History Lessons: Star Trek: Judgment Rites

You can read other History Lessons posts here. And, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Oh dear. When I wrote my History Lessons post about Star Trek 25th Anniversary, I intended to play its sequel Star Trek: Judgment Rites soon afterwards, with only a short break between. A few months at most. But it’s been over a year now. What happened? Oh, right: Solium Infernum happened. I suppose that justifies some delays. Now I’ve finally played through Judgment Rites, although it was too late to fit into my Star Trek watching spree which served as motivation for playing Star Trek 25th Anniversary. I’ve not only finished watching all the old shows and films, I also watched the debut season of the new show, Star Trek: Discovery (brief synopsis: I had many reservations at the beginning but by the end I was entirely on board). Since Discovery serves as a prequel to the original series, and is hinting at more direct connections to original series characters in its upcoming second season, I figured it was high time to finish my adventures with Captain Kirk and his crew.

You really should read my post about Star Trek 25th Anniversary if you have not done so already, because Star Trek: Judgment Rites is very similar. So similar, in fact, that at first it seems identical. It has the same opening sequence, which mimics the opening credits of the original show. The first mission opens on the familiar Enterprise bridge, the same layout and backdrop as before, with the same user interface and the same (excellent) voiced dialogue from the original cast members (which, like with Star Trek 25th Anniversary, was added in the CD-ROM re-release of the game that followed the original floppy disk release). The feeling of familiarity was only strengthened by the first episode of Judgment Rites, which directly follows events from the previous game, and feels like a rehash of everything that 25th Anniversary did. It features antagonists introduced in 25th Anniversary (who are, sadly, not the best part of that game), opens with a space battle that plays nearly identically to those in 25th Anniversary, then sends Kirk, Spock and McCoy on an away mission that plays out in the same point-and-click adventure style as the missions in 25th Anniversary, with the same interface and puzzle style. Even many of the musical tracks are the same.

Speaking of which, I’ll make a quick aside about tweaking the game to run as desired. With 25th Anniversary, I set up Munt to emulate the Roland MT-32 synthesizer for the MIDI music (I described the process in that History Lessons post). Getting Munt working in Judgment Rites is a bit more complicated (as documented here), but unlike 25th Anniversary, Judgment Rites supports general MIDI, which means players can use soundfonts instead. I decided to go that route, since it had worked out well when I played Ara Fell. With Ara Fell I liked the gargantuan Crisis General MIDI 3.0 soundfont, but here I found I preferred the much smaller Chorium Rev A instead; your own preferences may vary. I also had to fiddle with the graphics options a little to get image scaling working, and the aspect ratio to display properly (it should be 4:3). In the end I used the DirectDraw (“ddraw” in the configuration file) setting for graphics and indicated my screen’s native resolution with “aspect=true” providing the correction for non-square pixels. This gave nice fullscreen operation; I set the windowed resolution separately in the configuration file for times when I wanted to task-switch.

To return to the game itself, it’s a very similar beast to 25th Anniversary. But that’s not necessarily a problem, especially since 25th Anniversary left me wanting more. It was more common, in the 90s, for sequels to reuse the game engines and technology of their predecessors. Today, each new game in a series is expected to come with improved graphics and features, but then there was less of a stigma attached to games that just offered more of the same. And in this case, more of the same means more missions about exploring strange new worlds, uncovering mysteries, and finding peaceful solutions to conflict. Players again control an entire away team rather than a single character, allowing for nicely varied puzzle design. Different crew members can offer advice and input, and their special skills are often central to successfully completing tasks. Conversing with them is a joy, as the full cast of the original series provide wonderful voiceovers for the hundreds of lines of dialogue. And best of all, Judgment Rites retains the branching structure of the first game, with different routes through each mission using varying degrees of finesse. Players are encouraged to find the optimal means of handling each situation, in a manner befitting a Star Fleet officer. As in 25th Anniversary, these design elements manage to capture the feel of the original show perfectly.

And to be fair to Judgment Rites, there are some minor upgrades that can be easy to miss. The most obvious is the background art, which is more colorful and has a more painterly style than the backgrounds in 25th Anniversary. Even the Enterprise bridge has been touched up, with some new color gradients and shading, although I didn’t notice until I compared screenshots from the two games side by side before writing this post. Backgrounds for the various away missions are more noticeable, and generally nicer, although characters no longer blend into the scenes as well as they did. Then there are the new cinematic sequences that occasionally punctuate dramatic moments. These were apparently added in the Movie & Sound Pack, an expansion pack that also included digital sound effects from the original show. The pack is rolled into the collector’s CD-ROM edition that I played.

Perhaps the largest changes — though still minor — are to the space battles. While the controls and mechanics are immediately recognizable from 25th Anniversary, Judgment Rites adds the ability to order Chekov to lock weapons on an opponent. The lock takes a few seconds to acquire, but then automatically aims weapons at the adversary. It’s not perfect, but can definitely help with medium-range engagements. More significantly, players can now select a difficulty setting for the space combat encounters when starting the game, including a setting that eliminates them entirely. There are also fewer mandatory battles in the game, although players can still warp the Enterprise to other systems to pick fights for fun if they wish. I surmise that these changes were made in response to criticisms of the space battles in 25th Anniversary, which may not have pleased fans of the slower-paced and thoughtful point-and-click sections. The latter are admittedly the game’s strongest point, but the space battles were an interesting feature that set 25th Anniversary apart from other adventure games, and they were a big draw for my younger self when I first tried 25th Anniversary. So it was a little sad to see them de-emphasized here, but my disappointment did not last long. Soon I was drawn into the new missions in Judgment Rites.

Judgment Rites is a much longer game than 25th Anniversary. It has more missions, but more importantly each mission is longer and more complex. This is both good and bad. It gives room for more interesting storylines, which feel closer to full episodes of the television series. But, as Judgment Rites also inherits 25th Anniversary’s emphasis on branching paths through missions that allow for different solutions of varying elegance, it means that missions can be more confusing. In a few cases — the first mission is a notable example — I found myself unclear on what I was meant to be doing. I don’t mean stuck on a puzzle solution, but rather unsure of what my overarching goal was. It was too easy to stumble around and mess with things before knowing why I was doing it. On paper, the first mission looks good: there are several tasks that must be accomplished, and can be tackled in any order, with a lot of reasoning left up to the player. In practice, it took a while before I understood what was going on, and it was a slightly clumsy reintroduction, perhaps overambitious for the first mission that players will tackle. I did enjoy the fact that, true to many of the Star Trek shows, it features a time loop, letting players fail and try again within the confines of the story. Of course, to get a perfect score on the mission, players must succeed on their first try.

The longer missions of Judgment Rites make going for a perfect score more frustrating than it was in 25th Anniversary. There are too many decisions within each mission to track, and I ended up playing most missions several times as I worked out how to best handle each. Having said that, the in-game reward for a perfect performance is a boost to the crew’s performance in space combat; in Judgment Rites this is far less important than it was in 25th Anniversary, so players are free to find their own way through all the missions without having to worry too much. For perfectionists like me, however, it can be annoying. Fortunately, my copy (purchased from GOG) comes with a hintbook which can help track down whatever pesky detail I’d missed in a particular mission.

I felt that Judgment Rites took a few missions to come into its own. Early missions feature Kirk, Spock and McCoy, omitting the “redshirt” security officer that always accompanied them in 25th Anniversary. While it could be argued that they were superfluous, I liked having the redshirts around, especially as each was a different character with their own input into their particular mission. Just as I was resigning myself to a game full of just Kirk, Spock and McCoy, however, Judgment Rites started to change things up. Some missions feature an ancillary fourth character, an appropriate specialist or contextual ally. Others give the rest of the Enterprise crew a chance to shine. While 25th Anniversary had small roles for Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov, they stayed on the bridge, never heading out on away missions themselves. I was happy to see them tagging along in Judgment Rites on occasion, lending their own expertise and viewpoints and giving later missions a different feel. The later missions also have a common narrative thread running through them, giving a welcome sense of continuity to the otherwise isolated episodes.

If you’d asked me my opinion after only the first few missions of Judgment Rites, I’d have said that I preferred 25th Anniversary, but the later missions are stronger, more original, and more confident. I don’t know if this escalation was intentional, beginning with a rehash of the preceding game before introducing some new ideas, or if the episodes were designed in parallel and the perceived progression in design is incidental (each mission is credited with a different writer and director). Either way, the result is a game that recognizes the strengths of its predecessor, emphasizes them, and expands smartly without reinventing the wheel. Judgment Rites is too similar to 25th Anniversary to have the same initial impact, but on the whole it may be the better game. Such comparisons are ultimately beside the point anyway, as both games are well worth playing, especially for fans of the original Star Trek series.

I did find a few bugs and quirks in Judgment Rites. Most are related to the recorded dialogue. Inconsistencies in pronunciation and the occasional awkward delivery are easy to forgive, but in several places the wrong line is played (the on-screen text remains correct), which is jarring. One particular mission saw DeForest Kelley as McCoy deviating from the script fairly often; in his defense the script was overly wordy and his versions were often better, but in one case he flubbed a line, chuckled, and trailed off, leaving the rest for me to read. I guess the recording engineers never got around to re-recording that line. These, along with the occasional missing sound effect (particularly for transporters) are jarring, but by far the worst bug I encountered came close to the end, when I directed Kirk to speak as I tended to do in each location. This is usually an innocuous action, prompting Kirk to make some general comment about the situation, but this time his comment somehow leap-frogged the puzzle I was trying to solve and triggered a conversation I wasn’t supposed to have yet. Fortunately I had a recent save I could load, and I was able to properly pass the section by keeping Kirk silent, but it was a weird and confusing experience. Since the recorded voices were added for the CD-ROM edition, I assume these bugs were introduced there and may not have happened in the original release.

The CD-ROM edition also features some bonus special features, which I almost missed. They are launched via a separate shortcut in the game’s installation folder. The bonus materials include interviews with Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, as well as Leonard Nimoy, who plays Spock. A short documentary on the making of the game, hosted by Nimoy, is also included. These features are nicely done, but clearly place the game in the mid-90s when CD-ROMs were just becoming commonplace. The “menu” for the special features is actually a 3D rendered model of the Enterprise bridge, presented as a series of still shots that players navigate between using the mouse. It’s reminiscent of Myst, the famously divisive 1993 game that ushered in the age of CD-ROM drives in personal computers. It must be emphasized just how big of a change CD-ROM drives represented, with a single CD storing over 500 times more data than a floppy disk. This let game developers go wild with extra features in games, including full motion video (like the interviews and documentary included with Judgment Rites), or fully voiced dialogue for hundreds of lines of script. This technological leap had everyone excited about the future of “interactive media”, a conversation that covered topics far broader than the narrow definition of “games”. The interview with Nimoy is full of questions about this topic, and his responses are at once dated and surprisingly similar to discussions happening today. He talks about the branching narratives of Judgment Rites and how they involve the player in authoring the story, ponders how similar designs would be difficult in other forms such as theatrical productions, and concludes that the style works best in a solitary form, with a single player, rather than for a full audience. The excitement over the novelty of interactive stories seems naive now, but today we still have the same debates about creating emergent storytelling, involving players directly in the unfolding events, and ways to design games that leverage interactivity rather than merely copy non-interactive media like films or books.

It was a fascinating watch, and Nimoy himself looks stylish and dapper, especially compared to many people in the “making of” documentary who sport some decidedly 90s fashion. The documentary isn’t particularly revelatory, with various team members discussing the challenges of writing the branching missions and accommodating any combination of player decisions. It’s nothing I haven’t seen and heard before for countless other games. But I found the smaller details interesting. For all the talk of the design challenges, the development team was only a fraction of the size of those for modern games, an indicator of just how much the games industry would grow. I also spotted some famous names among the team, most notably Brian Fargo, who is back in the spotlight after his successful Kickstarter campaigns for Wasteland 2 and the upcoming Bard’s Tale IV. He’s been outspoken recently about independent development, but back in the 90s he was running Interplay, a company he founded in 1983. He wrote, produced and directed games throughout the 80s (including the original Bard’s Tale games and the first Wasteland) but in the 90s he was mostly serving as executive producer, and here he introduces Judgment Rites from his role as company head, rather than as a designer. A reminder that by 1993 he was already an industry veteran.

The documentary ends with Nimoy hinting that the Enterprise crew would be needed again soon, on the planet Vulcan. This is, I assume, a reference to Secret of Vulcan Fury, a Star Trek game that never saw the light of day after being canceled in 1999. While I’m sure there were good reasons for its cancellation, it’s a shame that Judgment Rites never had a follow-up. There have been many Star Trek games in various genres since, and while some that focus on starship combat or galactic-scale strategy are well regarded, none capture the spirit of the franchise quite like the branching missions of Star Trek 25th Anniversary and Star Trek: Judgment Rites. The design is such a perfect match for Star Trek, but subsequent attempts (focusing on later shows rather than the original) simply didn’t match up. The good news, of course, is that these original games are still available and have aged surprisingly well. I recommend checking them both out.

I purchased Star Trek: Judgment Rites from GOG, but it’s also available via Steam if you prefer that. Enjoy!

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