Saturday, March 29, 2014

Diary Entry #22: Star Trek On NES and Mouse Support Sucks

Another sketch by Crystal Mielcarek, depicting Spock mind melding away the bird-like
illusions from Star Trek: 25th Anniversary on the NES.

               After playing through presumably one third of Phantasie 1, I decided to download the Atari ST ports of the entire trilogy. The graphics look great, and since there's no port of Phantasie 2 for IBM-PC, I can't rely on DOSBox if I want to complete the series.

               The game features full mouse support, yet this actually makes traversing towns and areas more time consuming. I can quickly hit the arrow keys and hit enter to select options, but shifting the mouse around the screen to select everything is slightly time consuming. In addition, the Steem emulator runs the game at actual ST speeds, meaning load times are longer. Having to run back and forth between the dungeon and town to heal my four hit point characters wasn't too bad when the load times were instantaneous, but with twenty second loads between every screen, it's unbearable.

               Even the battles themselves take too long. Having to mouse click on every option takes quite a bit of time, and I noticed that once I hit fight, I couldn't change my mind and go back to the previous screen to flee. In game's where one false move early on can wipe out entire parties, this is a strange oversight. I'll stick with the CGA DOS version. Perhaps I'll return to the ST ports for Phantasie 2, but I'd prefer not to. Mouse capability is for the weak.

               My girlfriend and I have been watching quite a bit of Star Trek recently, which inspired me to replay Star Trek: 25th Anniversary on NES. Although there's a point-and-click adventure for PC with a similar title, the NES game features some weak action elements for the kiddies.

               The game was developed by Interplay Productions and published by Konami. According to MobyGames, the game's designer, Wesley Yanagi, started his career in Quality Assurance with the Neuromancer adventure game, one of my all time favorites. He also had a hand in designing Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Star Trek: Judgement Rites for the PC. He's most recently the senior producer for DC Universe Online. Michael Quarles, the game's producer, was the director and producer of Stonekeep, a real-time dungeon crawler that Interplay sunk tons of man-years and cash into. Of the three credited programmers, the coolest is Michael W. Stragey, who was lead programmer for Robocop Vs. The Terminator and has lent his hand in some way to WayForward Interactive's best games. 

               To start, Captain Kirk explains how the Enterprise was trapped in a dimensional gate, warping them far across the universe from Federation space. To make matters worse, Scotty says the dilithium crystal resources have been depleted. As the planet they appeared near gives off dilithium crystal readings, the captain decides to take Bones and Spock down to the surface.

               An elaborate beam down sequence ensues.

               On the planet, I stun a random plant. Bones claims it's very interesting, so I pick it up. Heading to the south, I find a town full of tribal men, though I can't find any women. There's a few guys dancing around random fires, but there's a lot more guys just standing around telling me to avoid blood worms.

               After giving the plant to this medicine man, he gives me a jar of bloodworm repellent. With this in my inventory, I can move north of the village.

               Another villager told me about a swamp that contains the eye, a key that will let me into a temple further to the north. I head east to the swamp, which is really just a maze that takes about two minutes to navigate. Spock finds the eye, but rather than wander back out of the maze, I opt to beam back up to the ship to quickly heal.

               The temple's eye-adorned entryway is the only place left to visit. Using the eye key, I enter. The hallways are adorned with various symbols, allegedly taken from a Led Zepplin album, which you have to write down so you can get through the rooms pictured in the right screenshot. If you press the wrong symbol, Kirk gets shot with an arrow, and he can only take about four of these before passing out.

               After the button rooms, I find myself in a giant computer room. There's a quick puzzle pictured on the left in which you have to light up the buttons on the wall in a certain order, which I accomplished through quick trial-and-error. Doing this opens a door that leads to a small amount of dilithium crystals, enough to take me just short of Romulan space. 

               I remember Lekythos being the next destination, so I set course and warp over there quickly.

               On the planet's surface, weird dragons come flying at me from every direction. Upon actually hitting me, Spock realizes the creatures are merely illusions. Evidently the creatures only cause injury because I believe they exist, so Spock mind melds with me so I can somehow ignore them. I wish there was a more sci-fiy rationale behind the whole thing, but I guess game developers aren't the best writers.

               By blasting at this random wall, I find a small sample of dilithium. This needs to be deposited into a broken robot blocking my path. After Spock completes the necessary repairs, the robot darts south never to be seen again.

               I eventually reach a door, but Spock tells me I need extra phaser power to break it open. Neither Spock or my geologist is willing to help, so I have to beam back up to bring a security officer with me. Making the five minute walk back to the door, we blast it open.

               The underground fortress is easily the least interesting part of the game. I need to find three computer parts scattered about the place. Two of them are sort of just sitting around, but one of them involves a semi-interesting puzzle. Spock suggests you pick up some trash, which you can then take to a room with a cleaning robot behind a force field. The force field also protects one of the computer circuits you need. If you throw this trash anywhere in the room, the robot will come collect it, which leads to one pretty obvious conclusion: throw trash on the computer parts, the robot will retrieve it. 

               After collecting all of the parts and repairing the computer, a man pops out of a cryogenic freeze chamber and starts gabbing about his civilization. He has very little of interest to say, but he does have quite the stash of dilithium crystals and offers to share some with me. 

               I have to travel through Romulan space, which leads to a Romulan ship stopping me to discuss what's going on. After sharing how the Enterprise was somehow teleported to the far reaches of space, the enemy captain notes several similar dimensional disturbances occuring in parts of the their empire. He escorts me to my next planet. While I took a diplomatic approach by hailing the Romulans, I also could have went to red alert and started a battle. I don't remember battles being particularly fun, so I'm grateful the developers gave me a choice. 

               Shroud IV has a lot more inventory-based adventure elements in it. Right away, I find a flower, a key card for a room in the hotel, a butterfly, and a sedative plant. The butterfly collection is pretty amusing, as Kirk has to stun the fluttering butterfly with his phaser before picking it up. I wish I could shoot butterflies all day. Eventually, I find a green babe in the hotel. For the flower, she gives me a remote control that opens a new area to the west. 

               In the new area, there's a note, a beverage, and some credits. Back at the hotel, I use the sedative plant and the beverage together to make a sedative beverage.

               I give the sedative to the bouncer at the club, who promptly passes out.

               I have to feed the lizard man a butterfly so I can walk past him and into the back room. The left screenshot is a typical example of the game's many graphical hiccups. For an NES title, that features six sprites moving on the screen at once, it's better than you'd expect. In the back room, I eavesdrop on a meeting between some Romulans and Harry Mudd, the middle-aged conman featured in two episodes of the original series. He's selling some important Federation codes to the Romulans in exchange for dilithium crystals and a cloaking device.

               I show Harry the note, which details how Mudd intended to sell the secrets to the Romulans. According to Harry, the codes are totally false, and he runs off to his hotel room to make the exchange. By the time we get there, signs of a scuffle are seen throughout Harry's room. Spock postulates that Harry was dragged out.

               Further inspection reveals phaser fire in the back of the room, which somehow leads to Spock determining there's a lot of activity several kilometers north of the hotel. We beam there, and while it initially looks like a barren field, a torn piece of Mudd's clothing found on the scene tips us off. In the very lower right of the area, I discover a base. After finding a large cloth, I use it to cover up a camera in the room. I'm not sure what good that did, but I'd rather play it safe. Some of the rooms have Romulan guard in them, and I know for a fact from previous playthroughs that they can capture you if you don't stun them fast enough.

               I find Mudd's cell and free him. He leaves me some primo dilithium crystals back in his hotel room. After collecting them, I beam back up to the Enterprise. This time, I can set course for Federation space on Sigma Iota. 

               While attempting to warp, Spock notices a Romulan vessel on radar. Not happy that I freed Harry Mudd, they start their attack. As you can see from the right screenshot, shields are indicated on the bottom of the screen. If the shields are totally dissipated, the other ship is left totally vulnerable. After three well-placed hits, I destroy the vessel and get back on course.

               Sigma Iota, which was original portrayed as a gangster planet in the second season of Star Trek, is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland. After finding a library card and using it in a computer, the historian I brought with me discovers the Iotians were dabbling in dimensional travel, an experiment that destroyed their society somehow. Their dimensional travel experiments are also what caused the Enterprise to warp out into deep space.  Kirk thinks this is all due to McCoy leaving his communicator on the planet during their first visit, a fun little twist that sort of connects the game to the series.

               Back on the ship, we decide to travel through time to collect the communicator. Kirk tells Chekov to compute the trajectory they need and feed it through Spock's console to send them back in time. Of course, this winds up looking exactly like all the other warps I've done throughout the game, but Chekov's enthusiastic about their success anyway. On the way to beam down to the planet, Spock and Kirk discuss how Dr. McCoy is an asshole for leaving his communicator in the first place.

               This last area of the game is easily the best, featuring a lot more puzzles and character interaction. Like Sigma Iota from the show, it's a gangster filled planet ridden with crime. Upon entering a store, the owner informs me, Spock, and Bones that he's being robbed. I promptly stun the bandits, and the owner rewards me with a deck of marked cards. One of the unconscious bandits also has a diamond on him, a much more suitable reward.

               Just a little south of the store is a boy holding his dog. The dog is reportedly ill, and while McCoy asserts that he's not a veterinarian, he heals the dog anyway. The boy, like any little guy, pays the doctor with a gumball. Marked cards and gumballs are not good ways to repay people who save lives, but I guess Iota's a goofy place to begin with. There's also a dog bone nearby that I grab.

               Bones notices some coins in a grate. In a wonderfully obtuse twist, I need to use a gumball and the dog bone over the vent in order to collect the coins. Gotta love adventure game logic.

               There's a passed out woman at a bar to the north. McCoy revives her and she gives me some counterfeit plates in exchange for the diamond I found. I then take these to the police, who are very excited that they can now shut down some big counterfeit plate ring. Whether these plates are actual dishes or license plates is never really elaborated on.

               The bartender gave me a random phone number, which I use to call up a mob boss. He agrees to meet me, but then tells me he has no idea where the communicator is and sends me to some other mob boss. After finding the next one, he tells me that I have to play cards with yet another mob boss.

               Lots of walking to be done on this planet. I now discover why I needed to break the counterfeit ring: they have a millions of dollars of fake bills in the back. I grab five thousand in hopes that I might be able to buy something cool with it.

               Unfortunately, I have to use the money in a card game to win back Bones's communicator. By saying I'm not ready to play with the card shark and then using my cards, the shark agrees to play with my marked deck. This effectively ends the game, with me winning back the communicator and beaming back to the enterprise. The concluding dialogue, similar to the random discussions featured at the end of most Star Trek episodes, is adorable, posing the final question: are we all just character's in a game? Here's some select screenshots from the ending sequence.

               Star Trek: 25th Anniversary definitely has some issues. The frequent use of five or six sprites on one screen often leads to parts of Kirk or Spock disappearing and the action sequences just stink. Enemy shots move so fast that they're almost impossible to dodge, but thankfully, combat is so rare that it never really matters.

               Perhaps the biggest issue is the game's linearity. The actual game world only has four places to go. All of the aforementioned locales involve a good amount of exploration, but most planets in the galaxy are either barren fields or unreachable due to atmospheric conditions. I probably would have split up some of the different sections onto different planets. The Romulans could have taken Harry Mudd to another planet rather than a few kilometers north of his hotel room. A library on another planet could have revealed the tragic dimensional experiments of the Iotians.

               Actually, this is all needless nitpicking. Star Trek: 25th Anniversary's lackluster action portions are easily overshadowed by the western-style adventure proceedings, and splitting up the locations across multiple planets might have caused more annoyance than anything else. As one of the few adventure games for the NES that isn't a PC port, it's a must-buy for anyone who appreciates the inventory crawler genre.

               Nightshade and Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom are some other good NES exclusive adventure games, although I haven't played Stanley: The Search for Dr. Livingston. Maybe I will someday, but I've recently come upon a boxed copy of Shingen the Ruler, so I'm probably going to be tied up in that for awhile.

               Some other recent acquisitions: Dragon Valor, Pac-Man World for PS1, Animorphs, Warriors of Might and Magic, Croc 2, Boggle Plus for Game Boy, Katamari Damacy, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, Arc the Lad: End of Darkness, Suikoden Tactics, Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII for PS2, Egg Mania for Gamecube. I'm going to be busy while my students are off on spring break.