Previously, I asked about sandbox space sims. You had a lot of suggestions for me on what’s out there, what’s good, and what’s worth a look at this point in time. I took your advice – or some of it – and for the next few entries I’m going to write about what I played and what I thought about it.
This is a strange genre. Everyone has their own idea about what features really define it. Combat? Asteroid mining? Trade? Exploration? Fleet command? Ship design? Factions and interplanetary politics? Smuggling? Landing on planets? Character growth, leveling, and skill trees? Diplomacy with aliens? Commanding capital ships? Crew management? Piloting fighters? I dunno. No game does all of these, but a sandbox space sim does some subset of them.
We had nothing in this genre for years, and now there are a dozen of them on the horizon. We’re up to our asses in astronavigation at this point, and it’s only going to get worse* as the various early access / kickstarted prototypes grow up and become Actual Games.
* By which I mean “more awesome”.
Obviously one week is not nearly enough time to even begin to scratch the surface of one of these games, much less play a half dozen of them. So these are going to be drive-by reviews, quick looks and first impressions. Also, I’m not an expert on this genre (whatever that means) so if I complain about something then “But all the games do that!” is not a meaningful defense. Actually, that’s probably never a good defense anyway.
Let’s talk about the first of these things I ever played: Starflight.
|This is actually a shot of Starflight 2, just to confuse things.|
I was playing Starflight 2 in 1992 or so, back when I was flipping burgers. But I first discovered the series in 1988, when I was a junior in high school. I had a bootleg copy of the game and I could only play it before or after computer class or after I had done my work.
The two games have gotten all tangled together in my mind now. I remember the plot of Starflight 1 but when I try to picture it all I see is Starflight 2.
At the time, I played the game as if it was a roguelike. Your “save file” was an entire floppy disk, so if you wanted multiple saves you needed multiple disks, and who has that kind of money? You could only save the game when docked at a space station, and those tended to be pretty far apart. So the game was hardcore in a way I’d never put up with now.
|Orbital map, scanning the surface.|
The plot of the game was kind of interesting. Your ship is powered by endurium, a substance which also serves as the currency of the galaxy. It’s this crystalline substance that I remember looked something like pink diamond-shaped icons, although people with better graphics hardware might have seen something else. (Alas, I was stuck in 4-color mode and wouldn’t know the joys of 256 color for a few years.) Everyone burns endurium in their ships. Everyone trades endurium for goods. Endurium makes the worlds go round, as it were.
In the game, suns were gradually flaring, starting from one edge of the galactic map and progressing towards the other. Your goal was to find out the cause and stop it before your own sun flared and wiped out the homeworld. Along the way you’d tangle with aliens, trade, explore planets, mine for resources, hire and train your bridge crew, and upgrade your ship. Not bad for a game that fit in half a megabyte of memory.
There wasn’t a clear breadcrumb trail to the end. You didn’t have quest makers, or even quests. You just had to explore and talk to people and remember stuff.
|The star map. The green circles are nebulae, which tend to be filled with hostiles. So you were always torn: Do I risk going through, or go around? Given how agonizingly slow movement was on my computer and how painful it was to die, this set up quite a bit of tension and inner turmoil.|
You can see from the map above that the game had a lot of star systems. Some had no planets. Some had many. Some planets were giants that would crush your ship if you landed on them. (I think everyone found that out the hard way. The game sure as hell didn’t warn you.) But all the planets were persistent and they all had their own unique topography and climate. If you landed on some world and mined some minerals, then those minerals stayed mined. Not bad for a game in that time period. Heck, that sort of persistence and attention to detail is pretty impressive for a game now.
If you stuck with it, you might eventually stumble on the (to me) mind-shattering realization that endurium was… ALIVE! It was this slow-moving, slow-thinking, slow-acting distributed intelligence. The sapient races of the galaxy had shown up at some point and just started stuffing these guys in their gas tanks. The lifeforms operated at such vastly different speeds that communication wasn’t really possible. The Ancients (the endurium) just viewed the space-faring bipeds of the galaxy as this sudden virus. The Ancients were (somehow) causing the flares in self-defense, in an attempt to kill all the fuel-burning sapients. The player’s ultimate goal was to land on a giant crystal planet and blow it up, thus killing a large part of the Ancient’s brain.
|This is the stuff I lived for: The ship upgrades. Even back then, I was always disappointed there weren’t more decisions to be made here. It was basically a matter of upgrading to the best systems available and deciding how much you wanted to weigh yourself down with cargo pods. Also note that this shot is actually from Starflight 2.|
It’s pretty standard sci-fi fare now, but to a genre-oblivious eighteen year old Shamus in the late 80’s, this was the ultimate mind blow. Wow, man. The fuel is like, alive or whatever. Really makes you think, doesn’t it?
I don’ think the gameplay holds up well at all. There’s a lot of doing nothing while you cross vast distances. (Which is something this genre still struggles with.) The interface is terrible. The combat is shallow, slow, and fiddly. But all the ingredients are right and I’ve often daydreamed about how this series might have evolved if it had survived into the modern age. Instead, it perished and didn’t really leave us any heirs. Most of today’s sandbox space sims trace their lineage back to the Elite series, and Starflight is relegated to a curious footnote.
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