Ahhh the grand concept of exploration! One of my favourite gameplay elements ever.
And why shouldn't it be? Since time immemorial we as humans have always been skirting the boundary of the known to worlds beyond! This drive has not been lost to us, despite having our own world nearly completely charted and figured out. The last frontier on our world would be that of the ocean deep, where the water pressure is so unforgiveably powerful that it takes the best of engineering and grit to delve to that depth. I'm still waiting on a game that fairly realistically involves exploring deep oceans.
Until then, I'll keep playing space exploration games.
The one I've been enjoying lately comes by way of the Sega Genesis. Originally a series of games for DOS released in 1986 and '89 for the sequel, they made a port for the Sega Genesis in 1991. This version featured improved graphics and streamlined gameplay, yet still captured all the magic that made the originals the groundbreakers that they were.
So what does Starflight do that makes it stand out from other exploration games? Simple: It makes movement a resource.
This is probably the single greatest element of gameplay the devteam could have implemented. While you can wander within solar systems without consequence, most everything else DOES use up precious fuel. This precious resource is unlimited in quantity, but is very expensive to buy.
Why is this an important factor? Consider if you could fly everywhere freely without cost. What reason would you have for exploring a nearby solar system before trekking off way off to the far edge of the galaxy? Sure, the devteam could have made the enemies you encounter at that point unforgiveably difficult for beginning players, but that would get frustrating. Some players, especially back in the day and age this game came out, would try their best to plow through the difficult enemies through sheer skill and grit rather than taking the hint that you should explore more locally and power up first. (goodness knows that's what I would have done)
Instead, they made nearly everything you do draw from one resource, and made that resource expensive. This has the benefit of making you stop and consider every move you make. Is landing on that planet worth the fuel required to do so? What if I make that lengthy trip to that far-off solar system and find nothing? Will I have enough to make it back okay?
Now, if you run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, it's far from a game over. You can make a distress call, and you'll be picked up and taken to the main space station. At a steep cost, however. You definitely don't want to be relying on this method. It is strictly a last-resort tactic. Still, having it there is very nice. A more unforgiving game would make you lose everything if you got stranded. Starflight is a game that does many things right, and striking a good balance between risk versus reward is one of those things; that it gives an emergency backup is another mark in its favour.
Another thing Starflight does great: Mystery. There are strange, strange things out in this galaxy. Some hostile, some friendly, many are confusing, and some require delicate handling to successfully placate from killing you. The communication system is simple, if effective, but I've experienced some of the most harrowing moments of diplomacy in this game, when aliens that are completely unknown to me are sounding threatening, and I'm a hair trigger away from getting blasted apart. Saying the right thing is tantamount, and even having your defenses up can make a difference in the discussion.
And when I say alien, I mean it. Some of the things in here are truly alien. Strange and fantastic, yet following their own logic. A brilliant move on the part of the devteam was to make the aliens not be able to be perfectly understood. Some are easier to understand than others, but there's still usually measures of garbldeegook sparsed throughout the text the aliens say to you, making diplomacy that much more interesting. Trying to understand the meaning behind the words is not always an easy thing, and makes for very interesting conversations.
The game also features a fair amount of customization. You can buy what ship parts you want, though that's mostly just buying upgrades rather than true customization. Where the fun lies is in your crew making. You have a selection of races, some better at things than others, and four crew slots to fill. Experiment! Build a crew! Other than the stats, it makes little difference which you choose, but letting your imagination fly in making up your own crew is half the fun here. How each one reacts to what happens, how they converse with each other, the technobabble they say amongst each other.....
Erm, well, since that isn't a feature put into the game, I probably shouldn't mark it as a point in the game's favour. That's more my imagination filling in gaps that the game chose (wisely) to not put in. Still, it's something that I like, and if they instead had put in pre-made crew members to choose from, I feel that the game would have suffered for it. Then again, that seems the sort of thing they would have done were the game made nowadays rather than back in 1991.
Would it have worked better that way? I say no. 'Cuz let's be honest, you thought of putting in the crew from Star Trek. Admit it.
There's much to be had in this game. I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what is available to see, be it star systems or aliens or lost civilizations or... Geez, there's a lot in this game...
I think I'll go play it some more.