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Alternate History in Star Trek Part 17: Early Video Games (and non-video Games)

By Tom Anderson

Up till now, my series looking at the history of Star Trek (with a particular focus on its AH and time-travel elements) has taken in the on-screen canon TV shows and films up to about 1995, and the spinoff material in the form of novels and comics. While that encompasses the vast majority of published Star Trek material, we should not ignore the fact that this is a vast franchise and, even in the early days, it extended into forms of media so diverse that even its famously obsessive fanbase struggle to keep track of all of them. For example, I only recently discovered that there were Star Trek combo comic and vinyl record audio play sets released in the 1970s, which I would have mentioned earlier if I’d known of them. That’s an example where a product is so obscure that not only is the specific piece of media largely unknown, but even the form of media itself!

I digress. In this article I’ll be looking at Star Trek licensed video games and, to a lesser extent, regular tabletop and board games, though I am far less of an expert on the latter. I remember in the early 2000s I accidentally bought a Star Trek RPG sourcebook and then was very confused, as I didn’t actually know what RPGs were and had assumed it was a technical manual. On a side note, there have also been entirely fan-published Star Trek tech manuals sold in actual sci-fi shops, which meant that – even before the internet and fanfiction complicated matters – it was marvellously difficult for anyone to keep track of what was canon and what wasn’t. (A whole generation of very niche people thought that the Miranda-class USS Reliant in Star Trek II was an ‘Avenger-class frigate’ due to these kind of fanon tech manuals. You can usually tell them because the terminology sounds more aggressive than the Trek norm and they make reference to marines…though those eventually ended up in the canon show because fans grow up and take over the franchise).

I digress again. Let’s talk about games.

The 1970s and 80s were a time of substantial growth for tabletop gaming and the advent of pencil-and-paper roleplaying games specifically. Dungeons & Dragons (which as a kid I always assumed was just a cartoon and nothing else) debuted in 1974. Given that D&D began as really just interactive Tolkien fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off, its players and designers were swift to ‘unofficially’ incorporate elements from other fictional settings. This era was home to a heady cocktail of being both really creative and really plagiaristic at the same time. For both tabletop games and later video adventure games (which took much inspiration from them), Star Trek would be one of the most common sources of references and ideas. In part, this looks more blatant to us now because this process began in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Star Trek was mostly seen as a fondly-remembered but ‘not current’ show from an earlier age, so it didn’t seem to look such a ripoff if you put references to phasers and warp drive in your space-themed game. Warp drive in particular was so frequently ripped off (it made its way into the main Marvel Comics universe sci-fi bits, and Warhammer would use the term but change its meaning) that it almost lost its cache as a Trek term at one point. I could probably do an article on cases like this where copying stands out due to the original franchise being revived. In addition to direct lifts of terminology, references to Star Trek were often thrown in as fun easter eggs, along with Monty Python and Douglas Adams (then relatively obscure in the US where these games were usually being made). I remember as late as 1993, the extremely British Sega game “Marko’s Magic Football” had its save function be a parody of Captain Kirk called Captain Smirk, for no reason other than that people liked incongruous Star Trek references.

Given all this cavalier ripoffery, it’s not surprising that there would be moves early on to create official, licensed Star Trek games as well. In 1978, only four years after the debut of D&D, Heritage Models used their licence to make Trek tie-in models to produce a Star Trek tabletop RPG as well. Known as “Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier”, this would be the first of many attempts by multiple companies (and this one would be updated by third parties). Fitting the D&D-inspired model, this was focused only on landing party missions, exploring a mysterious alien planet, rather than shipboard affairs. Star Trek games often struggled with living up to the values of the show (in particular early video games that were focused on shooty bangy stuff) but this one nicely has the win condition be to complete the mission without violating the Prime Directive.

As I hinted above, my coverage of non-video games here is going to not be exhaustive, as there will likely be several I am missing out. On the topic of RPGs, however, I cannot avoid mentioning FASA Corporation’s “Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game” of 1982. As opposed to the Heritage game, this one was focused on starship combat – but like the Heritage game, was also closely tied to the company producing starship models. This game became quite popular and led to much fanon input in the mid-1980s; new ships were designed, new alien opponents conceived, and much of the blanks of the Star Trek setting were filled in through collaborative worldbuilding. Of course, this created a problem with the return of Star Trek to the small screen (in the form of TNG) in 1987, and FASA would be split off into a separate continuity – one more influenced by the animated series and Franz Josef’s “Star Fleet Technical Manual” of 1975. The same fate befell the oldest starship combat RPG, Amarillo Design Bureau’s “Star Fleet Battles” (1979) which was even forbidden from mentioning any races, characters and starships by name - yet somehow survived. It would even influence the later Starfleet Academy video games, despite those supposedly being based on the canon show!

In the 1980s, the growth in interest in tabletop RPGs would have a huge effect on many fictional franchises. Interest in D&D and its derivatives undoubtedly boosted fantasy fiction, “Star Wars” was rescued from its deader-than-disco mid-1980s nadir of unpopularity, and nascent video RPGs in both Japan and the United States could draw on the existing tabletop audience. (Japan also saw its own Star Trek tabletop starship combat RPG in the early 80s from Tsukuda Hobby). Considering the relative popularity of Star Trek’s tabletop RPGs, the impact on the franchise was more modest than these examples; the fanon ideas introduced there usually did not make it back into the show, though some ideas for ships did have long-term influence. Fanfiction and the invention of the fan convention (see previous articles) was a more important driver in the return of Star Trek. However, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that games were a part of how Star Trek stuck around in the public consciousness in the 1970s and 80s; not only the elaborate RPGs, but also the simpler tie-in board games aimed at the general public (of which there were too many to list here). Though many might have expected the growth of video games to overpower tabletop games, new Star Trek tabletop games are still being released into the twenty-first century.

I could talk a lot more about Star Trek board and tabletop games (and there are one or two others I’ll mention later) but now let’s focus on video games. As mentioned above, the limitations of early video games did not fit well with Star Trek’s values. One of the earliest really popular arcade games was Taito’s “Space Invaders” (1978), technically still the highest-grossing video game of all time, in which the player controls a tank shooting down waves of octopoid alien invaders. In this era, it was common for companies to steal a concept wholesale and then innovate gameplay (whereas nowadays it feels as though copyright is more based on setting than gameplay elements); Namco copied “Space Invaders” with “Galaxian” (1979) and “Galaga” (1981) but innovated by resetting the action in space, with the player piloting a spacecraft, and adding other elements. While Namco’s games had been more influenced by Star Wars, many other ripoffs in the ‘invaders’ genre would have the player flying a ship that looked suspiciously like the Enterprise. Early licensed games were scarcely less phoned-in than these unauthorised ones. MB Games released a ‘Phaser Strike’ handheld LCD game in 1979 (to coincide with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”) with the player shooting down blocky pixellated ‘Klingon ships’ with ‘phaser blasts’, with the exact same game repackaged as nothing to do with Star Trek for a different market. Two years later, a Motion Picture tie-in shooter game was released for the innovative Vectrex console, and again – despite better graphics – was repackaged as a non-Trek game in regions outside the US.

Text-based adventure games, though less graphically engaging, were a better fit for the values of Star Trek with the technology available at the time. The first official Star Trek text adventure game was “The Kobayashi Alternative” (1985) from Trek publisher Simon & Schuster. Written by recurring Trek author Diane Duane, this was a brilliant way of capitalising on the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario simulation plot from Star Trek II: can you beat it? (In fact, it is presented as a follow-up sequel to the actual scenario where it is possible to win, as otherwise it’d be a bit depressing). Earlier, in 1982, Sega had also released an arcade game “Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator” which took inspiration from the look of the Kobayashi Maru simulator, but had a scenario involving fighting the Nomad probe from “The Changeling”. Simon & Schuster followed up Duane’s work with “The Promethean Prophecy” (1986), a more straightforward text adventure in which a landing party has to search for supplies on a planet to repair the crippled ship. This one was actually released for the 20th anniversary of Star Trek; later games were also often designed to coincide with anniversary years.

It is noteworthy that most of the games released at this time were explicitly set in the TOS era with the original Enterprise design on the cover and 1960s-era Kirk and Spock, rather than in the current films; TOS would always be more popular with the fans than the showrunners gave it credit for. “The Rebel Universe” (1987) by Firebird Software cunningly introduced a plot point of Federation starships under the command of renegades, to justify why the player got to fight them as well as Klingons and Romulans (note the prominent absence of using the Mirror Universe instead). Although it may sound like a generic space shooter, this game was the first attempt (as far as I know) to depict the bridge of the Enterprise in-game, albeit obviously limited by 8-bit computer graphics.

Text adventures weren’t dead, as 1988 saw Micromosaics Productions release “First Contact” (no, not that one – or that one), focusing on the very values-appropriate plot of Kirk negotiating first contact with a newly-encountered alien race. Again, though in-game it’s supposed to be the movie era, the box art brings back the recognisable TOS Enterprise. 1989 saw the release of Mindscape’s “Star Trek: The Final Frontier” for DOS. Somewhat oddly, this means (as far as I can tell) that the only TOS films whose titles are mentioned in games are The Motion Picture and Star Trek V, and Star Trek V is the only one whose plot is actually adapted rather than it just being a tie-in name!

Perhaps surprisingly, the first appearance of the TNG crew in a game, in 1989, was also a text adventure – which may seem like a ‘chronauseous’ overlap of eras to some viewers. This was published by TRANS Fiction Systems (who had also previously done “The Promethean Prophecy”) who modestly titled it “Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Transinium Challenge”. (Can you handle all these colons?) Also Will Riker doesn’t have a beard on the cover (and everyone looks a bit off-model), illustrating the lead-in time for adaptations of this type. The plot involves Picard letting Riker take command for a mission to gain more command experience (I suppose this is a refreshing change from having Picard be captured or something) and the crew have to investigate the lost Aquilan civilisation. Investigating lost civilisations will become a bit of a theme for TNG games, as we’ll see. Also it involves a bar on an asteroid, because scenes set in bars seem to be a constant for all text-based adventure games.

1992 (somewhat unfortunately delayed to 94 or 94 for some systems) saw the release of “Star Trek: 25th Anniversary” by Interplay (a division of Konami made a different version with the same title for the more limited Nintendo Game Boy). As the name hints, the setting used for this one was again TOS, and it was the most ambitious Star Trek game to date, transitioning from a text adventure to a full-graphics point-and-click adventure game as pioneered by the Sierra model. Attempting to capture something of the diversity of plots and settings in the series, the game is split into seven episodes, with concepts as varied as encountering Harry Mudd, fighting Klingons and dealing with a Federation ship held hostage by pirates. The game begins with a combat simulation between the Enterprise and the USS Republic, thus getting in the same ‘have two Starfleet ships fight’ gimmick as in “The Rebel Universe”. “25th Anniversary” has the interesting gimmick that a player does not need to pass every mission to proceed to the next one, potentially getting a different play experience each time; the only way to get a game over is if the Enterprise is destroyed or Kirk, Spock or McCoy is killed. (Amusingly – and darkly – redshirt deaths are explicitly built into the game as a mechanic, only reducing your score if they happen). Optional sidequests are also incorporated. Compared to games which came out only a few years earlier, this really illustrates the incredible pace of technological development in games throughout the 1990s. “25th Anniversary” was released primarily on PC (for floppy disks and then CD with an enhanced final mission, in response to fan complaints it was rushed) with a scaled-back port to the ageing NES (not the SNES or Mega Drive for some reason…) That final mission involves fighting a duplicate Enterprise, in a neat bookend to the starting mission. The game was also ported to the Apple Mac and the Amiga, though the original PC DOS version is generally considered the best. It even uses new voice clips from the original cast, setting a standard for later on.

“25th Anniversary” did several classic, Michael A. Stackpole-style attempts at continuity which don’t always work; for example, one mission involved Carol Marcus, even though Kirk shouldn’t have had contact with her in this era, and another involves someone claiming to be the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl…which the crew encountered separately in TAS. (I literally wrote the preceding sentence before looking up more details on the game, and it turns out one of the designers was…Michael A. Stackpole. Amazing) Critics widely regarded “25th Anniversary”, at least in its original PC form, as the best Star Trek game ever made and the first one to really deliver on faithfully representing the franchise. It also paved the way for a number of other games in the same vein.

In 1993, Spectrum HoloByte released “Star Trek: The Next Generation: Future’s Past” for the SNES. Even the newer 16-bit consoles were rapidly falling behind PC at this point in graphics capability, but the game is still ambitious. The plot involves the Enterprise-D investigating the disappearance of a Romulan archaeological team in the Neutral Zone. Aliens named Eunacians had won access to an ultimate weapon called an IFD in the distant past, but found it so dangerous that they sent it ‘safely’ 10,000 years into the future – which is now. Because we haven’t had enough big round numbers yet, it later turns out that the IFD was built by a race called the Senatorius, who were galactic conquerors 100,000 years ago. Clearly no connection to the Iconians, Tkon, Hur’q, or any other of the ancient galactic conqueror races that Star Trek invents on the spur of the moment and then forgets about. The crew have to race to secure the IFD before the Romulans or an original aggressor race do not steal, the Chodak, get there first. In the end, Picard, talking to images of even older ancestral aliens, decides the time is still not ripe to use the IFD for good and sends it forward another 10,000 years. I snark, but the game covers an impressively big story for something squeezed into an SNES cartridge, and features encounters with a range of races and planets familiar and original. Again, it would influence later games.

Interplay came back with “Star Trek: Judgement Rites” (1993), which is a direct sequel to “25th Anniversary”, illustrating that game’s popularity. Mostly using the same engine, it did use one innovation introduced in “Future’s Past”, that the player can now alter the makeup of the landing party and choose between different crew members with different skills and equipment. By this point there was no attempt to port to home consoles, only PC and Mac. Once again, “Judgement Rites” features multiple story episodes, not necessarily connected. The cast reprise their voice roles – this is technically DeForest Kelley’s last appearance as Dr McCoy – and William Campbell returns as Trelane, now obsessed with the First World War and attacking the Enterprise with a Fokker triplane. Recurring villains and other characters also return from “25th Anniversary”. While some plots involve classic Star Trek concepts, such as Kirk giving a speech to some aliens running their societies in an inhumane way, or clashes of personality with a junior officer, another has the very original idea of being based around the crew having to foil a terrorist hostage taking while on shore leave and helpless. (It’s somewhat similar to the TNG episode “Starship Mine” but without Die Hard Picard, with the crew stuck on the planet having to resolve it by breaking into a museum). The last mission involves attempting to make first contact with the Brassicans (cabbage-based life forms?) who grill the crew with seemingly illogical tests, because that is also a required part of any 90s point-and-click adventure game.

Like its predecessor, “Judgement Rites” was widely praised by critics, many of whom even considered it an improvement. It illustrated that video games had grown beyond mere shooty bangy stuff to being able to tell stories worthy of the show itself. Most importantly for me, though, these games laid the groundwork for the Star Trek game I have the fondest personal memories of – “A Final Unity”.

But we’ll cover that one next time we look at video games. Next article, it’s time to look at the film which, in 1994, saw TNG’s transition to the big screen and the final farewell to James T. Kirk – “Star Trek: Generations”.



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