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Crapshoot: Star Trek: Judgment Rites was pretty good for a licensed adventure game

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From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, he begins a bold voyage into all things Trek.

One of the most unusual things about at least the official games based on Star Trek: The Original Series is how late they arrived on the scene. That’s excusable of course—games did exist in the 1960s when it first ran, but they were limited to stuff like Spacewar! or versions of Pong played on oscilloscopes. Still, it means they had a certain nostalgia element to them even when they were brand new.

The earliest, an arcade game called Strategic Operations Simulator, showed up in 1985—very late when when you remember Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the air in 1987. Between those events, there were only a couple of text adventures to wave the tacky little UFP flag: The Promethean Prophecy and The Kobayashi Alternative. They’re more simulation than most adventures, and very open-ended, involving resource management and the skills of the crew. 

Until those, the best known Star Trek game was completely unofficial, and managed to spread for decades until lawyers finally decided to give a damn about people ripping off their licenses. It was written in 1971 on a university mainframe and subsequently ported and re-written for just about everything—the best known PC version being the slightly more graphical version EGATrek, seen above. 

In that, you control the Enterprise on a mission to patrol the galaxy and hunt Klingons, just like the very war-like Federation did back in the original series. Cough. It was about scanning and staying supplied at starbases, and trying to clear the enemies in the most efficient way possible for bonus points. Paramount finally dropped the hammer on the game when it bothered to care, but not terminally. EGATrek for instance swapped out ‘Klingons’ for ‘Mongols.’

It wasn’t until the early ’90s that we finally saw a truly worthy Star Trek game, though there were a few attempts in the late 80s. 1989 offered the first Next Generation game, an adventure called The Transinium Challenge that used CGA graphics and is basically a disaster area. The same year brought a movie tie-in game based on Star Trek V that just consisted of the words “WE’RE SORRY” flashing on and off on an otherwise blank screen. Or not. It should have done. And there were a couple more too, though the most memorable has to be the unleaded nightmare fuel that was The Rebel Universe.

Not so much for the game, mind. No. For the portraits…

Finally, things changed. In 1991, Star Trek: The Next Generation had finally escaped its desperately awful early seasons and started being good, and the franchise as a whole was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Interplay’s contribution was the imaginatively named Star Trek: 25th Anniversary… which actually missed it, and came out in 1992 on PC, but never mind. 

For the first time, Star Trek had a PC game it could be proud of. Voices from all the original cast. A mix of shooter and adventure perfectly in the spirit of the original. Redshirts to take into dangerous situations to be shot first. Kirk even sat in his chair correctly. As an adventure, it definitely has its issues—but as a Star Trek game, it got it.

Judgment Rites came out the next year, and refined the format a little. Both are structured like the TV show, split into multiple episodes with their own settings and characters. In 25th Anniversary, they’re all completely independent. Judgment Rites adds a bit of an arc, with the idea that the crew (and other players in the galaxy, sadly not including the Pakled) are being tested by a group of aliens called the Brassicans—a strong contender for the most insufferable space elves in recorded history.

The big downsides of both games are that they involve a lot of pixel-hunting, and the puzzles often aren’t particularly intuitive—a problem shared by lots of sci-fi games that fill their worlds with Arglebargletrons and whatever. They’re very much in the spirit of original series episodes though, with lots of chatter between the characters and endearingly silly premises. One in Judgment Rites for instance sees the return of Trelane, the Squire of Gothos, who’s taken an interest in World War I and created his own simulation of it. There aren’t many sci-fi games that kick off an adventure with you space-dogfighting an out of place Fokker. (Who coincidentally is flying a World War I-era plane. Badoom-tsssh.)

What makes the individual adventures so much fun though is how flexible the adventure is. Take for instance the first mission in Judgment Rites—Federation. It kicks off like most, with the crew just chatting in deep space and awaiting a mission. Instead, a Swirly-Whirly-Spacey-Thing opens up and spits out a Federation ship whose dying captain babbles about the entire Federation being destroyed in eight days. Since there are no distracting green ladies to get in the way, Kirk leaps into action and decides to investigate the station at the heart of the upcoming apocalypse.

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