Going through entire seasons of the various Star Trek spinoffs on Netflix is helping me come to terms with the idea that I actually really like the show. Owning my share of its games through the years was definitely an early sign, and I imagine that if catching all the episodes in the 90s was as easy as it is now, I’d probably frequent conventions and own my own immaculate homemade uniform.
Here’s one of those games that I owned at the time (actually, its identical version on the Game Boy). The concept is pretty straightforward. You take on the role of the Captain of the Enterprise – through some kind of holodeck training course, I believe – and carry out randomized missions picked from a pool of variables. The game never actually ends, though successful missions boost your rank through six levels. Higher ranks give more difficult missions, and if you fail enough, you’re busted back down to a previous rank. Aside from this promotion system, the game keeps trucking along for long as you’re willing to play it.
Missions are knocked together like some kind of Star Trek mad libs:
“Pick up (ambassador, cargo) from (one of fifteen planets) and take it to (a different planet). Watch out for (shifty alien race) along the way. You have (short amount of time) to complete this task.”
Aside from cargo delivery, other possibilities include rescuing civilians from a disintegrating planet or ship, blasting an enemy ship long enough to weaken it and grab its stolen cargo, or having one of a handful of reasons to show up at a system and kill every bad guy there. You are indeed given a time limit to finish the task, but pulling it off by the posted stardate is rarely an issue.
Nearly all of the ship’s functions are controlled by the corresponding bridge crew. A row of five comm badges runs along the bottom of the screen, and each badge is selected to get reports from each officer’s station. Worf is used to raise/lower the shields or bring the weapons online. Data warps the ship to new systems, displays the sensor map, or orbits a planet. LaForge can boost power to systems or prioritize systems for combat repairs. O’Brien transports things up, down, or intruders off the ship. Riker reminds you of your mission, the current stardate, and how much time you have remaining.
If the command is not a simple toggle, you’ll perform the action through a brief minigame. To orbit a planet, you must navigate the ship (in first person) through a series of square gates. To boost power to a system, you must route power sparks through maze gates in real time. To beam survivors off a planet, you’ll have to find them by using a tracking bar that fills as you get close, then hold a steady lock long enough for them to be captured – often, they’re running around like assholes to make this more difficult. I’m assuming they’re actually on fire as you’re trying to rescue them.
This system is actually pretty interesting, and none of the minigames are overly complicated or terribly frustrating. It’s certainly more exciting that just ordering your bridge crew around, and ensures that every mission – even the “boring” cargo courier ones – will give you something to actively do. Some of these minigames are also adapted to randomized emergency scenarios. Your life support may fail, and you’ll need to play a variant of Geordi’s maze game to fix it. Intruders may beam on board, and you’ll use O’Brien’s console to locate and beam them off. You may get caught in a temporal rift, and have one chance to orbit the nearest star to survive. Again, all necessary excitement.
The rest of the time, you’ll directly steer the ship. By default, left and right on the D-pad cycle through the officer comm badges, while up and down move from stop, half, and full speeds. Pressing Start puts you into steering mode, with the D-pad moving the bow of the ship in first person at the previously selected speed. You’ll need to use Data’s sensor display to locate your objective, then steer toward it accordingly. You’ll also use steering mode when the inevitable combat rolls around.
Not every mission has battles, but for those that do, a quick trip to Worf’s station brings the ship up to fighting shape. With the weapons armed and steering mode on, A and B fire phasers and torpedoes. Phasers converge into a continuous beam, like the show, so it’s easy to “paint” an enemy ship with them. Torpedoes are unguided, but cause plenty of damage if you can properly lead an enemy, or catch him charging at you. Meanwhile, your shields are absorbing any damage thrown at you, and LaForge is working hard at repairing one subsystem at a time (usually those shields).
Unfortunately, combat isn’t too exciting. You’ll certainly need to fly to wherever the enemies are, but after that, it’s best to park the ship and simply scroll left or right. The engagement takes place in 3D space, but your enemies don’t seem to know that. Ships are represented as 2D sprites with a handful of perspectives (like in Wing Commander), further limiting what moves they’re able to make. Different enemies have different tactics; Ferengi are content to simply run circles around your ship, while Romulans like to weave in and out of range. In any situation, it’s easy enough to park, track them left or right, and trade the shots necessary to bring them down. You don’t appear to gain any defensive bonus by staying on the move.
Understanding the limitations of the Nintendo and what they’re trying to do here, it’s probably best that they kept combat simple. It’s still one of the weakest parts of the game, but you shouldn’t be looking into this title if you want real action.
Graphically, it’s an impressive title. Digitized photos were clearly used as reference, and squeezing them onto the NES has been accomplished without much fuss. This isn’t just the obvious actor photos either; there’s a surprising amount of detail in the consoles themselves and the various activation animations (like watching the shields raise). Enemies and starbases also got the photo treatment, so Romulan warbirds and Ferengi cruisers will all look the part. Navigation in general is easy, there’s a real sense of speed, and objects cycle through a few sets of scale as you get close. There’s equally good work on the audio side, with a faithful chiptune version of the TNG theme, and a selection of comparable sound effects.
If I had any single complaint, it would be that the entire game lacks consequence. There’s never a question of who your enemy is, and never a reason to hold back from firing. Time restrictions seem arbitrary when you can simply travel at the fastest warp speed everywhere, all the time. There’s no drawback, except, possibly, an undocumented increase in the chance of emergency minigames. And even though you appear to be halfway de-molecularizing fleeing refugees when you move the transporter cursor over them (ow!) you can never lose someone during transport or otherwise flub a mission.
That’s the game. The randomized missions start off engaging and then exponentially decay – you’ll soon spot the template each mission is designed around. Tighter time windows and smaller margins of error at higher ranks don’t really do enough to change things, so it’s really still the same game at the end as it was when you started. It’s an excellent and smart recreation of the show, but as a whole, the game really does just roll along until you’re sick of it.
Minigames let you try your hand at activities from the show. Random missions keep the game going forever. Some challenge to work your way up to Captain rank. Not exclusively focused on combat like most other Trek sims.
Random missions keep the game going forever… without structure. Pools of variables aren’t large enough not to notice the same handful of templates, and no new missions appear with higher ranks. Ranking up to Captain is the only goal – after that, you play until you’re done with it… which likely won’t be much longer.