Games that Should be Played by You: Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters

Now that I have a Summer sort-of job and my moot court brief is nearly crafted, I'll be able to do more outside reading and caring about non-law things. So to kick off my return to being a (somewhat) interesting person, I'm inaugurating a new series of posts on classic computer games that are seminal enough to be worth playing despite their age. Of course, that's actually a fairly large group of games, so I'll try to limit it to 1. games that can readily be found free on the internet and 2. games that are likely to actually run on a modern system. This may limit the selection down to a single game, but even if it does it's a game well worth talking.

Star Control 2 was released in 1992 by Accolade, and was developed by Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III. The sequel to the fairly unremarkable Star Control, it's a game with few original elements. The gameplay is a mixture of Computer Space (the first commercial video game) and Starflight/Elite/Privateer, with fairly generic adventure elements thrown in. But all the elements come together to form a cohesive whole that works extraordinarily well.

The plot is a mixture of sci-fi tropes and cliches, but it's well-written and fun. To summarize: The human race was once part of a big alliance of races that banded together with the purpose of fighting off the Ur-Quan Hierarchy. The war between the Hierarchy and the Alliance is Star Control I. During the war, a research mission crashes on an unexplored (but hospitable) planet. They lose contact with the Alliance and build a nice little agricultural civilization for themselves. One day they find an ancient starship factory hidden under the surface of the planet, which they activate. It begins automatically building a giant spaceship. After 20 years the spaceship is finished, and they place you in charge of it. You fly back to earth to discover that the Alliance lost the war and the Human race has been enslaved. The Earth has had a giant, impenetrable energy shield placed around it, and all of humanity is trapped there forever. Except for a small group on a Hierarchy fueling station that orbits the planet. You convince them to help you try to overthrow the Ur-Quan Hierarchy with your Big Ship, and that's the essential hook for the game.

You fly around to local star systems, landing on planets and gathering resources. You spend the resources upgrading your Big Ship and buying escort ships. You also fight against hostile ships in a pretty fun melee mode (which, thankfully, you can turn over to the computer if you are lacking in the coordination necessary for success) and search for allies in your fight against the Ur-Quan.

The early game is mostly exploring and resource gathering, though they helpfully throw in enough hooks to get you started discovering the plot. Just flying around and gathering resources is fairly fun and engaging; landing on the planets is a mini-game in itself, and there's just enough stuff to buy and find to keep you interested, but not so much that it distracts you from the meat of the game, finding and negotiating with other races and searching out clues to help you defeat the Ur-Quan.

The game is helped immensely by its writing. The game is quite deep in backstory; Ford and Reiche know a thing or two about world-building. All the plot holes and silliness you may have spotted in the brief summary I gave is actually explained in loving detail in the game, gradually and artfully revealed as you converse with aliens and uncover clues throughout the galaxy. Why are the Ur-Quan conquering the galaxy? It's explained over the course of roughly 30 pages of in-game text (not all at once, of course; they only reveal one small piece at a time, through a sort of back-story striptease). Why aren't the Ur-Quan around to beat you up for trying to overthrow them? Why is the Earth left largely unprotected, allowing you to begin your rebellion? Why, that's another 25 pages of back-story, which leads you to a massively important plot point that will be of deep concern to you as you progress. Where the hell did the starship factory that built your Big Ship come from? That would be the Precursors, an ancient, possibly extinct star-faring race now shrouded in mystery and back-story. And that's on top of 40 pages of story in the game manual plus 20 pages of race descriptions.

This makes it all sound very imposing. It isn't. As I mentioned, it's all given to you very gradually, in small doses. It's the kind of backstory that makes you really want the next piece, which you can't get until you collect another 50 credits worth of bio-units. And it's all told in an entertaining way. This is not a game that takes itself too seriously. Much of the story is infused with a certain Douglas Adams sensibility, most notably in the various races you encounter. My personal favorites are the terminally depressed Utwig. Millenia ago, the Utwig fell sway to a philosophy that held that raw emotions were an inhibition to cultural and social advancement, and that, while emotions should be acknowledged, they ought to be subdued and repressed at all times. The face is the most natural vector for emotional expression, and, as such, it came to be considered highly distasteful by the Utwig. Naturally, therefore, there developed a strong taboo against showing your face at all in Utwig culture. But of course, you lose a lot of opportunity for expression when you can't show your face. Hence the evolution of an elaborate structure of Mask Etiquette. Everyone wears a mask all the time, but the Utwig have developed thousands of masks that express every possible feeling or emotion that you might normally show with your face. When happy you might wear the Domino of Unrivaled Merriment, or perhaps the Mask of Rampant Jubilation and Jumping with Ecstatic Glee. Generally, when trudging off to law school or work at the office, you'd throw on the Mask of Gruelling but Necessary Activity. Bathrooms are all outfitted with dispensers of disposable Masks of Natural Bodily Excretion. If you had, for instance, screwed up your Moot Court oral arguments, you would don the Mask of Ultimate Embarrassment and Shame. Masks even have a place in courtship; a romantic evening may involve the Veil of Flirtatious Prancing, or perhaps even the infamous Lewd Monocle.

Also, going back and playing it now that I'm older, I've discovered some things I didn't quite get when I was in Middle School. For example, the Syrene, a race of seductive humanoid females who lure enemy crews into jumping out of their ships' airlocks, fly spacecraft that look like giant orange vibrators. So the humor's all over the map, maturity-wise. But what other game lets you fly a giant orange space-vibrator?

In any case, the game comes highly recommended. It doesn't do anything notably original, but it combines a lot of elements into a uniquely fun whole, and executes everything well. What's more, it's currently available in a form which is guaranteed to work on your computer, and it's 100% legitimately free. Ford and Reiche held the rights to the code of the game, while Accolade had only the copyright to the name Star Control. A few years ago Ford and Reiche released all the source code into the public domain, which led to the creation of The Ur-Quan Masters, an unofficial (but completely legal) port of the game, with modern front-end. It's guaranteed to work on your computer; there are versions for Windows 95/98/ME/XP/2000, Mac, Linux, and BSD. It runs as a Windows-native program, so no need to fuss around with decelerators or drivers. Just install and play. I'd recommend getting a copy of the manual and star map, which can be found here. Note that you shouldn't download the actual game from that site; not just because it's illegal, but also because the Ur-Quan Masters version is far better in terms of compatibility and ease of use. Also, Star Control 2 is distinctly a game that rewards thorough note-taking.

February 2012
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29      

Contact Zach


Webcomics of Which I am a Fan

Sites I Read Daily: Politics

Sites I Read Daily: Video Gaming

Sites I Read Daily: General Miscellany

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Zach published on February 27, 2006 1:40 AM.

I Prophesied the Prophecy was the previous entry in this blog.

Kabuki Redux is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 5.04