Forgotten titles, abandoned projects, limited releases – the world of games is full of interesting tidbits of trivia that fall through the cracks and into the realm of obscurity. In Arcade Arcana, editor Chris Ullery shines a light on a hazy bit of video game lore, examining its relevance to the history of the medium and how it applies to gaming today.
Like many of you, I’ve spent the last week playing as an intrepid starship captain on a quest to save the entire galaxy, carrying the weight of myriad civilized alien cultures on my back as I battle an eldritch horror from the furthest reaches of space that represents the single greatest threat to peace and freedom in galactic history.
Unlike many of you, I haven’t been playing Mass Effect 3.
Instead, I’ve been spending my time with a somewhat forgotten title from the early ’90s called Star Control II. Why would I be doing such a thing when there are Reapers to battle and alien women (and men) to romance? Because, as Piki Geek’s resident video game historian, it falls to me to keep the past alive. And playing through Star Control II, it has become incredibly evident how much of an influence the title has had on the Mass Effect universe.
Just how much of BioWare’s space epic is based on this relic from the days of DOS? Hit the break and find out. But beware: there are some minor spoilers ahead.
Despite being hailed by the initiated as one of the most important game franchises in history, the Star Control series has been seemingly forgotten by today’s mainstream audience. The brainchild of developers Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III of the studio Toys For Bob (who you may know these days as the team behind last year’s wildly popular Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure game/toy hybrid), the franchise owes its own history to Spacewar!, one of the earliest known video games.
Much like Spacewar!, the first Star Control focused on top-down battles between two ships with an emphasis on inertia, momentum, and the gravity influences of nearby celestial bodies. Where it made its own mark, however, was by featuring two factions of incredibly balanced ship types. Despite wildly different designs, weapons, speeds and sizes, Star Control featured a remarkably even playing field, leading to a highly strategic combat game that quickly earned a cult following.
But the game would truly hit its stride with 1992’s Star Control II, which hugely expanded the basic combat simulator of the previous title into an enormous, open-world game peppered with a healthy dose of RPG elements. The sequel featured a much more fleshed out story, a galaxy full of dynamic and shifting allegiances, and an end goal with a myriad number of different ways to complete it, all built around the core combat that had made the franchise a hit two years prior.
So how does Mass Effect fit into all of this? The first link between the two franchises harkens all the way back to the release of the first title in BioWare’s trilogy, where none other than Ray Muzyka himself name dropped Star Control as one of the major influences for the Mass Effect universe. Since then, many have commented on the startling number of similarities between the games, reinforcing the notion that Star Control II served as the template upon which BioWare constructed their own franchise.
Right from the beginning, the base storylines for both the Mass Effect series and Star Control II share a remarkable resemblance. In both games, you play as a lone human tasked with stopping the seemingly impossible odds of an alien species intent on nothing less than the eradication of all life. In order to achieve this, you take command of an experimental, prototype ship based around the technology of an ancient race and must form a diverse team representing various interstellar cultures before ultimately taking the fight to the enemy. All the while, you find yourself uncovering a set of artifacts sprinkled throughout the galaxy by said race, which intended them to be used to stop just such an apocalypse.
Star Control’s opening tells the tale of a research team sent to investigate the ruins of a long lost alien civilization called the Precursors (think Protheans) in the midst of an intergalactic war between the Ur-Quan Hierarchy of Battle Thralls and the Alliance of Free Stars, the conflict at the heart of the mostly story-free first Star Control game. The team finds themselves stranded amidst the ruins, with no way to contact Earth and no clue how the war is progressing. Eventually, a the team discovers that Precursor ruins are actually an abandoned starship factory. With just enough resources to build the skeleton of a single ship, you are given command of the newly made vessel and tasked with returning to Earth to discover the result of the war.
Arriving at Earth only to find humanity enslaved within an impenetrable dome surrounding the planet, you meet up with a group of holdouts on a research station still in orbit. There, you learn that the Ur-Quan handily defeated mankind, who chose imprisonment upon their own world rather than becoming combat slaves in the Ur-Quan’s quest to conquer the rest of the galaxy. Having established a base of operations, your goal now becomes liberating the various friendly races in order to form a new Alliance and overthrow the Ur-Quan once and for all.
So, while some of the base concepts are there, the details of the plot do differ from Mass Effect. However, the very moment you’re granted control of your ship (whose name, along with your captain’s name, can be changed to whatever you wish), there’s absolutely no denying the strength of Star Control’s influence.
Much like Mass Effect 2 and 3, you control your ship manually as you zip from planet to planet (though purists will be pleased to know that your ship in Star Control is actually affected by inertia). You’ll be able to jump from system to system as well, with hyperspace travel filling in for Mass Effect’s warp relays. And just like its progeny, you’ll be limited in how far you can travel by your available fuel. Trying to explore out too far without carefully managing your resources can get you stranded out in space – and trust me, you don’t want THAT to happen.
When you find yourself in the orbit of a planet, you can scan it for available resources. However, rather than sending a probe out to do your dirty work for you, you’ll actually launch crew members down to the surface of the planet to research first hand… in an armed rover. Those of you already shivering at the thought of Mass Effect’s lackluster Mako missions can rest easy; Star Control II’s top-down planet exploration is far more responsive and enjoyable, letting you harvest resources and collect data from felled native beasts to your heart’s content.
What’s especially nice about Star Control II is that virtually every planet and moon within its massive galaxy is open for exploration, as opposed to Mass Effect, which typically had only about one world to explore in a given system. However, intrepid captains should take care: not every planet is safe to set foot on. Intense temperatures, wild electrical storms, tectonic activity, and hostile life forms can quickly kill your away team if you aren’t careful, though your rover can be enhanced over time to protect against such dangers.
So what does all this exploration and resource gathering get you? Why, upgrades, of course! Just like the Mass Effect games, you get to reap the benefits of your time spent scrounging for resources in Star Control II with a bevy of powerful upgrades that will, eventually, give you the strength you need to confront the game’s final challenge.
Alright. So the narratives share common themes, and some of the gameplay mechanics are quite similar. But one of the most endearing qualities of Star Control II is the eclectic selection of alien races you’ll encounter, befriend and (more often than not) do battle with in your quest to form a new Alliance. And when you compare this cast of characters to those that populate the Mass Effect universe… well, that’s when things start to feel really familiar.
One of the first races you’re likely to run into are a species of marshmallow-like beings called the Melnorme. The Melnorme have made it their goal to keep themselves connected to as much galactic intelligence as possible. Why? Because they are aware of the inherent value of information, and realize that they can make a killing with the other civilized races by acting as the primary source of knowledge. Slap breathing apparatuses on them and they’re practically Volus.
To the Melnorme, information is as good as currency, and to tap into their secrets, you’ll have to provide some of your own. This is usually in the form of the locations of mysterious planets and biological data of alien life forms. The data they have to share is well worth the effort, however, as you can gain schematics for a host of new technological enhancements for your ship, as well as information on races throughout the galaxy.
Then there’s the Thraddash. These guys are a race of cigar-chomping hardasses who look like a mix between a rhinoceros and Joe Camel. Theirs is a culture that lives to fight, mostly because they’re so short-tempered that they’ll use anything as an excuse to start up a good brawl against anyone… even themselves. In fact, the Thraddash are so hell-bent on killing their own kind that they have gone through nineteen separate, distinct racial cultures. Depending on your interaction with them, you might even invoke a twentieth.
As you interact with them and learn more about Thraddash culture, the similarities between them and the Krogan become more and more apparent, especially when you learn that the Thraddash once came close to nuking their own planet. However, unlike their Mass Effect counterparts, the Thraddash were prevented from devastating their species in a nuclear winter. Depending on the player’s actions, you can use the Thraddash to channel their belligerent nature on the Ur-Quan in much the same way as the Krogans were used against the Rachni.
When your travels expand further from the Sol system, you’re bound to run into a race of hostile aliens called the VUX. The VUX are a militaristic, almost mercenary group of aliens that act as enforcers. What’s more, they have a very special beef with humans, one that will immediately sound familiar to those steeped in Mass Effect lore. When humans and VUX made first contact with one another, a miscommunication lead to immediate hostility between the two civilizations. This event, known as “The Insult,” combined with the VUX’s tendency to look down their noses (snouts?) at other races make them a pretty strong stand-in for Mass Effect’s Turians.
And who could forget the Syreen? A race of psychically-gifted, blue-skinned women that have the capacity to mate with humans… come on now, do I really need to spell this one out? One look at them and the origin of Mass Effect’s Asari becomes painfully obvious. Play your cards right, and you can even strike up an illicit romance with a Syreen woman, complete with all the sensuality of a fade-to-black followed by some questionable noises. Hey, it was 1992. We took what we could get.
Hell, I could go on for days comparing the two franchises, but let me limit myself to one more parallel—the Ur-Quan themselves. Enormous, tentacled beasts from the deep, dark beyond, they’re hell bent on conquering the galaxy by subjugating lesser races to carry out their will. The comparisons between the Ur-Quan and Mass Effect’s Reapers is immediately apparent, and the core of both storylines revolves around mounting a resistance to the threat posed by each race.
One of the most chilling parts of the original Mass Effect came near the end of the game, when Commander Sheppard directly communicates with the Reaper Sovereign. It’s a powerful moment, made all the more unnerving by Sovereign’s low, grating voice. Of course, the scene is all too familiar to Star Control II fans, as Sovereign’s words—and voice—echo those of the Ur-Quan almost line for line. Check out this comparison of scenes from each game:
Now, because I can hear Mass Effect fans worldwide loading their weapons and looking up my address, let me be absolutely clear about all of this: In no way am I suggesting that Mass Effect is a “rip-off” of Star Control II. No one who plays the two games can deny that Mass Effect has clearly been significantly influenced by the 1992 space simulation, but BioWare’s end result is something far different than what Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III created two decades ago.
For one, the ultimate tone of the games is entirely different. The races of Star Control are over-the-top caricatures that would be more at home in a Saturday morning cartoon than the kind of gritty space melodrama BioWare has crafted. It’s lighthearted, fun, and full of charm, whereas Mass Effect has grounded itself more within the realm of believability. Both approaches are handled masterfully – you’ll fall in love with Star Control for its bizarre bird aliens who power their weapons’ batteries by lobbing insults, and you’ll be pulled into Mass Effect for its gripping drama and emotional involvement. Similar concepts, two very different approaches. And both are entirely valid.
And while both games are centered around dialogue and diplomacy, the manner in which each game handles this couldn’t be more dissimilar. Mass Effect puts you in the shoes of Commander Shepard, a character you create, build and customize yourself. Shepard is always on the screen, always surrounded by the allies you recruit and fight beside. Shepard has a presence. The captain in Star Control II never makes an on-screen appearance throughout the game, and while all dialogue options are up to you, you never get the true sense of character provided in Mass Effect.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Mass Effect is about being in the trenches with Shepard and his crew and blasting your way across alien worlds. Star Control II takes a more macrocosmic approach, tasking you with forging racial and cultural alliances and engaging in strategic ship to ship combat. Again, BioWare used the blueprints of Star Control to forge something uniquely their own.
Star Control II can definitely be considered a game far ahead of its time. The open-ended nature of its gameplay and the dynamic way the game’s narrative unfolds makes the game surprisingly playable even today. And given the title’s importance as the major inspiration behind world of one of this year’s biggest titles, I strongly recommend giving it a try so that you can experience BioWare’s roots first-hand.
Fortunately for all of is, Toys for Bob released the source code for Star Control II a few years ago, letting a group of intrepid fans dedicate themselves to the task of recreating the title to work on modern operating systems. The result of their monumental efforts is the Ur-Quan Masters, a freely available version of Star Control II that combines the best elements of the original PC release and the enhanced 3DO console port.
The Mass Effect series deserves praise for taking the best elements of role playing and science fiction, infusing it with solid gameplay and a whole lot of heart, and turning it into a package that is one of those rare treats that can be enjoyed by the die-hard and casual alike. But it would be a terrible shame to not similarly pay respect to the incredible title that served as the launching pad for the franchise’s success. The bottom line is this: If you enjoyed Mass Effect and are longing for more, you owe it to yourself to give Star Control II a shot. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.