Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Star Control

The first of the series, Star Control: Famous Battles of the Ur-Quan Conflict, Volume IV was developed by Toys for Bob and published by Accolade. It was released for DOS and Amiga in 1990, followed by a Mega Drive/Genesis port in 1991. Simple ported versions were also released for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum. The game came with a full-power scenario creator.

The game featured the basic Spacewar-style combat engine, mêlée (as it was called due to the close combat involved, even though the ships actually fired projectile weapons at each other) as well as a strategic game engine with a three-dimensional cluster of stars as the terrain. There was no real story component to the game, aside from a cursory background story explaining the existence of two alliances of alien races at war, the Alliance of Free Stars and the Hierarchy of Battle Thralls. However, the main attraction to this game was the well thought-out ship design, resulting in a highly effective balance between the two sides. It could be played by one or two players as the complete game, or purely as either melee or strategy. Single player mode pitted the player against the computer AI, ferocity of which could be chosen. For example, certain types of ship, like the mighty 'Ur-Quan Dreadnought' (Hierarchy ship), seemed to be the ultimate choice, but could actually be very easily taken out by a small 'Arilou Skiff' (Alliance ship) with ease if the Alliance player was skilled. Ironically, the Arilou Skiff was often one of the least valued Alliance ship to a novice player due to its poor weaponry.

As in the later games, the various races' ships have widely differing appearances and abilities. The ships' sizes, maneuverability, and speed vary; in addition, each ship has a distinct primary weapon and a secondary ability. For instance, the Ur-Quan Dreadnought has a powerful main gun and the ability to launch independent fighters; while the Mmrnmhrm Transformer has the ability to change between two forms, a slow one with a short-range laser as its main weapon, and the other quick with long-range guided missiles. Despite the mishmash of unique ships the designers were able to create a finely-tuned balance.

The PC version was well programmed and was sonically unique as it was able to produce digital audio (i.e., recorded voices) not only on the Sound Blaster, but also on the monotone PC speaker and even the traditionally frequency modulated music-only AdLib.

The Sega version was a rushed release, not having been optimally coded. Rampant slowdown marred much of the core gameplay and the creators admit and regret having released such a hasty conversion. It was, however, notable in that it led to a lawsuit between Accolade and Sega of America. At the time, Sega regulated the release of third-party software through a licensing arrangement, which Accolade had bypassed. Although the lawsuit was settled in Accolade's favour, making an extremely important legal precedent in the matter, the company later became a licensed Sega developer. Star Control was touted as the first 12-megabit cartridge created for the system, and it contained a hodge-podge of graphics and sound effects from both Star Control and its PC sequel. Because it was a cartridge-based game with no battery backup, the Genesis port lacked the scenario-creator of its PC cousin, but it came pre-loaded with a few additional scenarios not originally in the game. Accolade published the game under a then-new company label, Ballistic.