I’ve always been confused by the strict combat focus of, basically, every Star Trek game that isn’t a point-and-click adventure. Starfleet Command, Bridge Commander, Tactical Assault on the Nintendo DS – the list goes on. Even Starfleet Academy on the PC ended up extremely short on mysteries, exploration, or teaching, and focused mostly on fighting pirates. Two ships slugging it out was never the point of any of the shows, but I suppose there were fears that “exploration” and “scientific investigation” would sound like boring hippie shit to a wider gaming audience. Well, here’s the one exception I’ve been able to find – a Star Trek command game that actually lets you use your ship’s sensors and tractor beams for things other than blowing up alien races.
You play as a male or female cadet (doesn’t matter) new to Starfleet Academy’s command school. The game is divided into four years, with a new ship granted at the start of each year. There are 21 missions total, and each takes the form of a day at the Academy. Using a row of icons along the bottom of a shot of lovely future San Francisco, you can attend class, chat with your crew before or after a mission, or take an exam within the school’s bridge simulator. The classes (simply one or two text screens) explain a bit about what Starfleet expects, while offering some hints for the coming mission. Not only does this mean that encyclopedic Trek knowledge isn’t required to play, it’s also the only version of Academy that actually teaches you about how to command the series’ big space boats.
The simulator is where the action takes place. You pilot the ship from her command chair, directly controlling steering, speed, and weapons. A first person view from the nose of the craft lets you navigate. Pressing the Select button brings up a menu of bridge commands. Here, you can order your crew to engage the tractor beam, warp to a new system, hail nearby ships, perform a sensor sweep, and so on. Your crew all have names and personalities (some carried over from Starfleet Academy on the PC), but this matters most in the post-mission lounge chats, and rarely even there. Their performance in the simulator will never change, and there are no side stories or mysteries of theirs to uncover. They basically exist to shout situational dramatic lines and emphasize when you’re getting virtually torpedoed.
The difference in this title, as stated, is the comparative lack of combat. Missions here are different from those in the PC version, and comparatively less-focused on fighting prowess. Classes reinforce that Starfleet is about peacekeeping and exploration, with use of weapons as a last resort. The missions will readily test this. More than a few missions try to trick you into shooting. You’ll come across an alien race that looks set up to be an aggressor, but an itchy torpedo trigger will net you a failing grade. Other missions allow you to pop in and complete your objective, then pop out before enemies can respond. Some give you a proper “out” – you’ll encounter groups of hostile pirates, but one of them will be willing to talk. Fighting at all is almost flatly discouraged at higher difficulty levels, as your ships will be unable to take on more than one enemy at a time. NPC conversations and reactions to you even change based on your ship’s current status – green, yellow (shields up), or red (weapons armed, and thus aggressive).
Missions grade you on a scale of 100, with 75 or above considered a passing grade. Your instructor will brief and debrief you, and always explains your score and where you failed within a mission. It could come down to picking the wrong dialog choice during a hail, or showing hostile intent when it wasn’t warranted, but the point of the test will always be conveyed in the debrief. You also don’t get another shot at the mission (unless you reload a password), so enough failing grades will boot you out of the Academy.
The big question, then, is if it’s boring. That depends on what you’re expecting out of the experience. This version of Academy is definitely the most true-to-the-shows game that I’ve played. You’ll be using the equipment on your ship to solve mysteries, rescue other ships, save planets from radioactive debris, and other Trek-ian staples. Unfortunately, none of these activities are particularly involved or complicated.
One early mission has you respond to a distress call, but when you arrive, the aggressors have already retreated. Seems ominous, and warrants further investigation. But since the tools on your ship are so limited, “further investigation” breaks down to “try all four options without consequence” before moving on to the next system. You don’t even get to select what you scan or who you hail; it’s handled automatically. You’ll only have to put thought into the multiple-choice dialogue sections, and beyond that, it’s mostly just a matter of being thorough. If you’re lost, run a sensor scan, talk to your science officer, get closer to a ship, and you’ll probably stumble upon the answer.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t ship battles, because there are, and a few that you can’t even weasel your way out of. But there’s a reason they’re not the focus. This is an SNES game that tries to push polygons without the Super FX chip, and the performance suffers greatly for it. The game will always crawl around at a 10-15 frame rate, with heavier slowdown if multiple polygonal objects are moving around the screen at once. Accelerating the ship also drags the framerate noticeably. Distant objects are impossible to make out, and other than the mission objects, your surroundings are nothing but a barren field of moving stars. Flat-shaded, untextured polygons, single-color planets, and wimpy sprite explosions also mean they’ll be no effects to impress the graphically inclined.
The choppy processing also makes ship to ship combat feels sluggish, while the ships themselves still curiously handle like fighter jets. Your ships have forward mass but can turn instantly, which, coupled with the frame rate lag, can make precise aiming a bear. It seems outright impossible to dodge enemy fire – unlike the PC version, your ship is covered with a single universal shield, so there’s no strategy available to minimize the damage you’re taking. The radar isn’t much help either – even on the shortest-range “combat mode” – so you’ll spin your ship around just in time to take a torpedo and watch your foe swoop away, or watch them ram right into you for extreme damage. The combat is still playable, especially at the easiest difficulty, but not particularly enjoyable or ideal.
A local battle mode is available, and gives you the chance to pilot enemy ships against another player. As you can imagine, split screen makes the above graphics issues worse. You do gain the ability to fly Klingon and Romulan ships, with their cloaking devices, which can be a fun way to annoy a friend. There are also a series of historical missions which recreate two of the movies and an episode of the original show (“Balance of Terror”). These are a treat for fans, and also give you a few minor ways to change the events around (usually for the worse). Beyond that, there’s nothing else to the package, and limited reasons to replay. You can run through the Academy at a higher difficulty, but the missions obviously aren’t engaging once you already know the twist.
The shoddy, lumbering battle system is almost certainly why Starfleet Academy got tagged as a bad game. If that’s what you’ve shown up for, then you’re right to criticize. My real disappointment is that they didn’t fuse a decent combat/flight engine (like the PC version of Academy) with the adventure-like mysteries and diplomacy seen here. Overall, it’s a series of generally well-written missions that nails the tone of the show, hampered by a choppy engine running on (arguably) the wrong platform altogether.
Practically the only Star Trek game that doesn’t ask you to blow up Romulans and Klingons every mission. Most missions feature investigation, diplomacy, rescues, and other Starfleet peace-keepery things.
Engine chugs along on the SNES. Navigating is okay, but battles, when they happen, are more difficult than they need to be. Only two tracks of very repetitious music, but this at least can be disabled.