Starflight: When Emergent Play Was Only a Floppy Away

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by Kyle Ackerman

When gamers think about open-ended games these days, the Grand Theft Auto series is often the first sandbox-style series that comes to mind. But my fondest memories of exploring a seemingly-endless world come from piles of floppy disks, back when the Electronic Arts logo was an inexplicable amalgam of cube, sphere and pyramid. In 1986, not long after my chance to search the new world for the Seven Cities of Gold, Binary Systems helped me crew my ship to save Arth (no... not Earth, Arth).

Starflight Code WheelFor those of you who don't remember, Starflight was released when digital rights management involved a code wheel, and the game was a big deal because it came on two whole floppy discs. The game instructions urged us to "NEVER try to play Starflight using the master disks," encouraging gamers to copy the discs before play.

Following a long dark age, an archaeological dig helped humanity rediscover faster-than-light technology powered by the rare fuel Endurium. I was selected to be one of the few captains given a bare-bones ship, enough Endurium for a year's flight and just enough cash to hire a crew. To last, I'd have to fund my own operations through exploration and entrepreneurship. Most of the first wave of explorers had not returned, and the few that did encountered strange worlds and hostile aliens. What computer gamer could resist so hopeless a task?

Starflight Ship ArtA few mineral-collecting expeditions to the local planets yielded enough cash to secure fuel for a longer trip, opening the entire galaxy before me. Literally hundreds of worlds and nebulae were scattered about this cluster of the galaxy. I could land on any of them, cruise the surface, and kill or capture anything I encountered.

These worlds were made possible by the power of [gasp!] fractals. The use of these algorithms allowed developer Binary Systems to create around 800 unique planets using mere kilobytes of data. Each world was unique, with geography that made intuitive sense and remained constant through every visit. After a little exploration, several worlds became familiar friends as I returned repeatedly to harvest minerals and capture the dangerous, tentacled aliens that could be sold to fund my expeditions. There were so many worlds that the designers themselves claimed not to have visited them all.

Starflight Screen Soon, the joys of exploration fell before the onslaught of fear. No longer was I just outfitting a better ship, identifying worlds for colonization, and hauling precious cargo back for the people of Arth. A little contact with the aliens wandering through the inky blackness of space revealed that Arth might be doomed by an alien threat. Diplomacy and sheer firepower became my tools for prying the secrets of the universe from other sentient beings.

The universe still lay before me, open to exploration, but the doomsday threat made me privy to innumerable secrets hidden throughout the galaxy. Just as GTA: San Andreas rewards those hidden jumps with cinematic views in slow-motion, Starflight made every clue feel like a unique and powerful discovery. Each new artifact, coordinate or ruin led to a new secret. Who was not humbled as he gazed upon the ancient formation known as the Most Magnificent Hexagon, or awed by the Bladed Toy?

Starflight ScreenStarflight began with a wide open universe, and then repeatedly unfolded, offering even more possibilities and secrets until I felt like just one gamer, facing the majesty of the universe. As a game, it seeded the minds of gamers and developers who later embraced titles like Star Control. As a story, it managed one of the most horrifying twists in memory, and reminded us to watch our fuel carefully.


George said:

Thanks for your well-written article on Starflight! I'm feeling wistful right now :) Wish I could play the game, but unsure how to find it again or whether it would install on my OSX 10.5 or Windows XP. (If you have any clues I'd be grateful!)

Another of my favorite games from that era was the Ultima series. I've never known another game since to have such depth of ethical philosophy. Have you?

I'd love to know what are a few of the games you've really enjoyed and found memorable since Starflight and Ultima. I'll go check your blog archives now. Thanks again.

Kyle said:

I certainly should look take the time to fully reflect on those past favorites, but my immediate impulse is to bring up classic RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment. Especially those who missed some of these classic PC games, should consider going back and taking a look at games like that (not to mention the first two Fallout games.

I should take the time to do something thoughtful, rather than just throwing thoughts out in a comment, but my favorite games would have to also include titles such as System Shock 2 (that later moved under the sea to become BioShock), Master of Orion 2, Grim Fandago, Masters of Magic and plenty others. The advantage to such older games is that they run on most current machines, and can often be acquired for close to nothing.

smack said:

If you wish to play Starflight, you can get it (and the sequel) from the Abandonia retro gaming site:

While it is an old DOS game, you can still play it using the DOSBox emulator (which also has a version for Mac OS X).

And if that's not satisfying enough, you can pick up a copy on eBay. There are plenty selling both games, for various platforms. I got my (real) copies that way.

Have fun!

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 10, 2008 2:29 PM.

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