Star Trek: TNG – Echoes of the Past

Echoes from the Past, (and its sister version “Future’s Past” on the SNES) is the first Star Trek game for the 16-bit era. It varies from the NES/Game Boy title by telling a complete story in the form of a single “episode” playing out over the course of the game. To introduce the appropriate gameplay elements and gameplay length, that story becomes a little more disconnected than any of the show’s episodes – even early ones like “Lonely Among Us” – but the ultimate flaw is the sheer gameplay tedium you will grapple with as you solve a strictly average Star Trek mystery.

Echoes of the Past begins with trouble on the Romulan border. Those dodgy motherfuckers claim to have lost a science team, and are requesting passage through Federation space on the pretense of searching for them. There’s some further suggestions that something deeper is afoot in this introductory setup, which is laid out entirely through a riveting text crawl beside a giant (and creepy) mugshot of Picard. No cutscenes or anything exciting, just the text of an extended captain’s log. The game picks up with a distress call from prominent Vulcan archeologist Dr. T’Laris, who is being attacked by, you guessed it, the Romulans!

Also starring Bob Vila as Commander William Riker

You must make haste to rescue the good doctor, so the game drops you right into the bridge. From here you will control all ship operations and move the Enterprise around space – so about half of the game will be spent pouring over its panels or looking out through the viewscreen. It’s a static recreation of the show’s set, apparently with the help of some authentic digital photographs (though with colors pared down to accommodate the Genesis limits). You take the perspective of a fixed camera placed in the center, and will pan around to the various stations to access information and manually lay in your orders.

The panning bridge deal is certainly neat, as it offered fans one of their first chances to be “standing” in the centerpiece of their favorite show. Unfortunately, running all these stations yourself never gets to be as exciting as you might expect. Though the Computer station has an absorbing amount of encyclopedia entries from the show’s universe, the other stations exist simply to move the game along. You won’t get to tinker around with the mechanics of the ship or actually feel like you’re performing any of these tasks in a meaningful way. They mostly exist for you to prove you know what you’re doing.

The best example is having to piece together your destination in the Conn control. Messages will give you a location like “Codis Omega VI,” and you must then assemble that from the endless possible nonsense combinations stored in the computer. You have to scroll through systems to find Codis, then a subset of that to find Omega, then a subset of that to find the planet, which can break down further to moons or orbiting objects. Once you’ve parsed out your path, you hit C, select an arbitrary warp speed (despite various warnings it’s really a question of if you want to go faster or slower) and hit C again to warp out.

It doesn’t seem like this would be that hard, until you see the heap of destinations your goal is buried under. So I would half pay attention to the named planet, get to “Omega Alpha… UGH!” and have to go visit Picard’s giant creepy mugshot in the ready room to be reminded of the complete destination. It’s almost like a password to get you to the next mission, or feels like it anyway, and is definitely on the level of annoyance of any manual-citing copy protection system of old. Extraneous areas are simply covered by a selection from a handful of randomized planet sprites and a single info screen from the “Sensors” station, a la Elite. Only the plot-related planets magically have breathable atmosphere, everything else are dull rocks and some science technobabble.

Ship combat is never worth it.

You won’t want to make too many side trips anyway, because the Romulans are out in full force. They will randomly appear and bring you out of warp to talk about those damnable missing scientists, and further the implication that they are Up To Something™. It gets irritating because they don’t just stop you as punishment if you lay in an incorrect or time-wasting course; you can pretty much rely on them to interrupt you at least once per warp.

I suppose this encourages you to get on to your destination instead of farting around the galaxy, but it’s still an excessive amount of combat – especially when it doesn’t actually mean anything except to slow you down. Aside from being a serious inconvenience, it also implies that there are A LOT of Romulans out there penetrating your border. Starfleet Command doesn’t seem aware or concerned, and the plot doesn’t seem to indicate that you’re running into as many Romulans as you actually are, making them just a gameplay contrivance. Your contact is randomly drawn from one of four captain types, two of which can be negotiated with (always in the same way), and two who spout the same dialogue and always force you into a fight.

To defend yourself, you’ll have to pan 180 degrees on the bridge to get to the tactical console, while your crew awaits instructions and damage cheaply accumulates. Once at the controls, you move an icon of the Enterprise with the D-pad and fire weapons with the face buttons. Everything here moves unsuitably fast. Your ships zip by each other, turn, and zip by again as if jousting. Damage for everyone adds up rapidly and gets repaired almost instantly. And for a “tactical” console, there are really no tactics to be had. The fights drag on and ultimately make no difference at all. Your only reward is that you’ll get to keep playing – provided another enemy doesn’t show up while you’re trying to repair your engines. The better alternative is to simply go immediately to the Conn, dial your course back in before your engines get shot out, and warp out of there with no repercussions. Let some other fool deal with the damn Romulans; you’ve got things to do.

You will automatically start orbiting upon arrival at your destination. You now get to assemble an away team and beam over to solve whatever crisis you came to address. You can have up to four members in your party, and each has a varying set of stats in the four categories of technical, tactical, health, and strength. These don’t appear to mean a damn thing. High technical skills means that character is more likely to bring along a tricorder, but doesn’t appear to be any more adept at using it. Same relationship for tactical and a phaser. Health is probably the most useful stat, because it will show if a character is already weakened from a previous mission. The final point worth noting is that some characters do have unique, unlisted attributes. Data and Geordi can see in the dark, Geordi can spot hidden items, and Troi can sense the truth in certain characters’ speech; and by “certain” I mean that this will come in handy exactly one time.

Take a seat, Romulan.

Once on the planet, you control one character at a time and can switch among them by holding down B and pressing up or down. Every character has a limited inventory space, and a specific kit, predictable as described above. The tricorder is useful for scanning questionable objects and letting you know if they’re dangerous, or in helping suggest the inventory items that might need to be used to solve a puzzle. The trick is that these messages, as well as any dialogue with characters, scrolls slowly along the bottom of the screen like a stock ticker. It works, but not well.

The phaser is used for defense or for blasting open loose passageways. It seems to auto-adjust between stun and full based on the situation, and never ever runs out of power. You can turn it on and wave the beam around to hit mobile enemies, though you can only aim in the eight main directions. Even with the infinite phasers, combat is still surprisingly, well, tedious, as all your enemies have their weapons set to the little-referenced “knock you on your ass” setting. Each blast will stun you for a few seconds before you instantly snap up and resume firing. Most enemies get knocked down in the same way, making for a wild ass-bumping time to be had by all.

Characters can be moved independently – good for sending out redshirts to clear the way, science guys to snoop around, or to keep one character at a set of force field controls while slipping another character through when it drops. To move the entire group at once, you can select the command badge in any character’s inventory and tag other party members to get them to follow you. This is very useful, but there’s no AI for the characters in this conga line. So if your party gets attacked, you’re the only one firing a phaser while everyone else takes damage with no reaction. If an enemy or a hazard pops up behind you, you’ll lead everyone in your group right into it.¬†Damage taken cannot be healed in the field, even by taking along the characters with “Doctor” in their names.

Follow me to your doom, redshirts!

Missions come in two varieties: puzzle and maze. Puzzle levels are the most like what I was expecting out of this title, or previous Star Trek games like 25th Anniversary. You must scout around, engage in some limited combat, and find inventory items to be taken back and used in a specific area. The best example is the derelict ship whose engines and computers you must bring back online by finding and correctly applying spare parts. Similar levels make larger appearances later in the game, as you are “tested” by The Great Plot Device that appears.

The rest of the missions take place in the unmapped levels of giant mazes. A mining planet is the frequent excuse, where you must wander around and free trapped miners, then go right back to that same maze to collect 60-some pieces of ore. There are no maps in game, so prepare to wander or draw your own.The placement of so many required goals, which force you to scour every corner of the levels before you can continue the game, makes these mazes even worse. This feels like a level designed to sell strategy guides, or the kind of game that would advertise “35 hours of gameplay!” and spend 20 of those hours in these mazes. The fact that you go back to one mine twice is just unapologetically lazy.

They didn’t cheap out on the graphics at least, and the recreation of the show’s universe is done well. The bridge looks faithful to the well-known set, with consoles and locations authentically laid out. Ground locations look nice as well, though there’s never any location that looks specific to Star Trek. The ships and freighters look particularly generic, covered under the excuse that they’re “unknown alien designs,” and planetary missions fall back on the “stone ruin” motif a little too eagerly. The 3/4ths perspective on these overhead missions feels strangely limiting as well, especially in the mazes. There’s not enough view on the right or left to see or hit any approaching enemies, meaning you’ll stumble upon them or deadly hazards a bit more frequently than you should.

The show would have been into its sixth season and going strong by the time the game was released. Fans rightfully would have expected more. I appreciate that this is not a quickie side-scroller, and that some attempt to bring a PC-style adventure to the consoles has been made. The problem is that it’s just so damn tedious. There’s no reason to fight Romulans over and over again with no purpose. There’s no reason to have item hunts through multi-level mazes. The differences between this version and the SNES are also confusing, and make this one feel incomplete or perhaps incorrectly redesigned to be more action-heavy. Perhaps playing through the SNES game (which I plan to do next) will make these more clear. As for the Genesis, it’s hard to recommend struggling through the gameplay flaws for a plot that would earn two stars, at best, on the show. Probably best left in the past.

The Good

Attempt at a console adventure, works the license pretty well.

The Bad

Constant space combat, excessive maze levels, lame ground combat.


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