Tuesday Trekkin’: Old-school Star Trek computer games!

Okay, so here we go again, attempting to get back to something resembling “irregularly recurring.”

For those new to these parts, “Tuesday Trekkin’” is essentially an excuse for me to yammer on a bit about some facet of Star Trek fandom. These exercises usually involve some fondly remembered bit of funky merchandise, anniversaries or other “milestones” of important dates in franchise history, convention memories, or whatever else tickles my fancy on any given day. The “Tuesday Trekkin’” moniker is a tip of the hat to a pair of friends, Dan Davidson and Bill Smith aka “The Hosts of the TrekGeeks Podcast.” Over on Facebook, they have a fan group, Camp Khitomer, devoted to all things Trek where all are welcome to join in their positive vibes and community. They also like to push a #TrekTuesday hashtag over there where they invite members to share updates, links, and/or pictures celebrating their fandom, so this feature is definitely offered in that same spirit.

So, what’s on the docket for today? It’s time to get our Star Trek game on, old-school style.

My earliest memories of “Star Trek gaming” involve that old text-based game originally written for teletypes in the early 1970s, and which by the mid-late 1980s had spawned an uncounted number of clones and spin-offs. Even if you’ve never played it, you’ve likely heard of it or at least some version of it, and you can read all about it in this previous Tuesday Trekkin’ installment.

The next “step up” for me on the Star Trek gaming front was during my teenager years in the early 1980s when videogame arcades were all the rage. Tron, Tempest, and Gyruss were my main goto games, at least until early 1983 when Sega brought us the Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator.

“Here, Daddy. Let me show you how not to suck at this.”

Available in both stand-up and sit-down cabinets and featuring “state-of-the-art” vector graphic displays of the U.S.S. Enterprise battling Klingon battlecruisers, the game was accented by the vocal stylings of Leonard Nimoy and James Doohan – Spock and Scotty, their gosh-darned selves, by golly. This quickly shot to the top of my list of favorite games, and while I never kept track of this sort of thing, I’m reasonably certain that all the quarters I fed into that game at various locales around the greater Tampa Bay area would probably buy me a modest-sized house. Okay, maybe a cool car. All right, probably a crappy one, BUT STILL.

The game was quickly ported to other “platforms” of the era. I had versions for the Atari 2600 as well as the Commodore 64. In all honesty? The graphics on the C64 port were better than the arcade version, but there’s still nothing like the original cabinet, amirite? To that end, I eventually acquired my own stand-up cabinet as one of the initial purchases of our first house in 1997. Because of course I did. I’ve since been informed by my wife that upon my death this cabinet will likely serve as my casket, into which she’ll also cram as much of my stuff as will fit beore the entire kit is launched into the ocean or space, depending on whatever final directives I end up leaving behind.

Skip ahead to 1985 and Simon & Schuster, by this point established as the current publisher of Star Trek novels after taking the baton from Bantam Books in 1979, releases Star Trek: The Kobayashi Alternative through their Simon & Schuster Interactive division. The story features Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise searching for Captain Sulu, who along with his ship, the U.S.S. Heinlein, has gone missing. Yep, in this period of much looser Star Trek continuity, Sulu gets a promotion and a command years before that sort of thing is made “canon” on screen.

Developed by Micromosaics Productions with a story by noted author Diane Duane – who lists among her numerous credits several well-received Star Trek novels – the game is a text-based “interactive fiction” adventure that was a step forward for such games of the era. Instead of just line after line of text on an otherwise blank screen, every character gets their own dialogue box that pop up when it’s time for them to speak, while other boxes provide descriptive information, hints, status updates, and so on. To be fair, the whole thing is a fairly clunky affair, but it was as least more interesting than the text games I’d played to that point.

A sample screen of information and dialogue from The Kobayashi Alternative. Not very LCARS, amirite?

The Kobayashi Alternative was released on the popular platforms of the day – IBM PC/DOS, Commodore 64, Apple II, and Macintosh. I acquired the C64 version first, later picking up the IBM/DOS version once I had steady access to such machines. Remember, kids: back in those days, not everyone had a computer on their desk at home, and even in office environments it was common to share desktop PCs. At my first duty station aboard Camp Pendleton, I’d play games like this after hours. The C64 version came with sparse instructions, which I assume were included with the packaging for the other platforms, and reviews of the day cited bugs across the different versions, but by the time I found a PC version it had apparently been re-issued and now featured cleaner game play along with a “hint book” and more comprehensive instructions. As I recall, this was the only one of the four S&SI games that I played to completion.

Following The Kobayashi Alternative was 1986’s Star Trek: The Promethean Prophecy, released to celebrate Star Trek‘s 20th anniversary. Whereas the first game was set in the then-nebulous “movie era” between the first and second films, this game is set firmly within the framework of the original series’ “five-year mission.” Developed by TRANS Fiction Systems Corporation and released by S&SI, the game contains a handful of familiar tropes pulled from various episodes: making contact with new life and a new civilization on a strange new world, an emergency that requires Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy to seek a fast solution in order to save the Enterprise and its crew, and so on and so forth.

As with its predecessor, The Promethean Prophecy was also a text-based adventure, released for the PC, C64, and Apple II. It featured an interface similar to the previous game with a few tweaks that still comes off a bit cumbersome, and I remember thinking some of the dialogue boxes would pop up and disappear before I could read everything. I also remember not really enjoying the story this game offered, particularly when compared to The Kobayashi Alternative. This and work life at the time are probably the main reasons why I never got around to finishing this one.

Next up? Desktop gaming in the final frontier took a couple of steps forward with 1987’s Star Trek: The Rebel Universe. Developed for S&SI by Firebird Software, this is another adventure set during the five-year mission, this one introduced familiar sound effects from the original series as well as graphics including space battles and scenes of the Enterprise in space and computer-generated renditions of Captain Kirk and the gang. In another technological leap, this was the first Star Trek home computer game to feature BOTH 5.25″ *AND* 3.5″ floppy diskettes! Woo-Hoo!

As for the story? Kirk and the Enterprise crew find themselves in the mist of an interstellar uprising. Starfleet vessels and their crews are going rogue after venturing into an isolated area of space deemed “out of bounds” by the Federation. Throw in some Klingon and Romulan shenanigans, and we’ve got a recipe for all sorts of crazy Star Trek action.

I remember thinking how cool it was to see Kirk and the Enterprise crew on my computer screen, offering what is essentially an extended episode of the original series. The Rebel Universe is definitely an artifact of its era and the “primitive” graphics are of course very quaint by today’s standards, but there’s still a charm lurking in there. However, like The Promethean Prophecy I have to confess I don’t really remember much about the actual gameplay and as I said upthread, this is another one I never finished playing.

The last of Simon & Schuster Interactive’s Star Trek game offerings came in 1988 with Star Trek: First Contact. Not to be confused with the 1996 feature film of the same name or even the 1991 fourth-season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “First Contact,” this is yet another game featuring Kirk and the Enterprise crew and set during the era of the original series. Micromosaics Productions returned for this latest development effort, creating a hybrid of text-based adventure and some graphics sprinkled in for flavor – think of them as a forerunner to the “cut scenes” which would become commonplace in a few years.

As the title implies, First Contact gives us a story of Kirk and h is crew discovering evidence of a previously unknown alien civilization. The story includes scuffles with Klingons, shape-shifting aliens, the Enterprise transporting a delegation of fussy diplomats, and….wait for it…a murder.

The graphics for this one weren’t much different than those presented in The Rebel Universe. What I remember from this one is thinking the story narrative was pretty detailed, and the dialogue for the familiar characters was nearly pitch perfect, on par with Diane Duane’s efforts on The Kobayashi Alternative. I also recall that while I didn’t finish this one, this time around is because I couldn’t seem to find my way to the ending. How ’bout dem apples? Also, my fondest memory of this game is that it’s the one my mother stuck in a box along with a bunch of other stuff she bought me for Christmas the year I was stationed on Okinawa. Yes, I took it to the office and played it during off hours. 🙂

Star Trek: First Contact marked the end of Simon & Schuster’s “first era” of computer games and other interactive products. We’ll leave those for future Tuesday Trekkin’ installments, I think.

We now return you to your lives, already in progress.

4 thoughts on “Tuesday Trekkin’: Old-school Star Trek computer games!

  1. Great article, I’ve not been able to experience any of these yet, I’m hopeful that GOG will get them eventually, but my understanding is that the licensing on them is convoluted at best. My first Trek game experience was either the “Star Trek: 25th Anniversary” game or the TNG “Final Unity” games, both of which I believe I finished on the family computer when I was in middle school.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll get to the Interplay era at some point. I played 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites, and though I also tried Starfleet Academy I never made it through that one.

      I still have most of these games in a box.

      Like

  2. Fun fact: If you entered swear words 3 times in “The Kobyashi Alternative,” the game ended with you being hauled off to Sickbay where Dr. McCoy stuck you with a hypo while muttering, “Damn…” I kid you not. And that was an INCREDIBLY frustrating game, so swearing made all the sense in the world.

    I remember very little about “The Promethean Prophecy,” though I know I played it. And by “very little” I mean “absolutely nothing.”

    Fun trek down memory lane!

    Liked by 1 person

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