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The Ur-Quan Masters

Sean Trundle

The thing about playing classic games is that, for most of us, the real appeal is in recapturing a piece of earlier days.

Publisher: Source Forge
Genres: Action, Action/adventure
Multimedia: The Ur-quan Masters
Platforms: PC
Number of players: 1-2 s
ESRB rating: Unrated
Developer: The Ur-Quan Masters Team
US release date: 2007-07

The thing about playing classic games is that, for most of us, the real appeal is in recapturing a piece of earlier days. Sure, there are a few decades-old games that standout even now, but you can see a big difference in how someone reacts to the original Rygar based on whether or not they're picking it up for the first time or they had their hands on it 15 years ago.

Despite what some of us will tell you, graphics and sounds are not the only improvements that have been made to games. By and large, controls have gotten more intuitive, level/mission design has become more cohesive and engaging, immersiveness has improved, and artificial intelligence has become, well, more intelligent. Certainly, there are more than enough modern games that throw these improvements to the wind, but I'd like to remind my would-be critics that when we think of games from the 1980's, we remember perhaps 10% (I'm being generous) of what was actually produced.

So, often, much of what we remember fondly in a video game wouldn't generate much admiration to someone who picked it up five or ten years after its original release. The reason I mention all this is that The Ur-Quan Masters is a port of a 3DO version of Star Control II, a game originally released for the PC in 1992 (the name of the port is different for trademark reasons). The team working on updating the now-open-source code first released it in 2002, and I, obviously, am writing this review in 2004, no less than a dozen years after the game actually premiered.

The question then begs: who is The Ur-Quan Masters being updated for? Is it just for the diehard crowd that has loved this game for the last dozen years? My answer is, for reasons of exposure, probably yes. But this does not have to be the answer for reasons of quality. This is one of those rare games that actually does stand the test of time, and this is why a team has gathered to bring it back. How do I know that I'm not starry-eyed with nostalgia myself? Because I hadn't played Star Control II until 1999, a full seven years after its initial release -- and I fell in love with it even then.

It's difficult to talk about a port without talking about the original, so let's get that out of the way first. Star Control II is simply an incredible game. Trying to box it into a genre is difficult, at best, as it brings together a multiplicity of discrete elements: from an RPG-like story to arcade-style combat to resource management and gathering. Despite these disparate factors, the gameplay is remarkably straightforward -- you control a single starship, the last hope of Earth (and the worlds previously allied with it in Star Control). You must slowly improve the starship and its attached mini-fleet of combat vessels until it is strong enough to challenge the might of the Ur-Quan (the current bullies in this sector of the galaxy).

Along the way to this goal, you meet the assorted aliens and factions that make this game, and the attached universe, so memorable. By the time you're done, you'll pull a "prank" on a death-obsessed spider-like species of alien, meet some intelligent plant life that admits the impossibility of plants achieving sentience, and uncover a few clues about the origin of humans, to name just a few things. All the while, you've got to fight to stay alive every time you run across some hostile ships and scour mineral resources from hundreds of planets.

The Ur-Quan Masters doesn't add anything to the original, besides some optional remixed music tracks. This is, in fact, beyond the stated intentions of the developers. They're still in an alpha state with the project, and aren't looking to add anything until the game is fully playable as it was meant to be 12 years ago. What's lacking in the code at this point isn't all that much -- a few cinematics and miscellaneous options such as the ability to name your saved games. Currently at version 0.3, the port should be able to perfectly emulate both the PC and 3DO editions of the game (so that purists may have their preference) by version 1.0 (though no date has been given for this final release yet).

Beyond that, The Ur-Quan Masters is only missing a few things that it will, sadly, probably never include. The giant fold out star chart, for instance, that came with Star Control II so many years ago. Although it's possible that a .pdf file could be included, and anyone who likes could run down to Kinko's to get it blown up to the appropriate size, it seems unlikely. This, I suppose, is the unfortunate downside of the open-source movement. For all the beauty of free information and fast-as-light data exchange, we don't get those small, tangible things. An open source version of any Ultima game, for instance, could never include those trademark cloth maps. Oftentimes they amount to little more than gimmicks, but I can't say I don't look back fondly on those little extras.

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