Did Commander Shepherd steal your swagger?

Head2Head: Mass Effect vs. Star Control II

April 25, 2009

Good 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.

Did Commander Shepherd steal your Swagger?

Did Commander Shepherd steal your Swagger?

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.

Hard to see, but each little dot is an entire solar system filled with planets (and that's only about half the map).

Hard to see, but each little dot is an entire solar system filled with planets (and that’s only about half the map).

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.

Meet Liara and Talana - two sweet alien hotties, each eager to turn you blue

Meet Talana and Liara – two sweet alien hotties, each eager to turn you blue

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.

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    1. Devon says:

      You’ve seen some similarities I didn’t even pick up on. I played SC2 long before ME, but it had been so long between that I didn’t even think to compare them.

      I’m sure you could say a lot of sci-fi follows similar plots. Well, probably not just sci-fi. But somehow I think the vastness of the universe, and our planet seeming so small in comparison, makes us think about just how delicate our existence really is.

      I always like to see “extra” features like resource collecting, treasure/artifact hunting, and trade routes in games. Some games just wouldn’t feel complete without it. Take Freelancer, for example, which has a similar threat in the story in the form of (**SPOILER** … for a 7-year-old game) the Nomads.

      Speaking of space games, how about Freespace 2 with its Shivans and virtually any Star Trek game with their Borg? These enemies are similar in many ways.

      Oh, and EV Nova with the Shareware enforcer! LOL. Actually, did EV Nova have any big alien threats? I do remember it had an interesting trade route system.

      In Spore, during the space stage, you encounter the Grox, a race similar to Star Trek’s Borg.

      However, I don’t think any of those other games even have *side-stories* involving “alien booty” in any way.

      There is certainly something to be said for SC2. They managed to get quite a few things right, like dialogue trees, back-story, and a lot of freedom. The few things they got wrong mostly had to do with gaming and expectations in that era: poorer graphics, ridiculous 2d battles with ridiculous AI, etc. I still have to fault them for making so many “cookie-cutter” planets, though. It was near-impossible to get anywhere worthwhile without using a walk-through as a guide.

    2. Ilya says:

      Loved both Games. Within 10 minutes of Mass Effect, I had SC 2 feeling. It’s a good thing though. SC 2 is arguably the best game ever created.

    3. Santiago says:

      Error! The alien race that once in a while killed all sentient life was the plot of SC3, not SC2.

      SC2 was mostly about the ritual battle of two sub-species (Ur-Quan Kzer-Za and Ur-Quan Khor-Ah). The reasons for this ritual were, basically, different ideology on how to prevent these races from being enslaved again (I could go on for hours about this, so I will stop there). Coincidentally, the Khor-Ah believed that for them not to be enslaved again, they had to kill every sentient being they encountered, while the Kzer-Za offered the chance of slavery in two forms: as a battle thrall or encased in a planetary slave shield.

      SC3, besides considered non-canon for most Star Control fans (me included), was about some beings that periodically killed all sentient life, because they transcended into beings that consumed sentience. So you, the Captain, must find a way of preventing this.

      The difference is subtle, but it is there still.

      But I must agree with you… And when people start comparing Lineage2 to World of Warcraft to Runes of Magic to (insert MMORPG name)… I always end up saying “Since Ultima Online, nothing is really really new.”

    4. Naylor says:

      Nice comment. Have you played any of the fan “sequel” to SCII? Project 6014.


    5. DG says:

      This makes me want to check out Mass Effect now! Star Control II was arguably one of THE best games ever made. A lot of the plot and concepts from it (well from both games) was ripped from famous Sci-Fi authors like Larry Niven & his Ringworld books(hmmm, ‘ringworld’? sound a bit like HALO?) and David Brin.

    6. LOL, I named my ship normandy and my captain shepard!

    7. Yeah. Mass Effect is actually more based on star control 3. But still.

    8. Craig M. says:

      Star Control 2 many have been influential, but it was hardly original. It closely copied two games that preceded it: the 1986 game Starflight and its 1989 sequel Starflight 2.

      Take a look on youtube, it will be easier to note similarities between SC2 and the Starflight series than between SC2 and Mass Effect.

      As an aside, there’s something fishy about that first screenshot (the one that shows the ships name, Normandy, and the captain’s, Sheperd). The ship’s and captain’s names in SC2 were user-defined; Shepherd and Normandy were not programmed into the game. If I recall correctly, the ship’s original name was Vindicator.

    9. Naylor says:

      I agree that SC2 was not the first – just that there are many similarities between it and Mass Effect. And the Ship & Captain name were optional fields that I chose to insert Normandy/Shepherd for comedic value – you’re right the original ship name was Vindicator.

    10. Erik says:

      That first screenshot is just silly. Your captain is unnamed by default, and your ship is called Vindicator. The Kohr-Ah/Reaper video is spot on, though.

    11. Daniel says:

      I’ve just stumbled across your article while looking for SC2 sprites.
      It’s a coincidence because I had just been recently thinking about this topic.

      Having now almost finished the entire series, I can say that not only the ME story, but many smaller aspects of the two games (e.g. blue alien babes) are similar on a level that seems more than coincidental.
      Of course, I don’t think any of this degrades Mass Effect at all, far from it.

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