Sunday, December 13, 2015

Game 9: Space (1978): Victory.

Space, created by Steven Pederson and Sherwin Steffin and published by Edu-Ware Services, was released in 1978 or 1979 for the Apple II.  Sources differ on which year it was released.  I've seen it cited as being possibly the first commercial CRPG release, although that credit most often goes to Beneath Apple Manor.  To be honest, it may not even qualify as a CRPG at all.  But, assuming that it does, it's definitely the first ever sci-fi CRPG.

Before I begin discussing the game, I should talk about it's similarities to the tabletop RPG Traveller.  Published by Game Designer's Workshop. Traveller was the first sci-fi tabletop RPG.  Many of the elements of Space can be found in Traveller, not least the in-depth (and sometimes fatal) method of character generation.  GDW eventually sued Edu-Ware for copyright infringement, and production of Space was discontinued, to be replaced by the Empire series.  I may get to those in time, but for now let's get stuck into Space.

This being Version 2.5 makes me mildly irritated.  I want to play these games in their original forms, whenever possible

I'm not entirely sure what the end goal is in Space.  You begin the game with a lengthy character creation sequence, and after that there are a number of scenarios you can choose to play through.  The goal for most of these scenarios is to amass money and resources, but it's not clear why.  Yes, the accumulation of in-game wealth can be a motivator all on its own, and I guess it works as a sort of career simulator, but it would be nice if there was an endgame in mind, or even an indication that there is an endgame.  I've no idea if Space has an ending at all.


Creating a character is the first thing the player will need to do, and this was by far the most involved character generation method seen in a CRPG at the time.  You begin by selecting a name, and then you are taken to a screen that displays a letter informing you that you've been chosen for compulsory military service.  From there you get to choose which branch of the military you want to work for: Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, or Merchant Marines.  There's an option for "Other Services" which I'm unsure about, and also an option to just be drafted at random.  As far as I can tell, the military branch that you select mostly determines what skills you are able to learn.

The game then takes you to a menu from which you can review your character.  The first option takes you to your stats.  Characters in Space have six stats: Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education and Social Standing.  I assume that these are randomly generated; I've had scores as low as 2 and as high as 12.  I haven't been able to find a manual for the game, so I'm not entirely sure what effect these stats have on the game.  At the very least they seem to affect the character's physical and mental well-being, as described below, and low stats can also limit which skills you have access to.

The second option shows the results of your character's physical examination.  You get rated in the following categories: cardio-vascular, pulmonary, skeleto-muscular, neurologic, vision and hearing.  I've had characters that were robust and healthy, and I've had one character who was blind, deaf and had a severe heart problem.


The third menu option gives you the results of your psychological evaluation, and this is where the most amusing results come from.  It's not uncommon to have characters with severe personality flaws.  I had one guy who was classified as a "pervert", with recommendations that he be kept away from domestic animals.  You can see below a character who is listed as completely psychotic.  Sometimes it feels like the Space universe has more crazy people in it than sane ones.


(I won't discuss the rest of the menu options yet.  They have to do with your current skills and training, your service record, and your financial accruals, and are basically blank at this stage of character development.)

Despite the warning that this character should be discharged immediately, I was still able to go on with my training.  Your character must do at least four years of military training, and for each year you get to select a stat or skill to improve.  For the first year I tried to study Gun Combat, but due to "psychiatric instability" I wasn't allowed to do so.  I chose Electronics instead, which was deemed as being fine.

For my second year of training I chose Navigation, but again was rejected for psychiatric reasons.  I had to settle for Mechanical.   I was rejected in year 3 for the Jack o' Trades and Streetwise skills, and due to a lack of education I was also unable to choose anything from the Professional Education list.  During the course of those rejections my character got injured, and I was given the offer to restart the game.  Being injured during training results in some significant drops in your stats.  I chose to continue, and eventually I was able to train myself in the Vaccuum Suit (sic) skill.

In year 4 I was unsurprisingly rejected for training in Gunnery and Blade Combat.  With a very small set of skills available to me, I opted to raise my Strength score instead.

At this point my initial enlistment was over, but I had the option to reenlist.  The risk of reenlistment is that your character can be injured or killed.  You can also opt to retire, with either a cash or material reward.  (I'm not yet sure what the material reward might be.  Every time I've tried to take the material reward, circumstances have forced me to take a financial one instead.)  I tried to reenlist, but due to my "psychiatric disability" I was discharged for medical reasons, with a retirement pay of about $16,000.  (Sometimes there will be a state of galactic war, and in that case you won;t be able to leave the military until the war is over.)

As mentioned above, you can die during training.  This hasn't happened to me too often.  Mostly it seems to occur when I have a character with severe heart problems, and attempt to train him in physical skills.

After character creation the game proper begins, and you can choose which of the five scenarios you want your character to play through.  I'll describe them a little below:

FIRST BLOOD
In this scenario you engage in single combat with a character controlled by the computer.  It seems as though you can select either a generic enemy named "Adversary" or any of the other characters on your disk.  I like to think that at least one pair of brother got into a fist-fight over a dead character in this scenario.

You will either be attacking or defending; it seems to me that the computer decides which.  You're able to choose your weapon and armour types, the terrain you'll be fighting in, as well as your general combat tactics.  From there you just sit back and watch as the results scroll by round after round, until one of the characters is dead.  Apparently the winner claims all of the loser's money, but I'm not certain because I've yet to win a bout.  In fact, the character I just created above got killed so that I could get some screen shots, so I hope you're happy with them.

Selecting my tactical approach to the coming battle.  I went with "Uses Counterattack."  It didn't go so well.

A typical combat round during First Blood.

Addendum: I managed to win one of these battles, and you do claim the loser's money.  Here's proof that I won.


DEFEND
In this scenario, you're placed in charge of a remote planet under alien attack.  I've tried this one over and over, and to be honest I have little idea of what to do.  Here's the main screen.


As far as I can figure out, you need to allocate power to the shields for each region (sensors, defenses, starport, residences, energy banks and control center), as well as your weapon strength.  That seems simple enough, but after a round or two I always find that my energy is completely depleted, and there's nothing I can do but wait for the inevitable.

As far as my Jack Manley novels go, this is strictly non-canon.

Occasionally my characters have had psychological breakdowns while defending.  When this happens you are stripped of command, and there's nothing you can do except watch until the colony is destroyed.  You have the option of making a getaway on your own, which I've done once.  I felt pretty bad about it, but at least I was still alive.  You can also surrender, which didn't go so well for me the one time I tried it.

Personally, I think the situation merits at least one more exclamation point.

I've given up on this scenario, because I've tried at a dozen or so times, and I'm getting no closer to success.  If I could find the game manual (assuming there is one) I'd give it another shot.  As the situation stands, I'll have to leave this scenario incomplete.

Addendum: Success!  I was able to get through this scenario by pumping the maximum amount of energy into my weapons.  This hadn't worked for me in the past, but this time around I fluked it.


I'm happy now that I've managed to successfully complete all five scenarios in the game.  Without a proper endgame, I'll consider that my condition for victory.

EXPLORE
Exploration involves seeking out uncolonised planets and mining their resources.  You are initially given the choice of a few planets, with some minor details to go on: how dangerous the planet is, the status of animal life and natives, how much fuel will be readily available, and the estimated value of any resources found.  The amount of information you get varies from game to game, but most of the time it gives a fair idea of how dangerous the planet is, and its level of resources.  There's even a category for the likelihood of a supernatural occurrence; I've played this scenario a lot, and have yet to encounter one, unfortunately.

Each round upon the planet lasts for a year.  During that time you may experience harsh weather, attacks from hostile animals, and encounters with the natives (either friendly or hostile).  You may also find fuel, food, and mineral resources.  Harvesting food and mineral resources costs energy.  Success in this scenario is a matter of managing your resources.  As long as you don't run out of food, and you keep enough energy to make the return journey in your ship, you'll be fine.  Sometimes the weather will destroy some of your food, and I've been wounded by animals and had vacuum suit mishaps, but on the whole this is one of the easiest scenarios to do well in.  If you find a planet with abundant resources, you'll be able to make a lot of money.  The only time I've died is when I ran out of food due to carelessness.

Wedge was also 106  years old, which may have had something to do with it.

TRADER
Once you've accumulated a decent amount of money, you'll be able to buy a ship and become a trader.  There are two types of ships available: a scout ship costing 1 million credits, and a merchant ship costing 8 million.  The former can carry up to 10 passengers and 10,000 tons of cargo, while the latter can carry up to 70 passengers and 100,000 tons.  Saving up the requisite money isn't all that difficult (it should only take one or two trips to a resource-rich planet in the Explore scenario), but you can also borrow money (with interest, of course) to buy a ship.

Once you have a ship, you can start trading.  You begin on the planet Xenon-12, where you can load your ship with weapons and electronics.  Once you've done that, you purchase fuel for the trip, and head off.  A number of passengers will also pay to come with you to the next planet.

The second planet is Y732A, where you can purchase drugs and crystals.  My initial thought here was that trafficking drugs might get me into trouble with the authorities, but I never encountered any.  Basically, this scenario involves loading your ship with goods and flying back and forth between the same two planets.  It's all a bit dull, but it's a surefire way to gradually increase your credits.  Once I was boarded and robbed by space pirates, but that's the only excitement this scenario has to offer.

HIGH FINANCE
This is where the big bucks come from, as this scenario sees you playing the stock market.  The stock prices are super high (in the millions), so you'll need to have some success in the earlier scenarios in order to play this one.  Each of the companies you can buy stocks in has a brief description.  They range from weapons manufacturers, to electronics, to food, to security.  Some are more dangerous to invest in than others: the security companies in particular may see you visited by goons and beaten up.

When I played this, I bought about 20 shares in Milkyway Munitions and sat back.  Each round of this scenario takes place over a financial quarter.  Messages displaying certain galactic events will appear during each quarter.  Sometimes its the breakout of a war, or a plague, or some invention, and each event has an effect on stock values.  My shares just kept going up, and I continued to sell out and buy more.  In the end I accumulated an ungodly sum of money, as shown below.


195,627,000,000 credits!  Of course there's nothing to spend it on except for more shares, so it does all feel a bit pointless.

Sometimes the Gallactica Financial Family shows up to offer you a loan.  I borrowed five million from them, and tried to get myself into negative credit, but my shares just kept going up.  I'd like to see what happens if I can;t pay my debts, but I don;t have the patience to keep going.

Occasionally you will get messages that your character's health is failing.  Most of the time you will recover, but not always.  When I grew near death in this scenario, I got the following message.


I wasn't willing to lose my billions of credits, so I didn't take the offer.  I died, but at least I died filthy rich.  I'm not sure who this guy making the offer is supposed to be.  Just a lord, as he says?  God?  The Devil?  It's all a bit vague, but I should probably just take it at face value rather than trying to ascribe this to mythical entities.

The Endgame
There isn't one.  The only goal is the accumulation of wealth, with no purpose at all.  I tried to see what would happen if  one of my character died of old age.  I got one to 160 years old, and he died of ill health during the High Finance scenario.  It seems that there's no special ending to this game, or at least none that I could find.

FINAL RATING

Story & Setting:  It's all very bare bones.  The suggestion of a setting is there, an interplanetary sci-fi civilisation set around the year 5,000, but it's just that: a suggestion.  There's no story to speak of either.  You simply play through your character's life, accumulating wealth until he or she dies.  Rating: 1.

Characters & Monsters: You don't really interact with anyone else in this game.  You can do battle in the First Blood scenario, or fight various hordes of space nasties in the Defend scenario, but they have no personality to speak of.  There are animals and natives in the Explore scenario, passengers in Trader, thugs and financiers in High Finance, but none of them are at all fleshed out.  Rating: 1.

Aesthetics: The game is presented almost entirely in test, with the occasional graphical representation of space, or your ship taking off.  Sound is restricted to a few beeps here and there, with a not-unpleasant fanfare on the title screen.  I considered granting this game an extra point for its extensive use of memos and letters to convey information, but even so I couldn't give this more than the minimum rating.  Rating: 1.

The graphical beauty of a starship takeoff sequence.

Mechanics: This is a hard one to rate, because the scenarios are so different, and so much of how the game works is hidden from the player.  I would rate Explore and High Finance as decent, Trader as adequate, and First Blood and Defend as poor.   Defend is very confusing, and it's difficult to know what effect your choices have in First Blood.  On the whole, I have to say that the game hinders the player more than it helps. Rating: 2.

Challenge: As with mechanics, the differing scenarios make this hard to rate.  Some are easy and a bit dull (like Trader), some are reasonably challenging (Explore, High Finance) and some are baffling and deadly (First Blood, Defend).  The game also relies far too much on random events for its own good, and playing it - even in character creation - can sometimes feel like navigating through a land mine.  Rating: 3.

Innovation: I considered knocking this down a point for its blatant Traveller rip-offs, but I reconsidered.  If I did that, I'd have to penalise every fantasy CRPG in existence for stealing ideas from Dungeons & Dragons.  As it is, this is the first ever sci-fi CRPG (even if its genre credentials are a little suspect), and the level of depth in character creation alone nets it a good rating.  Rating: 6.

Fun: While I can't say that I hated the game, it was never what I would call enjoyable.  Most of the fun came from the bizarre results found in character creation, to be honest.  Two of the scenarios I never properly figured out, and the rest were repetitious and unexciting.  Rating: 2.

Needless to say, this doesn't get the bonus point, as I'll never be going back to it.   The above scores add up to 16, which doubled gives me a total of 32.

Final Rating: 32 out of 100.

Next: For the moment I'm concentrating on The Game of Dungeons v8.  I've managed to grind a decent character (about 20th level), and I'm making good mapping progress, so I want to try to power through and clear this game out of my backlog.

2 comments:

  1. "The Endgame: There isn't one."

    Are you sure? The "Lord of many of your worlds" bit smells awfully end-gamey to me.

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    Replies
    1. It's possible, I suppose, but nothing I've ever read about the game - which I'll admit is very little - suggests that there's more to it than I discovered.

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