Monday, July 25, 2022

Star Cruiser (1990, Genesis port)

Name:Star Cruiser
Year:1990 (Genesis Port)
Developer:Arsys Software
Genre:FPS/Space Sim
Time:14 hours 40 minutes
Won:Yes (45W/48L)

Star Cruiser is another first in gaming that manages to be not all its cracked up to be. I entered the game hopefully, but by the time I had finished playing every single aspect of the game had greatly disappointed me. If you're not aware of what it is, Star Cruiser is basically everything wrapped up in a shiny 3D package. The two primary genres are FPS and space sim, but you could make a case for vehicle sim and RPG too. With its original release date of 1988, it is the first proper FPS, no asterisks, no question marks, no caveats. Throw into the mix light RPG elements and an involved story and if I didn't already tell you I was disappointed you'd wonder the catch.

I can't even see him, I think this might be worse than even the endgame fights!
The game starts with a simulation of combat, but you don't know that. It seems like a difficult battle straight up after starting, a common, but very annoying trope in Japanese games. Perhaps there is a way for someone just starting out to win it, but I doubt it. When you get defeated, you end up talking to a sentient robot, Freddy, and your near and best friend Gibson. While the game's brief approach to dialog usually doesn't help the game any, I get the feeling that if it weren't, Freddy would seem like one of those very annoying sidekicks, and Gibson would be one of those annoying Sasuke types. (whiny backstabbing rivals, for those of you not up on your anime) Freddy acts as your eyes, ears and most of the time voice to the outside world. The story has a very Japanese approach to it, what you want to do is entirely irrelevant. Even so, it feels a bit weird.
The basic gist, that I could get without the manual, is that the human race has expanded to about three star systems, Sol, Sirius and I think Alpha Centauri. To protect their holdings, Federal Patrol was founded. Federal Patrol oftentimes employs "hunters", to do things they need doing. The player is a hunter, along with Gibson. I'm probably wrong, but filling in the gaps I'm probably supposed to be a bounty hunter. With all the nasty bits that includes. There's a weird feeling in this game that makes me feel that's true. Recently, an anti-alien organization called VOID, lead by Geist Nidoman has been stepping up their activity, building a Great Battleship and the titular Star Cruisers.
Hope you like the way this looks, because you're going to be staring at it for the next 10+ hours
Controlling the game is annoying and feels like the game isn't responding half the time. You have your standard Wolf 3D style movement with the d-pad, while C shoots. A modifies your movement, sidestepping on the ground, speed controls in space. B cycles through weapons. One of the big problems with the game is that it constantly slows itself down and doesn't seem to work too well when that happens. This seems to happen over the silliest of causes. In combat, it seems like even firing your gun can cause these bizarre slowdowns, which in turn leads to shots not firing. I don't think its a heat mechanic, at least probably. Moving around can cause these delays too. No matter which way you take it, unintentional or intentional, it doesn't mesh well with the game and makes it feel broken.
This also leads to a problem later on where one of the weapons seems a lot worse than it really is because I didn't realize until long after I got it you were supposed to hold down the fire button with it.
A dungeon, not quite sure if you can tell the broken visual nature of the game from this
As soon as you exit the first dialog and enter the game without threat of death, the flaws in the 3D become very apparent. Its got Wolfenstein-style walls, 3D objects in the world, and a pixel art skybox. This might just be me, but I found the experience to be very headache inducing. What isn't me, is how unusual this looks in action. What you can see, what is actually there and whether or not your enemy is going to hit you all seem to be three different things. So you can see past walls in a way that doesn't look normal, and its kind of freaky, even hours in.
Remember, every wall is as tall as a building

Another issue is that the size of things is weird. There are one story buildings and two story buildings, and presumably these aren't properly scaled. Fine. Vehicles range from being shorter than you to much taller. Also fine. All starships look like they're fighters, but since they can enter space, I guess that means they're X-Wings or something. Fine. Humans are the same size as a ship. Weird. The player's spaceship is actually some vast ship with a pretty big, but unshown interior. Huh? But its also the same size as a land tank you can drive around in. I feel like my eyes are lying to me or something. Its annoying as hell.

"...and I'm just so much cooler than you."
You don't start the game with the Star Cruiser, a superpowered and modular spaceship that is more powerful than any other ship in the galaxy. Instead you steal one located on a bigger spaceship just outside the starting location of Ganymede. Taking the ship, and then upgrading it takes up most of the early hours of the game. This introduces most of the major cast, The generic waiter in every restaurant in the galaxy, Masashi, a cool hunter, Daigo, genius scientist, Yoko, his archaeologist daughter, Max, Yoko's student, Diane, Max's sister and Federal Patrol intelligence agent, and finally General Tomovsky Hermann, one of the heads of Federal Patrol.
This game doesn't really expand on its characters too much owing to the limited amount of space it had for dialog and text. Again, this is not a bad thing, because I get the feeling if it expanded on it, it'd be anime, the bad kind of anime where characters expand on their motivation for far, far too long. However, a lot of characters feel one dimensional, so its not all good. I am curious about the quality of the translation, if its bad or good. It could go either way. I've picked up on things that might be errors, but at other times the game forgets to include instructions on your next destination, which screams that the game was made that way.
One of the most exciting encounters of the game
The space combat is the best element of the game, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Its biggest problem is that there's a maximum range before enemies disappear, and its far too short. The game is kind enough to remember how hurt enemy starships are though. Bit of the standard, "figure out where the enemies went" type of stuff, but once you figure out the radar you shouldn't have too many problems. They're a bit spongey, with some multi-ship battles taking much longer than they need to. Space combat is only rarely needed, you only have to fight them about 5 times, and out of those times there is no real benefit to fighting them. Non-essential combat is completely pointless, since there are no, or at least close to no dropped items and most of the time you can fight these unnecessary battles, you can run back to a repair station on any friendly planet.
Action! Excitement! Something of interest!

Ground combat in contrast, is far more necessary and far more boring. Enemies run around taking potshots at you, while you try to shoot those shots down and hit them with some of your own. Not all fights are essential, but its rare that you'll figure it out until after the fact. It doesn't feel like there's any cleverness going on, just the simplest of simple combats. Hammer the attack button, later hold down for the rapid-fire weapon, finally wait to charge up your weapon. Or use missiles, but you have a limited number of those. I will say that all the weapons in the game were useful at some point, even though I didn't quite grasp it at the beginning.

There are flashes of something that could be described as scenic beauty

Which brings us to the level design. Despite being...crap, the level design shows quite clearly the mark of the kind of design later FPSes would get up to. Teleporters, keys-and-doors, switches-and-doors. Every hallmark of classic FPS design that doesn't involve a Z-plane. Don't mistake that for good, this is firmly in the boring maze department. This is basically what people imagine old FPSes are like. You'd think with the strong RPG-influence on the game, someone would have taken a page out of that book and do something interesting, but it never does.
Sometimes the games goes as far as to show a teleport and a locked door and no other path. The teleporter leads to a key. Why did we need this? It feels like something someone would do if they were just starting out in designing a Doom level and wanted to test that keys and teleporters worked. Later in the same level, there's a one way arrow floor, and a teleporter. That teleporter leads behind the one-way arrows. They're just copying elements from other games without understanding why they worked. I find this all slightly curious, since Wibarm was decent for the brief period of time I played it.

My in-game best friend, a mature and reasonable human who would never result to anything vulgar at all
As to the sound, I spent considerable amounts of time with it off, unusual for me, but the music isn't that good to justify listening to for the game's length. No real statements other than generic JRPG music. You're liable to listen to five of the tracks thousands of times. Sound's okay, but thankfully non-essential. I listened to a lot of actual music, simply to keep myself sane during some of this. Because this game is too long.

Speaking of RPG, this game gets the label RPG quite a bit. Its kind of weird, because its in that category of not really being one despite the influence the genre had on the game. While you do upgrade your ship over the course of the game, its linear upgrading tied into sections of the story, closer to an action game's upgrade system than even a JRPG one. The level design is obvious, but so many games now have that kind of influence it doesn't seem like much of a sign. The way you interact with the world and the way the plot moves forward are very JRPG-ish, but I'm not sure I'd describe that as a core aspect. I did some thinking, readjusted one title I wrongly claimed was a RPG, and decided to take the Addict's way of thinking and say it wasn't because it all happens at predetermined points.

To another star system!
After traveling through Sol for a while, the game begins to tell you about a Gravity Catapult, which though the game does a poor job of explaining, is the method of intergalactic travel in this universe...well, for the most part. Up until this point I assumed the game was set entirely in Sol, but there are four star systems, three of which we can reach through normal travel, with one acting as a sort of final dungeon. Innersystem travel is done with a warp function, or just by flying somewhere. The warp function uses a lot of energy and doesn't have a great range, so there were times I just used it as a short-range map. I've lost track of most of what happened here, because the game looses focus and goes through all three systems throughout much of the remaining section of the game.
While for the most part, suffice to say there are quite a few twists and turns, and quite a few traitors in Federal Patrol, some elements of the game are a lot more mature than I was expecting. At some point you have to infiltrate a captured building, and one of your allies gives you some gas with which to knock them out. After doing the usual boring playthrough of the level, I can put the gas into the air which point it turns out the gas is lethal. While the game describes it as awful, its ultimately just accepted and there are no consequences for this event. As strange as it sounds for a source of praise, I was expecting some stock anime plot where we discover we were working with the bad guys all along and the people we were fighting were the good guys, but I guess one of the Final Fantasy titles created this line of cliche and Star Cruiser was lucky in when it was made.
In-universe its been terraformed into a green planet with the use of a giant heat shield

Let me just mention some of the planets in this game:

  • Pluto 2
  • Hollywood (before anyone had thought of that restaurant)
  • Old New York
  • Folder
  • Egg
I can't remember what this was about, but I'm sure it was quite dangerous

This game just doesn't end, despite feeling like it should have ended much earlier. At first this was due to annoyance with the game, after a while I got used to the awful elements of it. But then we take out important antagonists left and right, and when they're all dead the game is still going, because we have unfinished business. That's not the worst aspect, because its in this section where I have to get one of my associate's associates to seduce the twin brother of some slimeball merchant to find a base. This is hour 9. There was still more interesting stuff and more boring stuff to be beheld.
We even still have plot twists, and major known members of VOID are still alive. I'm desperately hoping the game will end, and its still throwing out new elements. In-game we hear a voice helping us when it seems like death is inevitable. A helpful voice. I feel like if I had one of those it would be telling me to quit because this game is throwing another maze at me.

Darth Yoda and his planet full of clones, or perhaps the developers are just prejudiced against aliens

Then it gets interesting again. I arrive on a planet full of aliens, though they are a bit...obviously inspired, to put it politely. The aliens believe that VOID are the good guys and that Federal Patrol are the baddies, and thus its another "clearing my name" section of the story. Things do get a little repetitive story-wise, but I must admit this version of it feels a bit cleverer.
Eventually, we engage with VOID's leader, fight him, and destroy the Great Battleship of theirs. We find out one of the stupidest plot twists in gaming, where we discover who the voice is. I'm not going to tell you, you don't deserve to be disappointed like I was. Peace and order is restored to the galaxy and everyone gets their happy ending. The end.

More of this, less stuff on the ground
Compared to early western attempts at the genre, I feel like this game would have been improved greatly if it had the western open-ended approach. You have a bunch of antagonists that move along their own lines, and you, possibly your team, deal with them across three star systems. Done in a way so that the primary purpose of the game doesn't just revolve around taking out one major target, like in Mike Singleton's games. The linear nature of the game combined with the laughably bad dungeons hurts the game more than any other aspect of it.
This is the closest western attempt, The Colony, and I hated playing it

But despite all this, here's the thing, this game was released in 1988 originally, before anything we think of as being the first FPS, and before the space sims that proved the most enduring, like Wing Commander and Tie Fighter. The only practical comparison in the latter is Elite, which suffers from the problem of being too open. It may be flawed in aspects we find important now, but its like complaining that a film from the 1920s has awkward camera work and no real sound. Everything it built off of has slipped away in memory, like cherry blossoms in the wind.

A lot of these screenshots are pretty amusing outside of context though
Nearly every weapon was useful in some form or another, not throughout the game, but whenever I felt shafted by a weapon it turned out there was something I was missing. 4/10

The only real differences between enemies is how many shots they take and visual ones, most of which doesn't feel different. 1/10

I think there are some at a few points, but I'm not really sure how much they contributed. 1/10

Despite coming from what is supposedly a RPG-style every tile counts with some common blobber trickery, there is absolutely nothing going on in any of the dungeons worth talking about. Even Wibarm felt like it had better level design. 1/10

Player Agency:
I never felt like I was in proper control during the ground sections, though the space combat sections are decent. I liked in those sections that the game carried ship momentum. 4/10

Very limited interactions. Nothing more than a few token puzzles and false walls. 1/10

The game does a very good job at making the player feel like he's in a low rent space opera, travelling from alien world to alien world. Teeters the line between being anime and not, but then again I am biased. 5/10

While the 3D looks awful no matter how you slice it, the 2D feels kind of mediocre. There's just nothing about it that makes me go, oh, I'd like to draw like that. 3/10

The limited amount of text the game has to work with works both in favor and against the story. We don't get much motivation on some characters, and as a result their actions seem like random acts of idiocy. Other times the game is surprisingly intelligent and doesn't treat the conflict as entirely black and white. My biggest issue is the player's practical non-existence. 4/10

I'm not really sure I like the music, even discounting it being about 30 minutes long in a 14 hour+ long game. A lot of sound effects lack punch, and despite having turned off the sound for long periods of time, I don't feel like I missed anything. 2/10

That's 26, in recent memory only really comparable to Day of the Viper.

I don't know how to feel about this game. Its clear that the game lasted a lot longer than it needed to, but its also a very important game, certainly so for the Japanese. Its all so funny finding these games that beat the boys at iD to their presumed punch yet nobody knew of their existence.

Now, despite being a port of a PC release, this had several changes in the process, meaning at some point I should play that. I can't imagine that not being superior anyway. It was also translated. However, because of those possible translation issues I noticed, I'm going to wait to play that until I can read Japanese. The same is true of its sequel, Star Cruiser 2, translated into English, but I'm going to wait. I also think I should start watching some more Japanese media, since it feels like its going to be important to see what these games are knocking off as surely as western games knock off Alien and Arnie movies.

As an aside, I've noticed during these past couple of Wolf-clones that I've been developing headaches as I play them, and its not necessarily because they're bad. I checked my memory, and it seems to be a consistent issue. But that said, I'm not sure if that's because of the visuals or the audio. I noticed I didn't have any when I turned off the sound. Come to think of it, I can remember the issue happening with some console titles that don't have anything to do with shooters.

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