Star Trek: Gaming’s Under Utilised Franchise – Part One: The Past

This comes from a place of love, a devotion to a franchise that began in 1966 and continues to grow and evolve over 50 years later, a marvellous tribute to the legacy of its creator Gene Roddenberry. My first experience with Star Trek was on very old black and white television set in my parents loft, sitting down to watch this remarkable science fiction show called Star Trek The Next Generation, staring in incredulous wonder at an Englishman as Captain aboard the Starship Enterprise. That interest, as did my love and desire to experience more, grew and transitioned as with many children into recreating the exploits first with Lego, creating entire bridge sets to an incredibly high level of detail or so my youthful imagination viewed them to be. As a child I was intrigued and delighted by the colourful bricks and shapes of Lego, being able to construct entire worlds and adventures beyond the confines of suburbia. One of my fondest gifts was the Pirates play set and the galleon with its crew of faithful Imperial soldiers and their colorful piped collars signifying rank and station. But my new addiction was growing with the exploits of the crew from 24th Century not the Napoleonic soldiers of the past. As such, being a resourceful child I repurposed these soldiers using the rank insignia of Starfleet and they became my loyal crew of officers and men aboard my Lego Bridge sets, just as the franchise and series drew inspiration from the bold military colours of the Imperial army in its development, so unintentionally did I as the clean uniforms of the French troops seemed a natural fit. But these locations of course required a ship for scaled combat and warfare amongst the many varied adventures to distant shores. Thankfully my needs were placated with the launch of the Star Trek range of Micro Machines and perhaps with an inspiration drawn from the shows themselves I was able to fully immerse myself within this universe for a time with my Lego and Toy models.

micro machinesstar trek figures With the arrival of the Apple Mac computer into our home and transitioning, somewhat, away from toys and figures the digital age presented a new opportunity to continue my adventures in this amazing franchise and universe.My first, fondest memory of experiencing what Star Trek could be came through an unofficial, unlicensed software release called Rescue, a graphically rudimental game set within the time period of the Next Generation and tasking you with the role of the Captain of the Enterprise to go forth and Rescue, as the title implies colonies within Federation Space. Whilst perhaps itself a copyright infringement on many levels as a child I was enthralled about this new medium of adventure, being able to access a computer at that time was a relatively novel experience, having the controls to the ship, being able to set its speed and course, fire its weapons, raise its alert level was overwhelming. Despite its limitations, this level of immersion in truth is still beyond any recent mobile title with varied speeds, weapons states and shield strengths for example and then the small touches, changing the Operating System titles on the menu bar to reflect the Star Trek terminology, even changing the launch icon to the Starfleet Chevron all small, lovely touches. Version updates if I recall introduced new and greater enemies, the threat of the dreaded Borg cube as a direct response to an interaction with Q was a daunting challenge that thankfully was solvable. I loved spending time with this game on first encounter but as with All Good Things my interest subsided, I needed a greater experience and for a while that didn’t present itself.

star trek rescue

Our household from an early age was very much an Apple family, an early adoptee of the Macintosh before expanding onto the powerful ‘Performa’ model with its colour display screen, an ingenious creation that gave life to the world of Star Trek. These systems were very much design around demonstration discs and try before you buy concepts and as such I have fond memories of playing the trial of Star Trek 25th Anniversary many times before the novelty wore thin. It was fascinating to try this title however in truth, it wasn’t my Star Trek, it didn’t feature the crisp bridge aesthetics of the 24th Century and the crew and ship I had come to love. I couldn’t quite understand the different uniforms and appearances, they didn’t fit my conceptions of what Star Trek was and what it should be so I quickly grew tired of this demo file and consigned it to the digital waste basket bin. I would come to appreciate this style of play and game at a later date with the release of ‘A Final Unity’ however first my love for Star Trek in the digital format would take a back seat as I grew older and experienced other diversions. This doesn’t become a different sort of review, my love for Trek evolved into model making and card collecting, going to great lengths to construct the models of the mid 90s of my favourite starships and space stations. And then expanding when I attended high school into the card game against my friends as we spent vast amounts of pocket-money purchasing card packs although there was always the conflicting argument about the merits of Star Trek and Star Wars, a contentious issue that continues to exist today.

And so we move ever so slightly forward, the hope and allure of official products lost on me as I perhaps moved away from Star Trek as a viable and attractive product despite their best efforts to take advantage of this new and exciting product. But the flames of the bonfire were rekindled as I experienced a new type of science fiction adventure, and for a somewhat naive gamer my first experience of what would become the modding scene with the Apples easy ability to install and utilise expansion files to fundamentally change and from my perspective improve software with the inclusion of new and wonderful ways to play. That title was of course, Escape Velocity,  a loving homage and update to Elite with its take on the galaxy simulator which tasked you as the captain of a shuttle to go forth and seek your fortune in the vastness of space. Already there were familiar elements of the ship design within the original game, the first shuttle you find yourself aboard borrowing heavily from the look of the same named vessel from Star Trek. I spent a substantial amount of time exploring the worlds in this game, and when news arrived there was an unofficial Star Trek patch I was delighted, suddenly seeing the ships I loved on the screen, the Enterprise and other Starfleet vessels replacing the basic design of the Confederation who wouldn’t be excited. Graphically there were issues, the stability in some aspects was a little off in contrast to the smooth rotation and performance of the purposefully designed and original ships. But for a time, I was delighted these two worlds combined.

My first, official Star Trek game, experienced through emulation software given it was a Windows release but thankfully Apple had developed the means to launch Windows titles at this point was the aforementioned Star Trek A Final Unity, a graphically similar presentation to the 25th Anniversary title that presented a simplistic take on the Next Generation universe but evolved and updated to take advantage of the new series of hardware on the market. Quite simply, for the time I was astounded with the graphical presentation and faithfulness to the tone and nature of the series it was continuing. Gone was the crude introductory cut scenes, here we had, relatively, fleshed out movies in glorious three dimensions with the entire cast returning to voice their digital counterparts. Where perhaps the game elevated beyond the Original Series title was a return to the complexity and attention to detail as seen in the Rescue title with the means and ability to manipulate and control the various ships systems and technology and this was put to use and required in very short order as your first encounter was against the villainous Romulans. I recall on my first attempt antagonizing the enemy into conflict before realising after my ships destruction in the best spirit of the Next Generation you could defuse and negotiate away from the conflict and continue on your mission.

Where I feel this game is the epitome perhaps of all Star Trek games released to date is its reflection of the tone and spirit of Star Trek, yes you can choose to engage in combat should you wish but also have the ability and means to avoid, to use your intellect and decision-making to avoid conflict, that mankind by the 24th century has evolved to better itself beyond base human emotion. Each aspect of the game to a large extent attempted to present a style of game that was so familiar and recognisable to fans of the show, the bridge scenes immediately recognisable with the crew in their positions talking to each other. The cut scenes and crew dynamic working, the interface of the stations lifted straight from the series. If there is a critique the away missions and scenes were a little more simplistic in nature and came across as an evolved sort from the original series style but certainly the design of the levels and areas was in good fun and in the best spirits of the series. There in for me is why Star Trek games have failed to resonate to any great level with fans over the years, shifting away from this presentation style and instead opting to pursue a singular narrative, invariably Star Trek as a war series with a heavy focus on starship combat or as a first person shoot. The action scenes from this franchise were only ever an aspect of it, not the sole driving force. As demonstrated perfectly in this game, I could choose to engage the Romulans, or I could avoid conflict, there were no game breaking repercussions either way.

At this point in time, from my own personal subjective opinion, Star Trek began to break down in its approach in gaming, expanding out into genres and loosing effectively the heart of what made Star Trek so appealing an environment to experience and live within. The first, major Star Trek title I experienced when I first shifted away from Apple and embraced the Windows operating system and its wide, myriad of games and software was the strategy game Birth of The Federation, advertised and sold effectively as a take on the Civilization franchise but from a Trek perspective. Largely, entirely this was true with a focus on the strategy aspects, at once the interface immediately familiar to those who have experienced and played Civilization. The main screen shows the galaxy with the turn counter ticking away every time you click to further the game, your resources building up, your various relationship status changing based on expanded conflicts taking place. Clicking into the sub menus showcases a very detailed and intricate resourcing game beneath the main screens galaxy map, requiring the user to choose how to spend their resources, ship construction, planetary development, diplomatic relationships. How well do you survive when you are attempting to effectively win against other galactic threats and challenges with their own agendas, all told within the confines and prism of the Next Generation.

I enjoyed this game, it was a very detailed and thorough presentation of the Star Trek universe covering a broad scope from the Original Series and up to, at the time, the contemporary period of the Next Generation with elements of Deep Space Nine included given its launch and impact upon the universe. However, it was still effectively a Star Trek game based in the civilization genre of titles, there was never a great requirement to consider resource mining and building, which planets to upgrade, which ship design to choose over another. And whilst this is fun from a technical view-point the same issues began to arise that have continued to this day, part of the enjoyment and spirit of Star Trek arises from the crew interactions, the narrative, the story and lessons you take away from them. Yes a rich, tapestry has been created to explore and live within, but there is only so much enjoyment to take from resource management, from basic ship design and random encounters before you begin to realise other games have done this, but only better and in more depth and style. Escape Velocity was a very well constructed game with its own narrative and story, the Star Trek expansion was an added bonus. Painting a Star Trek skin upon an existing franchise and hoping it works is a risky approach to take, for me personally this was a competent game but one without any real narrative or purpose. There was no story, no interaction, so ultimately it was a competent management title but a poor Star Trek game.

Star Trek continued its push into different genres, most noticeably an attempt to mimic perhaps the more action orientated tones of the seasons taking place both of Voyager and Deep Space Nine at the time of their release with games set during the Dominion War campaign and the Borg centric focus of Voyager towards the end of its third season. Whatever your predication or interest, there is no doubt the spirit of optimism and adventure so prevalent in the older titles was now long gone, replaced by this attempt to present an action and war orientated story. The Fallen, to its credit does present an attempt to balance narrative with the action, an interesting first or third-party shooter spread across three different characters campaigns that intersect at key moments and times. I genuinely enjoyed the Fallen for capturing to an extent the tone of Deep Space Nine during the Dominion war, the character models were reasonable for their day, the look and feel of the environments and settings were impressive. Certainly there were issues, the absence of its main score and music was noticeable, a good well-developed musical theme that plays throughout but missing the familiar music that was part of Deep Space Nine, I can only assume was a rights issues. Also only featuring a selection of the original cast returning to voice their characters, a noticable difference in the quality and also familiarity. But overall the game was a shooter, Deep Space Nine had some epic moments of conflict over the course of its run but it still maintained elements of the Trek spirit of Roddenberry. This jettisoned those and once more became a competent game but not a good Star Trek game.

In contrast, sadly Elite Force was actually a ‘good’ Voyager game, capturing much of the action and threat of the Borg and other species from it later seasons. Visually, I remember being impressed with the sets of the ship as they gave a chance to explore this relatively new world at the time that we had only seen to an extent on-screen. The cast was largely intact and it did feel you were within the world of Voyager. However, fundamentally being aboard the ship was only a small portion of the game, transporting to Borg cubes, alien environments and distant worlds was very much the core basis for this game and as such when you were willfully killing aliens and drones, as much as this mirrored and reflected the actions of the series it wasn’t the optimistic and idealistic vision of Roddenberry. From what I presume was a stylistic choice having the crew and away teams wearing a battle harness throughout the campaign again didn’t match the overall appearance of the series, wearing the black leather gloves in the game seemed inspired by the alternate universe episode of Voyager where the cast are viewed from the future as a bunch of savage and ruthless killers. Perhaps if that same species had viewed the events of Elite Force they may in fact be valid in their assumptions. And as with Birth of the Federation we draw the same conclusion, these were both competent games, capturing some of the spirit of the worlds they were based on, indeed capturing the tone of the series at the time but were they good Star Trek games? arguably no and neither of them gained critical or commercial success or notoriety.

Perhaps given the mixed reception to this focus on shooter genre, developers saw this as an opportunity to take characterization out of the games entirely and instead focus on the ships themselves, presenting a series of titles and games that would feature the ships engaging in ship to ship content with foes both new and old expanding away from their traditional target markets on the PC operating system and launching onto consoles with the Shattered Universe title, an attempt to launch into the combat flight simulator experience and have your Starship engage in tight, dog fights and quick engagements. The PC market was suitably catered for in this time with both Armada and Starfleet Command presenting a more scaled fleet based dynamic. All these titles however seeming to forget the core narrative and theme of Star Trek, that of exploration into the final frontier. As a long-term fan I appreciate the spectacle of a good battle, but in turn one of the most highly regarded movies in the series, The Wrath of Khan proportionally had a far greater focus on character development and personality against the ship combat. Legacy on the last generation of consoles attempted to fix this to a degree with narration from the various Captain’s depending on the ship required for the mission but by and large this was limited to a few moments of exposition. Afterwards the majority of the gameplay experience became once more, ship based combat. Small pockets of technical management but objectively basic compared to that found in A Final Unity.

And once more, and to try to avoid repetition, it’s for me an example of developers looking to apply the lore and world of the franchise onto existing templates and genre styles. With the move towards a flight simulator type game at least there is an element to present, even if it’s somewhat subjective, a game that features aspects of the Star Trek universe that is both familiar and recognisable even if it does sacrifice the characterization and story telling to a large degree. My personal predication and view-point has always been towards the vessels in the franchise as akin to the large naval cruisers and battle ships, born out entirely from the visualization and presentation of the ships in the movie series and those that utilised a physical model of the ship. As soon as the series digitized the ships they began moving faster and swifter, instead of being large ships of war now almost aircraft swooping in large their weaponry. The latest and current iteration of films, for their fault at least attempted to present the Enterprise as somewhat of a grand majestic ship even if the underlying message was anything even remotely fast and swift could overwhelm and destroy the old lady with ease. As for the actions of the Discovery moving at will between points, as eclectic as the series itself.

A subjective journey then, from the franchise earliest iterations on the Apple Macintosh computer to its later console games spanning a number of genre styles and types, the adventure and quest based simulation software focused on puzzle and problem solving to the more combat focused ship to ship based titles. For me personally, the franchise reached its epitime with A Final Unity, a balanced take on the Next Generation universe that mixed combat with exploration, characterization and a strong narrative that felt like a lost chapter from this series. I would argue and position every game that followed felt like an attempt to paint the franchise upon an existing game or series, often to some degree of success but losing a part of its soul and character. So what does the present and the future hold for this franchise in the gaming and digital format? can a developer successfully present a game from a universe over 50 years in age? join us next time as we look and review contemporary games and what direction we would like to see for the future.

Enterprise-E_LCARS

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog please ‘like’ the Around The Bonfire facebook page and contribute your own stories and comments, and share my blog and facebook posts (this is really important – it’s how we reach more readers!). Alternatively join us in the Twitter Universe  for a take on the latest gaming news or Instagram for a wealth of gaming pictures and stories.

2 thoughts on “Star Trek: Gaming’s Under Utilised Franchise – Part One: The Past

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.