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Space… the final frontier. These are the words that precede the inspirational television franchise. Through its numerous series, it has shown us strange new worlds, sought out new civilizations, and boldly gone where no one has gone before. Lessons are learned from the morality plays we call episodes. Star Trek is many things to many people. For me, it’s an optimistic view of how humanity can come together despite differences and accomplish something. My dad used to let me stay up late rarely as a child, but the only dependable reason to do so was to watch the 11pm episode of The Next Generation, which I am thankful for. When other kids were playing, I was thinking about the lessons I learned the night before. When other kids were fighting, I was analyzing the situation and thinking of effective compromises. When other kids were kissing girls, I was thinking about how warp drive functioned… ok, maybe its not all good.
From the Klingons and Romulans, to the Cardassians and the Borg, Star Trek has proven to be one of the deepest and most adaptable of concepts, transferring to the media of comic books, movies, novels and video games. After 40 years and 50+ games, you would assume one of those games would be truly great. Alas, not so much. For the sake of this article, we shall focus on console gaming. While casino and pinball games are obvious to exclude, arcade and most of the computer games are much harder to find. No respectable critic would judge something without having experienced it. And by saying that I can pretend I am a respectable critic.
He’s Dead, Jim
Ah, the sprites of gaming’s past…
As a young fan with an SNES, I was extremely happy to receive Future’s Past in Christmas of ’95. It was an adventure game, which was cool, and it had all the best characters, like Data and Riker, and you got to beat up Romulans. I was totally onboard. Then I started playing it. I made it past two levels and stopped playing for a month. It’s not that it was difficult, I can humbly say I was a decent gamer at the time, but it was an issue of not knowing what the hell was going on. Sure, there were enemies to attack and puzzles to solve, but I couldn’t figure out just how I was supposed to find either of them. I figured it was a game limited by poor design; players should have some idea of what they are doing, and “Explore the Derelict Ship” is too vague. As I grew up, I found out that I lacked the understanding to figure out obvious clues, but at that point in time, gaming was a hobby only for geeks and older geeks. Imagine the irony when my friends tried to argue that Madden didn’t fall into that argument…
Resistance is futile… unless you’re a fighter pilot
Fast forward to the year 2000. Playstation One was king of the consoles, Y2K turned out to be a hoax, and Star Trek got a really good game. Invasion was a space shooter game, which allowed for a whole new experience, as fighter ships were rarely seen in the Federation arsenal. All that peace and coexistence was getting in the way of my adolescent gaming! You took on Cardassian, Romulan and even Borg ships alongside voice talent by Patrick Stewart and Michael Dorn, Picard and Worf of TNG to the uninitiated. This game was one of the better ones I had played to that point. Afterwards, a friend told me if I liked this game, I would love Colony Wars. Then I died a little inside. It was exactly the same as Invasion, with a better story and non-Star Trek enemies, released in 1997. Not only was it a slight modification of the original game, it wasn’t even an original game itself.
I’m a Doctor, Not a Game Designer
The first time the Intrepid-Class ever looked badass
2006 was a good year. Twitter was launched, Italy defeated France for its fourth World Cup title, and the Xbox 360 had worked out its first year jitters, releasing Star Trek: Legacy on Dec. 14. This game is the closest a Star Trek game has come to impressing me. Featuring more than 25 different Federation ships over every Star Trek era (even Enterprise, although that series should have been SOOOOOOO much better) and keeps a viable story over the three time frames, and featuring all five of the captains on voice acting. I felt like Picard, the most impressive captain (I hear your groaning, Kirk fanboys…) as I took the USS Enterprise-E into battle against a Borg Tactical Cube, fearing little knowing the crew I had in that sleek, movie-magic ship. There was something that just didn’t feel right, as a fan of this franchise, and I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I started writing this article.
Make it So…
The fastest ship in the fleet
There was only one problem, and it was a problem that pretty much every game in recent memory had forgotten about Star Trek; this is not Star Wars. Action was not the primary concern in this series. Exploration of the galaxy, making peace and first contact was the focus of the franchise, not blowing up Borg Cubes. Hell, most of the time they can’t manage to blowF up even one Cube without an ingenious idea that has little to do phasers or torpedoes. Watch five episodes in a row of any of the series and I guarentee you will find most of it is not about combat.
Therefore, I outline the recipe for the best possible Star Trek game: Make it an RPG, similar to Mass Effect. Specifically, use the wonderful dialogue system for conversations on-planet and on the bridge. Make space combat a thing, but not the focus. Real threats should come from the way a player deals with new and different cultures, not from decidedly hostile aliens. Make crew members important, not random Red Shirts. Picard may be the man, but without Riker, Geordi, Troi or any of the rest of the cast, he would be less interesting and effective. Finally, remember the fans. Most of us came to this series for the hope it brings to us. Constant war gaming takes something away from those core beliefs we gained as fans, and we don’t want to lose that, let alone not see it in licenced work.
And to the developers and publishers of any future Star Trek game, I leave you with the Ferengi’s 57th Rule of Acquisition: Good customers are as rare as latinum. Treasure them. If you don’t know what this means, you don’t deserve the license. If you do, make sure to do a good job… we are looking to acquire good games are willing to pay handsomely for them.