Star Trek has been an inspiration to generations of people who have become fans of various incarnations of the space exploration franchise. For any fan this is easy to understand, as we remember becoming engrossed in the stories as we watched thoughtfully produced episodes of one of television’s greatest programs. The original series that started it all (frequently shortened to “TOS”) is fifty this year, with its debut in 1967, and the first televised voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise are quite well known (and viewed ad nauseum by devoted TOS fans before and now after its transformation to high definition in 2006). The characterizations of leading characters James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the good doctor Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy are the stuff of legend, and the solid writing and outstanding supporting cast added depth to what could have been a pretty lifeless series after the first few planned scenarios had been produced. Indeed, after three tumultuous seasons fans of Star Trek were left not just unstatisfied, but downright ravenous for new adventures with their favorite crew in the galaxy. While we all know how the story ended – or rather, many motion pictures and television seasons later, how it has yet to end, the Star Trek universe seems to poised to continue for many years to come. How does any of this pertain to gaming? Simple, and not just because so many of us in the gaming community are also Star Trek fans, as there have been and continue to be video games made concerning the Star Trek universe.
Our study of Star Trek games begins with a brief look at the history of the early computerized adventures, produced independently by fans of the cancelled series. The first of these was created all the way back in 1971, with a text-based game called, simply, Star Trek. Back in those days the concept of a home computer was only a dream, and this game was developed using a time-share computer called the SDS Sigma 7. Its creator, Mike Mayfield, used a ‘borrowed’ account from UC Irvine to access the computer system and program his game, which he later managed to port to a Hewlett-Packard HP-2000C (another time-share computer system), after HP offered to provide time on the system in exchange for distribution of his Star Trek game. Later Star Trek games in the 1970s included titles on both Apple I and Apple II machines (the latter called, appropriately, Apple Trek), and then in 1980 a game called 3-D Star Trek was released for the Atari 800 – though this game (on tape, no less) is extremely rare – or possibly no longer exists. Star Trek continued to inspire software titles through the 1980s, but it was not until 1992 that a game that would stand the test of time would be released: Interplay’s Star Trek: 25th Anniversary for MS-DOS. Not only was this a critically-praised game (the DOS version, not the buggy Amiga port), but it was actually a fun point-and-click game that can still be purchased and played today on modern systems (along with the 1993 sequel Star Trek: Judgment Rights).
The next decade found Star Trek video games alive and well, and the popular Star Trek: The Next Generation series made appearances in the mid-1990s with games such as Spectrum HoloByte’s Star Trek: The Next Generation – Future’s Past for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in 1994, and Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity on MS-DOS and Macintosh the following year. Both titles were adventure games involving puzzle-solving to complete missions, and in that way were similar to the MS-DOS Star Trek: TOS games that preceded them. On the PC side of things, moving past the DOS era and into the world of graphical user interfaces, and on Windows various games including Interplay’s 1997 title Star Trek: Starfleet Academy were released. Moving forward to the dawn of the new millennium games on a larger scale involving all of Starfleet were introduced, with Star Trek: Starfleet Command in 1999 and Star Trek: Armada in 2000. Day-to-day operations and simulation gameplay are a marked departure from lighthearted adventure gameplay, but hardcore fans of Star Trek have long been hungry for a proper sim, and titles such as Star Trek: Bridge Commander, developed by Totally Games and released in 2002, as well as sequels to Starfleet Command and Armada helped satisfy the ever-present demand for realistic Star Trek games. Star Trek role-playing on a grand, MMORPG scale would have to wait until 2010, however, with the introduction of Star Trek Online.
Star Trek Online, or ‘STO’ as it is commonly abbreviated, has been running for seven years now, and while the user numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to World of Warcraft and other online games (a recent Steam count shows a peak of under 1500 players), there is nonetheless a strong community presence behind the game. Yes, even an older game with a relatively low daily user count is still vital to the fans of a franchise that is not going anywhere, now fifty years after a television program, which no one gave much of a chance back then, first aired. Interest has wavered at times over the years, as interest in all things do, with various fads and other franchises (think of the not-actually-sci-fi-but-lumped-in-anyway space fantasy Star Wars) diverting attention from the program that was a godsend to science fiction-minded souls in the 1960s and beyond. Unfortunately it is one of the oft-referenced components of Star Trek: TNG that has become the basis of not only the latest Star Trek video game, but the current iteration of the entire virtual reality (VR) movement. I speak of the holodeck, which has been the obsession of many since Star Trek: TNG introduced it in its pilot episode, Encounter at Farpoint (remember Riker’s first meeting with Data?). Since then efforts have been made to realize the idea of the fully emersive simulation that was so well presented on television (imagine that!), and what better environment to simulate than a starship in the Star Trek universe itself? To this end Star Trek: Bridge Crew, which was released just this year for PC and Sony PlayStation 4 (where it makes use of the PlayStation VR headset), offers a taste of real Star Trek action – to those that can (literally) stomache the VR experience. We can only hope that some later version of VR tech gets us closer to a really great experience, and one that does not require the use of awkward headsets.
Star Trek has been watched for fifty years now, and video games based on it have been developed for forty-six of those. Clearly, it is not going anywhere, and what began as a five-year mission in the future has yet to end. In the years to come I hope there will be more, and better, Star Trek games to play, but for now I will content myself with the digital copy of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary I just bought. Until next time!