Cover of Star Saga: One - Beyond The Boundary
|Creator(s)||Andrew C. Greenberg, Rick Dutton, Walter Freitag, and Michael Massimilla|
|Original release||1988 (Star Saga: One)
1989 (Star Saga: Two)
Star Saga is a series of floppy-based video games which combine a computerized game arbiter with hefty sections of printed text. Released in an era before the availability of the CD-ROM format, the titles make up for the limited storage available at the time by using print to attempt to tell a rich story. In essence, the designers endeavored to blend aspects of paper gamebooks with the complexity of a role-playing video game.
Star Saga: One - Beyond The Boundary, released in 1988, was the first in a short-lived series of science fiction adventure/role-playing games by Masterplay Publishing. Loosely based on the Rekon pen & paper role-playing system, the game series was designed by Andrew C. Greenberg (co-creator of Wizardry), Rick Dutton, Walter Freitag, and Michael Massimilla. In this first title, players leave their homeworlds setting out to explore the vast unknowns of space. Per the official game text:
- In 2815 A.D., the majority of the human race is afraid of space. They are cloistered in the Nine Worlds (Earth and eight colonized planets) in a region called the Galactic Fringe. Even though space travel has been practical since the invention of the dual-axis hyperdrive in 2257, humankind's attempt to colonize "Beyond the Boundary" came to an abrupt halt in 2490. The "Space Plague," a gargantuan epidemic caused by an organism of alien origin, killed more than half the humanoid population of the galaxy, threatened the extinction of civilization, and forever changed mankind's attitude towards space.
- Now, a Space Patrol enforces the "Boundary," that one-way border around the Nine Worlds in order to prevent anything like the "Space Plague" from ever happening again. Now, anyone may leave the area enclosed by the Boundary, but they may not return.
- Thus far, the Boundary has proven effective in keeping ships from entering the Nine Worlds for three centuries, keeping humanity safe from the unknown. Of course, this does provide for a bit of stagnation, as well. After all, no new discoveries, no new challenges, and countless lost opportunities hardly seem compatible with a growing standard of living. Finally, there are those who sense that something is amiss...
The second title, Star Saga: Two - The Clathran Menace was the sequel, released in 1989. In this title, a gigantic armada of alien ships scours the galaxy, seeking to eliminate any and all sentient life. Players must quickly explore the accessible reaches of space, hoping to uncover technology with which to oppose this threat. The game background text describes this as:
- The ominous approach of the survey line of Clathran battle and colony ships was sweeping through the galaxy, identifying, classifying, and exterminating all in its path. Known collectively as the "Clathran Menace", it meant many things to many people. To most of the human race, it meant nothing, as they were being purposely kept in the dark by their "superiors", so as not to cause any undue panic. What good was it to evacuate a city in the face of impending disaster if the only road out of town wasn't finished?
- To Professor Lee Dambroke, Dean of the Department of Xenobiology on the university world of Harvard, the "Clathran Menace" was a matter of science and knowledge; the line must be breached and stopped, or the darkness of ignorance and stagnation would fall over the galaxy for all eternity.
- To Laran Darkwatch, mystic Disciple of the Final Church of Man, it was a question of faith; faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, faith in the Founders of the Final Church, and faith in their vision of mankind's place in the Cosmos.
- To M.J. Turner, the top pilot in the Space Patrol, or the whole galaxy for that matter, it was a question of pride; pride in the abilities of mankind to overcome all obstacles in pursuit of its ultimate destiny ... to rule the stars.
- All were impressive goals, solid tenets upon which to build a society and a glittering future. Or were they merely brittle conceits, ready to crumble at the first pressure from the "Clathran Menace"?
Although Star Saga was to be released as a trilogy, Masterplay went out of business before the third game was released, leaving only Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary and Star Saga: Two - The Clathran Menace.
As well as the computer software (which acts as a "game master" or moderator for the game), Star Saga ships with a large color fold-out map, six colored tokens that players use to move around the map, and thirteen booklets containing a total of 888 numbered passages of text. Due to the high volume of text, the oversized game box weighs in at over 3 pounds. The second title expands the number of booklets to fourteen, with over 50,000 individual paragraphs.
At the beginning of the game, up to six players choose which character to play as from six sealed character profiles. Both single and multiplayer hotseat options are available, with players interacting both directly (e.g., by trading goods) and indirectly with one another over the course of the game. Each character has a different background story and motivating goals, and players are encouraged to keep these secret from each other. All players begin with a non-upgraded starship which can move between points on the galactic map.
When playing Star Saga, each player physically plots his or her moves on the map, then enters these movements and other desired actions into the Star Saga computer program. In response to the entered commands, the program determines the results, updates the character's statistics and inventory, and directs the player to read one or more text passages from the accompanying booklets. Upon reading the section(s), the player discovers the consequences of his or her actions, as well as any new information which has been gleaned. In some cases, the actual results of a turn will be quite different from those planned, due to events such as interception by hostile forces. Although the large amount of reading slows gameplay, the text is broken out into multiple booklets so that players can (usually) be simultaneously reading from separate sources. Over a number of turns, each player slowly progresses through the game, discovering what lies at each unlabeled planet on the map and otherwise uncovering the mysteries of the galaxy.
The game master software, while lacking any sort of graphical display, is nonetheless relatively advanced for the time period. The software carefully maintains the game state, keeping players honest and preventing them from attempting invalid moves. Between plotting turns, players can use the software to view information about their current status, such as their hand-held items or the contents of their ship's cargo holds. If one player is not available for a play session (since a game cannot generally be played in one sitting), his or her character can be placed in "suspended animation" while the remaining players continue to play.
Although the central game plot is itself somewhat linear (particularly in the second title), players are generally free to move back and forth between worlds, trade various goods as desired, and otherwise explore the game's various sub-plots. Additionally, certain elements (e.g., which planet is which on the map) are randomized between games, in order to increase replay value.
Star Saga was hailed as being completely new and different from games which came before. The Computer Gaming World review of the first title summarizes this sentiment as "Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary is probably the most unique and well-written role-playing experience yet to appear in a computer game". The same reviewer noted that it was easy to lose track of time playing "just one more turn" due to the deep experiences provided by the game. In 1989 the magazine gave Star Saga One a Special Award for Literary Achievement. Compute! was less favorable, describing the game as "far more a social event than a computer game". The magazine stated that "it's lackluster without interaction" with other players, and described the user interface as "almost crude by today's standards". Star Saga One: Beyond the Boundary was reviewed in 1989 in Dragon #142 by Hartley, Patricia, and Kirk Lesser in "The Role of Computers" column. The reviewers gave the game 31⁄2 out of 5 stars.
The second game is described as being more difficult than the first, due to frequent conflicts with the Clathran "Survey Line" which inexorably moves across the galaxy. It's also more linear, in that players are prevented from undertaking certain activities due to current game conditions. Nonetheless, the Computer Gaming World review concludes, "Despite the few faults, Star Saga Two is a wonderfully written and produced game that can really glue you to the computer."
In 1990 Masterplay sold the series to Cinemaware because of poor sales. The company attributing the lack of success to its decision to develop the game for the Apple; Greenberg stated "We followed the 'Apple II Forever' hype into oblivion". He has nonetheless said that, of the various games he worked on, Star Saga was the one he is the most proud of, much more so than his commercially more successful Wizardry games.
- Barton, Matt (2007-02-23), The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age(1985–1993), Gamasutra
- Kritzen, William (August 1988), "The Stars... My Destiny", Computer Gaming World, 50, pp. 39–40
- "Game of the Year Awards", Computer Gaming World, p. 8, October 1989
- Keiser, Gregg (August 1988). "Star Saga: One—Beyond the Boundary". Compute!. p. 60. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
- Lesser, Hartley; Lesser, Patricia; Lesser, Kirk (February 1989), "The Role of Computers", Dragon (142): 42–51.
- DeNardo, Vince (September 1989), "Star Saga II: Mankind Strikes Back", Computer Gaming World, 63, pp. 36–37
- "Cinemaware Buys, Sells and Restructures". Computer Gaming World. May 1990. p. 50. Retrieved 16 November 2013.
- "Electronic Arts Reaffirms Commitment to Disk-Based Software". Computer Gaming World. March 1990. p. 14. Retrieved 15 November 2013.