Game 321: Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters (1992)

From The CRPG Addict

Let’s not judge this one by its title screen . . .
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 Mach 2019
When I started this blog in 2010, I had already played, at least in adolescence–most of the RPGs that everyone else knows. I may not have remembered all of the details, but I at least could remember the basic outlines of The Bard’s Tale, Might and Magic, Wizardry, Questron, Pool of Radiance, and all of the Ultimas. There were lots of games I had never played–never even heard of–of course, but those were games that most other people my age had never encountered either. It wasn’t until about a year into my blog, with Dungeon Master, that I truly felt I was blogging about a game that I should be ashamed for never having played previously.
For the first time since then, I am in that position again with Star Control II, a game that frequently makes “top X” lists of the best games of all time. My commenters have mentioned it so many times that my usual pre-game search of previous comments turned up too many results to analyze. This one, in other words, is really going to fill a gap.
. . . even though the first game had an awesome title screen.
There has been some debate about whether Star Control II is an RPG, but at least almost everyone agrees that its predecessor was not. That predecessor went by the grandiose name Star Control: Famous Battles of the Ur-Quan Conflict, Volume IV (1990), in an obvious homage to Star Wars. It’s an ambitious undertaking–part simulator, part strategy game, part action game. The player has to manage ships and other resources and plan conquests of battle maps, but in the end the conflict always comes down to a shooting match between two ships using Newtonian physics and relying almost entirely on the player’s own dexterity. This combat system goes back to Spacewar! (1962) and would be familiar to anyone who’s played Asteroids (1979).
The setup has an Earth united under one government by 2025. In 2612, Earth is contacted by a crystalline race called the Chenjesu and warned that the Ur-Quan Hierarchy, a race of slavers, is taking over the galaxy. (Star Control II retcons this date to 2112.) Earth is soon enlisted into the Alliance of Free Stars and agrees to pool resources in a mutual defense pact. The Alliance includes Earth, the philosophic Chenjesu, the arboreal Yehat, the robotic Mmrnmhrm, the elfin Ariloulaleelay, and a race of all-female nymphomaniacs called the Syreen who fly phallic ships with ribbed shafts.
On the other side are the Ur-Quan, an ancient tentacled species with a strict caste system. They make slaves out of “lesser races” and only communicate with them via frog-like “talking pets.” Their allies include Mycons, a fungus species; Ilwraths, a spider-like race that never takes prisoners; and Androsynths, disgruntled clones who fled captivity and experimentation on Earth. Each race (on both sides) has unique ship designs with various strengths and weaknesses, some of which nullify other ships. There’s a kind-of rock-paper-scissors element to strategically choosing what ships you want to employ against what enemies.
No “bumpy forehead” aliens in this setting.
The occasionally-goofy backstory and description of races seems to owe a lot (in tone, if not specifics) to Starflight (1986), on which Star Control author Paul Reiche III had a minor credit. There are probably more references than I’m picking up (being not much of a sci-fi fan) in the ships themselves. “Earthling Cruisers” (at least the front halves) look like they would raise no eyebrows on Star Trek, and both Ilwrath Avengers (in the back) and Vux Intruders (in the front) look like Klingon warbirds. The Ur-Quan dreadnought looks passably like the Battlestar Galactica.
The original Star Control offers the ability to fight player vs. player or set one of the two sides to computer control (at three difficulty levels). In playing, you can simply practice ship vs. ship combat with any two ships, play a “melee” game between fleets of ships, or play a full campaign, which proceeds through a variety of strategic and tactical scenarios involving ships from different species in different predicaments.  The full game gives player the ability to build colonies and fortifications, mine planets, and destroy enemy installations in between ship-to-ship combats.
The various campaign scenarios in the original game.
The “campaign map” in the original game is an innovative “rotating starfield” that attempts to offer a 3-D environment on a 2-D screen. It takes some getting used to. Until they reach each other for close-quarters combat, ships can only move by progressing through a series of jump points between stars, and it was a long time before I could interpret the starfield properly and understand how to plot a route to the enemy.
Strategic gameplay takes place on a rotating starmap meant to simulate a 3-D universe.
I have not, in contrast, managed to get any good at ship combat despite several hours of practice. I’m simply not any good at action games. At the same time, I admire the physics and logistics of it. You maintain speed in the last direction you thrust even if you turn. You have limited fuel, so you can’t go crazy with thrusting in different directions. You can get hit by asteroids, or fouled in the gravity wells of planets. And you have to be conservative in the deployment of your ships’ special abilities, because they use a lot of fuel. Still, no game in which action is the primary determiner of success is going to last long on my play list. For such players, the game and its sequel offer “cyborg” mode, where technically you’re the player but the computer fights your battles, but I’d rather lose than stoop to that.
One of my lame attempts at space combat.
Star Control II opens with a more personal backstory. In the midst of the original Ur-Quan conflicts, the Earth cruiser Tobermoon, skippered by Captain Burton, was damaged in an ambush and managed to make it to a planet orbiting the dwarf star Vela. As they tried to repair the ship, crewmembers found a vast, abandoned underground city, populated with advanced technology, built by an extinct race known as the Precursors.
The backstory is reasonably well-told with title cards.
Burton reported the find when she returned to Earth, and she was ordered to return with a scientific team led by Jules Farnsworth. Shortly after they arrived, they received word from Earth that the Ur-Quan had learned about the Precursor city and were on their way. Burton balked at Earth’s orders to abandon and destroy the base with nuclear weapons. Instead, she sent her ship back to Earth under the command of her first officer and remained behind with the scientific team, planning to detonate nuclear weapons should the Ur-Quan ever arrive.
The team ended up spending 20 years on the planet, which they named Unzervalt, with no contact from Earth. During that time, the scientists discovered that the city had been created to build ships, and eventually they were able to activate the machines, which put together a starship. The machines shut down just as the ship was completed, reporting that there were insufficient raw materials to continue. About this time, Farnsworth admitted that he was a fraud, and all the success he’d experienced getting the machines up and running was due to a young prodigy born on Unzervalt–the player character.
They’re not kidding about the “skeleton” part.
Burton assembled a skeleton crew for the new starship, with the PC manning the computer station, and blasted off. Three days out, they discovered the derelict Tobermoon, damaged and bereft of any (living or dead) crewmembers. Burton took command of the Tobermoon while the PC was promoted to captain of the new ship. Tobermoon was soon attacked and destroyed by an unknown alien craft, leaving the new ship to escape to Earth. Here the game begins.
What “plight”? You live on a technologically-advanced Eden where your enemies seem to have forgotten about you.
The player can name himself and his ship, and that’s it for “character creation.” He begins in the middle of the solar system, in a relatively empty ship with 50 crew and 10 fuel. I intuited that I needed to fly to towards Earth, so I headed for the inner cluster of planets.  
“Character creation.”
As the screen changed to show Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, a probe zoomed out and attached itself to our ship. It played a recording from an Ur-Quan (with the “talking pet” doing the talking), informing me that approaching Earth was forbidden, as was my status as an “independent” vessel. The probe then zoomed off to inform the Ur-Quan of my “transgressions,” leaving me to explore the planetary area at will. I guess the war didn’t go so well for the Alliance.
Well, we now know how the first game ended, canonically.
As I approached Earth, the screen changed to show Earth, the moon, and a space station orbiting Earth. Earth itself seemed to have some kind of red force field around it, so I approached the space station.
As I neared, I was contacted by a “Starbase Commander Hayes of the slave planet Earth.” He indicated that his energy cores were almost depleted and asked if we were the “Hierarchy resupply ship.” At this point, I had a few dialogue options. One allowed me to lie and say I was the resupply ship. Another had me introduce myself. A third–more reflective of what I was actually thinking–said “‘Slave planet?!’ ‘Hierarchy resupply vessel?!’ What is going on here?'” The commander said he’d answer my questions if we’d bring back some radioactive elements to re-power the station. He suggested that we look on Mercury.
I like dialogue options, but so far they’ve broken down into: 1) the straight, obvious option; 2) the kind-of dumb lie; and 3) the emotional option that still basically recapitulates #1.
I flew off the Earth screen and back to the main solar system screen. At some point during this process, I had to delete the version of the game that I’d downloaded and get a new one. None of the controls worked right on the first one I tried. I particularly couldn’t seem to escape out of sub-menus, which was supposed to happen with the SPACE bar. The second version I downloaded had controls that worked right plus someone had removed the copy protection (which has you identifying planets by coordinates). The controls overall are okay. They’re much like Starflight, where you arrow through commands and then hit ENTER to select one. I’d rather be able to just hit a keyboard option for each menu command, but there aren’t so many commands that it bothers me. Flying the ship is easy enough with the numberpad: 4 and 6 to turn, 8 to thrust, 5 to fire, ENTER to use a special weapon. There’s a utility you can use to remap the combat commands, but using it seems to run the risk of breaking the main interface, which I guess is what happened with the first version I downloaded.
Running around Mercury and picking up minerals. The large-scale rover window (lower right) is quite small.
When orbiting a planet, you get a set of options much like Starflight. You can scan it for minerals, energy, or lifeforms, and then send down a rover (with its own weapons and fuel supply) to pick things up. Minerals are color-coded by type, and at first I was a little annoyed because I can’t distinguish a lot of the colors. But it turns out that the explorable area of planets is quite small, and you can easily zoom around and pick up all minerals in just a few minutes. In that, it’s quite a bit less satisfying than Starflight, where the planets were enormous and you’d never explore or strip them all, and you got excited with every little collection of mineral symbols. 
The rover doesn’t hold much, but returning to the ship and then landing again is an easy process, so before long my hold was full of not just uranium and other “radioactives,” but iron, nickel, and other metals. In mining them, the rover was periodically damaged by gouts of flame from the volatile planet, but it gets repaired when you return to the main ship.
Returning to base with a near-full cargo manifest.
We returned to the starbase and transferred the needed elements. With the station’s life support, communications, and sensors working again, the captain was able to scan my vessel, and he expressed shock at its configuration. Rather than give him the story right away, I chose dialogue options that interrogated him first.
This seems to be everybody’s reaction.
Commander Hayes explained that the Ur-Quan had defeated the Alliance 20 years ago. They offered humanity a choice between active serve as “battle thralls” or imprisonment on their own planet. Humanity chose the second option, so the Hierarchy put a force field around the planet, trapping the human race on a single world and preventing assistance from reaching them. But they also put a station in orbit so their own ships could find rest and resupply if they happened to pass through the system. The station is maintained by humans conscripted from the planet for several years at a time.
Humanity’s fate didn’t seem so bad until he got to this part.
When he was done, I (having no other choice, really) gave him our background and history and asked for his help. Pointing out that starting and rebellion and failing would result in “gruesome retribution,” he asked me to prove my efficacy by at least destroying the Ur-Quan installation on the moon, warning me that I would have to defeat numerous warships.
We left the station and sailed over to the moon. An energy scan showed one blaze of power, so I sent the rover down to it. The report from the rover crew said that the alien base was abandoned and broadcasting some kind of mayday signal, “but great care has been taken to make it appear active.” My crew shut the place down and looted it for parts.
My crew files a “report from the surface.”
Lifeform scans showed all kinds of dots roaming around the moon, most looking like little tanks. I don’t know if I was supposed to do this or not, but I ran around in the rover blasting them away in case they were enemies. I also gathered up all the minerals that I could.
I returned to the starbase, and the commander accepted my report. Just then, an Ilwrath Avenger, having found the probe, entered the system. The arachnid commander threatened us. There were some dialogue options with him, all of which I’m sure resulted in the same outcome: ship-to-ship combat.
They’re not just “spider-like”; they actually spin webs on their bridges.
This part was much like the original game, although with the ship icons larger and against a smaller backdrop. I (predictably) lost the battle the first two times that I tried, but won the third time. In my defense, the game’s backstory specifically said that I had minimal weapons. It was also a bit lumbering–slow to turn, slow to thrust.
The alien ship destroys me in our first encounter.
When I returned to starbase after the battle, Commander Hayes said he would join my rebellion, and the starbase would be my home base. He asked what we would call our movement, and there were some amusing options.
The last option tempted me, but I was boring and went with the first one.
Through a long serious of dialogues, I learned that as I brought back minerals and salvage, the base could convert them into “resource units “(RU) which I could then use to build my crew, purchase upgrades for the Prydwen (improved thrusters, more crew pods, more storage bays, more fuel), get refueled, and build a fleet of starships. I can even build alien ships if I can find alien allies to pilot them.
My own starbase. Why can’t I name it?
Hayes had a lot more dialogue options related to history and alien species, but I’ll save those for later. It appears that the introduction is over and I now have a large, open universe to explore, where I’m sure I’ll do a lot of mining, fighting, and diplomacy. In this sense, Star Control II feels like more of a sequel to Starflight than the original Star Control.
One part of a nine-page starmap that came with the game. I’m tempted to print it out and assemble it on the wall in front of my desk. I suppose it depends on how long the game lasts.
I appreciate how the game eased me into its various mechanics. I’m enjoying it so far, and I really look forward to plotting my next moves. I suspect I’ll be conservative and mine the rest of the resources in the solar system and buy some modest ship upgrades before heading out into the greater universe.
Time so far: 2 hours

While playing Star Control II, I thought it would be fun to have a look at co-author Paul Reiche III’s first CRPG effort, the Keys of Acheron expansion (1981) to Epyx’s Dunjonquest title, Hellfire Warrior. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get it working. (I’m attempting the Apple II version, but they all seem to have the same problem.) Acheron requires the original Hellfire Warrior to start, and the manual warns you that if you don’t do everything right according to the “Special Loading Instructions,” you won’t be able to play the game. While I can find the manual in plenty of places, I can’t seem to find the loading instructions anywhere, and trying the obvious stuff (e.g., switching disks before entering the dungeon) doesn’t seem to work. A couple of screenshots on MobyGames show that at least someone got it to work. I’d appreciate if anyone has any ideas on these special loading instructions; otherwise, we’ll have to continue to list the game as “NP” and put it on the “Missing & Mysteries” list.

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