Last time on my look back at games that received what I shall call unfortunate
sequels, we took tour of Master of Orion III
, a game that failed massively in the gameplay department. This time, we'll change things up a bit and take a look at a game that managed to complete drop the ball in the story department, as well as a few other ways. SUBJECT TWO: STAR CONTROL III
But first, let's look at where it all started!
: Star Control II
Star Control II, released in 1992 by Accolade, was the sequel to, you guessed it, Star Control. Built around the basic idea of a Spacewar-y arcade-style space shooter, SCII is a little difficult to try and categorize in any particular genre. A little bit shooter, a little bit adventure game, a little bit role-playing game, it's just tough to try and slap any one label on it.
And that's part of what made it so great.
The game begins with your character, a human born on a far off research colony that has been out of touch for decades from the rest of the galaxy, taking a Precursor (your standard ancient-advanced-now-absent race) ship that only you can control back to Earth to find out how that war that had been raging all those years ago is going.
Turns out Earth lost.
Arriving home at Earth, you find it sheathed in a glow of a red force shield. Making contact with a lone human on a space station orbiting the planet, you learn that the war between the Alliance of Free Stars and the Ur-Quan Hierarchy didn't go so hot, and that Earth was forced to offer and surrender and must remain locked down beneath the mighty slave shield, cut off from space forever. That, of course, just won't do. Setting off from Earth again to find out what has become of the rest of the Alliance, so begins your journey to defeat the oppression of the Ur-Quan.
The game takes place entirely from an overhead, 2d-view. Ships were large and stylish, planets were bright and colorful, and the whole interface was very clean. The view would change scale depending on your proximity to stars and planets. The largest view was the galactic map, and as you moved up to a star system, the map would switch to a local view of the star and its associated solar system. Fly up to a planet, and you would enter orbit, with the opportunity to deploy landers to the surface to gather much-needed resources. The ship controls were very simple, speed up or slow down, turn left or turn right. Inertia was important, as laying on too much thrust then trying to turn would often leave you hurling past your intended destination (and also probably wasting a lot of fuel).
Upon encountering another ship, either diplomacy or combat will ensue (or, often, both). Combat switches another map where the two ships involved face off. Intertia and gravity still play a part, as ships can slingshot around planets for a speed boost, or just smash into them, causing massive damage. Each race has a unique ship, all of which are very distinct in their capabilities and weapons. Some of the many ships you will be shooting at at/be shot by
Now, I'm sure you're saying that all sounds well and good, but probably not that unique or interesting enough to make for a truly great game. Well, you are probably correct. However, Star Control II has one thing going for it that propels it from average to awesome: writing.
From the moment you make first contact with Earth, you get the feeling that this is a living galaxy, with a history and character all its own. And as if that wasn't enough, you immediately encounter the cowardly Spathi that I, at least, would be more than happy to play a game about all by themselves. I could sit here and explain how utterly amazing they are, and the endless laughs they will provide you, or I could simply just repeat their daily prayer to you: "Please, God, do not let me die today. Tomorrow would be so much better."
Indeed, each race you encounter in the game, no matter how minor they might be in the grand scheme of things, has plenty to say. Everyone has a story, a history; some are hilarious, some are tragic, but not a one is boring. Toys for Bob, creators of the game, weave an amazing tapestry of tales that span the galaxy, intertwining with each other across the centuries. Stories of the rising of a civilization from slavery with the single-minded goal of destroying all life in the universe to stories of civilizations falling because someone knocked their very important religious artifact off a table during a particularly exuberant bout of celebratory dancing. Every new star system you explored held the potential for amazing discoveries within.
Playing Star Control II was like being a part of a really great sci-fi opera, with you in captain's chair. And so, of course, when it came to an end, fans clammored for a sequel to keep the stories and the feelings alive; what they ended up with instead, well...
: Star Control III
In late 1996, the cries for a new Star Control game were finally answered when Accolade released Star Control III. One of few things that people knew about it beforehand was that Toys for Bob were not involved in the creation, and that it had instead been handed off to Legend Entertainment, makers of Superhero League of Hoboken (and a bunch of other things, really). It seems that Accolade would have been thrilled to have Toys for Bob create number 3, but only if they would do it for the exact same budget that they had for number 2. Now, as you know, this was 1996 and 3d was a must. And any time you go from 2d to 3d, the budget also gains an additional dimension. Add to that the fact that Toys for Bob apparently worked without pay for portions of the SC2 development cycle, and you can see why they decided to tell Accolade thanks, but no thanks.
The other thing people knew about were the puppets. Yes, puppets. To give the game a unique flair, Legend decided that instead of going with 3d animations to replace the old, 2d art, they would instead go with animatronic puppets that were then digitized to represent the alien races. It did most definitely give the game a unique look, the results were, as discovered once the game was released, scatter-shot at best. Some races did look fantastic; others just looked terrible. Do not even get me started on how the humanoid Syreen went from space amazon babes in SC2 to what appeared to be bald, blue-skinned elderly women who hadn't gotten enough sleep in SC3. The image was a little jarring, to say the least.
How does this... ...become this?
On top of that, there was the music. As anyone who has played SC2 can tell you, the musical themes for each race were both memorable and almost always entirely fitting for the race at hand. When I got my copy of SC3 home and started meeting new alien species, I couldn't help but be disappointed at every turn by the music. Or, more specifically, the general lack of it. Nothing distinct, nothing unique, nothing interesting. Every encounter was just looking at puppets while some indistinct MIDI warbled away in the background.
As for the gameplay itself, SC3 maintained a more or less similar style to the previous. The biggest change was that planetary landings to gather resources were gone, replaced instead by a "colony" system. Players could take colony pods of their allied races, find suitable planets, and plop them down. Give them some time to breed, spend some resources setting up buildings for them, and eventually they would start churning out fuel, resources, crew, and ships for you. In the early parts of the game it feels pretty important, but as you go on, you realize it's a pretty shallow system, and ultimately becomes more of a chore than anything else. Maybe they were trying to win over some of the Master of Orion II crowd.
So, yes, some of the gameplay choices were not so great, but none were so terrible that the no doubt awesome story and characters couldn't make up for them. Except, of course, that the awesome story and characters turned out to be not so much.
The story picks up at the (slightly revised) ending of SC2. Your Captain is flung into the future where he witnesses the destruction of all life in the galaxy at the hands of UNDEFINED EVIL!!! Then, sent back to the past somehow, you discover that hyperspace travel has failed, and that all alien races are confined to their individual star systems with no way to travel. No way, that is, except for your cool Precursor ship that runs on Warp Bubble Technology(TM!)! So, gathering a seemingly random selection of aliens from your part of the galaxy, you decide to travel towards the core and the apparently origin of the problems. So, right off the bat you are being taken away from many of the characters you knew and loved from the last one. Now, this by itself isn't a critical problem, as it is natural for any story to want to expand into new territory and new characters. The problem that arose here was that the new things to come along just, frankly, weren't that interesting.
The story was pretty standard sci-fi unknown-evil-looming-in-the-distance fare, and the races that populated this new sector of the galaxy did have their own stories, and did like to talk, but they just never quite developed that spark of life that the characters from SC2 had. On top of that, the story had some consistency problems within its own framework, and played fast and loose with some details from the previous game. Where it Went Wrong
To be honest Star Control III wasn't a terrible game by any stretch. The gameplay was more or less solid, and the story wasn't dismal. No, the real problem was that, as the follow up to something incredibly, it was merely perfectly average. Star Control II created a unique universe for the player to explore, backed with amazing writing, quirky visuals and sound, and solid gameply. Star Control III took all of those elements and boiled them down to a plain ol' oatmeal-level experience. The graphics blended in with every other game that came out in the late nineties, the music was perfectly forgettable, and the story was pleasant enough, but not something that would stick in your mind for any length of time. Legend Entertainment had the rather daunting task of trying to pick up someone else's vibrant, living galaxy and trying to carry it forward. And, in the end, they did an ok job, just not a good enough one to sate the fans that were in waiting. In fact, fans have gone so far as to declare Star Control III non-canon to the series, awaiting the day that a proper follow-up comes along.
The good news here is that a proper sequel is still potentially floating around out there. Toys for Bob, creators of SC2, have expressed that they would like their next game to be a Star Control title, and the fans, of course, are running a petition
. Tell Fwiffo I said "hey."
In the meantime, if you missed out on Star Control II way back when, you can play a recent re-release of it called The Ur-Quan Masters.
It is an open-source title using the source code of the original that was released by Toys for Bob. It's not perfect (it's missing the end credits, for instance, which are amazing), but it's still a heck of a game. Give it a shot, and you too can be *happy campers*