Starflight perfectly captures what made Star Trek so endearing: exploring, negotiating with alien races and life-and-death space battles. All set in an open-world procedurally generated galaxy you could explore for hundreds of hours. Not bad for a game crammed in 64k of memory.
Planet Arth is in trouble. Deadly solar flares are occurring all over the galaxy, threatening to wipe out civilization. Your task is to must find fuel for refugee ships leaving Arth, find colonizable planets for them, uncover ancient alien artifacts, and figure out why the solar flares are happening in the first place. All this is accomplished through scanning planets, exploring their surface and speaking with the star-faring aliens.
The adventure begins at Interstel’s space port, where you walk your avatar through various departments preparing for your journey, in one of the first “walking menus” in games. There you can recruit up to six brave crewmen from five different races, such as a quick learning plant-based species and a highly skilled robot race. The robots are an interesting first choice, as it starts with high initial skills, but can never improve through training like the other races.
You begin with a small budget to equip your ship and train your crew. These are tough initial choices. Should you add weapons and shields or train your Science Officer to scan planets accurately? There’s no hand-holding here: leave the star port without cargo pods and you have cut yourself off from much the revenue generating opportunities in the game.
Once ready, you can open the ship’s galactic map. It’s awash in nebulae, worm holes, hundreds of stars and over 800 procedurally generated planets waiting to be explored, making one feel very small and alone in this sea of opportunity. Your only limitation is fuel.
The ship is easily piloted by the cursor/numpad keys, no pesky Newtonian physics to deal with. Further actions are spread across your officers, in a simple and immersive UI – i.e., to heal a crew member select the Doctor, open its menu and choose the Treat option.
Once you reach a planet, you can order your Science Officer to scan it, and based on his skill you will see important details like gravity and average temperature. Should you decide to land, simply select a landing area and confirm. The game will then render a first-person landing into the exact point your selected – quite an impressive feature at the time!
The crew will then disembark into a tank-like rover and start exploring the procedurally generated surface, using a scanner and your intuition in search of resources.
Where do you go? Anywhere you please! But don’t stray too far from the ship, as your rover’s fuel won’t last long. This creates some of the most stressful risk/reward decisions in gaming: to travel just a wee bit further to get some valuable mineral or alien creature, or head back to the ship.
Mistakes are deadly. Permadeath means not only does your intrepid crew dies a horrible death, but the game bounces out to DOS and deletes your save file.
Exploring the universe will also inevitably bring you into contact with alien ships. This displays the scariest line one can read in this permadeath game: “Scanners indicate unidentified object!”
These encounters are real-time events. You can maneuver around the aliens ships and make choices such as raising shields, arming weapons, scanning or hailing the aliens. Firing is as simple as pressing the space bar, with the game choosing the appropriate weapon based on range to the target. Your actions will obviously affect communication opportunities.
In an age dominated by text parsers, conversation is, thankfully, abstracted to a few efficient questions, postures and statements. It may seem sparse but the game does it surprisingly well, filling out your choices with richly worded text. As you learn more, questions get better and responses reveal more.
It’s interesting the designers chose a real-time conversation system. After making a choice, you wait. Are they simply not responding, are they preparing their weapons, or are they just thinking? This kind of tension hasn’t been explored much in other games.
The game also pioneered a system they called “story network”. Time passes in the universe while you are off exploring, with solar flares and other events occurring on a regular schedule. When you return to the star dock, new missives are available either based on time, your actions or both – propeling the story forward to the next node.
The sequel, Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula (1989) is simply a better Starflight 1. With a new story, improved graphics, reduced emphasis on mining, higher emphasis on trading and interacting with aliens, it generally smoothed out the sharp edges.
Years later, Protostar (1993) began development as Starflight 3 but went its own way due to contract issues.
The series would also go on to inspire Star Control (1990), and its lasting influence is still strongly felt on games like Mass Effect and even on Dwarf Fortress.
A genre-defining game, it was perfectly summed up by famed science fiction author Orson Scott Card (of Ender’s Game): “Starflight is the first science fiction computer game that actually gives you something of the experience of roaming through the galaxy”. Thomas Henshell