After several years of drought, there’s going to be a new Star Trek game. It’s being developed by Namco-Bandai and is based on J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot film and his upcoming sequel. But that’s not all: supposedly it will be the very first video game ever that lets you play as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, portrayed by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto respectively. That seems a little, shall we say, inaccurate to me, but maybe they don’t remember the old point-and-click Star Trek adventure games. You know, Star Trek Judgment Rites and Star Trek 25th Anniversary, the games that let you play as Kirk, Spock and McCoy, portrayed by Bill Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the late DeForest Kelly…but then again I’d never accuse the new guard in charge of Star Trek of knowing their Trek history very well.
While the whole Trek reboot endeavor was generally enjoyed by fans and moviegoers alike, if you looked a little closer at the film it just didn’t resemble Star Trek all that much. The film indicated a very shallow, superficial read of the source material: Abrams and his writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, were all about the zap guns and green women and KHAAAAN but in the end, it feels like all they were familiar with was Trek’s warmed over pop culture ephemera. It’s as if someone was doing a modern reboot of MASH but all they could remember was Alan Alda cracking wise while drinking martinis and something about a Mediterranean dude running around in drag. Yes those elements were certainly there but if the only things you know about a franchise come from pop culture osmosis then it’s safe to assume you’re missing the point.
And you know what? I would be perfectly fine with that if J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were competent storytellers. I don’t care if they’ve seen a single episode or film from the original run (and they probably haven’t anyway), just as long as they could use the Star Trek license to tell an engaging, challenging science fiction story. But as far as current evidence goes, they can’t. Abrams is pretty good at making monster movies with disappointing monster reveals, while Orci and Kurtzman have made a lot of money (but very little respect) with Cowboys and Aliens and two of the execrable Transformers flicks. Star Trek, however, requires a different kind of storytelling.
If you’re going to do a reboot right then you must, at the very least, nail the spirit of the property you’re rebooting—the core premise or idea—or the whole thing will look like a house of cards. If Abrams had used his ticket to Star Trek to do what Trek does best—namely, tackle a difficult issue from a unique and novel angle by way of science fiction—his reboot would’ve been amazing. If he had said, “Ok, this is a reboot people, old continuity doesn’t apply, we’re doing this fresh and smart,” he would’ve at least had the right intention. But instead he took the show’s superficial trappings, pasted them onto a generic action movie, and occasionally had the characters making shaky rationalizations about how the new movie linked up with the old Trek canon. The end result felt like an awful lot had been lost in translation to the new “supreme court” of writers and director. It would’ve been much, much better if Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman had just started fresh and confident.
Likewise, the majority of Star Trek games, whether they’re from the original continuity or Abrams’ NuTrek, make the same mistake. Too many of them copped their gameplay and design from other more successful games, and then sloppily tacked on the Trek trappings. The results were usually pretty banal; instead of being Star Trek games telling Star Trek stories through creative use of gameplay, they were typically just first person shooters that replaced guns with phasers, or WW2 fighter sims that had you flying the starship Enterprise like an airplane.
And I don’t blame them. Being saddled with the Star Trek license is a heavy burden, because Trek is hard to do. Unlike Star Wars, an action-fantasy setting that is pretty easy to translate into our nominal idea of a video game, Star Trek has never been about traditional action adventure, gag comedy or simple good vs. evil conflicts—a fact that Abrams and his writers apparently still don’t understand. From the beginning, Star Trek was creator Gene Roddenberry’s way of sneaking optimistic humanism and sharp cultural commentary past the censors, by cloaking it in science fiction. Trek routinely deals with ethics, racism, sexism, and a whole host of political issues that are far too nuanced to simplify into “go here, shoot this bad guy.”
Star Trek probably works best as a big RPG, and if you’re a Star Trek fan you can tell that BioWare, the people behind Mass Effect, are probably Trek fans too. Think about it: you have a multi-species team of professionals, the best in their fields, coming together under a shrewd and valiant commander, all onboard a cutting edge starship. They travel to distant alien worlds, overcome their own personal demons and solve difficult and unique challenges in a mission to explore the galaxy and stop a nebulous, complicated evil. Sounds a lot like Star Trek to me! So if Mass Effect can do Star Trek so well, why haven’t we gotten an actual, awesome Star Trek RPG yet, or at least a really good Trek adventure game or 4X space sim?
The answer is obvious and disheartening: Star Trek games are licensed games, often rushed to coincide with a movie or at least follow a rigid development and release schedule. To make a genuinely good Trek game you have to make a damn spectacular game in general, the kind of narratively challenging, gameplay-dense title we’re just now getting from Portal, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Bioshock. A massive RPG is the only logical way to explore both the ethical, moral weight of Star Trek at its best and the sheer detail of the Star Trek universe itself. The majority of prior Star Trek game developers, most of them at Activision, were never given the resources or time necessary to tackle such an ambitious project.
…But that doesn’t mean a few of them didn’t try anyway, and for perspective’s sake I’ve compiled some of the results. Below I’ve listed some of the better Star Trek games I’ve played. I’ll go into why they’re good both as games on their own and as Star Trek games in particular, and what they could’ve done better.
Star Trek the Next Generation: Interactive Technical Manual (released 1994)
I figured I’d start with the earliest Trek game I played (excluding the arcade shooter on the Atari 800 of course). My dad has been a huge Star Trek devotee ever since he watched the original series as a teenager, and the Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual was one of, if not the
main reason he bought a modern desktop PC in the early '90s. More of a souped-up reference guide than a game, the Interactive Technical Manual was based off of the book of the same name by Trek sages Rich Sternbach and Michael Okuda, a detailed archive of the Enterprise and its many functions and subsystems.
The Interactive Technical Manual let fans do what they’d only dreamt of up until then: roam the USS Enterprise 1701-D at will, exploring its decks and discovering the myriad secrets and factoids hidden within. The dense information packed into this game is impressive to this day, and the way it was presented is equally cool. The game used Apple’s then-cutting edge QuickTime, stitching together thousands of renders and set photos into a seamless open tour of the Enterprise.
Although extremely primitive by today’s standards (and nigh-on impossible to run on modern OS’s), the Interactive Technical Manual took what had been a nerd-fan obsession—poring over blueprints, specs and diagrams—and made it available to all Trek lovers. As pixilated and low-tech as it appears today, it’s still difficult to describe just how joyous it was to wander around that ship that I’d only been able to glimpse on TV for seven seasons. I literally got goosebumps when I stood on the Enterprise bridge and stared out into space. While Star Trek: Captain’s Chair did something very similar (but much more limited in scale) with a handful of other famous starships a few years later, the Tech Manual was the first to really hint at what was possible in a detailed, well-made Star Trek game.
Star Trek Generations (released 1997)
Man did this game have a lot working against it. Generations was based on one of the more disappointing Star Trek films. The movie was a rushed affair that has the dubious distinction of both killing Captain Kirk and crashing Captain Picard’s Enterprise, both for contrived reasons and in frankly disrespectful, ham-fisted ways. The plot involved convoluted time travel, one of the worst kinds of Trek story as fans will tell you, and the production values made the whole thing look like a glorified TV episode. It certainly wasn’t the right way to kick off the Next Generation series of movies.
It’s a good thing, then, that the game was almost nothing like the movie. Generations the game paid lip service to the movie’s plot but otherwise constructed a big and incredibly ambitious Star Trek experience…it just happened to be a victim of its time. Generations is an interesting hybrid—it took elements from the then-dying point and click adventure genre, in which many older Trek games counted themselves, but mixed in large chunks of both first person shooters and flight combat sims. The game let you play as every main character from the movie, including the time-displaced Captain Kirk, and explore a whole host of exotic planets and spaceships, not the least of which was one level where you played as Captain Picard trying to retake the Enterprise. It’s amazing the end result worked as well as it did, but several technical issues held it back from greatness.
For one, it was released in the late 90s, so the technology just wasn’t there to create the kind of epic experience the developers were going for. The FPS graphics, though detailed, felt like a turbocharged Doom clone, and the interface, which included controls for shooting, RPG-style inventory and environment interaction, were as clunky as the original System Shock. You couldn’t even save your game mid-level.
The space combat fared even worse, and while it was better than previous Trek games it was still incredibly obtuse and overly difficult. Generations was also released in 1997, a full year after the subsequent Trek movie, Star Trek First Contact had been in theaters, and a whopping three years after the original Generations film had been released. Ironically, a First Contact game would’ve been a lot more straightforward—it would’ve essentially been about shooting Borg on the Enterprise.
That said, Generations broke a lot of new ground for Trek games and was an impressive undertaking for the developers. It had top-notch production values for its day, including extensive voice acting from the entire cast and the first digital representations of several iconic Trek locales. It was also one of the first games to get the golden Star Trek formula down, if not perfect—space combat in a starship, with away team exploration on a planet. While the early TOS point-n’-clicks had toyed with that classic, essential combination, Generations infused it with real time action both in first-person and in space…not too shabby for a movie tie-in game that practically no one remembers.
Star Trek: Starfleet Academy (released 1997)
Now this game is an interesting animal. Released in 1997, the same year as the troubled Star Trek Generations, Academy was the first game to attempt recreating the highly cinematic, suspenseful starship combat scenes made famous by Trek films like Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock and The Undiscovered Country. Academy was set in the same era as those films, so you had Kirk and company still off saving the galaxy while a new generation of Starfleet cadets sweated their way through simulations at Starfleet Academy in San Francisco.
Academy had you playing as a fresh-faced cadet and his intrepid crew of fellow classmates, as they tried to graduate and become a real crew in their own right. Apparently they were all done with academics at this point in their studies, because the gameplay consists entirely of space combat simulations. Academy was novel because it was so cinematic, and immersed you in the Trek movie-era universe so completely. It came on a CD wallet-stuffing six discs, and most of that space was taken up by a ton of full motion video cutscenes.
Sure the acting was cheesy—most FMV games of that time were downright cringe-worthy—but the presence of real actors on real sets made the game feel like some lost Trek TV show, set during the original series movies; something the fans have always been clamoring for, incidentally. The story was also partially dynamic—at certain points you had to solve conflicts between your crew members so that they would be more loyal and unified later on. You could actually screw up so badly that your entire class could be dishonorably dismissed from the Academy.
On top of the student crew, Bill Shatner, Walter Koenig and George Takei reprised their roles as Jimbo Kirk, Pavel Chekov and Hikaru Sulu respectively, offering sage advice and reminiscing about their academy days. You even had to run the infamous Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario, with the option to cheat your way out just like Kirk did, with...varying results and amusing reactions from Kirk himself.
Of course the game was not without its problems. Constantly swapping CDs back and forth was a common drawback of the FMV craze back then, but the game’s mechanics never felt quite right either. While you could operate all of the various stations onboard your simulated bridge, the combat had the most problems. It was obvious from the start that Academy was an attempt to compete with the highly successful X-Wing and Tie Fighter space combat sims from LucasArts, so your starship handled like a nimble X-Wing starfighter piloted by Luke Skywalker. Star Trek ship combat has always been analogous to naval battles between big destroyers or submarines, not the WW2 dogfights that George Lucas emulated for Star Wars. Pulling a tight 180 in your Enterprise-class heavy cruiser was pretty jarring, especially when the Klingon ships could do essentially the same thing.
Academy also had its share of bugs and incredibly flimsy game logic. If you did almost anything out of order or strayed too far from the mission parameters, the game would get stuck in a loop or just flat fail the mission on you, necessitating a full restart of whatever mission you were on. While I might have had a love-hate relationship with a few of the game’s missions, I also have a lot of fond memories of Academy. I got into it a few years late, right around the time the tragically underrated Star Trek: Enterprise series was just getting started, and I remember it was cool to have my own crew exploring the galaxy at the same time…even though it was all just a simulation in the end.
Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force (released 2000)
This is where Star Trek gaming hit the big time. While past Trek games had been more of a niche interest among hardcore fans, similar to war simulation or economy-based space sims, Elite Force was Trek’s first foray into a mainstream videogame genre, and it doesn’t get more mainstream than the first person shooter. Developed by Raven Software, longtime veterans of id’s engine tech, Elite Force is a curious footnote in gaming history because it is one of the very first games built on the Quake 3 engine. Raven was just starting to get the feel for an engine they’d exploit for everything from Soldier of Fortune 2 to Jedi Outcast, so it’s curious to see development with the Quake 3 tech so early in its life. So, yes, Elite Force is basically Star Trek Quake—the game’s tagline was “set phasers to frag!”—but simply dismissing it as such would be a disservice to a very good game.
The story begins with the USS Voyager being teleported to a starship graveyard, a sort of Bermuda triangle in space. This plot let the writers drop in elements, aliens and concepts from all over the TV series’ run, and from the larger Trek canon as well. In fact, sharp-eyed fans will remember that this starship graveyard plot is lifted from the episode “The Time Trap” of the animated Star Trek series from the mid '70s. Voyager’s security chief Tuvok has been training up a Hazard Team, an elite away party prepared to go in “when diplomacy fails.” The team is led by Alex Munro, a hotheaded young ensign with some impulse-control issues. Munro and his team must go on increasingly dangerous missions (exponentially dangerous if you’re wearing red) in a bid to help Voyager escape. The story might not be original by Trek standards and the premise—an away team whose entire job is to go in shooting—might be more Kirk than even Kirk would prefer, but it’s at least interesting, right? Well it would be, if it weren’t smack in between the 6th and 7th seasons of Star Trek Voyager.
Voyager didn’t exactly start out hot in the mid '90s, and by the time Elite Force was released, the series had descended into awkward, unintentional self-parody. The writing was paper thin, the characters were either unrealistically flawless (Janeway, Seven) or unrealistically pathetic and incompetent (Neelix, Paris, Tuvok) and the TV episode plots started to feel like crushingly banal fan fiction. By at least the 5th season most of the fans were laughing at Voyager, not with it, and this uncomfortable hokey-ness carried over to the game as well. I actually sympathized with Munro and his ever-optimistic team of redshirts, as they were usually the only people doing their jobs in Voyager’s crew and under constant ridicule and discouragement from the main cast, no less.
Intrinsic Voyager annoyances aside, the developers at Raven took their Star Trek Quake a lot more seriously than expected. A few of them must have either done a ton of research or had been huge fans (or a little of both) because Elite Force was anything but a licensed churn-out. Everything, from the environments to the starships to the dialogue to the costumes, was completely show accurate, and anything original had been thoroughly researched. The Hazard Team might not have been the most…traditional of away teams, but while their tactics were less “boldly go” and more “seek out new life—and shoot it,” their universe was wholly believable as Star Trek.
This painstaking accuracy to the Trek universe made it less distracting when you beamed down to wherever you were going and proceeded to vaporize everything that moved. The game had a classic assortment of FPS weapon staples but they were all Trekkified just enough to fit in, and of course you always had your trusty phaser to fall back on. The story—though often goofy—flowed well and sent Munro and his team to multiple alien locales, including a ghost ship that was basically an enormous gun that you had to load and fire, and the foggy, cavernous depths of a Borg cube.
My favorite level was a scavenger base, conveniently cobbled together from several species’ ships and populated by their space and time-displaced crews. The level gave you glimpses of a Klingon ship, a few races exclusive to Voyager’s run, and even a Kirk-era Enterprise-esque ship teleported over from the sinister, goateed Mirror Universe. In between missions you could explore a few choice areas of the USS Voyager itself, and even visit the holodeck for some eclectic target practice. This away mission/Voyager duality was another hint at the Star Trek game that fans still desperately want—that golden mixture of a big, elegant starship to call your own and thrilling alien planets to explore, a formula that has existed since the original series in the '60s but has yet to be perfectly translated into a videogame. Of course Elite Force also offered a classically addictive Quake-style multiplayer, but set in the holodeck and lovingly painted with unmistakable Trek styling.
If you’re going to graft Trek onto an established and not exactly appropriate game genre like the FPS, getting every last detail of the surrounding environment right counts for a lot. This wasn’t just a glorified Quake mod with phasers instead of nailguns; it was packed with little references and callbacks that only ardent fans would get, specifically because the developers knew what they were talking about and knew that the fans would appreciate it. That’s dedication.
That’s it for part one of this article. Keep your eyes on Gaming Nexus for part two, where we’ll look at the pinnacle of Star Trek gaming, its decline into doubt and stagnation, and a possible future resurrection for Star Trek games and fans alike.