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Game Review: Star Control II, by Toys for Bob
Star Control II cover - fair use thumbnail

When I tell people Star Control II (released in 1992 by Accolade) is the Best Video Game Ever, I’m only slightly exaggerating for effect. I’m not an avid gamer these days–the gags in Penny Arcade and VG Cats have a tendency to whiz over my head–but I’ve played my share, and Star Control II did some truly amazing things.

The core is a science-fiction role-playing game with the most non-linear plot I’ve ever seen. You always start in the same place: you are the son of explorers who went off to investigate a major alien artifact site and got stranded 20 years ago, and you are returning to Earth to see how the war against marauding aliens went. When you arrive, you find the planet encased in a red shield; this is your first hint the war didn’t end so well.

Actually winning the game involves one bitch of a boss fight (which in this case is a plus), but it is the journey that makes the game shine, not the destination. Most computer RPGs have a single, clearly delineated main plot laid down with all the subtlety of a four-lane interstate. There may be occasional subplots and side quests you can explore or ignore at your leisure, but there is always that main thread to follow from one meticulously crafted event to the next. Star Control II, on the other hand, sets a sizable chunk of your corner of the galaxy (to the tune of 500 stars or so) in front of you, and then gets out of the way and lets you start exploring it.

Sure, it gives you hints–lots and lots of hints–about interesting things going on elsewhere, but whether or not you investigate them is entirely up to you. And often as not, you have no bloody idea whether those hints you’ve been hearing relate to the main plot, are ignorable side-quests, or are even non-existent red herrings. When one is accustomed to an RPG grabbing your nose and leading you firmly to your fate, the freedom offered by Star Control II is enough to take your breath away.

The game is also a wonderfully written piece of science fiction. As you explore, you encounter over 20 alien races, each of which has their own unique feel. The dialog is often hilarious, and true to form in this game, the way the aliens react to you has a lot to do with the choices you make when dealing with them. I’ve recently been replaying the game and consistently selecting the “Belligerent Prick” dialog options, just to see what would happen. Man, some of those critters get really touchy! You find yourself exploring not to pimp out your spaceship and battle fleet (not just to pimp out your spaceship and battle fleet), but rather for a chance to see what cool stuff there is out there. It is the kind of game where you would feel cheated if you missed something.

As for the badguys… ooh, baby. The Ur-Quan make for awesome villains. As the game progresses, you unravel the history of your alien oppressors, and… well, I’d hate to give anything away. I’ll just say their history is both fascinating and relevant, and leave it at that.

Aside from the primary RPG game, there is also a “Super-Melee Mode,” which makes Star Control II two games in one. The second mode is a straight-up arcade shooter, in which two spaceships duke it out. Every race in the game (and even a few that are conspicuously, creepily absent) gets a unique type of ship, each one with its own performance and armament advantages and disadvantages. You have your speedsters, your lumbering juggernauts, and everything in between. You’ve got ships that try to peck you to death with light weapons, and ships that hit you like a sledgehammer. You have special abilities of every variety, boarding parties, defensive shields, and yes, even evil little green boogers of doom.

I have spent countless hours playing the Super Melee Mode, both against the computer and against a human opponent sitting next to me, using the other half of the keyboard. The ships aren’t balanced at all, and they aren’t meant to be. Some are badass killing machines, while others are little more than nuisances. The variety of ships forces you to come up with a wide range of tactics, and the way some ships play off each other can give the whole thing a rock-paper-scissors feel. At its best, winning when the fight is stacked against you can be an instant ticket to well-earned bragging rights.

If this sounds interesting at all, rejoice.

You can play it.

Right now.

For free.

Back in 2002, Toys for Bob–the development team that made the game–released the source code to the world. A dedicated group of fans renamed the game The Ur-Quan Masters (Star Control being an Atari trademark), tinkered with it to get it to work on modern PCs (Windows, Mac, and Linux), and released it for you to download and love.

I recently put it on my home box just to make sure I had my facts straight in this essay, and… damn. I need to get rid of that thing before it damages my marriage! It is pure, cracktastic goodness, even after I’ve already beaten it. Even after fifteen years.

If you want to go for the hard-core, “Nerdity Full Immersive Experience” before tackling the role-playing game, try playing the Super-Melee mode, but only using the Old Alliance and Old Hierarchy teams. Then again, if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, don’t.

Like everything else in Star Controll II, it’s up to you.