Star Control II and I have a history. It's one game that always seems to be just out of reach.
I first heard of the game when it was announced for the 3DO, a console which at one point represented my personal Holy Grail of gaming. The thought of the 32-bit, seven hundred dollar CD-based system sitting underneath my television was enough to make me consider mowing lawns or selling blood or providing wig makers with hair. Of course, being the lazy punk that I was, my 3DO fund never got much past a buck or two, but it's the yearning that counts, and I wanted that system.
After a while, the infatuation began to cool as I realized there wasn't much to drool over beyond the tech specs. A friend of mine, an even lazier punk than I, lucked out when he convinced a family member to buy one, and that's when the phone calls started coming:
"You gotta help. I'm stuck in Star Control."
"Call the hint line." My usual compassionate reply.
"That's the thing. 1-(900) numbers are blocked on my phone. Call for me and I'll pay you back whatever the charges are." Heh, that was like a homeless guy promising to give you back two cigarettes for the one he was bumming off you. It wasn't going to happen.
What did happen, though, was me calling the damn hint line several times, searching for information on a game I had never played. Furthermore, the questions were about some of the most bizarrely named subjects I had ever heard: Ariloulaleelay, Fwiffo, the Umgah Caster, the VUX Beast, and ZEX's Menagerie on Alpha Cerenkov 1. Wading through several layers of phone menus looking for particular information about a particular artifact while being charged a particularly ridiculous sum of money was kind of frustrating, but the mystique melded with my friend's incessant praise and all the things I had read about it - this sounded like my type of game. And so the yearning began anew.
I tried to avoid playing the game, since I was determined to own it one day, and didn't want to further dilute the experience. One day, I got sucked in, and I saw the ending. It just made me hungrier.
You see, I had come across a Sega Genesis Starflight cartridge some time earlier, and I was told it was impossible to beat the game without the instruction manual and the maps that came with it. I sat down with it and drew my own maps, figured out my way around, and completed the game exhilarated and wanting more. (And, no, I did not use any hints.) The game featured space exploration, mining for natural resources, and diplomatic tests with races of all temperaments. I thought it was quite a unique mix of game elements, and I would have to wait for a sequel to get some more. What I didn't know at the time was that Starflight actually had a stronger, faster, smarter cousin in Star Control II.
Years passed and I resigned myself to the notion that I would probably never own a 3DO. Then I saw an issue of PC Gamer that paid homage to the top 100 computer games of all time. On the disk that came with the issue was the full version of (gasp!) Star Control II! I paid my seven dollars, or whatever the price was at the time . . . and walked home. You'll notice I didn't say I ran home. Why? Well, because I didn't own a PC to play the game on. I didn't even have access to one. So, now that my ambition to own the game had been realized, I was left with another critical stumbling block.
I carefully wrapped the disk and put it away to await the glorious day when I would finally slip it into a CD-ROM drive and wrap my mind around the conquest of the Ur-Quan Hierarchy.
To this day, five years later, I have not found that disk. Even after diving headfirst into a storage closet, doggedly searching through boxes of my possessions, I have not a clue where it is.
If it's not one thing, it's another, right?
Even those people who own a copy of Star Control II (and know where it is) have trouble with it. Getting the game to run on an even moderately up-to-date computer is a chore to say the least. My Pentium 450 is going on four years old, but the game has been around for more than a decade and it and WinXP just don't see eye-to-eye. When I finally managed to find the original, it took a bit of tinkering to get it to show, and even then there was no sound. And then came the copy protection.
Before you can play the game in DOS, you need to answer a few questions culled from the maps that came with the original packaging. So if you just stumble across the floppy disks at a garage sale, you will still need to locate the documentation. So much for user-friendly.
So you see, I am probably not the only one thwarted in his efforts to enjoy this classic.
But the great news is that years of frustration and patient mucking about with DOS are about to be rewarded. SC2 is back, it should run on most modern operating systems, and it is freeware.
The rights to the game – everything but the name – have been released, and a dedicated group of fans has taken upon itself the task of bringing Star Control II to the masses once again - this time under the title The Ur-Quan Masters. The PC source code was lost along the way, but working from the 3DO code allows the programmers to include all of that version's enhancements anyway.
The selling point of Ur-Quan Masters is not any one component, but its excellence on multiple fronts. The story is your standard good-versus-evil space-age conflict between alien alliances, but the outlandish names and the tongue-in-cheek narrative should keep most players engrossed. The gameplay shifts between mining expeditions on hundreds of planets, outfitting and upgrading your ship, diplomacy, and battle.
The evil Ur-Quan Hierarchy has demolished our solar system among many others in its path of conquest. As the game begins, your ship approaches Earth only to be met with an Ur-Quan drone ship, which instructs you to wait there while it alerts the fleet. Now, you can stay and wait to be destroyed or you can approach the space station orbiting Mother Earth and start piecing together the whole story and a plan to deal with the invaders.
Once you have the backstory down, you can begin mining the neighboring planets and satellites to gather enough raw materials to modify your ship. You'll need all the enhancements you can afford, because space is swarming with hostile creatures who will engage you at every opportunity.
Of course, it's not wise to play space cowboy when you have bigger goals in mind, so you can choose to adopt a more peaceful attitude whenever it seems practical. Interacting with Ur-Quan Masters' myriad races is a game unto itself, as you choose from a list of scripted responses ranging from swaggering action-hero rhetoric to please-don't-hurt us timidity.
If your answers rub the other ship's captain the wrong way, the game shifts into Melee and you'll have to back it up on the field of battle. These scuffles are a joy, since each race has individually stylized spacecraft with some of the more outlandish weapons ever to appear in a mainstream title. For those times when you just want to fight, Ur-Quan Masters includes the one-on-one Super Melee mode, where you can choose a ship and go up against a friend or the computer.
When all the parts of the game are taken together, it is easy to see why many consider this the finest computer game ever made. The full release should be ready later this year. Those of you that have already brought the Hierarchy to its knees can download an Alpha here, but since it is missing some cinemas and slide shows, I suggest you only download it if you are familiar with the game. Otherwise, you won't be getting the full experience. Remember, the 1.0 release will be free, so wait a while longer. (Incidentally, the installation process takes about a half hour if you are on broadband, and a half-day or so if you are on 56K, so don't write any checks your modem can't cash.)