Star Fleet 1: The War Begins
Greetings readers! The USGS Fair Shake is patroling Deneb Sector.. Captain Carl is commanding. What if I told you that a game existed that was basically a Star Trek game in both theme and play control… but it wasn’t? What if I also said to you that it’s one of the best of a long forgotten genre: The ASCII character, turn-based strategy game? A what? Read on.
Start Fleet 1: The War Begins, is a game that was released for several home computer systems in the 1980s, most notably, as an IBM PC compatible program, by Interstel in 1986. Starting out as commander of a training vessel, the UGAS Republic, Star Fleet 1 assigns you the seemingly simple mission of defending a region in the galaxy with the mission briefing consisting of little more than “You must eliminate X amount of enemy warships within Y days,” with X and Y based on whether you chose a short, medium, or long mission. Enemies can either be Klingon, errrr “KRELLAN” ships, or Romu… umm “ZALDRON” ships. Completing a few missions successfully earns you a promotion in rank on a roster board. Once you attain the rank of Lieutenant, you may choose your ship out of 30 or so to command. All the ships are the same regarding power and ability, so pick your favorite name.
The mission begins with ominous text… “the universe being created,” set to the wonderful PC speaker tones of Also sprach Zarathustra, made famous in 2001. All of the actual game play takes place on a tactical screen divided into several pieces. The lower left illustrates the region you are cleaning out of enemies. Unexplored quadrants (64 quadrants to a region, and 100 sectors to a quadrant) are shown as question marks. A long range scan will identify any ships, stars, or starbases in the 9 adjacent sectors to you. The quadrant your ship occupies is shown to the right of this. On the PC, all the graphics are ASCII characters. Enemy ships can be either a ‘k’ or a ‘Z’. Your ship is indicated by the first letter of your ship’s name (‘R’ for Republic). Ships status is indicated on the table to the lower right. The top right is a neat little graphic display (again with ASCII characters) showing your shield status. If a Star Trek… err, “Space sim” game wasn’t enough, Star Fleet 1 also has a crew roster, where you can save your character. As you successfully complete missions, you may gain a promotion to a higher rank, or a commendation, perhaps for saving a starbase from being destroyed. Higher ranks allow you to accept higher level missions, which means such hazards as space storms, enemy boarding parties, less starbases, smarter AI and the like. (I’ve personally never made it past Commodore… It’s not easy.)
For a game developed in 1982 originally, the graphics are ‘informative’ if ‘non-existent.’ The intro screen is fairly creative, but unfortunately that’s the only time you ever ‘see’ your ship in action. It doesn’t matter though, as graphics are just eye candy in this case. Everything one needs to see is on screen, and the ASCII ‘graphics’ are surprisingly effective. You’ll wince after an encounter with 5 Krellan ships, as your shields go from a set of bright yellow rectangles to a coarse gold color. Another case of gameplay being enjoyable, regardless of graphics.
Sounds are enjoyable, assuming you have a loud PC speaker. Light speed, torpedoes, phasers, are all identifiable sounds. The musical score before and after a mission is a nice touch. At times during a boarding party raid on a disabled enemy ship, you may bite your fingernails as you wait for the battle sounds to end. Less is more. No musical score like in Wing Commander.
There are over 20 (!) different commands you order your crew to carry out; from sending out probes, using a tractor beam on disabled enemy vessels, navigating, shooting, boarding, laying mines, damage control and even a self destruct option, which will destroy everything in a quadrant, including, of course, you. No other version of this style of game comes close to this complexity. Commands are entered mostly with the F/Function keys along the top of the keyboard. Don’t know what does what? No fear, as there is a short three letter description at the bottom of the screen (TOR = Torpedo, for example). Control is excellent, but does have a steep learning curve. You should probably print out a handy reference card with all the commands listed. I just happen to have located one here. Don’t worry, take your time glancing back and forth. The game is turn based, remember? That means you can theoretically leave it running for a week and it will be there when you decide to pick it up again.
I actually recorded the above video, as there was no video of the PC release of the game. Some fun things to try. Warp out of the quadrant! Self destruct in the presence of a starbase! Run out of energy! Some tips: It’s immensely easier to navigate with the targeting computer (F1 or TAR) versus using the actual NAV function. Try both. This style game was not new, even in 1986. Various versions were created for many systems dating back to the mainframe systems of the 60s and 70s. The Atari VCS even had Star Ship. Later games were released, EGA Trek being a well known version. However, Star Fleet 1: The War Begins is the most in-depth. I burned hours of my youth on this game. I never surpassed Commodore, as I mentioned, and that was recently. I dig this out every few years and go through a week long gaming spurt. It never loses its charm. One bonus of this game was the instruction manuals. One was specifically about the game, regarding controls and such. The other was more of a “training manual” and was about 80 pages of fiction that added details and background information to the game that made it feel much more like a world you were playing in, as opposed to simply “kill so many bad guys, next!” Like Star Trek? Like strategy games? Like space games that you can play at your own pace? Give Star Fleet 1: The War Begins, The Fair Shake.