Sunday 27 January 2013

Star Control for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

On its release for Sega's Mega Drive/Genesis in 1991, Star Control was immediately noteworthy for a couple of things. At that time it was the largest game cartridge to appear for a home system in the West - it weighed in at a whopping 12 megabits (1.5 megabytes, give or take). And it, along with a batch of rather average games published contemporaneously by Accolade, successfully challenged Sega's restrictive third party licensing procedures.

Star Control is also a game of some nostalgic import to me. After salivating for weeks over reviews, on the very day I picked up my Mega Drive I promptly visited my favourite game store and took it off their hands for £39.99.

The game involves you piloting one of 14 different space craft in a one-on-one duel to the death Space War-style. The three available game modes are 'practice', which allow you to pit any ship against any ship; 'melee', where squadrons from the two warring protagonists - the Alliance of Free Stars and the Ur-Quan Hierarchy - face off in ship-to-ship combat; and the full game, of which more in a moment.

Each ship, representing a discrete alien race aligned to one of the two game's galactic powers, has a basic weapon and special ability. These vary with potency depending on the vessel's strength and price in the full game. At the top of the tree is the Hierarchy's Ur-Quan Dreadnought, here in action against a series of ships in Star Control II. Likewise, here's the Alliance's main capital ship, the Chenjesu Broodhome taking on all-comers. Obviously, some ships are better than others, and some are better utlilised against certain opponents. It's up to the player to choose what's most appropriate.

The full game introduces a strategic element. With 15 scenarios to choose from, the player is presented with a rotating star field and a set of objectives. Typically, you have a star base and a number of ships and to win you colonise, mine and fortify star systems. These bring you income for better ships, enable quicker movement between parts of your empire, and slows down enemy movements as they invade your space. When a Hierarchy and Alliance ship meet battle commences as above. Victory is yours if you destroy your opponent's manufacturing facility, or wipe out all their forces.

Back in 1991, it kept my 14 year-old self entertained for hours on end as all the ship combinations and scenarios were played to death. It's still worth a quick blast now and then. But really, its lasting appeal lies in the two player mode. Whether rushing to bury your opponent by out-producing them, or dancing around their ships with your fast, manoeuvrable craft, that's where the real replay value lies.

Graphically Star Crontrol hardly stretched the Mega Drive even by the standards of an early release. The in-game sprites were functional, but the starship spec screens were rather nice. The sound though was where the game comes into its own. The 12 megabits were rammed with some of the finest samples ever squeaked out by the Mega Drive's underpowered sound chip. In fact, I think every single blast, shot, collision - absolutely everything - is sampled. When you finally blow a particularly annoying opponent to bits, it's especially satisfying to be treated to a meaty-sounding explosion.

Running through the game are tongue-in-cheek rip-offs homages to science fiction shows, novels and memes. For example, does this Earthling Cruiser remind you of another, more famous series of starships? Hmmm, where have I seen those warp nacelles before? And when you actually play as or against the humans, it turns out the ships' captains have familiar recurring names, like 'Pike' and 'Adama'. And 'SDI surplus' as well. How very 80s. Interestingly, one of the scenarios highlights the cruiser being a cheap and cheerful Fordist assembly effort constructed in the Detroit shipyards no less.

So really, what is the point of revisiting Star Control on the Mega Drive? It is hardly canonical, though its sequel is very fondly remembered. As such, Star Control is probably the most obscure classic video game to have featured on this blog. But there's more to just me having a self-indulgent nostalgia kick (though, of course, all these pieces on old games are just that). Star Control is important because it crudely condenses and reworks problematic sci-fi tropes that still find an echo in modern video games.

The first and most obvious could have been lifted straight out of He-Man, Thundercats, etc. The baddies - the Hierarchy - are ugly. The races are respectively insectoid (Ur Quan, Ilwrath), crustacean (Spathi), blobs (Umgah), green tentacled space monsters (VUX), and fungi (Mycon). The one race that isn't - the Androsynth - are human clones gone rogue. They are ingrate knock-offs of the real thing.

The Alliance on the other hand are humanoids (humans, Syreen, Arilou), proud animals (Yehat, Shofixti), and non-organic (Chenjesu, Mmrnmhrm). No slime here. Just like Star Trek, each race exhibits some kind of essentialised human trait. All Spathi are cowardly, all Ilwrath are murderous, all Shofixti are honorable warriors, and all Chenjesu talk philosophy. And, in a variety of ways, their alien psychologies are inscribed on their physicality.

In the finest traditions of poorly-realised sci-fi, these essentialised qualities are emphasised to an absurd degree when gender enters the equation, as it does with the Alliance-affiliated Syreen. To put no finer point on it, this is a race of blue-skinned alien space vixens. And this, pictured, is their ship, the Syreen *Penetrator*. That's right, these women fly about the cosmos in a great big space dildo. With ribs. Oh to include a ship that wouldn't have gone amiss in Flesh Gordon, the larfs the creators must have had. Their ship also fires a "particle beam stiletto" at its enemies. Stiletto? Why not a dart? Last but not least their secondary weapon is a hypnotisation field. Modeled loosely on the Sirens of ancient Greek mythology, as they sang to lure weary crew members to a watery doom, so the Syreens' song throws enemy crews of all races into a lustful frenzy. They hurl themselves out of their airlocks to be picked up by the Syreen ship and added to their complement, enabling the Penetrator to absorb more damage. So yes. This race of women use sexuality as a weapon.

You could leave it there and say nothing else about it. Except that one of the biggest sci-fi franchises of this generation of games consoles - the Mass Effect trilogy - possesses its own race of blue-skinned alien babes. About 17 years separate the first titles in their respective sequences, but there is little basic difference. Mass Effect's Asari are sexually beguiling and use their femininity to secure their position among its universe's constellation of races. But worst of all, what defines the "alien-ness" of Syreen and Asari alike is the fact they are essentialised women. Is this a coincidence?

Star Control on the Mega Drive is a jolly little game (and quite a rare one if eBay prices are anything to go by). But its importance lies not in the "aah, nostalgia" factor of 20 year old video games, nor the two niche slots it occupies in the history of the Mega Drive. It's the fact that the ideological underpinnings of its alien races and game universes still stroll about the heads of video game producers in all their stunted and unimaginative glory. Star Control offers a frame that can be used to dissect subsequent treatments of gender, race and essentialism and it's one that, depressingly, is yet to exhaust its utility.


Anonymous said...

Is there room for the SWP 'Central Committee' on one of these spaceships....?

Phil said...

Cue 'not-on-this-planet'-style joking.

katatak's rainbow said...

This is really interesting! I'd noticed the good, nice/bad, ugly distinction, but not the point you made about the Syreen.

Interestingly enough, the section of SC fandom that's composed predominantly of women tends to emphasize Syreen society as being very gender-equitable and supportive of lesbianism, while most fanfiction and art features VUX as sympathetic characters. I don't hang around male fanspaces as much, but as far as I can tell, the pattern of their content reflects that of the game. What's your take on that?

Phil said...

I don't read fanfic at all. But the beauty of it is that things can be taken off in all kinds of non-canonical directions and reflect whatever the author wants it to reflect.

On the Syreen example specifically, there was no Star Control canon as such when the game came out. There was little backstory included in the manual and only the barest of traces within the game itself. So really, it doesn't matter whether the Syreen are representatives of a Woman on the Edge of Time-style sexual utopia, their presence in the game is to titillate. The same is true of the Asari in Mass Effect, despite Bioware's protestations that they're not women. Of course not - having big boobs and svelte bodies was pure coincidence.

katatak's rainbow said...

I don't disagree with you at all, and I hope I didn't come across as if I did -- I just think that fanfic is a pretty neat phenomenon, especially when it's used to re-interpret the text in ways that shine unexpected light on, or are even contrary to, the author's portrayal (cf. Wicked vs. The Wizard of Oz).

And you are right, of course - regardless of how fans (especially "periphery" fans such as women in a game aimed at men) view a given character, the essential nature of the canon remains unchanged.

Phil said...

Haha, don't worry. You caught me in a bellicose mood earlier!

It's a shame Star Control II never made its way to the Mega Drive ...