August 5, 2013

The History of the RPG: Starflight (1986)

Last Installment: Might and Magic Book One

By 1986, the computer RPG was thriving. With games like Might and Magic and Ultima, it was a genre that wasn't going anywhere. But there was something lacking in the RPG department; a different setting.

The RPGs were all fantasy-based. They were full of swords and orcs and wizards and magic. And that was all well and good. But this was also the time of Star Wars having a hold over an entire generation of young children. And of Star Trek making headway as well*. Where was the science-fiction RPG??

The answer to that came in 1986 in the form of Electronic Arts' Starflight**. And what an answer it was.

You are the captain of a starship from a planet called Arth. You start as a ore hauler, but can upgrade your ship to become a warship. You can hire crewmen from five different species to man six different posts. Based on their skill, they can give you upgrades at those posts. And based on who they are, it may be unwise to visit certain areas.

There are two levels to the game. On one you explore space, trading materials and finding suitable planets for colonization. On a larger level, you are trying to discover why stars in the galaxy are going supernova. It's a open-sandbox environment, although you do have to move onto the larger quest at some point. And the major storyline is a good one. You find out why stars are going supernova...and it may not be for the reasons you thought.

The graphics were on par for the time, and in color. The movement was pretty easy.

Travel through space is seeded with random encounters with other species. You can approach them peacefully or raise shields and go in guns blazing. That can sometimes be a major mistake, as you are not the largest ship in the galaxy by any means. And there were creative twists to combat, such as ablative armor and regenerating shields, that you see today.

When you find a planet, you can send a rover down to collect minerals for sale later. And if that sounds familiar to the first installment of a very popular sci-fi RPG trilogy ending this year...there is a reason for that.

More than any other game to this point, you can draw a straight line between Starflight and a modern RPG. In this case, Mass Effect. Casey Hudson***, the Executive Producer of the Mass Effect series has said as much, calling it a "key inspiration". And it was a good choice: Starflight was an extremely solid RPG that delivered an excellent sci-fi experience to a gaming public that was desperate for one.


Bringing the science-fiction setting to the RPG. Which is a bigger deal than it sounds. Continuing to reaffirm the "open-sandbox" concept in RPG development. Making the species of your crewmates matter.


Mass Effect is the major one. But any sci-fi RPG, and even recent sci-fi MMORPGs like Star Trek Online and The Old Republic, owe their existence to Starflight proving the sci-fi RPG was a legitimate genre.

Next on the list: Dungeon Master


* In 1986, Star Trek was completing the best three-film run in the series (Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home). With most of it coming after the initial Star Wars trilogy ended in 1983, it was perfectly poised to capture my generation. Those three films are the reason Next Generation and the rest of the television series were able to be made. To say nothing of all the films that came after.

** Okay, now some of you may be saying "What about Elite?" First off, I loved me some Elite. I put in ridiculous hours on that game and I still hum the Blue Danube Waltz when docking in some game today. However, that was an open-ended space trading game more than anything else, definitely not an RPG. That said, it deserves some recognition for being awesome at what it did. And I wish someone would remake it. And no, EVE Online does not count.

*** There are a few people who seem extremely talented at creating/producing/developing computer games. Sid Meier is one. Todd Howard (Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3) is another. But Casey Hudson has to be on that list. He has worked on not only the Mass Effect series, but Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. Those three games are also known as three of the best RPGs ever made. I still contend that BG II can legitimately be called the best ever, despite it being over a decade old.


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