Originally released to the home computer market in 1986, and later ported to the Genesis/Megadrive in 1991, Starflight remains one of my favourite games of all time.
You play as the captain of your own starship. Your mission, to begin with at least, to boldly wander aimlessly around the galaxy, exploring strange new worlds. Seeking out new lifeforms, new civilisations. Then making friends and sometimes killing them for profit. In many ways you can view Starflight as a top-down Elite, with lots of well-developed role-playing elements. To begin with though it is almost purely a game of resource farming and selling, with a little upgrading of your ship to look forward to along the way.
Pretty soon though you start to find clues. Starflight has one of the best written in-game mysteries I’ve ever had the good fortune to come across. I won’t tell you too much about it. But the first time I played, when I found my first clue I was instantly hooked. I wanted to find the next clue, so that I could learn more of the back story of the games galaxy.
In addition to the money-making, the mystery story and the upgrading of ships Starflight has multiple alien races to encounter. Each of them reacts differently to you, each of them is quirky and fun in their own way. So as you can imagine diplomacy does become important from time to time.
Now everything I’ve written about to this point has been universal to all versions. But for once I’m going to speak exclusively about one particular port of a game. In this case the Megadrive port. While I have played it on a few different machines, none of them come close to the Megadrive version, for a few reasons.
I started playing console games back in a special time. The time when if you saw the words, “Electronic Arts” on the cover of a Megadrive role-playing game, you knew you were in for something special. They produced everything from the fun, if a little odd, Buck Rogers games right through to the truly epic, Rings of Power. They also produced Starflight, and the EA brilliance of that time, is absolutely everywhere in the 1991 Megadrive port.
The graphics are for the Megadrive excellent. Smooth, eye pleasing and not prone to glitching. The sounds are basic stock, but still well done for all that. The controls are smooth as silk. So good in fact, that the Megadrive port of this game became for me, the yardstick by which the controls of other console games would be measured for the rest of the 90’s.
But what made the Megadrive port stand out, wasn’t anything technical. It was actually part of the packaging that came with the game. The people in Electronic Arts became my heroes when, I realised that they had written a complete guide to beating the game, in the instruction manual that came with the game. Now I had already beaten it twice on older machines, but I can still remember being excited by the idea, that a game company had realised a two facts. That at the time mostly kids played console games, and that they might only get a couple of days to finish a game. So, why not put into the manual a “Captains log” which would have much simpler clues to follow to the end of the story?
To a 14-year-old that pretty much gave EA godlike standing with me. I’d lost entire weekends to rented games which I never came even close to beating. But here was a games company who had made it possible for kids like me, to rent a game with their pocket-money and then beat the damn thing in a single weekend. Needless to say, I went on to play every RPG they ever released on the Megadrive and I don’t regret playing any of them.
So the question remains, why would a modern gamer want to play this ancient computer/console game? Yes the graphics have aged and yes you will have to play it on an emulator of some type. But for that you will get a superior retro-gaming experience. You will get a great story. Battles where your survival is not assured. Best of all you will get all sorts of little jokes scattered throughout the game, like a legendary encounter with the Starship Enterprise.
I think my opinion on this is clear. If you, like many people, have a pretty old laptop lying around gathering dust somewhere. You could do a lot worse than install a Megadrive emulator on it and download a ROM of Starflight. Then pop on a set of headphones, lay back on the couch and drift back to a time when “Electronic Arts” meant only one thing. That you had a great role-playing game in your hands.