this game is that you're not *actually* playing the Enterprise crew. Oh no, you're playing a Starfleet Academy Cadet undergoing command training in a *holodeck recreation* of the Enterprise. So in other words, you're basically playing Wesley Crusher. Captain Picard only appears at the beginning of each mission on the main viewscreen to give you a briefing, then it's up to you to manage your holographic crew. And not even, like, the whole crew: You're limited exclusively to Worf (who handles defense and weapons systems), Data (who actually fills Ro Laren's role as helsman instead of his own, and no, Laren is not anywhere in the game, why would you ever think that?) Geordi (who manages repairs like Scotty from Star Trek: 25th Anniversary), Miles O'Brien (transporter, natch, though his presence is also another example of the weird trend in 1993 spinoff media of erasing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Commander Riker (who does nothing except remind you what your mission objectives are and let you know when you're running out of time. Oh yeah, there's a time limit).
Your interactions with your crew are limited, likely again due to this being the Game Boy. There's only one real main gameplay screen, which is a shot of the main viewer with a set of Starfleet insignia at the bottom, each of which corresponds to a member of the crew. You can select them with the A button to bring up a sub-menu where you can manage their actions, and the insignia will flash if they have something to report. The positive flipside to this system is that it's *really* easy and fun to pretend you're doing something else while you're playing it. There are a goodly amount of ship's systems recreated, and you have to manage all of them manually, each with its own little minigame: That is, you have to go into Worf's screen to raise the shields and arm the photon torpedoes before battle, Data's to plot a course, set warp speed and engage, Geordi's to prioritize system repairs if you take damage, and Chief O'Brien's to work the transporter (there is literally never any reason to go see Commander Riker unless you're exhausted from working all night and have completely forgotten what you're supposed to do, as I was the night I was replaying the game for review).
So because of that, and because you're doing all of this yourself, it's really easy to imagine yourself *as* Worf or Data or Geordi or Miles or someone else cool instead of the nameless, faceless Academy cadet you're actually meant to be playing as. That's part of the magic of these old video games-Because of the technical limitations of the time, the majority of the context, background, story and exposition had to come in the form of supplementary material like the manual instead of in the game itself. And you would likely have only read the manual through once to get a beat on the game and then kept it on a shelf for future reference if you forgot something (if you were good) or thrown it out with the box and jammed the cartridge into the slot like an addict going through withdrawal (if you were bad). So using your imagination, in tandem with the sensations of the gameplay itself, was a far larger and more important part of the experience, and of creating your own personal meaning from that experience, than it oftentimes is today. Executed properly, a video game should heighten one's imagination and creativity, not suppress or dampen it.
The minigames themselves were always a mixed bag. Poor Will is, as I said, largely superfluous, and Worf's section is pretty much limited to two sets of “toggle on/toggle off” switches. Data gets the job done: I like how there's a nice variety of different planets missions can take place on, and how they're all named after planets from the TV show (and no, the missions and their respective planets have absolutely nothing to do with any actual episodes: Due to the random nature of the game, it's entirely possible to have Talarians invading Kataan or a scientific research station on Risa. Though I did get a big smile one time when I had to go to a “Starbase” in orbit of planet “Bajor”. Too bad I had to evacuate it) and it's cool how you can choose how fast you want to warp to your destination on a scale from 1 to 9. Although it definitely adds to the immersion, the problem is that the decision you make about your warp speed is *completely meaningless*: You're on a time limit, so naturally you want to get there and back as fast as possible, so you're always going to want to go at Warp 9 to give yourself the most time. And the thing about it is there's no consequence for going everywhere at that speed (I know this was before “Force of Nature”, but I can't help but think about that. At the very least you'd think there'd be some warning about the ship not being able to travel at maximum warp for prolonged periods of time due to antimatter containment or whatever) so, from a purely mechanical perspective, you may as well not even have the choice.
Data can also take the Enterprise into a standard orbit around a planet, which you'll need to do in certain kinds of missions, like if you have to escort an ambassador, evacuate a colony or hunt for stolen cargo hidden somewhere on the surface (which is a pretty cool brief to get: It's a Star Trek: The Next Generation treasure hunt!). This minigame is one of my favourites because it makes you feel like you're actually piloting a starship: Normally you just use the control pad to move in four directions, with Data also being able to put the Enterprise into half impulse, full impulse or bring it to a full stop. But here, you have to fly through a series of expanding quadrangles as close to the centre as you can get to achieve a stable orbit: The graphical overlays are really cool, instantly reminiscent of early 80s vector graphics, which I find to be charming and appropriate. It's also neat how the stability of your orbit is determined by how close you are to the planet, and you can throw the whole thing off if you approach it too fast or at too odd an angle-It's one of the most complex and immersive parts of the game for me.
Chief O'Brien's section of the game is similarly enjoyable. You naturally play as him primarily whenever you get a mission that heavily features the transporter and it's a lot of fun: You get a moderately sized and delightfully 80s grid screen to monitor, and your job is to move a cursor along that grid to locate whatever it is that needs to be transported. There's a “lock” gauge that tells you how close to your target you are, and a “power” gauge that, once you've found it, tells you how close you are to beaming it up. It really makes you feel how you might imagine it would feel to actually be someone on a starship working with this kind of retro futuristic computer equipment. The only kind of annoying thing about Miles' sections is whenever you have to evacuate people, because there's always like ten guys to find and they're all inevitably running all over the place like assholes. This is a problem, because you have to keep the cursor *on* the guys for a few seconds in order to get a solid transporter lock. You'd think that if they're dying from the plague or trying to escape their freighter before the warp core explodes or whatever they'd stand still to make things easy for the transporter chief who is actively trying to save their fucking lives as quickly as possible. This is why I much prefer it when I have an ambassador to escort or hidden treasure to find instead.
Geordi's minigames are sadly probably the most annoying for me: For one, you'll only need him during really serious and heavy late-game combat which is the part of the game I find the most annoying anyway, and having to keep jumping back and forth between prioritizing repairs and trying to actually shoot shit drives me up the wall. In Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, the repair screen was a sub-menu that you could toggle on and off, quickly click to make your choice, and then get right back to the action. But here, you have to toggle off combat (leaving you a sitting duck, which is great when you've got three asshole Romulan Warbirds buzzing around you like the world's worst insect swarm), navigate to Geordi and then call up two different screens: One to select him, and the other to effect the repairs. Then, you've got to do all that all over again but this time in reverse, by which point the Romulans have likely crippled a bunch of your other systems, so you have to go all the way back to engineering, which you just spent all that time trying to get out of!
Sometimes you'll also have to reroute power to disabled systems, which is a whole other minigame. Anyone who knows anything about video games knows how well minigames involving hacking or rerouting power tend to go, and that's badly. Star Trek: The Next Generation is no exception, as it has you tediously following a minuscule spark through a tangled mess of electrical junctions, constantly flipping switches all the way to ensure it goes to the right system. This one takes up two screens, so of course you can't keep track of where the spark is and where it's supposed to go at the same time. Again, a fun thing to do in the heat of battle with some pissed off Romulans. This probably wouldn't have been so bad if at least some part of the process was automated: Like, if you could tell Worf to maintain a consistent firing pattern and have Data keep the ship in a specific attack formation so the Enterprise at least wouldn't be stupidly lying around slack-jawed and defenseless while you're off dicking around in engineering. Fortunately you *can* elect to have Geordi prioritize repairs as he sees fit, which is typically what I do. Unfortunately you can't do that if you have to reroute power.
(For extra fun, try doing this in the game's final confrontation. With the Borg.)
The space combat itself is pretty functional and satisfying, which is good because that's what you'll be spending most of your time doing. Navigating space using the control pad is simple and intuitive, and so is having the phasers mapped to the A button and photon torpedoes mapped to the B button. It literally couldn't be simpler, and while that's a good thing, it also can make you feel a bit let down if you're used to the frenetic combat of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. The biggest letdown is the lack of a radar screen which added one more tactical level to the combat and helped increase the tension of the situation as you tried to outmanoeuvre and flank your opponent. Also, the Enterprise can sometimes feel a bit sluggish at times, especially on the NES version, where she lumbers around *painfully* slowly. It gives me a decent idea of what it would be like to do a frontside Gazelle Spin with an ocean liner. The Game Boy version by contrast feels far tighter and snappier.
There are a handful of different ships you'll be sparring with, and what's neat is that they all have different unique behaviours. Talarians basically just stand around waiting to get killed, while Ferengi Marauders keep trying to run away from your rain of hellfire, only occasionally turning to take a shot at you. The problem is, due to the limitations of the Game Boy, they usually accomplish this by jankily clipping across the screen at *just* the right speed to make it next to impossible to catch up with them. Fortunately however they seem to have a programmatic desire to simply move around you in circles, so, instead of chasing them, it's actually more advantageous to stay put and wait for the bad guys to come around again. Eventually, laws of attrition and abandonment of the will to live from sheer boredom will dictate the Enterprise will win the encounter, but be sure to clear some time. The Romulans have basically the same strategy as the Ferengi, but they're a lot faster, can clip up and down instead of just side to side and enjoy plastering you with photon torpedoes at every opportunity. I don't like fighting Romulans.
The sound effects and music both in and out of battle are crisp (especially if you're taking advantage of the Game Boy's “Dot Matrix with Stereo Sound” by wearing headphones), and nicely evocative of the game's world. There's an ambient sensor sound that plays on the main screen, and if warp drive and phaser blasts can sound a little underwhelming, the photon torpedo blast is quite satisfying to hear. The 8-bit downmix of the theme song is excellent, and the game has some small musical cues of its own that pop in during certain events. It's an effective use of the Game Boy's chiptune sound card, which until recently never got anywhere near the recognition and praise I feel it truly deserved. In my opinion, and in the hands of talented composers, Game Boy chiptunes can sound leagues more enjoyable than the music from NES and even Super Nintendo games. A fact which is duly supported by the NES version of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which *technically* is supposed to have richer and more complex audio capabilities, but which actually ends up sounding oddly flat to me. The theme song is cut off in this version for some reason, and, most unforgivably, the phaser effects sound like they come from the Original Series!
Visually there are tradeoffs in the porting job as well. While the sprite art in the Game Boy game is crisp and decently detailed for what it needs to do (though the portraits of the characters and the splash screen of the Enterprise at the title are the best-Some of the in-game sprites look weirdly deformed), many of the NES sprites look fuzzy, washed out and cruder by comparison. I don't *think* developer Absolute Entertainment just upscaled them to fit the NES' higher resolution, but for some reason some of them don't quite look as good to me. Some of the visuals on the NES are better though, namely the transporter beam custscene, Captain Picard's opening briefing and the LCARS overlays during the minigames, all of which look more colourful and detailed than on the monochrome Game Boy. *However*, if you're playing the Game Boy version on a Game Boy Colour or Game Boy Advance, the newer systems do offer a form of post facto colorization that adds a bit more vibrancy and contrast to the world, as they do for all the original Game Boy games.
Apart from that, and the fact the passwords are different, the two games are effectively identical. But if you're only going to play one, I do have to recommend the Game Boy version over the NES one, because the Game Boy was the system this game was truly designed for, and it's always best to play games on the hardware they were first intended to be played on. And I do recommend this game, very highly in fact. There's annoying and questionable things about it to be sure, but you have to remember that back then we were a lot more accepting of our video games, quirks and all. It's not like today where it seems any minor nitpick is enough to completely ruin an entire experience for a whole swath of people. That's not to say there aren't some instances where the severity of a game's flaws are enough to warrant writing it off, but back then we understood that video games were ambitious, frequently compromised and inelegant affairs and didn't always demand perfection from them. Developers were doing the best they could with comparatively crude technology, and we didn't take it as a personal slight when the end result wasn't *quite* an unqualified success. And at least for me, the pros of this one far outweigh the cons.
I sincerely hope that I've been able, in some way, to bring you back to a simpler time when the sheer joy of being able to bring your favourite show and characters with you anywhere was enough, and all you had to do to leap into their world was to reach into your pocket, pull out your Game Boy and flip the power switch.