History Lessons: Star Trek 25th Anniversary

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Roughly two years ago, I decided to watch all of Star Trek. This began with the original series, which I’d never seen before; I was only familiar with the original cast from the films. Not long afterwards, I saw that Star Trek 25th Anniversary — a game starring the original cast that I played a lot after its original release in 1992 — was re-released on GOG, and I snapped it up. The timing seemed fortuitous, but I wanted to finish watching the original series before playing, so I played some other games instead. Then it got lost in the shuffle. Now, I’ve almost finished watching every Star Trek episode, across its five different incarnations (I did take a few breaks, mind), and I realized I had better play Star Trek 25th Anniversary before that happens.

I also realized that the timing is perfect yet again, because I’m playing Star Trek 25th Anniversary 25 years after its release. I promise I didn’t plan it that way.

When I wrote about the first Act of Double Fine’s Broken Age, I included a brief history of the point-and-click adventure genre. I won’t repeat that here, but I will say that the genre, with its focus on exploring handcrafted locales, observing the surroundings, talking with people, and solving puzzles, is perfect for Star Trek. Star Trek imagines a future where humanity has solved its problems and created a paradise on Earth, and starship crews explore the universe on missions of peace and the advancement of knowledge and understanding. There are occasional spurts of violence, but most of the time the crew is trying to make peaceful contact with an alien species, or explore a strange new world, or frantically run scientific analyses to avert a disaster, all while dealing with difficult philosophical questions. In other words, they are exploring interesting locales, observing their surroundings, talking to people, etc. And the scientific mysteries that dominate many episodes of the shows are a natural fit for the puzzles that are central to the classic point-and-click adventure design.

So perhaps the most surprising thing about Star Trek 25th Anniversary is that it opens with a space battle. Well, actually it’s just a battle drill, but still. The more traditional point-and-click portions of the game are reserved for away missions. While aboard Enterprise, players control the ship directly, changing its heading with the mouse and firing phasers and photon torpedoes (provided the weapons are powered up) with the two mouse buttons. It’s like a miniature version of classic space combat simulation games such as Wing Commander or TIE Fighter, and it was this aspect that most interested my younger self when I first played it. I was very much into Star Wars and spaceships at the time, and TIE Fighter would become something of an obsession of mine. I think I played Star Trek 25th Anniversary around the same time, because I remember comparing the space combat in both games. Star Trek’s is a lot simpler, but its design is also in keeping with the source material. Before combat begins, players must order Sulu to raise shields, and Chekov to arm weapons. The Enterprise and enemy ships take locational damage that can knock out specific systems like sensors or weapons, but Scotty can be ordered to prioritize repairs. When I first played, I don’t think I knew that I could change Enterprise’s speed, and even go into reverse to help get a bead on an adversary. In fact, the direct mouse control for flight and weapons feels the most out of place; in the shows, the captains would order evasive maneuvers rather than taking direct control, and generally speaking ships didn’t seem that agile, exchanging fire like naval ships firing broadsides, rather than the zippy fighters from Star Wars. But I’m not sure how else it could have been implemented, and overall the shipboard sections of the game feel enough like Star Trek that it works.

There actually aren’t that many space battles in the game proper, but many more are accessible by warping to different star systems. This is the game’s method of copy protection; if players copied the floppy disks from a friend but didn’t have the printed manual with the star chart, they wouldn’t know which star system to fly to in order to continue the game. But in a brilliant move, choosing the wrong star system often led to a randomized battle, so players with bootlegged copies could still play around with these, and hopefully get hooked enough to buy a legitimate copy. My parents had gotten a full boxed copy of the game complete with printed manual, but I still spent a lot of time warping around and getting into fights, especially when I was stumped by a tough puzzle somewhere.

The GOG version, however, is actually not the floppy disk version, it’s a CD-ROM re-release that came sometime after the original release (I’m not sure exactly when). I never knew this version existed. While the game itself is largely unchanged from the floppy disk version, the CD-ROM version has one remarkable addition: full voice acting from the entire original cast. And the quality of the acting is excellent. When I watched the original series I was struck by how Leonard Nimoy, as Spock, outclassed everyone else on the show, but here I was equally impressed with the whole cast. Even William Shatner, whose performances as Kirk on the original series are legendarily hammy, does fine work here, barring a few awkward lines. DeForrest Kelley, as Dr. McCoy, also gives a great performance; later I learned that his performances in this game, and its sequel Star Trek: Judgment Rites, were among his last before his death. I wasn’t aware there was a sequel until I saw it released on GOG alongside Star Trek 25th Anniversary, and I definitely intend to check it out.

The full voice work also means that Kirk’s classic opening monologue (“Space… the final frontier.”) is present as the game begins, followed by the original theme music. By default, this music is played using Soundblaster emulation, which is how I originally heard it, but the game also supports the Roland MT-32 for superior sounding music. I’ve discussed the Roland MT-32 before, in my History Lessons post about Betrayal at Krondor, so I won’t go into the details again here, but suffice it to say I wanted to get some Roland emulation going here as well. With Betrayal at Krondor, I used a soundfont to provide a decent facsimile of the sound, but Star Trek 25th Anniversary does not support General MIDI, meaning I can’t use soundfonts. That left a different option: Munt, an emulator specifically designed to recreate the Roland MT-32 sound for DOSBox (itself an emulator that runs the game). Installing Munt is fairly simple, but it requires the original ROMs (sound banks) from the Roland MT-32 as well. The only way to acquire these legally is to own an original MT-32, but they are easily found online as well. Given that the MT-32 is no longer produced and can only be acquired from third-party sellers anyway, many consider themselves justified in downloading the ROMs and running Munt.

For posterity, I’ll list the steps for setting up Munt here. Download the emulator itself from Sourceforge and install it, and find the ROM files. Run Munt, go to options, and select the ROM files you want to use. Then you need to get your MIDI device ID, by running DOSBox and typing “mixer /listmidi” at the command prompt, then pressing enter. This will give a list of MIDI devices, one of which will be the MT-32 emulator (Munt). This ID number must be put into the DOSBox configuration file for each game you want to use it. Search the configuration file for the line reading “midiconfig=” and add Munt’s ID number after the equals sign. Make sure you save the file. The final step is to tell the game itself to use Roland sound instead of Soundblaster. To do this, run the “Launch settings” shortcut in the game folder (assuming you got the game from GOG). This has graphics and sound options; choose VGA graphics, Roland LAPC-1 / MT-32 for music, and Soundblaster for sound effects. Other than setting up Munt, I didn’t have to do much tweaking to the game, beyond the standard fullscreen settings and resolution scalers in the DOSBox configuration file. I tweaked some audio settings like sample rate a little, but it was hard to tell if these made much of a difference.

With my tweaking finished, I could start the game and enjoy the significantly better music via Munt. After Kirk’s monologue and the opening credits, which mimic those of the original show, I’m given the title of the first episode, and deposited on the bridge of the Enterprise. Like the show, the game is divided into episodes, each following a different assignment from Starfleet Command. For those unfamiliar with the original series, it frames events as part of the Enterprise’s five-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations, but was cancelled after only three seasons, leaving the final two years of the mission undocumented. Star Trek 25th Anniversary picks up where the show left off, portraying events from the fourth year, while the sequel Star Trek: Judgment Rites presumably shows the final year. With such a strong connection to the original series, I’m glad I waited until I’d watched it before playing.

Each episode in the game begins on the bridge of the Enterprise, usually followed by a message from Starfleet Command with new orders, or a captain’s log recording from Kirk explaining the mission. Then I’m off, warping to a different system to go investigate. Sometimes there are other ships that must be hailed, and Kirk can choose what to say, and sometimes there is a space battle. But eventually Kirk must lead an away team somewhere, which leads to the point-and-click adventure segments that make up the meat of the game. Here too, however, there are deviations from tradition. Instead of controlling a single character like most point-and-click adventure games, the player controls four: captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and a security officer. These personnel can be talked to, or even “used” like inventory items. For example, if the team finds a piece of medical equipment, the player may choose to use McCoy on it since he is the medical expert and is most qualified to operate it. The away team also starts each mission with a set of standard equipment in their inventory, including Spock’s science tricorder, McCoy’s medical tricorder and medical kit, a communicator to talk with the crew aboard Enterprise, and phasers (separated into two items representing the “stun” and “full power” settings).

Phasers, of course, are weapons, and while they often have other uses, there are some cases where the away team must fight. These can be timed sequences where the player must use phasers on opponents before they have a chance to fire back, or more puzzle-like situations that I don’t want to spoil. The presence of combat in a point-and-click adventure surprised my younger self, as did the fact that missions can be solved in different ways. Most games I’d played in this style were about figuring out a single, convoluted solution to a problem, but Star Trek 25th Anniversary allows for both a direct approach or a solution with more finesse. In fact, players are judged on their performance at the end of each episode, based on how well they comport themselves as representatives of the Federation. Choosing antagonistic or insufficiently diplomatic conversation options, employing unnecessary force, or getting people killed (in most missions it’s possible to get the security officer killed, in keeping with the famous “redshirt” trope) will lower one’s score. I remember being awed by this when I first played the game and stumbled across a different way through a mission, having never considered that a branching design could be applied to point-and-click puzzle solving.

What I didn’t remember was that players are actually given a numerical rating from Starfleet at the end of each episode. Higher ratings will award more command points, which improve the skills of officers on the bridge, making space battles easier. Energy and weapons will recharge faster, Enterprise can make sharper turns, and so on. This time, naturally, I aimed to get a 100% rating on each mission, and was very pleased with myself when I succeeded at several episodes without having to look for solutions online. Sometimes, however, it can be tough to find what one missed. For example, my first attempt at the first episode resulted in a score of 97%, implying I’d just missed one little thing, but I had no clue what it was. A quick online search revealed the problem, which was more obvious than I thought, but other episodes were more confusing. In one case, I resolved a crisis efficiently and decisively, without any casualties, but received a very low score because I hadn’t also investigated a second, more complicated and less appealing option. In that instance the Starfleet rating felt more like a traditional point-and-click adventure game score, awarding me for trying everything and finding every little detail, instead of accurately rating my performance from Starfleet’s perspective.

Overall, however, I was impressed with the quality of the episodes. While later incarnations of Star Trek shifted focus to interspecies politics, these episodes felt true to the classic science fiction style of the original series, in which the crew would often meet powerful alien entities or near-magical technological marvels, and storylines were thinly veiled commentaries on contemporary human issues. And while the show was uneven, with some amazing episodes and other abysmally bad ones, here things are more consistent. Only one episode stuck out, with unclear goals and minor inconsistencies, as well as poor signposting for exits, such that I nearly missed some rooms altogether. It was incongruous enough that I wondered if episodes may have had different designers within the studio. The other episodes, however, are great, and perfectly capture the Star Trek setting. Scan things with tricorders, chat with Spock and McCoy, run some chemical analyses with lab equipment, and defuse tense standoffs with hostile aliens; it’s all here.

I was surprised to find that I’d made it most of the way through the game when I first played it in the 90s. I clearly remembered the point at which I’d gotten stuck, and it turns out it was in the penultimate episode. My memory of the rest of the game was fuzzy; I could often only recall tiny snippets of certain episodes, and in one case I’d conflated two scenes from different episodes, resulting in confusion this time through when I found only half of what I remembered. At other points, I easily identified alternative solutions that never occurred to my younger self. But I was somewhat relieved to discover that the puzzle that had stumped me all those years ago is something I never would have been able to solve. It involves some advanced mathematics that would have been way over my head; even now, when I understood what I needed to do, I had to check online for the procedure to do the math correctly. In the 90s, when the internet barely existed and I probably didn’t even have had access to a web browser, I would have needed to call a paid hint line, and I had no chance of talking my parents into that. At least I got stuck near the end and got to see most of the game first.

In fact, this time around, the game felt disappointingly short. That’s partly because I often recalled how to solve puzzles as I played through them again, but even so I was hoping for an extra few episodes before the end. It’s hard to complain, however, when I enjoyed what’s on offer so much. The game does an excellent job capturing the spirit of Star Trek, and the solid performances from the cast only serve to reinforce this. As I said at the beginning, the point-and-click adventure is ideal for Star Trek, and the designers were unafraid to change the formula to make it mesh even better. Star Trek 25th Anniversary is an example of an adaptation done right, and I highly recommend it. Fans of Star Trek will find a lot to love, and those who are less familiar with Star Trek will find a good introduction to what it’s all about.

As for me, I’m excited to try the sequel, which promises more episodes that will be completely new to me. I’ll probably play some other games first, but I won’t wait too long to play it because I want to fit it in before my lengthy Star Trek watching saga ends. Stay tuned for another post about it.

Star Trek 25th Anniversary and its sequel Star Trek: Judgment Rites are available from GOG or Steam.

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5 Responses to History Lessons: Star Trek 25th Anniversary

  1. Isaac Kelley says:

    Man, i bet I’d like playing that game.

  2. Danjuro says:

    Out of simple curiosity, and if I may ask: what prompted you to watch Star Trek?
    I ask this because I stumbled upon your site while discovering the wonderful Approaching Infinity.
    That game, which took me totally by surprise and that I hold as one of my favourites, triggered in me a desire to watch Star Trek from the first series which, like you, I had never been exposed to. And again, in a similar fashion, I grabbed the Star Trek adventure games last year on GoG.
    I am curious to know if Bob Saunder’s magnum opus might be a sneaky tool used to turn mere geeks into trekkies!

    Anyway, I have been following your site since discovering it in the way I described, and I love reading and relating to your experiences: please keep it up!

    • waltorious says:

      First of all, glad you’re enjoying the blog! It’s also nice to see another fan of Approaching Infinity (here’s a link to my post about it in case others read this and are intrigued). I’m sad that it didn’t get wider exposure. I’ve heard Bob Saunders was unhappy about that as well and is hoping to eventually buy the rights for the game back so he can release it through other distribution channels. So I was happy to support his newest game, The Curse of Yendor, although I haven’t had a chance to play it yet.

      To answer your question: I’d seen most of Star Trek: The Next Generation when it originally aired, or on reruns later, so I was already interested in Star Trek. My decision to watch everything in the franchise was spurred by two things: 1) the announcement of a new Star Trek show called Star Trek: Discovery (which is now in production, I believe), and 2) playing a bunch of the board game Star Trek: Fleet Captains, which is full of references to all the shows and films, only some of which I recognized. Man, I really need to start writing about the board games I’ve been playing. I keep forgetting to take photos of them.

      Did you actually start watching Star Trek, or are you still pondering it? All the shows are available on Netflix, at least in the United States. I also found this guide helpful, since some of the shows overlap with and reference each other, so it’s best to watch each episode in release order.

      EDIT: I’ve been meaning to go back to Approaching Infinity to write about changes in the updates that came after my original post, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe I’ll find time soon!

      • Danjuro says:

        Augh, my theory doesn’t hold up!
        It is indeed very sad that Approaching Infinity’s unique brilliance can’t be spread to more people because of… technicalities, let’s call them that.
        I have started watching Star Trek on Netflix last year: it used to be difficult because of region problems, but now it seems all of Star Trek is being made available almost anywhere in the world.
        I have watched the first season of the first series (which is really a rollercoaster of quality and mediocrity, as you described it). I had watched a few episodes in my native language, as a kid, but the translation was an horrible butcherwork, the local adapters obviously mistakenly thinking all the lingua was made-up words, and just improvising new terms for their own lolz, so I am discovering the TV show pretty much anew.
        The main issue hindering my progress watching it now is that it makes me want to jump back into Approaching Infinity every time! The same sort of weirdly enthusiastic thinking that may make one fires awkwardly some WW2 wargame in middle of a documentary about Stalingrad… Hopefully, in Approaching Infinity’s case, some of those new self-duplicating red slimes put a quick halt to such ventures.
        I had no idea the timeline and series of the Star Trek universe were that intricate: thank you very much for the cheat list. I will put it to good use.

        I am looking forward to your boardgaming writings: while I can’t play but the occasional digital versions where I reside currently, the medium is fascinating and so innovative.

      • waltorious says:

        Well, I started another game of Approaching Infinity. We’ll see if I can keep it going, given my dwindling free time and the other games I have going. I’m liking the new stuff from the updates! New officer classes look cool.

        Glad to hear you can access the Star Trek shows. The films can be harder to track down, but they’re probably less important. And you’re right about the intricacies later on. I never kept track of everything when it was on TV, but going through it now it’s been fascinating to see how the creators handled the franchise. When Next Generation proved popular, they started Deep Space 9 concurrently and had some crossovers so they could bring Next Generation fans onboard. When Next Generation ended, the team immediately started working on the first film with that cast, while Deep Space 9 continued on TV. More shows and films followed. It’s similar to the kind of thing we’re seeing with Marvel and DC Comics adaptations now, featuring a bunch of inter-related films and shows, but for Star Trek it was all happening in the 90s. I don’t think there were any other franchises then that could compare. It was also interesting to read about how the later Star Trek shows were pioneering CG special effects on TV. Some of the stuff at the end of Deep Space 9 still looks impressive today (other things have aged less well).

        Anyway, you can tell I’ve been geeking out about it. Enjoy watching!

        (Oh, and my trick for watching instead of playing games was to watch an episode during dinner most days.)

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