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Star Fleet I: The War Begins!

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Alternate Titles:
Star Fleet: The War Begins!
Interstel Corporation
1983
Genre:
Simulation, Strategy
Theme:
Science Fiction
Language:
English
Licence:
Commercial
System:
PC (DOS)
Views:
2171

Rating [?]

BootSector:
3/6
Overall:
3/6
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Local Reviews

BootSector (2016-09-06) [hide]

Avatar Star Fleet I: The War Begins! can be described as a starship tactical combat simulation but it has its roots in the very early days of computer gaming and, to me at least, the mechanics feel more like that of a board game than a true simulation. This game is actually a clone of an earlier title that originated on university mainframes in the 1970s and it is not the only such clone in existence. So, you might be tempted to describe the game and its gameplay as unoriginal. However, the game does establish an elaborate backstory which is the basis for its small franchise which, along with the game's own colorful history, is arguably much more interesting than the game itself.

Overview

The game is played on a collection of 10x10 grids of cells where each cell is referred to as a "sector" and can be empty space or contain an object such as a star, planet, or ship (including the player's ship). Each 10x10 grid of sectors is called a "quadrant" and there are 64 individual quadrants arranged in a higher-order 8x8 grid which is simply named the "region." The player can normally see all 100 sectors in the currently occupied quadrant but this can be reduced if the short range sensors are damaged.

There is also a display showing all 64 quadrants which are initially filled with question marks except for the starting quadrant and those surrounding it. Each time a new quadrant is visited the long range sensors can be used to scan the surrounding quadrants and update the map to show a three digit number describing the number of enemy ships and the number of stars in the quadrant as well as a middle digit which is the number of the friendly "star base" located in the quadrant (if any). In this way the player can fly the ship between quadrants and explore the region looking mainly for more enemy vessels to annihilate.

The actual game play and really the sole objective of the game is to simply fly the ship between and within quadrants to find, fire upon, and destroy the number of enemy ships specified when the game began. Navigation is accomplished by specifying the angle in degrees (e.g. 90 to move up, 225 to move down/right) to travel plus the number of quadrants and sectors expressed as a period delimited number (e.g. 2.1 to move 2 quadrants and one sector). Navigation can be obstructed by objects such as stars or enemy vessels which already occupy a sector being traveled through.

Similar to navigation, torpedoes can also be fired by specifying the angle of the direction they should travel in when using "manual" firing mode. The game helps with this by computing and displaying the angles to the enemy ships in the current quadrant. The automatic mode merely selects all the targets without having to retype the pre-computed values. Objects like stars that obstruct navigation can block torpedoes when fired both manually and automatically. There is also a phaser weapon which can be manually targeted to a player selected sector. The automatic phaser mode, like automatic torpedoes, pre-selects the target without the need to select it directly.

This is the basic formula that the game is based upon and it is the core mechanic lifted from the original 1970s mainframe game. Star Fleet does add many addition features on top of this basic premise and in fact there's enough to fill a reasonably sized manual. I don't think it's worth enumerating each one in detail as part of this review but I think the most noteworthy one is the ability to allocate the ship's energy to the shields in different directions independently. This adds some additional strategy by allowing the player to position the ship more defensively within each quadrant and redirect the defenses accordingly.

Commentary

All of these added features add complexity to the game but they do not add depth. The shallow premise remains to simply fly around and blast things and then do it again and again. This is also not unique since other independently developed clones of the original game (or perhaps clones of clones) exist. The one other that I have played personally is a shareware title called EGA Trek which also uses this same principle exactly and while it adds its own variations on the added features they are also very similar overall. Changes that would truly add that depth alter the basic formula so fundamentally that it becomes hardly recognizable which I think is pretty evident when one compares this title with its sequel, Krellan Commander.

That is not to say though that I think the game is pointless or unworthy of any attention. I have spent a small share of my time playing both Star Fleet and EGA Trek and they do provide entertainment value and exercise your strategic thinking. On average though, I think I've tired of these games more quickly than most before moving on to something else. Star Fleet, specifically, tries to engage the player and bring them back again and again by arranging the individual missions into a campaign and provides advancement through a progression of ranks as an added longer term goal. The difficulty of the missions also increases as the player progresses. The problem with this is that each mission is still really the same and so I don't think it's enough of a carrot to engage the player for such a long term which is why I have never completed the campaign.

Backstory

As a reviewer, I felt obligated to discuss the gameplay but, perhaps ironically, the gameplay is not really what I find interesting about this game and it's not what I really want to talk about. What I find most interesting about Star Fleet is the backstory of the franchise that it establishes. There are two backstories at play here; one is the fictional universe that is the setting for both Star Fleet games and the other is the history of the development of the games themselves and their franchise. As it turns out, I found it difficult to try to discuss these two separately so I will intertwine my discussion of both.

As previously mentioned, Star Fleet I has its genesis with an original game played on university mainframes through terminals in the 1970s which is the source for its core mechanics. It was during this period that the creator of Star Fleet, Trevor Sorensen (now a PhD; I assume of computer science?), first discovered this game while pursuing graduate studies at the University of Kansas. Soon after, Dr. Sorensen began producing his own versions of the game including various improvements some of which would eventually find their way into Star Fleet I.

By the early 1980s the advent of the personal computer made it feasible to produce a commercial version of the game to be sold directly to consumers for play at home. A company was founded and development of a product commenced. Originally, the IBM PC was targeted but the game was eventually ported to many other platforms available at the time including the Apple II, Macintosh, and Amiga among others.

Both the original mainframe version as well as Dr. Sorensen's earlier clones used the Star Trek universe as their backdrop and much of the game's content was themed according to that mythos (Klingons, the Federation, etc.). An attempt was made to obtain a license from Paramount Pictures to produce a Star Trek themed video game but Paramount declined citing having already reached licensing agreement with another developer (presumably an exclusive one).

This turn of events made the use of Star Trek intellectual property impossible and necessitated that changes be made to avoid trademark infringement. At first glance, the resulting modifications appear completely superficial as there is clearly a one-to-one mapping of the most elementary facets of each individual mythology. The Klingons became the Krellans, the Romulans became the Zaldrons, the Federation became the UGA (United Galactic Alliance) and so forth. This direct mapping probably made updating the actual game itself, which uses just the basic elements in-game, a simple find-and-replace operation. However, a complete backstory which was not simply lifted from Star Trek was also developed and this is really where Star Fleet starts to stand apart from its contemporaries.

The Star Fleet backstory obviously incorporates all those basic elements lifted from Star Trek but the actual events of the story line and major characters are all completely different. In the interests of brevity, I won't delve into the actual details of this history but suffice to say the manuals for both Star Fleet I and Star Fleet II are where this story lives and, in my opinion, they are definitely worth checking out. I will say however, that I've thought the Star Fleet mythos was in some capacity a metaphor for the second world war as I see some parallels between certain events and characters. I do not know if this was actually the author's intention but it makes it all the more engaging to me.

I believe the backstory is Star Fleet's greatest asset especially when it is considered that it provides the basis for the sequel, Star Fleet II: Krellan Commander, which I think is an excellent game in pretty much every estimation. The real tragedy of this is that so little of the backstory really finds its way into the actual gameplay and merely serves to add colorful backdrop to the game's manual. Ultimately, I've always found reading the stories in the manuals of both of these games to be a much more satisfying activity than actually playing this title itself.

Legacy

Star Fleet I has a legacy spanning decades all the way into the present. It is the basis for an entire franchise that includes multiple games and while it might be considered a minor franchise it definitely has a small but devoted fan base around it. This franchise includes not only the game's direct sequel, Star Fleet II, but also two separate reboots in the 2000s and 2010s, respectively. The separate contemporary game Star Legions could also be considered to be part of this family as it was derived from the planetary invasion module from Star Fleet II.

Star Fleet II is the direct sequel to Star Fleet I and it is from the same general epoch. Star Fleet II, in my opinion, completely reimagines the concept of the starship combat simulator to add the depth it was lacking, as mentioned before. As predicted, this reimagining alters the end product so much that it's hardly recognizable when compared to its predecessor. Never-the-less, it is an excellent game worth checking out that would not have existed if not for Star Fleet I.

In the early 2000s, Dr. Sorensen decided that it was time to reintroduce Star Fleet I to the world and began development of a new incarnation to be played on modern Windows PCs called Star Fleet Deluxe. This time the project was to be sold to the world directly through the internet and so a homepage, called Star Fleet Central, was established complete with forums and other content. This content included Dr. Sorensen's own first person account of the history of the Star Fleet franchise and the article he wrote on this topic is the authoritative source for much of the history in this review. Unfortunately this site has long since gone offline but, thankfully, as of this writing krazyawesome.com continues to host a mirror of Dr. Sorensen's article which is definitely worth checking out.

A fan community quickly coalesced around the Star Fleet Deluxe site and was active as development progressed. I personally participated but as you might imagine, based on the rest of this review, was more tantalized by the idea that a successful Star Fleet Deluxe might lead to the development of a Star Fleet II Deluxe as Dr. Sorensen himself alluded to on at least one occasion.

Tragically, development stalled as the game entered a beta release when the main programmer took his own life and somehow the latest version of the source code was lost. I remember hearing that it was on his hard drive which Dr. Sorensen eventually obtained and had to send for commercial data recovery services (I don't know why or if the two events are in any way related). I'm not sure if the latest source version was ever recovered but this edition of Star Fleet Deluxe never made it beyond its beta release.

The end of the Star Fleet Deluxe on Windows proved a major setback to the dream of bringing Star Fleet back into the modern gaming ecosystem but it was not the end. Sometime in the early to mid-2010s, Dr. Sorensen presumably once again renewed his efforts to reimagine this title as a version of Star Fleet Deluxe is current available for download and play on Android based devices through Google Play. As of this writing, I have not personally experienced this latest adaptation but the Android version does currently enjoy a fairly high review rating of 4.6 despite a rather small install base. It might be worth a look.

Conclusion

For me, Star Fleet I was one of those games that you seek out long after the height of its popularity because you discovered one of its sequels that you like so much it makes you want to dig into its past to see what you may have missed. I will not say that this always proves a fruitless endeavor, as it certainly does not and was not for me in this circumstance. In terms of gameplay, however, I discovered that the title that I originally acclaimed, Star Fleet II, had been almost revolutionized from its predecessor rather than the mere evolution that I think I expected. This makes me appreciate the second entry in the Star Fleet saga all the more but also makes me fear that I might hold the original up against an impossible standard. In the end, it is what is and it is not a bad game.

Game Groups

  1. Star Fleet I: The War Begins!
  2. Star Fleet II: Krellan Commander (PC / DOS)

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