Starflight

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Grade: A
Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 8th
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year: 1991
Genre: Mining

Whether or not you enjoy Starflight might come down to one important question – are you the kind of gamer who relishes the idea of keeping a notebook handy in order to jot down important information about the game they’re playing? Most people don’t remember this anymore, but in the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for an adventure-type game like this to require some serious note-taking skills. Starflight is one of those types of games, and in fact, it’s a big part of its gameplay.

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Pictured: gameplay.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not so militantly old-school that I somehow find the journals, quest logs and other note-keeping methods included in modern games offensive somehow. For the most part, I find them quite handy, and huge games like Mass Effect or Skyrim would be pretty much unplayable without them. Seriously, could you imagine having to write down “Ysolda needs a Mammoth tusk”, and “check out the crashed satellite in the Horsehead Nebula” and the hundreds and hundreds of other little notes those games would require? By the time you were done, you’d have binders, notebooks, and flowcharts and would probably have to hire an intern to organize it all. Games would be sponsored by Office Depot.

Starflight013Still, these handy automatic note-taking features have one critical side-effect – they filter out all the unnecessary information and focus exclusively on exactly what you need to know to progress through the game. And again this is handy for most games. To go back to my Skyrim example, your quest log would be a lot less useful if it includes tidbits like “Belethor would sell his sister if he had one” or “Aerin is hopelessly stuck in the ‘friend zone’ with Mjoll”.

(Quick Skyrim related aside here – Seriously, Mjoll? Aerin pulls your near-lifeless body out of a trap-infested Dwarven ruin, nurses you back to life, let’s you live with him, follows you around all day and listens patiently while you complain ceaselessly about the corruption in Riften, and you won’t even go out to dinner with him. But you’ll run off and marry the first person who retrieves your sword? That sucks. Aerin would have loved you unconditionally until his dying day and you could have gone on countless adventures together. I, on the other hand, kept you as a housewife in my manor in the middle of nowhere, and then stuck you with two random kids I adopted on a whim without asking you first. Meanwhile I’m off doing quests with Aela the Hotness and running special errands for any random chick who happens to be wearing a tavern dress. Hope you’re happy with your sword, though.)

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Wait, what were we talking about?

Anyway, unlike most other games, Starflight absolutely would not work with any kind of an automated quest log. The whole point of this game is to gather information, and a big part of the “gameplay” is trying to determine which information is useful and what’s just extra dialogue. There are times when I’ve gotten stuck because I ignored an important clue I had been given, and other times where I’ve gone on wild goose chases following what I should have realized was a bad lead. If the game filtered out and recorded all the useful information for you, there wouldn’t be much of a game left.

This makes Starflight an adventure game in the truest sense, and while that term might conjure up bad memories of illogical puzzles and insane logic, I’m talking about something else entirely. The focus of Starflight is really on exploration, information gathering, and understanding a threat to the universe before it’s too late. There isn’t a lot in the way of twitch action, or stats-building, or strategy. This game is more story driven, and more focused on solving a mystery. You follow up on the few scant leads the game gives you to start off with, chat, threaten, or bribe the aliens you come across for useful information, and track down lost settlements. It’s like a bizarre mixture of sci-fi and a detective noir.

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No, you may not land on a star – unless you want to be awesome.

In terms of structure and gameplay, I’d say that the game that Starflight is most similar to is Rings of Power. Which isn’t a very helpful comparison considering that even fewer people have played RoP than have Starflight, but it’s hard to compare Starflight to a game more of you might be familiar with, because they don’t really make a lot of games like it any more. Though to be fair, they didn’t really make a lot of games like it back then, either. That’s part of what makes this game special.

Starflight038The defining trait of Starflight, which is so exceedingly rare in gaming that I can only compare it to other obscure 20-year old Genesis games, is how completely unstructured it is. Most games, even ones that are built around the idea of being open-world and nonlinear, still at the very least have a main storyline with a series of objectives or missions that need to be completed in order to beat the game. Even Rings has some of this, though it’s disguised by the fact that you can pursue multiple objectives at once. Not so with Starflight. You’re given a ship, a brief outline of the plot, and a couple of leads. Then it’s up to you to go explore. If you know what you’re doing, you can beat the entire game in a few minutes.

Of course, pulling off such a feat is pretty much impossible until you learn the necessary steps. And in order to do that, we’re going to have to do some mining in order to upgrade the ship to  a vessel capable of exploring the far reaches of the galaxy through what can often be hostile territory. What, did you think the government just starts handing people spaceships just because nearby stars keep going supernova and nobody can figure out why? Hell no. If you want to save the galaxy, go grab a shovel and start digging. The apocalypse is not the time to start turning into a bunch of socialists.

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Explore the galaxy. Discover new worlds. Drive around on them and try to dig up plutonium.

No seriously, this is a game about space travel and saving the universe, in which you spend a not-insignificant time mining for rare minerals. I’ll admit that sounds pretty awful, but bear with me here. First of all, going against anything I know about game design or just logic in general, it’s actually kind of fun. And no, it’s not fun because the mining is a cool little minigame or something; you just drive around on the planet and press the “B” button, and sometimes it tells you you found minerals. That’s about all there is to it (you do get a scanner to show you where the minerals are supposed to be). There aren’t a lot of sights to see (Oh hey, green terrain! And there’s some brown terran. And this ground is a little wavy. Woooo!), or enemies to fight or anything like that.

Don’t ask me why this is fun. Maybe the random nature of finding the minerals makes it feel like gambling. Or the sense of progression that comes as you sell these minerals and upgrade your ship from a small freighter to a fully equipped battlecruiser. I can’t quite explain it but, for a little while at least, the mining really is kind of enjoyable.

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Not as enjoyable as discussing the engineering of heaven with robots, but then again, what is.

The other thing to keep in mind about mining is that you only have to do it for a little while. After an hour or two of mining, just when it starts to get a little old, you’ll have earned enough money to get the most important upgrades for your ship (engines, shields, a fully pimped out mining vehicle), and can get on with the important business of saving the galaxy. After this point, mining becomes something you only have to do occasionally to buy more fuel, and it’s more of a “well, as long as I’m on this planet anyway” kind of thing. The pacing in Starflight is one of its best features – in the beginning, it’s really just about going to nearby worlds, harvesting minerals, and trying to earn enough money to upgrade your ship. This will help you learn how the game works and get the hang of things. Then, as you get better equipped, your range gradually expands, and the focus shifts from making money to exploring the universe and trying to solve the mystery at the center of the plot.

One of the neat things about Starflight is that it let’s you pick out your own crew, and some of your crew members can – and absolutely should – be alien species. Each alien race has natural inclinations, so it’s important to choose the proper one for each task. We suggest a human scientist, insectoids for engineer and navigator, and sentient plants for communications and as your doctor. Plants make great doctors, because in a pinch, they can just grind up their limbs to create medicine and grow them back later. I’m not sure why the game also favors them so much for communications, but it’s possible that the most forms of expression throughout the galaxy involve fragrances and bright colors.

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Plants and insectoids also get along really well, due to the latter’s willingness to help the plants “pollinate”. They’re like the wingmen of the galaxy.

One last thing about Starflight – it has one of the best plot twists I’ve ever experienced in a game. The surprise ending seems so obvious in retrospect (there is even a species of aliens who do nothing EXCEPT give away the ending, albeit in a not entirely clear way), yet it still managed to catch us completely unprepared. I won’t give anything away here, but I will say it made us question the righteousness of our endeavor.

Availability: Spiral notebooks and pens can be found at any office supply store, or even most supermarkets, for next to nothing. If that somehow shouldn’t work for you, you can always use some scrap paper and, I don’t know, steal a pen from a coworker or something. Seriously, if you somehow don’t have access to PENS, you might need to stop playing Genesis games and refocus your priorities. I mean, even people in jail get access to pens, and they mostly just use them to stab each other.

Oh wait, were we supposed to be discussing the availability of Starflight?

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The space squid is not amused by our foolishness.

Well, unfortunately, Starflight falls into the same gap as many other EA-published Genesis titles, such as Road Rash, Jungle Strike, and Rings of Power – it is not available for modern consoles in any shape or form. This means you’re going to have to find a Genesis copy of Starflight which, even back in the Genesis days, was a tough game to find. I remember trying to track a copy down back in 1996, and it took a while. The passage of time certainly hasn’t made the game any less rare since then, but the growth of the internet has at least made it easier to find. Nice copies can be bought online for less than $20, and cartridge only versions often less for $10. Still, if you’re feeling lucky, or live near a really good used game store, you might be able to find an even better deal that way – I got my copy (box, but no instructions) at a store for $8.

The game originally came with a star map that had some important information and locations on it. It’s nearly impossible to find a copy with the map these days, and without it, the game does become quite a bit more challenging. Fortunately, the internet is here to save us. I especially recommend this site when you get stuck (don’t scroll down on that page until you’re ready for spoilers).

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Alternately, you could try to find the PC version of the game, which actually has more features, more worlds, and is overall a bigger game. Many gamers consider the PC versions of the game to be superior, and while I understand why they feel that way, I actually prefer the more simplified and streamlined Genesis version myself. Compatibility may also be an issue – getting games from two decades ago to run on modern PCs can sometimes be… problematic.

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