As a compliment to his recent review of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary for the PC, the J Man asked that I aim my laser-precision reviewing skills at the Nintendo game of the same title. I pointed out that since he had played both games, his opinion would hold more weight than mine. But a few well chosen words of flattery soon changed my mind, and found me thanking him profusely for the opportunity, as well as agreeing to co-sign the loans he needed to purchase a 1993 Tatra 613-4 MiL, the jewel of his Czechoslovakian luxury car collection. But a day and a half of play subsequently revealed that, like all gifts from the J Man, Star Trek for the NES was something I didn’t need, and couldn’t return for store credit.
You play as everyone’s favorite smarmy space stud James T. Kirk. While checking out some funky readings near Sigma Iotia (presumably Sigma Iotia II since it’s the gangster planet from the series), the Enterprise crew discovers a rip in time and space that almost sucks them to their doom. Luckily they are instead thrown into uncharted space, unharmed but with their supply of dilithium crystals depleted. Without more crystals, Scotty can’t get the engines humming again, and you can’t get back to Iotia to prevent the rip from destroying the galaxy.
The first thing you’ll notice about uncharted space is that it’s entirely charted. From your position in the captain’s chair, you’ve got access to a map showing every planet in the game world including your current position, the neutral zone, your final destination of Sigma Iotia, and the Romulan territory you’ll need to travel through to get there. Once you scrounge up some dilithium on the first planet, you’re free to trek through the stars at your discretion.
From the bridge you can consult Spock, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and McCoy about the current status of, respectively, the ship’s sensors, engines, communications, navigation, um…navigation again, and…sick bay? Much like on the show, only Spock will ever give you any truly useful information and he’ll volunteer it himself. Still, the ability to ask is a welcome one. Also on the bridge, you can hail nearby ships or go to red alert if diplomacy fails. But, the real action is down on the surface.
Before beaming down to a planet, you must choose two others to accompany you. Spock and McCoy are the defaults, but you can replace either or both of them with a geologist, historian, biologist, or security officer. Like your bridge crew, these sidekicks aren’t as useful as you might assume. Spock is indispensable, of course, offering both technical knowledge and mystical Vulcan trickery, but the others are good for one specified task, at best. In fact you can get by without ever using the biologist or the security officer at all. Bones himself gets only one useful moment in the entire game. At least he gets two chances to say “I’m a doctor, not a ____”.
Like its PC counterpart, this is an adventure game, a rarity on consoles. The trouble is it feels so much like an action title that it will no doubt take you a while to stop phasering the local fauna and start looking for puzzle items. Once you do, however, you’ll have no further trouble. This brings us to the game’s two biggest problems: it’s much too easy, and far too short.
The developers passed up several opportunities to make the game more challenging. As you traverse the surface of a given planet, the A button will allow you to scan unusual items with your tricorder, while the B button will fire your phaser. For some reason, only Kirk and the security officer can use phasers, but since you’ll meet very few enemies, this isn’t a problem. As for the tricorder, it’s your main method of interaction with the game world. If you could scan entire rooms for useful info, which would then lead you to particular objects of interest, we might be in business. Instead, the only items you can scan are the important ones, instantly cluing you in to their importance. Of course, this isn’t all that crucial since there’s rarely more than one item on screen anyway.
If your health gets too low, you’ll automatically beam back to the ship with no penalty. You can beam right back down with full health and your inventory intact. The only consequence is having to start back at the insertion point. You can also beam back at any time by contacting the Enterprise if you want to switch up your landing party or quickly return to the beginning area of a planet.
You have the option of setting your phaser to either “stun” or “full”. As Spock will inform you, using lethal force on innocent life forms is a Federation no-no, but feel free to blast away regardless, as there are no repercussions. Granted, this is a puzzle game, not a shooter, but if phasers are going to be a part of the fun, then forcing you to stun enemies rather than killing them might have provided some much-needed strategy.
There’s a battle mode that can be entered by going to red alert when the Enterprise is near an enemy ship. However, there is only one instance in the entire game where you will get to actually do this. This too is far too simplistic to have the desired effect, but it is the only time when you can get a real Game Over. You can start some shit on purpose if you really want to, by deliberately ignoring Spock’s advice on diplomacy, but there’s no reason or benefit in it, and you really have to go out of your way. I was shocked, when upon entering Romulan space, and thereby breaking numerous treaties, the leader of the Romulan Armada used the ship’s records to verify my story, then helpfully escorted me to the neutral zone. I was even more shocked, when it worked a second time, even though this time I was clearly lying.
There are about two dozen planets on your map, but you can only land on some of them, and most of the others are barren decoys in your dilithium hunt. All told, there are a scant four planets of gameplay here. Sigma Iotia, the final planet, is the only one that feels fully realized. Puzzles are just as basic here as in the rest of the game, but at least there are more of them. In nearly all cases, obtainable objects and their intended uses are obvious. It’s not that I automatically know what to do with a captured butterfly, but there’s only one place in the level that makes even a little bit of sense. There’s only one instance where you’ll be given the chance to solve a puzzle in two different ways, and as far as I know, your choice doesn’t affect the story one bit. The game is one item hunt after another with no surprises.
Graphics aren’t much more than adequate. The Enterprise herself, seen in a recreation of the opening titles, looks appropriate. The little pictures of each crew member that display when they speak look very accurate for the NES. The Romulan commander (the one sprite you’ll see for any Romulan you hail) looks a lot like Mark Lenard and the Starfleet Admiral who gives you the Game Over if you lose a battle is a pretty good representation of any of the old white guys who played admirals in the original series. Or come to think of it, maybe he’s a commodore; I don’t know.
But the other graphics are hit or miss. On the bridge, your crew looks like cartoony caricatures. Spock in particular is reminiscent of those World War II propaganda posters featuring slant-eyed Japanese stereotypes. On the surface, planets feature a very limited color palette with repetitive scenery and few moving sprites. On your view screen, nearly all planets look the same.
Sound is another disappointment. There’s a passable version of the infamous fight music which is often misused in non-action sequences, and the main theme which according to the credits was “transcribed” by Scott Larocca – meaning Paramount didn’t even give them the sheet music. As far as I can tell there are only two or three other tunes in the whole game, consisting of one boring midi loop a piece. Needless to say, there is no voice acting from the original cast like there is in the DOS game.
Fans will happily spot several references to classic Trek episodes. Harry Mudd makes an appearance. There is a seduction puzzle involving a green woman. The Gorn from “Arena” has a goofy cameo. Spock mind melds with the landing party for the same reason he did so in “Spectre of the Gun”. You get to play a round of Fizzbin. And the ramifications of McCoy’s lost communicator on Sigma Iotia are key to the story. This is all well and good but it’s not enough to distract from the weak, simplistic plot and far too straightforward puzzles.
If you’re not a fan of the show, what little novelty this game offers will be lost on you. If you are a fan, then the much better PC edition is the way to go. Star Trek: 25th Anniversary for the NES is a nice little distraction, especially when coupled with a day of Trek reruns to heighten the experience. But there’s just way too little substance for me to recommend this game.
A few good nods to episodes of the series, one of a handful of adventure games for the NES.
Not enough story or puzzles to warrant its existence.
“Jim, this flower is very intriguing shall I add it to our inventory?” — Spock