April 25, 2009Good artists borrow, great artists steal. This quote by Picasso is reflected in every form of artistic expression be it fine art, literature, or video game. While no one author can lay claim to the concept of humanity rescuing the galaxy from an alien overlord intent on extinguishing all life, there are certain elements of Bioware’s epic sci-fi RPG Mass Effect that hint towards being begged, borrowed, or stolen. And while this article could be led down countless paths, exploring all mediums of science fiction; I will instead focus on just one example, perhaps the greatest and least known video game of its time, Star Control II.
There are certain games, much like great novels, that I feel utterly compelled to play at least once a year. Like a moth to a light bulb in June, I feel drawn by these games – even though I know nothing new will come. We all have our own – for me it’s The Legend of Zelda, one of various Bethesda or Bioware RPG’s, and Star Control II. Since I had never seen a true side by side comparison of Mass Effect and Star Control II, I decided this would be a suitable topic for discourse. And for the record – I love Mass Effect and everything that Bioware has created.
The overall story arc of Mass Effect **SPOILER ALERT FOR A 17 MONTH OLD GAME** is that a lone wolf human must save the galaxy and all its inhabitants from total annihilation by an ancient alien species that returns every once in a while to kill all sentient life. The overall story arc for Star Control II **SPOILER ALERT FOR A 17 YEAR OLD GAME** is that a lone wolf human must save the galaxy and all its inhabitants from total annihilation by an ancient alien species that returns every once in a while to kill all sentient life. And that’s just the beginning. Through our two stories, you, the hero, must ally yourself with alien species; travel to all edges of the galaxy; explore uninhabited worlds gathering minerals and ancient artifacts; follow clues left behind by a wiser, yet extinct race; sleep with a hot blue alien while the camera cuts to black (will get back to that later); and ultimately destroy a Saw-clown-sounding megalomaniacal alien hell bent on wiping out all life in the galaxy.
This article can be summed up by one simple video clip. Please watch now and then continue reading… I’ll wait…
I don’t need to point out the obvious, but that would be like if they hired James Earl Jones to play the voice of The Predator (and the Predator talked). Comparisons aside, that scene where you first met Sovereign gave me chills. Now I’m all for evil, infinitely powerful bad guys but let’s give them some personality… I mean there’s got to be more characteristics than a deep-voiced, tentacled, ancient, murderous, arrogant, and floaty alien overlord out there. Now I’m sure that in a fight – pit any Mass Effect Reaver against the entire fleet of Star Control II Kohr-Ah ships and it would be pure decimation for the poor pixelated Ur-Quans – but they’re like 100 years in the past compared to the ME universe… Alright, enough about them, there’s so much more to talk about.
Let us examine the galaxy map and space exploration. Both games have you endlessly searching every system, every planet for minerals and artifacts with only a small percentage of worlds actually having much story behind them. While it was not a true requirement of either game to collect ore, it certainly aided the player in buying equipment and upgrades. Mass Effect was not as ambitious as its predecessor in that there are only about 300 “places” (be it planet, space station, moon, or asteroid) that you can visit – compared to over 5000 for SCII. However, both games attempted to explore the vastness of space while giving the player control to go pretty much wherever they wanted. It was that open ended game-play that made SCII so unique when it first appeared, giving a true sense of grandness to the atmosphere of the game.
In Star Control II you begin the game by piloting a skeleton ship made by a lost race (the Precursors) who strategically left behind artifacts throughout the galaxy. As the game progresses, you discover more and more of these artifacts which inevitably lead to you being able to defeat the seemingly unstoppable alien adversary. In Mass Effect the first mission has you interacting with a Prothean beacon and getting a glimmer of how their species was wiped out and who was responsible. You continue the game discovering more artifacts which lead you to find a way to stop the genocide of all races. Precursors…Prothean … both sprinkled clues that you, the player, find just in time to stop an impending doom… any similarities there? Interestingly enough, we never get to see what either species,Prothean or Precursor, actually look like. And the fat cows from Star Control 3 do not count!
Now I could continue, going into every bit of minutia about these two games, but hopefully by now you’re starting to get the point. If not, I leave you with one last comparison. No great story is without a love interest. And while Mass Effect allows for multiple paths, were we not all drawn toLiara T’soni – the hot, flirtatious, physic, blue-skinned alien? Liara was an ally and mentor who helped discover the truth behind the Prothean visions implanted to you by the beacon. She consoled you, confided in you, and at the most climactic moment in the game, she came to you behind closed doors and offered herself up in a do-me-before-we-die type situation. I’m sure every geek has had that fantasy since Shatner was banging alien babes in the 60’s, but is it possible that Star Control II offered that exact same love affair? Meet Talana, a hot, flirtatious, physic, blue-skinned alien. After exposing the truth to who destroyed her home planet, and as a last gesture before she leads her people into battle, the lights go down and cheesy techno beats play while sweet alien lovemakin’ noises commence.
Mass Effect is an epic game that will always have it’s place in history as one of the most influential and genre-changing RPG’s of all time. Star Control II should be remembered as one of the greatest and well-ahead-of-its-time scif-fi adventure games which expanded the boundaries for what a video game could offer. It was the foundation for which games such as Mass Effect could grow and thrive. Star Control II still maintains a dedicated fan base who praise and promote the game like it was just released yesterday. In fact, a recent effort by the original creators and strong community supporters have made a remastered version of the game available 100% for free on both PC and Mac. http://sc2.sourceforge.net/
If you are a fan of Mass Effect, you will be a huge fan of Star Control II. And if you want to note some more of that minutia, please feel welcome to comment.