Welp. As promised, my latest attempt at an “irregularly recurring” blog feature has gone about as well as one might reasonably expect. The first installment of “Tuesday Trekkin'” was back on Tuesday, October 20th, so if we’re being kind then I guess we’re tapping “monthly” on the shoulder, but let’s reserve judgment until the next entry.
Meanwhile, here we are. What should we talk about? For this latest trip down Memory Lane, we’re going to set the clocks way back. I was in the 7th grade and one of a small group of students selected to head off from our school for half a day each week to attend a nifty program where we got to do deeper dives into the areas of science, reading, art, and so on. Most of the classes and sessions were fun, but I remember two things pretty vividly from my time attending the program.
First, it was here that I first found a copy of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, beginning a lifelong love of Matheson in general and this book in particular. Second, it was here that I got my first exposure to computing technology, at least as it existed in 1979. It looked something like what you see to the right.
Yeah, buddy. A teleprinter, or teletype. No screen, no hard drive, no internet. Just this beast and a phone line to a data center somewhere downtown.
Granted, by the late 1970s machine beasts like this were already on their way out, replaced with models that featured video screens or actual data terminals connected to that aforementioned downtown data center or perhaps a “computer room” on the premises housing a mainframe and its peripheral devices along with the small cadre of special humans who knew how to communicate with them in their own mysterious languages. But for an underfunded school district? This was the shit, yo. It was also the gateway which introduced me to my first ever “computer game.”
Star Trek is a game originally created by high school senior and budding software developer Mike Mayfield in 1971. Coded in the BASIC programming language, it was designed to play on teleprinters but Mayfield didn’t take too long to create a version for one of the first minicomputers in 1972, and it seems that it’s this iteration that cemented its place in the history of both computer programming and Star Trek fandom.
The game itself is a pretty simple, text-based affair with the player guiding the U.S.S. Enterprise across numerous “quadrants” with the goal of destroying a number of Klingon battlecruisers within a predetermined time limit and number of “turns.” The degrees of difficulty came from “scanning” for the Klingons, who also moved from quadrant to quadrant, and aiming weapons in the correct direction and at the proper effective distance.
Depending on the version of the game you played, when you entered a new sector/quadrant, the program offered a “map” of that area denoting stars, starbases, the Enterprise, and any Klingons lurking about. Finding a decent picture of such a printout was harder than I thought it would be, so after looking at some low-rez pics via Google I used my limited artistic skills to mock up what it might look like on old-school green-bar computer paper:
So, you either destroyed all the Klingons in the prescribed limit, or you didn’t. Pretty cool, huh?
When the first desktop computers were made available to the purchasing public, BASIC was of course one of the languages wannabe computer nerds like me learned, and the code for Star Trek was included in numerous BASIC guidebooks and other resources. Even before then, the game was ubiquitous on mainframes. Many programmers found the code and ported a version to their particular platform, resulting in countless variations as people introduced their own kinks and quirks into the template.
By the time desktop microcomputers were a thing in the 1980s, the game was pretty much everywhere. A few game companies even went so far as to create fancier commercial versions. I bought one of these, Star Fleet I: The War Begins for – I kid you not – my old Commodore 64. This version of the game was successful enough to launch an entire series, though I only played this one.
The original Star Trek text-based game inspired a number of similar adventures during the ensuing years. Well-known computer “interactive fiction” quests like Zork, The Hobbit, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to name just a few owe some debt to Mike Mayfield’s Star Trek. I remember playing such a game based on the original Alien film, but I don’t believe it was a commercial venture so much as some spirited programmer’s labor of love that somehow fell into my grubby paws at some point.
Of course, there also were commercial Star Trek interactive text-based adventures, notably a trio produced by Simon and Schuster Interactive: The Kobayashi Alternative in 1985, The Promethean Prophecy in 1986, and 1988’s First Contact. The first title is notable for being written by Diane Duane, fan-favorite Star Trek novelist. I played all of these at some point way back when and only vaguely recall details from any of them, though I remember The Kobayashi Alternative being my favorite.
By modern standards, games like these and the original Star Trek game that spawned them are hopelessly primitive, but they retain an undeniable charm. Such games and other “interactive fiction,” when written well, really called on you to fill in the lack of visuals with your own imagination. Even though you were looking at a no-frills display on a computer screen or even just a piece of green-bar paper, you could conjure images of the Enterprise battling Klingon cruisers or the characters moving around on a planet and engaging alien obstacles and mysteries as the story unfolded.
Then you hit ENTER and make your own “pew pew!” sounds. You know you did. Admit it.