Star Control II: Summary and Rating

From The CRPG Addict

For the box art, the developers seem to be paying homage to L. Ron Hubbard.
Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters
United States
Toys for Bob (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1994 for the 3DO console; later fan ports to other platforms
Date Started: 23 March 2019
Date Finished: 14 May 2019
Total Hours: 47
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
Star Control II takes the ship-by-ship action combat of the original Star Control and places it solidly within an adventure game of epic proportions. In a galaxy of more than 500 stars and 3,000 planets, a captain must build alliances, find artifacts, mine minerals, and coerce information from alien races so that he can ultimately throw off the yoke of the Ur-Quan Hierarchy and free Earth and its allies from slavery. Gameplay comes with a lot of lore and plot-twists, but every so often it reveals its origins and requires the player to defeat enemy ships with selects from his own armada, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. Although the sense of an open world and a nonlinear plot both end up being somewhat illusory, the game is still fun and memorable.
In the comments for my winning entry, several readers have offered descriptions and text that occurs when you try some of the game’s alternate strategies, such as surrendering to the Ur-Quan, provoking the Orz, or selling your own crewmembers to the Druuge. Most of them are either dead-ends or offer such harsh consequences that you’d best not do them in the first place.
One thing I was curious to check out is what happens if you wait out the game’s time limit. The Melnorme originally told me that the Earth would be destroyed in January or February of 2159, but my actions in the game managed to delay the apocalypse by almost two years. As I sat in hyperspace and watched, nothing much happened until November 2159, when the Supox and Utwig returned to their original systems, much diminished. 
No one remains but the Ur-Quan.
Around the end of 2159, the Kor-Ah won the civil war and started to circle the galaxy, destroying each sentient race in turn. Some of their ships reached Earth in April, but they weren’t here to destroy Earth just yet. I fought a few dreadnoughts and the horde moved on. The Arilou, Umgah, and Zoq-Fot-Pik were all gone by June 2160, the Supox and Utwig a month later. By October 2160, the Ur-Quan fleet had reached the “southern” end of the galaxy and destroyed the Yehat. Finally, in November, I received a broadcast from the Ur-Quan notifying me of Earth’s destruction, and the game was over. My ship was parked right next to Earth at the time, and I was hoping I’d see a bunch of dreadnoughts approaching it, but alas, it wasn’t quite that detailed.
The “bad” ending, unless you’re a big Ur-Quan fan.
If I hadn’t cheated a bit during the game by reloading when an expedition proved a waste of time, I probably would have run into issues with the time limit. Watching the slow destruction of every race, along with the intelligence that they possessed, would have been mildly horrifying. But apparently you can still win the game at any time during this process, with nothing altered in the endgame sequence.
I confess that the last bit bothers me a little because it’s indicative of the approach taken by the game as a whole. When I started playing Star Control II, it gave the impression of an open-world game with multiple narrative possibilities. But it turns out you have to follow a few paths in a relatively specific order, and most of the choices turn out to be illusory. Oh, it certainly does better than the typical RPG of the period, I hasten to add. It was just a bit disappointing to find that open exploration isn’t really rewarded. If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a key location amidst all the planets in the vast galaxy, you probably won’t be able to do anything because you haven’t bought an important piece of information from the Melnorme first.
I have similarly mixed feelings about the game’s approach to the alien races and racial characterizations. On the one hand, I enjoyed the variety. When you’re making a game (as opposed to shooting a film or television show), you have the freedom to make some interesting races without worrying about the CGI budget. I appreciated that there were no “bumpy forehead” aliens except perhaps for the Syreen.
I could have done with less of this.
I also don’t fault the game for broad characterizations. It’s a longstanding trope of science fiction and fantasy to paint races with a broad brush: the wise elves, the logical Vulcans, the proud Klingons, the evil orcs, and so forth. You rarely have time to explore the detailed characteristics of an entire culture. It’s perfectly acceptable that Star Control II decided to highlight one major attribute of each race, such as cowardice, depression, loneliness, and greed. When it did go into more detail, such as in the case of the Ur-Quan and the Syreen, the detail was generally good, and it was rewarding to unlock those stories. I also appreciated the consistency of characterization. The Spathi locking themselves under their own slave shield amused me to no end because it was perfectly in keeping with the Spathi personality–and, in hindsight, 100% foreseeable. 
But I also felt there were too many moments of outright goofiness and parody among the racial interactions. The Orz, the Pkunk, the VUX, the Umgah, and the Utwig mostly just exhausted my patience. I couldn’t help but think how the same races with similar characteristics might be handled with less silliness. We don’t have to look very far to find an example. Starflight and Starflight II had some of the same broad racial characterizations, but rarely crossed the line into outright slapstick. I felt the stories and plot twists of those games were much better, too.
Nonetheless, I understand why Star Control II is regarded as the better game: it’s all about the combat. I wasn’t any good at it, but I can see why people like it. Until I played it, I wouldn’t have thought that a single choice–what ship to pilot–could have so many tactical implications. There are 14 ships that can join the New Alliance and 13 potential enemy ships, resulting in 182 potential battle combinations, and each has completely different tactical considerations. (With the Super Melee application, you can fight any of the ships against any of the others, for 625 possible combinations.) Slowly mastering the strengths of your ships and learning the weaknesses of the enemy ships is a huge and rewarding part of gameplay. Later in the game, when you have to fight multiple ships in a row, there are strategic implications for what ships you send into combat first and which you reserve for later in the battle.
The typical outcome of my combats.
Still, the nature of combat, plus the lack of “character development,” really makes this a non-RPG, which means it might not do so well on the GIMLET as an RPG. I played it as an exception. I don’t want to hear any future comments along the lines of, “Well, you played Star Control II, so to be consistent, you should also play This Game.” The point of exceptions is that I don’t have to be consistent with them.
As to the GIMLET:
1. Game World. Star Control II manages to check most of the boxes in this category. It has a rich, detailed backstory, an open world, a clear place for the character and his quest, and an evolving game state that responds to the player’s actions. (I particularly like how the starmap continually updates to show the dispositions of the various races.) The plot and its twists are original and interesting. The only fault I can find is that there isn’t much to see or do in the open universe. I wish the creators had seeded more planets with optional encounters and finds, perhaps replacing the system but which you purchase all your technology upgrades from the Melnorme. Score: 8.
2. Character Creation and Development. Alas, there is none of either except for the ability to name your own captain. Even if you regard the ship as a “character,” it doesn’t get innately better so much as it gains better equipment. Score: 0.
3. NPC Interaction. Another strong point. I’ve given my thoughts about the NPC personalities, but I should add that even goofy personalities are better than we get from the typical RPG of the period, which is no personality (or even NPCs) at all. I wish there had been more honest variety in dialogue options instead of one that’s obvious, two that are stupid, and one that’s evil. The Starflight games did a better job giving the player real “options” when talking to different alien races even though they came in the form of “stances” rather than specific dialogue choices. 
I should also note that most NPCs aren’t individuals but rather representatives of their races who somehow know the previous conversations the player has had with other representatives. But the game otherwise hits most of the criteria for a high score hear, including a plot that advances based on NPC interaction. Score: 7.
My thoughts exactly.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game has an original slate of foes (ships) that require you to learn their individual strengths and weaknesses. There are otherwise no real “encounters” in the game that aren’t also NPC dialogues. Score: 6.
5. Magic and Combat. I can’t give a high score here because my scale is about RPG-style combat and the various tactics and strategies that draw from attributes, skills, and the player’s intelligence rather than his dexterity. Still, as I discussed above, the choice of ship and the way you plot long combats create some important tactical and strategic decisions. I just wish combat has always been about ship versus ship. The planets, which show up suddenly as you switch screens, were unwelcome guests. Score: 3.
The asteroids, on the other hand, I didn’t mind so much.
6. Equipment. All of the “equipment” in the game is ship-related rather than character-related, and it all applies to the flagship, which a good player arguably does not rely on. I wish there had been opportunities to upgrade the other ships in the fleet. It would have been tough to offer meaningful options with so many of them, but even just generic attack or defense improvements would have been nice. Beyond that, it’s fun to figure out how to best make use of the limited modular space on the flagship, particularly as new options come along regularly. Score: 3.
7. Economy. There are really two economies in the game: the “resource unit” economy that lets you build a fleet and equip your flagship, and the Melnorme “information” economy that depends on bio data and Rainbow World identifications. I found both rewarding enough for about two-thirds of the game. Score: 7.
8. Quests. The game has one main quest with a few options (though, as I mentioned before, a lot of the options are illusory) and side-quests. There’s only one ending. Score: 4.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. I don’t have many complaints in this category. The graphics are perfectly fine for the scope and nature of the game; the sound effects are fun and evocative throughout; and it’s hard to complain about the interface of a game that supports both joystick and keyboard inputs and lets you customize the keyboard. I had problems in combat despite these advantages, but I don’t think I can blame the game.
I do have one major issue, or several related issues, that fits into this category. The dialogue is delivered one line at a time in a huge font. You can hit the SPACE bar after each bit of dialogue to see a transcription in a smaller font that you can barely read. Either way, if you don’t make your own transcriptions or screen shots (which must have been tough for an era player), the dialogue is lost once you leave the screen. In most cases, you can’t prompt the NPC to speak the same lines again, and there’s no databank in which to retrieve it as there was in Star Control II. Thankfully, I took copious screenshots, but they’re a cumbersome way to review previous dialogue and I think the game should have offered a better system. Score: 6.
This text is better than nothing, but it’s still not very easy to read.
10. Gameplay. I give half-credit for non-linearity. The game is more linear than it seems when you start, but you still have a lot of choices about the order of your activities. I also give half-credit for replayability. As I mentioned earlier, many of the “options” seem illusory, and a replaying player might find himself swiftly on familiar paths, but there is at least some variety for a replay. The hourly total is just about right for this content, and while I had difficulty in combat, I still managed to win with an acceptable number of reloads, so I can’t fault the difficulty. Score: 7.
That gives us a final score of 51, surprisingly close to the 53 I gave both Starflight and Starflight II, which had actual characters and character development. But reviewing those games, I’m reminded how awful combat was, and how many issues I had with the interface. I’m thus comfortable with the rating. 
The ad makes it seem like the game’s enemies are the Umgah.
There are plenty of players, however, who would consider a 51 an insult. Star Control II still continues to make “best games ever” lists compiled by various publications. In a March 1993 preview in Computer Gaming World, Stanley Trevena liked the game enough to put it on his “top ten list of all time.” “It is not often,” he says, “that such a perfect balance is struck between role-playing, adventure, and action/arcade.” In the November 1993 issue, they gave it “Game of the Year” in the adventure category (or, at least, it tied with Eric the Unready). Dragon gave it 5 out of 5 stars. It’s rare to find an English review out of the 90s, though for some reason European reviews tended to put it lower, in the 70s.
The 3DO version from 1994 has some significant differences from the DOS version. It has an animated, narrated introduction and cut scenes plus voiced dialogue for the conversations. (My understanding is that the open-source Ur-Quan Masters would use some of this voiced dialogue but re-record others.) Some readers encouraged me to play this version specifically because of the voices. I’m not sure I would have liked it better. There’s really just too much dialogue overall. Some of the voices are good: I appreciate the Vaderesque bass of the Ur-Quan, the lispy enthusiasm of the Pik, and the weird Scottish accent the creators gave to the Yehat. For some reason, they decided the Shofixti was a bad English translator of a 1970s Japanese kung-fu movie; the Orz, Spathi, and Utwig are just annoying; and the Umgah is the stuff of nightmares. The Talking Pet is the worst, with some ridiculous southern “Joe Sixpack” accent. I was also disappointed by the Syreen, who sounds like Doris Day rather than . . . well, honestly, I’m not sure what would have done justice to the Syreen. How do you blend a fierce Amazonian and a seductive vixen in a single voice?
Star Control II left a satisfying number of mysteries, such as the fate of the Precursors and why they seemed (to the Slylandro) to be nervously searching for something. We never learned about the Rainbow Worlds or why they (apparently) form an arrow pointing to the “northeast” of the galaxy. We never learned what the Orz did to the Androsynth, what the Orz really are, and how they relate to the Arilou. I was disappointed that we never found out why the Ur-Quan destroyed historical structures of humanity, including some places we weren’t even aware of. I was disappointed to find that most of these questions are unanswered in Star Control 3 (1996), although we do apparently learn that the Precursors genetically modified themselves so they would have the intelligence of cows, thus protecting themselves from a race that periodically harvests the energies of sentient races. I think the creators missed an opportunity by not making the Precursors actual cows. There could have been a Gary Larson tie-in and everything.
The creepy cover to the game’s sequel.
The direction of Star Control 3 reveals some of the background drama between developer Toys for Bob (authors Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford) and publisher Accolade. According to Reiche and Ford, Accolade gave the developer such a limited budget that they had to essentially work for free for half a year to create a quality game. Accolade would not increase the budget for the sequel, so the original creators refused to develop it, and the job went to Legend Entertainment instead.
In 2002, authors Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford made the source code available for free, and some fans used it to create The Ur-Quan Masters for Windows, with multiple releases starting in 2005. It has since been ported to multiple additional platforms. The effort also led to the creation of the Ultronomicon, a Star Control II wiki.
The Star Control trademark passed to Infogrames when it purchased Accolade in 1999; Infogrames soon rebranded itself as Atari. When Atari filed for bankruptcy in 2013, its assets were sold. Stardock Corporation managed to acquire the Star Control license and produce Star Control: Origins (2018). Set 26 years before the original Star Control, the game would seem to retcon when Earth first encountered alien life. During development, Stardock claimed to be in contact with Reiche and Ford, and were developing the game along their vision, although they couldn’t technically participate because of their Activation contract. If this relationship was ever friendly and cooperative, it soon became otherwise when Reiche and Ford announced they would be creating Star Control: Ghosts of the Precursors and Stardock started selling the first three Star Control games on Steam. Both parties counter-sued each other for copyright and intellectual property violations, and Steam removed the Star Control titles (including Origins, at least temporarily) after receiving DCMA takedown notices from Reiche and Ford. As far as I can tell, the litigation is still ongoing.
Combat in Origins has improved graphics but seems to adhere to original principles.
Toys for Bob still lives as a subsidiary of Activision, and Reiche and Ford still continue to direct the development of its games. I don’t think we’ll see them again, however, as none of their titles are RPGs. (For more on Reiche and Ford, see Jimmy Maher’s excellent coverage of Star Control II from this past December. My favorite part is when Reiche gets fired from TSR for questioning the purchase of a Porsche as an executive’s company car.)
I am often dismissive of calls for remakes, usually considering them to be the products of dull, dilettante gamers who can’t handle any graphics more than 5 years old. But I would like to see, if not a remake, a modern game that has the basic approach of Star Control II (and, for that matter, Starflight)–perhaps even one that realizes it better by offering truly alternate plot paths. We have plenty of games (although, in my opinion, not enough) that allow us to explore open worlds; have any so far allowed us to explore an open universe? Perhaps that’s what we’ll get from Bethesda’s forthcoming Starfield.

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