Whether you're a final frontier fan or not, you've probably noticed the onslaught of advertising for the latest entry in CBS' ever-growing catalogue of Star Trek series. The impending return of Jean-Luc Picard to television screens this week is a massive media event and seeing the iconic captain once again going boldly in the imaginatively-named Star Trek: Picard will be emotional for fans who have missed his uncompromising integrity and moral fibre.
The media fanfare surrounding the new show is down to the fact that Patrick Stewart's character is up there alongside pointy-eared Mr. Spock as a pop culture icon, instantly recognisable whether you've followed his exploits on the USS Enterprise or only know him as 'facepalm guy'. We thought we would never see him again, but here he is; nostalgia for beloved characters burns even bolder and brighter in space, it seems. The recent Star Wars trilogy proved as much when Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher returned once more to a galaxy we believed they had left behind a long time ago.
Despite sharing 50% of their titles, Star Wars and Star Trek have little in common beyond their cosmic settings and a theatrical, Shakespearean quality to their drama. Both properties have had their ups and downs over the years, but one area where Star Wars fans have Trekkies trumped is video games; there are a great many more console games from a galaxy far far away and — inevitable disappointments aside — the high points are significantly higher than virtually any Trek game.
In all honesty, it’s been slim pickings for Trek fans over the years. We’re going to take a look specifically at the games on Nintendo platforms, but even the most die-hard Trekker would be out of their Vulcan mind to suggest the cross-platform Star Trek catalogue comes anywhere near the quality of the 'Wars library. There are definitely highlights but arguably no equivalents to classics like Rogue Squadron II or Knights of the Old Republic. There are multiple reasons for this, which we'll explore below, but let's start by revisiting the first Star Trek game on a Nintendo system.
Set course for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Maximum warp.
Space, the final frontier
Interplay’s Star Trek: 25th Anniversary was the first Star Trek game to beam to Nintendo consoles in 1991. Its Game Boy counterpart arrived the following year, but despite sharing a title these are two different games. The former was a take on the developer's computer game of the same name while the latter was developed by Visual Concepts, although both were published by Konami's shell company Ultra (or Palcom in Europe).
The NES version features top-down exploration of various locations as you planet-hop through an adventure solving puzzles and finding life forms before beaming back to the bridge and warping to the next planet. For a licensed NES title, the visuals are pleasingly accurate when it comes to depicting the characters and ship, although its lacklustre gameplay doesn't hold up so well.
The Game Boy version intersperses top-down away missions to find weapon parts with side-on shmup-like action sections where you take direct control of the Enterprise and negotiate incoming asteroids and other debris. Firing phasers and photon torpedos soon gets monotonous, although the ability to divert power between shields, 'speed' or phasers adds an element of personal strategy to these gauntlets. You can push right to go faster or hang back and steadily avoid gravity wells and obstacles. It's tough, as many 8-bit games are, although a password (stardate) system lets you skip to where you lost your ship. Scintillating it isn't, but we've played much worse.
Developer Imagineering Inc. turned in both versions of 1993's Star Trek: The Next Generation for NES and Game Boy and the two games offer largely similar experiences. This involves juggling menus and ship systems as you warp between locations on an 'adventure', of sorts, although it has all the excitement of boldly filling in a spreadsheet. For fans there is some pleasure to be wrung from them, but the games suffer from a distinct lack of intrigue or wonder, taking the least interesting part of Star Trek — the menial functions and inputs required to operate a starship — and building a management game around that. On PC this works better thanks to the interface and power of the platform. The 8-bit consoles simply weren't suited to this genre, though. Who knew piloting the Federation flagship could be quite so dull?
This style of game didn't fare much better on 16-bit consoles. Spectrum Holobyte's Star Trek: The Next Generation: Future's Past released on Super Nintendo (and Genesis) in 1994. It certainly looked better than its 8-bit predecessors and featured a similar mix of ship-based management and on-foot away missions, but gameplay was much the same; clunky and interminably sluggish to the point that it's hard to maintain enthusiasm. Perseverance (and perhaps a lack of other games to play) may have endeared Future's Past to some players, but compared to the countless fun and accessible games in the SNES library, it's desperately pedestrian. With such a broad universe of ideas to draw upon, it was disappointing to see such humdrum efforts to catch Star Trek's lightning in a cartridge-shaped bottle.
These are the voyages...
PC games like Star Trek: The Next Generation - A Final Unity demonstrated that this style of management-adventure was better suited to that platform thanks to its mouse and keyboard interface and improved visual and audio fidelity. On console we'd continue to see limited takes on the same premise like 1994's Star Trek Generations: Beyond the Nexus, a tired movie tie-in for Game Boy from Absolute Entertainment. Interplay's Star Trek: Starfleet Academy Starship Bridge Simulator on Super NES took the bridge-based gameplay from previous Original Series titles and put it front and centre, enabling you to reenact key battles from the show and movies. Once again, though, the static view from the captain's chair and the menu-based interface simply didn't translate well to console gaming and tedium triumphed over tension.
Perhaps we expected too much. We were pining for a Star Trek game which captured the essence of the show, which is certainly not navigating soupy menus to engage the warp drive or reroute auxiliary power to the inertial dampeners. Star Trek is about exploring the unknown — boldly charting the stars to better understand ourselves — but the real beauty of the show is its almost infinite diversity in form and content.
Star Trek can be almost anything. Some of the best-loved episodes feature almost no visual effects: The Measure of a Man is one of several courtroom dramas; Lower Decks concentrates on non-principal characters and their unique impressions of the main crew; Family doesn’t once show the bridge of the Enterprise. For all its operatic space faring, playing Netflix roulette with the series is just as likely to turn up an episode with Data painting or replicating cat food as it is some grand confrontation with the Borg. With that in mind, a Star Trek game could take almost any form at all, big or small, so why had most been so turgid and unimaginative to this point?
Looking to that other 'Star' franchise, games like Super Star Wars may have strayed from the source material considerably, but they captured the movies' swashbuckling spirit and gave you the opportunity to fire blasters and swing lightsabers along to 16-bit renditions of John Williams' thrilling tunes. Console-owning Trekkies could be forgiven for wanting a simple Star Trek-branded 2D platformer in a similar vein.
Enter Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Crossroads of Time. Made by Novotrade International, developers of Ecco the Dolphin among others, this DS9 game captures the look of the show relatively well, but the platforming itself is stodgy and awkward - Super Star Wars it ain't. In fairness, it's more along the lines of Flashback or Another World, but it lacks the charm of those cinematic platformers. Wandering the Promenade talking to NPCs soon becomes dreary and the controls are too unwieldy to be fun in the more action-oriented sections.
So, back to space combat, then.
Its continuing mission...
Developers would continue to grope around for a hook on which to hang a Star Trek game, to varying degrees of success. There are several reasons that Star Trek doesn't have a truly great video game to its name. One factor is that it's really about people and their relationships, nuanced things that video games have only recently begun to explore with any sophistication. The Roddenberry ethos at the heart of Trek — that by the 23rd Century humanity will no longer quarrel amongst themselves – is something writers on the various shows have struggled to reconcile for years because without conflict, drama is very difficult to create. And video games are near impossible.
Games have been built on the act of shooting things from the very beginning – Spacewar! was essentially the first computer game, and it didn’t have you sitting down in the Observation Lounge debating the Prime Directive. At its core, Star Trek's grey areas and moral quandaries don't lend themselves to the action-packed, binary scenarios that video games traditionally excel in. Perhaps an old-school text adventure, but not a sexy shootout.
Conversely, Star Wars carries conflict in its very name and epic, thematic battles between the light and dark sides play to gaming's strengths. The new era of Trek, as instigated (stylistically) by JJ Abrams in his 2009 'reboot' movie, has shifted the franchise into a more mainstream, action-packed lane – a point which old-school fans often find hard to swallow. Advancements in CG technology play a large part, too; epic space battles are now much simpler (and cheaper) to create without building and photographing hulking great physical models. Far easier to cut to a snazzy VFX shot than write your way around a budget-busting battle with a clever, entertaining conversation. Star Trek: Discovery certainly looks better than any previous iteration of the show, although we sometimes wish they’d taken another pass at the dialogue.
Still, firing phasers in Star Trek is generally a sign of failure. This hasn't prevented a handful of first-person shooters (including the surprisingly not-abominable Star Trek: Elite Force) and a large number of space combat and strategy sims appearing across all platforms, though. Nintendo-wise, we’ve had both Quicksilver Software's Star Trek: Tactical Assault on DS (and PSP) in 2006 and 4J Studios' Star Trek: Conquest for Wii (and PS2) the following year. Both titles were published by Bethesda, with the DS game giving you more direct control over your ship and the Wii title taking a turn-based approach to battle.
Tactical Assault, while showing promise with its touch interface and a welcome lighthearted approach with cartoon-y character portraits and humorous writing, ultimately fails to iron out gameplay kinks and ends up more frustrating than fun. Sound familiar? It scored poorly in our review and Conquest fared little better. The combination of Star Trek and Risk-style strategy sounds with a winner, but it reeked of a product put together on a shoestring budget and much older PC games offered a far deeper and more rewarding strategy experience.
Strange new worlds
And that’s it for Star Trek on Nintendo platforms. With the exception of the pinball table available as part of Stern Pinball Arcade, it's been 13 long years since Star Trek has graced a Nintendo system. Perhaps that's a blessing in disguise; at least we dodged the excretable Star Trek, an attempt to squeeze Kirk and Spock into an ill-fitting third-person co-op shooter that even JJ Abrams vocally disliked.
There have been some good ones we've missed out on, though. Star Trek Online will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in February, and in spite of some MMORPG clunk, the fact that it's still going after a decade says something. Mobile game Star Trek: Timelines has its fans. Without doubt, though, the finest Star Trek game of recent times (and perhaps all time) is Ubisoft's Star Trek: Bridge Crew, a co-operative VR game where four players take different bridge stations and work together to overcome the challenges inherent to commanding a starship on the final frontier.
For arguably the first time, Bridge Crew gives players a taste of the feeling they've sought from static bridge sims and strategy games over the years. No, not navigating dreary menus or balancing power reserves, but co-operating intelligently as a crew, reporting to each other, living out starship fantasies and actually saying the words. You're not simply speaking for the fun of it - clear communication of all that delicious Treknobabble is vital to success. Therefore you assume the role and channel all the procedural knowledge you've soaked up through decades of watching the show. Hail them. No response, Captain. They're firing! Shields up, red alert!
The realm of VR brings the bridge to life in a way static 16-bit screens never could. Framed as a co-op adventure, it's arguably the first game to tap into the most potent part of Star Trek's formula: the sense of comradeship and family that develops in each and every crew. It’s a real shame that VR still represents a barrier to entry preventing more players from taking their bridge stations.
New life and new civilisations...
Perhaps unlike previous developers, Ubisoft has the resources and the budget to make good on the promise of the premise, which may explain why Bridge Crew succeeds where so many others have failed. For all the grandeur of the setting, the show itself has traditionally been produced on a very tight budget, and that's reflected in the games as well. A galaxy-sized canvas needs galaxy-sized talent, which takes time and money to foster.
Other games exist that don't carry the Star Trek name but capture its spirit incredibly well. The narrative of the Mass Effect trilogy gets into some grey areas and its focus on building a crew and examining their relationships is something we've yet to see explored effectively in a Star Trek game. Mass Effect Andromeda arguably drove that franchise off a cliff, but the original games still have plenty to offer and were certainly influenced by the show.
However, a multi-million dollar budget isn't necessary to create a unique and engaging (pun intended) experience. Subset Games, indie developer of Into The Breach, absolutely nailed the shipboard resource management angle with FTL: Faster Than Light, a brilliantly addictive top-down roguelike strategy game that secretes Star Trek from every pore (in a good way). We've lost countless hours to it on PC, so it's probably a good thing that it never came to Switch.
We've also got a soft spot for Switch eShop minnow Catastronauts. It's essentially Overcooked in space, and the Trek influence is obvious. Far from original, then, but by tapping into communication and cooperation, it hits on the Trek fundamentals far more successfully than many of the official games. We can't help but like it.
Where no one has gone before...
So, we still await a Star Trek game (great or otherwise) on Switch. If there's one thing above all else that the series offers, it's hope for the future. Perhaps Star Trek: Picard and the new fleet of shows will spark interest and investment in a gaming experience that truly showcases what Trek is all about. Regardless of budget, there is so much potential for games in this universe, and we don’t just mean 3D chess. We're all for jumping into X-Wings, blasting TIE Fighters and slicing things in half with laser swords, but with the infinite diversity and combinations of game genres today — both epic and personal in scope — surely there’s space to boldly go somewhere, too?
As an erstwhile captain of the Enterprise often said: somebody, please, make it so.
Picard only said the last bit of that sentence, of course; Jean-Luc rarely grovels. What have been your favourite Trektacular gaming experiences, on Nintendo platforms or otherwise? Are you looking forward to the new Picard show? Sick to death of all the posters and TV spots? How many lights are there? Feel free to open hailing frequencies below. NL out.