05 November 2009 ~ 1 Comment

Niche Game: Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing because they’re something different, something special.

Star Control IIThe original Star Control was developed by Toys for Bob and released on computer platforms as well as the Sega Genesis in 1990, and is a great space combat games, pitting a diverse array of ships against each other one on one. This was followed in 1992 by Star Control II, a vast expansion on the original game, providing many more alien races, each with their own unique ship. On top of this is the very best part, the space exploration aspect, which I’ll go into more later on. Star Control 3 was developed by Legend entertainment, which was hired by Accolade to create a sequel when Toys for Bob refused to create a sequel for the same amount of money they produced Star Control II for (Toys for Bob had to work for no money for several months for that game already). It’s obvious that the original creators had nothing to do with this one. Despite its 3-D rendering of the ships, and the addition of new races with their new ships, new regions to explore, and claymation of the alien species, this game was vastly inferior to its predecessor. If you want to try the series out at its very pinnacle, try out Star Control II. Star Control 3 is okay, and may be interesting if you loved Star Control II as much as I do just as a means of holding off the impending cravings for more content. Star Control 4 was scrapped during the development stages.

In 2006, Alex Ness, producer of Toys for Bob, wrote an article on his site stating that Toys for Bob has been working on a new title for the previous year scheduled to come out in early November of that year. He hinted that if he got enough fan support, they could work up a legitimate sequel to Star Control II and bring it to Activision along with a loaded handgun, then they could finally be convinced to take a gamble on the thing. I, for one, hope they do.

SC2Base

Star Control II begins with you piloting a ship back to Earth from a distant exploratory mission to see the outcome of the war between the Alliance of Free Stars and the Hierarchy of Battle Thralls (the subject of the first game). You return home to find Earth covered in an impenetrable red shield. You learn from the men in an orbital station that the Ur-Quan won the war and now all Earthlings, and many of other races, have been eradicated, put under a slave sheield, or are working as battle thralls for the domineering Ur-Quan.

Your goal is to build up enough power to confront the Ur-Quan. To do this, you have to collect resources. Each planet you visit has resources scattered around the surface, which can vary from valuable radioactive materials to common metals. The materials can be converted into money which can be used to buy fuel, to purchase upgrades for your ship, and to add more ships to your fleet. As you explore you’ll enter the sphere of influence of other alien races, who may be friendly or hostile. Some will join your cause immediately. Others will take persuading, either through force, bribery, or other means. Others will simply not join you. That’s what makes this game great, this discovery of new species. As you explore, you should listen carefully for rumors about interesting things to visit, as that will narrow down the amount of star systems you have to visit to a great degree.

Ur-Quan_Race

Interacting with the alien races is a blast. Each has their own quirks which are closely matched to the ships they pilot. The domineering Ur-Quan pilot ships that can easily power a headstrong opponent, requiring careful strategy to overcome, while the Spathi, always preferring retreat, rely heavily on the BUTT missile. That stands for Backwards Utilizing Tracking Torpedo. It fires out of the back end of the Spathi ship and homes in the on the enemy, so it’s perfect to use against a pursuing foe. The Pkunk, the spiritualists of the group, sometimes reincarnate after a battle, even multiple times, making them a real pest.

The best part of the original game, also done well in Star Control II, is the combat. Each round of fighting pits 2 ships against each other in a battle to the death. Each alien race has their own ship design, each varying wildly from the others. As you play, you see an image of that alien race manipulating its controls as you press each button, which I always found amusing. Each ship has two resources they must draw on: crew, and energy. Crew is the number of crew members left on board. These are basically used as hit points for the ship. The energy is what is drawn on for most of the weapons systems (with a few exceptions). Except for one or two exceptions, crew do not regenerate, so once you lose a crew member you can never regain that. Energy is depleted by a specified amount each time a weapon is fired. Different weapons require different amounts of energy, and each ship type regenerates energy at a different rate. In addition, each ship has a different mass, acceleration, and top speed (though that speed can be exceeded by using gravity slings, more on that later).

The controls are simple. The left and right arrows rotate the ship. The up arrow fires thrusters. Because the fights occur in space, once you get going in one direction you keep going in that direction at that speed until something else affects your speed, like your thrusters, enemy fire, or the gravity of a planet. Each ship has a primary fire and a secondary fire, the effect of which varies depending on the ship. In most stages there is a small planet whose gravity can be used to accelerate your ship (try not to hit the planet, it hurts a lot). Asteroids fly at random trajectories and can be used to block enemy fire. Opposite sides of the playscreen link to each other, so the battlefield is not infinite size.

dreadnought

For example, one of the most powerful brute force ships in the game is the Ur-Quan Dreadnought. The Ur-Quan are a spider-like race who dominate other species by brute force, and this tactic is evident in their ship design. The primary weapon is the fusion cannon, which can kill 6 crew in one shot. The blast fires in a straight line at a relatively fast speed. Most anything foolish enough to wander close to a Dreadnought dies. The secondary weapon are a pair of fighter pilots. At the cost of some energy, 2 of the crew can be loaded into fighter pilots and loaded into individual fighters to chase after the enemy. The fighters will then hover around the enemy craft constantly shooting their puny weapons into the alien hull and trying to stay behind the enemy. They return to the Dreadnought when they run out of fuel. In Star Control 1 these fighters had a major flaw in that they were too stupid to avoid planets. So an intelligent enemy fighter just had to wait behind a planet while the Dreadnought’s crew members committed suicide. This was resolved before Star Control 2.

arilou

At the other end of the spectrum is the Ariloulaleelay Skiff. They are known as the Arilou for short and are the stereotypical green-skinned bublous headed aliens with big eyes of UFO sightings. They also fly the standard flying saucer, pretty much the smallest ship in the game. The Skiff has very little in the way of crew, so must rely on hit and run tactics. The primary fire is an auto-aiming short range laser. It’s one of the weakest weapons in the game but has the advantage of auto-aiming so you just have to get within range. The secondary fire is a hyperspace jump that takes you to another random place in the battle area. This can be good or bad depending where you end up. A quirk of the ship is that it is unaffected by gravity, so one tactic is to hang around in the gravity well of a planet and wait for opponents to come attack to bash themselves to death against the planet.

There are more than a dozen other ships, more than I want to take the space for here.

syreen

Among them are the Syreen Penetrator, which can send out a siren call to lure enemy crew off their ship where the Syreen can pick them up, a very useful skill indeed.

druuge

Another interesting ship is the Druuge Mauler, which is basically a giant cannon with a cockpit attached. The Mauler’s primary manner of drive is firing the cannon, and to offset its low energy regeneration rate, crew members can be thrown into the furnace for additional energy.

Another cause of my undying love for this game is the effective use of PC speakers. This is the ONLY game I’ve ever played which makes music with the PC speaker that I have ever enjoyed. For those who don’t remember PC speaker music, it is sound made directly in the CPU of the computer, it vibrates at a certain frequency and generally makes a really annoying beep. Almost no modern software makes use of it, except sometimes to signal an error, such as the computer being non-responsive to keyboard presses. Back in the day, games used this speaker for music, and it sounded terrible, lots of annoying toned beeps. Star Control II’s music is both subtle, moody, and often sounds very nice. I don’t know why they were the only ones to figure out how to use the PC speaker properly, but they did an amazing job with it.

Ur_quan_masters_title

If you want to play this extraordinary game, you’re in luck! Toys for Bob has a great relationship with their fanatic fan-base, and has released the source code of the 3DO version of this game onto the internet. Because of this, there is a free version of the game which runs on pretty much any modern operating system, available for FREE to download here at SourceForge. Because Atari owns the name “Star Control”, this version is renamed “The Ur-Quan Masters”, but otherwise it is the same game I knew and loved. You owe it to yourself to give it a try. This version even included voice acting, unlike the one I had played. Allt he original music is there, although it’s produced through the regular sound system instead of the PC speakers. My one complaint is that a couple important pieces of information were not present in this version of the game. Specifically having to do with the timeframe the game takes place in. There is a finite ending to the game, though the exact ending date can be shifted by certain events. The version I’d originally played had this time limit told to you pretty early in the game, and this was important to know, because you don’t have time to explore every solar system in the galaxy in that time limit.

For those who have played all the Star Control goodness available and still want more, there is hope.
1. Although Star Control 4 (retitled StarCon) was never released to the public, rumor has it that it has leaked out onto the internet. I haven’t tracked down a copy of this game, but I drool simply at the thought of it.
2. Toys for Bob, the ones who made this great game, still exist and are still designing games. They’ve maintained the stance that they would love to make another Star Control game, an “official” sequel to Star Control II, but that Interplay games, their parent company, isn’t interested in it. If you’d like to see more, you can do your part by signing the petition to show your interest in another game. Also, if you submit a picture here of you playing SCII or with SCII items, then they will paste it onto a map by your actual location so that the Interplay staff who come to visit can’t help but see it. If Interplay sees how big of a cult fan-base this game has, I hope they’ll open their eyes and commission another.

Just to warn you, Star Control 2 is a time sink! To complete my research for this article I downloaded The Ur-Quan Masters and played it, and I could NOT stop. If you can’t afford a drain on your time right now, maybe you should wait til later to download this. Try the game for free, become a fan forever. Enjoy!

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