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The RPG Scrollbars: Praise The Ur-Quan Masters

Up all night to get Frungy

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There aren’t enough SF RPGs, and of those, there aren’t enough that prioritise what I want from them – the feel of being in an impossible universe full of infinite possibilities, not simply being in a futuristic showroom with a lot of tech manuals. It’s why I loved Mass Effect so much, why I got on so well with Anachronox despite hating basically every actual mechanic it merely thought it understood from JRPGs, and why the likes of Eve and Elite Dangerous just aren’t my mug of Romulan Ale.

And then of course, there’s Star Control II. I’ve been playing it for a couple of reasons of late, partly for work and partly because it’s one of the few games that will run on the Macbook Air I’ve been travelling with over the last week, and…

…it really is a wonderful game universe, isn’t it?

I know that a lot of purists would prefer more attention go to Starflight, Star Control’s predecessor, and the game that’s not had the spotlight as much in recent years due to the fan-remake Star Control II. Fair enough. Starflight was a fascinating, pioneering game too, with a truly amazing plot twist light-years beyond anything that anyone could have expected back in 1986. Star Control was the game I played first though, and the one that stuck – a sprawling, wonderfully written adventure campaign on one side, a fantastic Spacewar upgrade featuring a whole armada of ships to duel with on the other.

The Spathi Eluder, armed with a rear-mounted cannon to dish out pain while still escaping. The Mycon Podship, crawling around space at slug-speed, but with a homing missile to respect. The inertialess UFOs of the Ariloulaee’lay, capable of confusing any opponent and harnessing the power of random luck for last minute escapes.

In the campaign, you only got to field what you’d persuaded people to give you. In Super Melee, all bets were off, as the great powers of the universe jousted and blasted away for hours and hours of shared-keyboard awesomeness. Star Control 2 was amazing. Such a shame they never made a third one. It didn’t happen.

Yes, you can agree to save the universe, but only if the new order is called The Empire of Me. I love this game. It’s full of great moments like that, such as setting yourself up as an alien god and changing your new peoples’ language just to screw with them, or travelling with an evil megalomaniac psychic who looks like Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but with all its points thrown into the Dominate discipline, avoiding the need for a stupid robot body. It’s an entire galaxy to explore, with few barriers to get in your way and a ton of freedom in how you go about saving Earth, what ships you acquire, and how much of a dick you are to enemies and allies alike.

You can’t see me rubbing my hands together, but they’re rubbing. They are rubbing. Star Control 2 was the game I wanted to play since being disappointed by EGA Trek and captivated by Psi-5 Trading Company. Semi-related: gawd, I feel old.

It’s not just the game-y parts of the game that I’ve been replaying it for though, but the fantastic writing and universe design. Star Control has some of the most memorable aliens ever put in a game, and still some of the best written. It helps that most of them don’t actually do very much, consolidating most of their personality and quirks into one or two really big conversation tree driven dialogues. This inherently makes it easier for much of the odder stuff to be delivered in way that avoids dragging the jokes out too far, as with a race of pranksters or the sexy blue Syreen with their Penetrator spaceships.

In most cases, you meet the aliens, they say their piece and then you move on, so the designers don’t have to find ways to extend a nugget of personality into lots of individual quest designs and encounters or, worse, risk them becoming too human, as might occur if you were constantly hanging out with them. It means meetings can be infodump heavy, but that’s okay. They’re islands of plot that break up the much more solitary floating through space just often enough, and which find a perfect balance between being funny and silly, and presenting well thought out species by any SF standards. It’s no surprise that the universe was more inspired by the likes of Larry Niven than Star Trek. Not that they could resist a couple of Star Trek style aliens in there. Cough cough.

(Yes, that’s the genuine top response when meeting the Syreen.)

In particular, something I always forget after not playing Star Control II for a while is how fascinating its villains are. On the face of it, the titular Ur-Quan are your fairly stock ‘evil’ race. They’ve enslaved Earth, along with most of the other civilised species in the galaxy (your character escaping this fate due to being at the other end of the galaxy at the time, and returning in a powerful Precursor ship). Those who refuse to serve them are obliterated. They look like giant centipedes, in vivid green and black colour schemes to represent their two factions. They must be destroyed! At once!

And yes, yes, they must. But part of Star Control II is slowly learning that the Ur-Quan aren’t actually as bad as they seem. For starters, if they conquer you, you get a free choice of being returned to your homeworld and serving them as slaves, or becoming battle thralls who fight on their behalf. The former deal is sweetened by the fact that the slave shield that keeps you there also keeps the rest of the galaxy out, with the Ur-Quan quick to warn everybody that there are far worse threats than them out there. They’re also, generally, reasonable. Go against them and you face the consequences, but they accept ignorance as a defence, as well as being willing to take the time to explain what they’re doing and why they see it as a good thing.

They can even be generous overlords at times, with even the commander of Earth’s slave starbase outright saying that they’ll probably reward you for helping them gather essential radioactives to power the place. Things don’t always go so well for their slaves though (just ask the cowardly Spathi, though even they got three warnings not to be cowardly custard pots before being threatened with a many-booted centipede stomping their faces for insubordination), and they have some intensely dickish moments like destroying planets’ cultures for little better reason than because they can. Still, things could definitely be worse! And they’re certainly more interesting than the Reapers and their Inception Horns™.

As with games like Ultima – yep, Richard mentioned Ultima, take a shot – I love this attention to detail. “Evil” is usually a boring start point for any character or fictional race, largely because it’s hard to write as anything other than ultimately self-destructive. The Ur-Quan don’t simply own the galaxy because they have the best toys, though that was how they conquered it, they own the galaxy because they’re smart enough to at least make the status quo tolerable.

Even the more genocidal faction, the Kohr-Ah, have both reasons and justifications for wanting to purge the galaxy, including their belief that anyone they kill has a chance of being reborn as Ur-Quan, and a desperate belief to prevent the rise of anything like their former masters, the psychic Dnyarri. The two sides even have the perspective to accept that they might be wrong, with Star Control 2 taking place during the “Second Doctrinal Conflict” – the time when both factions fight to determine which of them has the moral superiority to reshape the galaxy.

This is a game from 1992, and it does a better and more thoughtful galactic scale threat than Mass Effect, even if we ignore That Ending. Indeed, it does galactic threat better than basically any SF RPG that came after. You can take that as a slight on those games, sure, but it’s far more fitting to appreciate just how brilliant Star Control 2 was. It didn’t hurt that it also came from a time where games would put their foot down. Take too long to finish it and the Second Doctrinal Conflict will end, beginning an outright curb-stomping of the entire galaxy. But even that’s not necessarily Game Over if you know what you’re doing, as seen in this Minimalist playthrough. Bit of a shame the ending doesn’t really acknowledge that accomplishment, but hey, it beats a Fallout style “Game Over” any day.

The main problem with Ur-Quan Masters, original or remake, is that it’s one of those games that pretends to be a lot more freeform than it actually is. You get a good amount of freedom, but there are key plot points that you have to hit in a particular order and what they are can often be vague. Get ’em wrong, or simply run out of resources due to distractions or failed battles, and the whole game putters to a disappointing stop. It’s also worth snagging the space maps rather than simply zooming off into space and trying to wing it. Here’s an even handier online version, complete with search, though it does contain spoilers too.

Alternatively, if you just want to see the funny dialogue, try this video Let’s Play, or this text based version. Other player mods include a HD version that, sorry, I find much uglier than the original, and a full music remix that slots right into the Ur-Quan Masters version of the game.

It’s worth taking a look in some form though, because it really does still deserve it. Fingers crossed Stardock’s upcoming Star Control reboot will handle it better than the third game that, as hitherto mentioned, never bloody happened, especially as the GalCiv series is one of the few that’s managed to carry the games’ sense of humour and wit into space over the years. Especially against players who are totally asking for it. That’s absolutely the StarCon spirit, albeit in a very different kind of game.

And, y’know, that reboot isn’t the only game coming out that still carries a torch for this series. But more on that another week. For now, go play it, and find out why its fans are so rabidly insistent that you do. There’s no point buying the GOG version instead of the approved Ur-Quan Masters remake (Star Control 1 doesn’t offer anything essential any more), though if you want to step back further, they do have both Starflights.

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Richard Cobbett

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