I’ve been talking a lot recently about my adventures with Appendix N and the likes of John Carter. Then I saw a tweet the other day that got me thinking about a wonderful video game equivalent.
Star Control 2 has been called one of the greatest and least well-known video games. “Greatest” is a difficult word to stick onto anything without qualifiers. I certainly love it sufficiently to consider it for the unqualified badge for several reasons, but I’d also go so far as to say that when you consider its level of “goodness” in proportion to its level of “unknownness,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a better game.
I became aware of the title back when I was living in Japan, I guess about 6 or 7 years ago now. The things that I read about it immediately piqued my interest. Luckily, there is a free, downloadable version available at Ur-Quan Masters. SC2 (usually an abbreviation reserved for Starcraft 2) masterfully blends a number of genres, moods, and gameplay elements into a single vessel. It’s a space/flight sim, RPG with heavy amounts of exploration and character interaction/dialogue/diplomacy.
I’m going to attempt to explain why SC2 so impacted me, with as few spoilers as possible. You see, although I did a little cheating by consulting an online guide on occasion, this is a best played with as little knowledge of it as possible. The amount of surprises and the element of discovery are chief among the masterstrokes of SC2’s design.
First off, I want to note that you can download a blank (unlabeled) star map of the SC2 universe, and I highly recommend this. There are a ton of planets and stars to explore and wonderful and terrible discoveries to be made. This was the first time since I was a kid playing NES and SNES that I made handwritten notes on a game map, and it didn’t feel tedious or like a waste of time.
Now, without getting too much into the story, I’ll say that SC2 clearly influenced the Mass Effect games. This is the nice way of saying it. Having played both, it seems that ME heavily borrowed certain ideas from Star Control, but I think they did it in such a way that it’s not super egregious and they definitely added their own flavors and spin. The play styles of the games also differ greatly, so it’s definitely forgivable. My point is, if you enjoyed the mood and feel of Mass Effect, you may just love SC2.
Somehow, SC2 conducts itself with a certain amount of whimsy and humor without coming across as comical – a comment I’ve seen made of Jack Vance, as well, and I think a mark of great storytelling. This is most often displayed in dialogue choices as you interact with the many aliens you’ll encounter on your travels.
The diverse cast of species you encounter is especially well-fleshed out. Voice acting, mannerisms, and personalities of the different aliens are superbly executed. You’ll meet aliens who are simultaneously silly and menacing, strange synthetic lifeforms, benign and mysterious “Gray” types, evil spiders, and many others. Let’s definitely not forget the Syreen, the game’s space babes.
Many of these creatures have rich histories and interesting relationships to other species, which you can sometimes influence. Some can be recruited as allies. Others you may convince to become/remain neutral. Some will not rest until you are destroyed. Each race really is unique, and holds its own motivations.
Just be sure not to piss off the Orz. And do NOT forget to enjoy the sauce.
Interestingly, for all the deep space-operatic story and intrigue present, the game’s battle system takes the form of a spaceship sim. You can assemble a fleet of ships, but you may only control one at a time as you face off against opponents in a little shooter session. It took me a while to get used to and to get to a point where I wasn’t getting horribly killed every time, but it does get to be quite fun after a while (probably more so if you regularly enjoy those kinds of games).
Another great element of gameplay is that your actions really feel like they matter. Alien races gain or diminish in power and influence as the game progresses, and these changes are visible on your star map. Choices you make may raise up allies, destroy evil alien civilizations, and even lead to the creation of new races. I will also note that the game *does* have a timer of sorts, though you never see it. There is a certain overhanging cataclysmic event that will eventually happen and that spells game over for you. Your decisions can buy you more time, however, as you gain power and information about how to win.
I guess there isn’t much more I can say without the risk of diminishing your experience with the game, should you decide to play. I would just emphasize that the writing is top-notch and it just gets better and better as you progress through the story. This is why I compare SC2 to Appendix N literature. It’s a largely hidden gem that has influenced largely popular games to have come in its wake. You might not be able to tell from its cover, but this a truly epic space adventure worthy of your time.