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Starflight takes place in the year 4620. Mankind has been traveling through space since the year 2100 or so, which there have been various events that have occurred during that time in regards to wars, Earth being abandoned/humans relocating and meeting various spacefaring races, etc.
Presently there is a crisis in regards to solar flares occurring in the galaxy that mankind (and several alien species) currently reside in, so it is up to the player to travel throughout this galaxy, referring hospitable new planets in case of possible future relocation for Interstel (the spacefaring agency that the player is a member of), making money to upgrade their ship with, and gathering information from alien species in hopes of solving the solar flares mystery before all is lost.
The player only has one life, so it is imperative to save the game often, although games can go on for months, possibly even years of just exploring the galaxy and making notes of everything.
Starting out/Arth Starport
The player begins their game in the Arth Starport with a set starting amount of monetary units (or m. u.s, which vary depending on the game version). The Starport has a Notices section that displays messages and Evaluations in regards to certain events that could transpire during the game. The Notices section should be checked frequently, as there are warnings about certain areas of space to be avoided that could be dangerous, locations of important artifacts on planets, flux locations (i. e. wormholes), and more. Evaluations occur when a player has recommended a world for colonization and they will be briefed on the outcome of such recommendations, or when the player does something wrong, like run out of fuel with their Terrain Vehicle (see "Exploring, planets" section).
There is also a Trade Depot here, which, after a journey of mining a planet for minerals and/or collecting life forms and artifacts, they can be sold here. The player can also buy back certain materials that they may need later. There is also a Bank on most versions where the player can check their balance and monetary transactions that were completed.
The player must assemble and train a crew to begin their journey, along with buying/repairing various items for their ship, which, once all initial preparations have been made, the player then proceeds to the Docking Bay to start traveling throughout the galaxy.
Creating a crew
There are several positions on the ship that need to be filled, along with personnel files to be created in the first place as well. Races to choose from for these positions include Humans, Androids, the Velox, Thrynn, and Elowans. All races have Durability, Learning Rates, and various Aptitudes that need to be considered when assigning them to positions on the ship, which include a Science (to understand important readings before attempting to land on a planet), Navigation (to keep track of the player's ship's position in space), Engineering (to repair the ship once it gets damaged) and Communications (to communicate with alien species) Officers, as well as a Doctor (to heal injured crew members). All personnel must be trained (except for an Android, who has hard-wired programming and cannot increase its skill levels of any sort) in order to excel at their positions, as this could result in problems as the player progresses through the game. All personnel positions must be filled in order for the player to start their mission.
In the Ship Configuration area, cargo pods, shields, armor, engines and weapons can be purchased for the ship in order to help the player deal with space travel (note: the ship does start off with class one engines at the beginning of a game). The higher the class of an item, the more effective it will be (i. e. the higher an engine class, the better they will perform, as they will travel further with less fuel required than with a lower class engine). Ship items can be purchased, repaired or sold here, and the ship must be given a name in order for the player to really start their game.
Once the player has launched their ship from Starport and have given the Navigator the order to move the ship about in space, once in hyperspace (which is accomplished by exiting a solar system by flying off an edge of it), a Starmap can be utilized, showing all of the solar systems in the universe, except for several that are concealed in several large nebulas (note: in some versions, the player does not have to be in hyperspace to access the map). The Starmap will calculate the distance and how much fuel it will take for the player to reach a destination automatically by moving the cursor around the screen with the directional keys on a keyboard or by a mouse (in some versions).
(Note: a printed Starmap was also included with the game when it was originally released.)
While in space, the player can send a distress signal, arm weapons/enter combat, raise shields, look through and eject cargo, communicate with an alien race or signal sent by other spacecraft, collect items from space debris after a battle, have the doctor examine and/or treat injured crew members, pilot the ship, keep a log, and enter solar systems and fluxes by guiding their ship into them.
(Note: many of these actions depend on the situation or if applicable.)
A flux can save the player on a lot of fuel and time by transporting their ship from one area of the galaxy to another; some only cover a short distance, while others can be very long. However, the display part of the screen could be garbled for several seconds (on most versions) until the Navigator gets their bearings if they haven't been trained enough, which can bring problems if the player hits a wormhole to a dangerous area of space and is met by hostile aliens upon exiting the flux.
Alien races and communicating
Once the player starts making their way around the galaxy, they are going to run into aliens sooner or later, and in order to obtain clues in order to eventually win the game, they are going to have to communicate with them, as the ship's Communicator is going to have to be trained well in order to understand them, or else messages that come from aliens are going to come out not making any sense.
The player has a choice between three Postures to choose from in order to communicate once a link has been established; they are Friendly (self explanatory), Obsequious (butt-kissing), and Hostile (responses are mean-spirited and usually threaten destruction from your end). Certain postures and mannerisms will work with various races (the Velox are happy when you ask questions about themselves, since they are civilized "the most" in their own eyes when compared to anyone else), although the Friendly posture usually works best in general. The player can also just use the Statement command that automatically makes a random short speech, such as wishing a race that their and your young will someday play together in "harmony".
There are several races that the player could encounter during the game, which are:
- Velox—these look like giant bees and think they are better than everyone else, usually proclaiming "us are civilized the most" during an encounter.
- Thrynn—reptile-looking creatures that usually cannot be trusted. They seek plutonium and could make an offer for a "black box" of amazing powers in a trade for a lot of the player's fuel...which ends up being totally useless.
- Elowan—delicate, peaceful flower-like race who don't get along with the Thrynn. (Note: the player can have Elowan and Thrynn crew members on board, and they will get along, but if they encounter one of these races in space, they usually won't speak to you if you have at least one of their sworn enemies on board. A Velox can also be a potential crew member as well.)
- Mechans—artificial life forms that have been expecting a batch of travelers called Group 9 to arrive at a planet of theirs called Heaven. To be able to deal with them on the best possible terms, the player must be able to answer a series of questions correctly that they ask.
- Spemin—blob-like creatures that think they're a race to be feared (yet the player can easily buy more powerful weapons than they have when the player acquires enough money), yet if you respond in kind to their threats of violence they will usually flee.
- Gazurtoid—fish-like creatures that preach religion to the player, but if they're not responded to correctly they will open fire on the player's ship.
- Uhlek—other aliens may give you information in regards to some kind of attack wave that happened years ago that was led by the Gazurtoids and Uhleks, which is made obvious when there appears to be no way possible to communicate with a Uhlek vessel; any Posture used just results in them opening fire on the player. There doesn't seem to be any way to reason with them at all.
- Minstrels—space-faring poets that can give you hints as to what's currently going on in the universe, but don't really communicate in any other manner, and don't really make a lot of sense.
- Mysterions—communicate in ones and zeros only...the binary language.
Exploring planets is vital for the player to earn money to continue with the game, whether it be for selling valuable minerals, artifacts and/or life forms to the Trade Depot later, and/or recommending good potential colony worlds to Interstel.
In order to orbit a planet, all the player needs to do is guide their ship into it; next the planet needs to be scanned and then determined from there if the planet is worth either landing on and/or recommending. The Science Officer needs to have some halfway decent training at this point in order to be able to make sense of the readings, some of which include how high the mineral content a planet has, what minerals can be found on the planet, if the planet has life, oxygen and/or water content, and so forth.
If the planet has a decent amount of minerals, it's definitely worth it to land to scoop up as many as possible; say if the planet's small to medium-sized, it has at least 20% minerals, those minerals consist of gold, platinum and rodnium (all worth a bunch), and the planet has either no or calm weather, then the player is probably going to have a pretty good haul.
Once the player lands, they can disembark with their Terrain Vehicle, which scans the planet's surface with every few kilometers it travels, which new mineral outcroppings will show up on the map. The player can scan an outcropping (marked by an icon) to see if it's worth picking up, then maneuver the vehicle to collect it. The vehicle is limited on energy and the player must return to the ship before it runs out and/or when it gets full of possessions (if possible), or else without any energy, they could lose the vehicle, have crew members get hurt or killed if the vehicle has to be abandoned and they have to walk back to the ship, and the player will be fined by Interstel once they return to Starport. (Also, there can be earthquakes and various bad weather that will cause the Terrain Vehicle to use up more energy to navigate through and crew members can also be hurt, if not killed because of this as well.)
Also, some planets can have life forms about, which many of them can be stunned and collected to return to the Trade Depot and sold (although the latter doesn't apply to plant life, like trees and fungus forms, for example). Some life forms can attack and injure, or possibly even kill crew members, and some life forms can only be killed, rather than stunned. Floating and flying life forms cannot be captured, as there is a list of Icons as part of the menu at the bottom of the screen that the player can look at to see what the various game icons mean while on planetside.
Planets can also have ruins, various artifacts to collect and sell, and some messages can be found in the ruins too, some of which are humorous, whereas others have clues and locations in regards to various objects that can help the player eventually win the game.
Also, some worlds can be recommended for future habitation later, which they have to have oxygen and usually water in their atmosphere, gravity can't be too heavy, and the weather can't be too extreme. Recommending a good colony world will result in a big bonus, but recommending one that doesn't measure up to standards will result in a fine, which the player will be made aware of when they return to Starport and read the Evaluations.
If the player is able to gather the right clues and has enough fuel and resources, they could be able to beat the game by acquiring an object known as a Black Egg, a Crystal Cone, and a Crystal Orb. They must fly to a certain planet and leave a Black Egg there, which the mystery behind the solar flares (along with the true nature of Endurium, which is a big twist) is revealed in a message in some ruins on the planet.
Differences with the Sega Genesis version (compared to DOS version)
Of course, with the difference of several years in between the DOS and Genesis versions being released, there are going to be several additions as it is, like with music while in the Starport, more sound effects and voice synthesis, for example.
However, several things were eliminated, such as how the player can't name planets once they're recommended. There is no "cruise control" when traveling through space; due to there being no copy protection for a cartridge, the Interstel cops were taken out, the Arth bank is gone (there's just a balance shown during all money transactions, and that's it), there is no log to keep if the player wishes, the spaceship movement record before and/or after an alien encounter also no longer exists, and on the DOS version is a ship that looks like the starship Enterprise from the Star Trek TV series and movies in an area of the game, but it is nowhere to be found in this version.
Most of the other changes were minor as well. When the player starts a new game, the name they give for the game file will automatically be the captain; there is no extra crew member file that will have to be created for this position. The player can also save two games, rather than just the one on the original.
Rather than being in a somewhat 3-D presentation, Starport is now just a flat, side-scrolling hallway, with icons on doors representing a function (like the spaceship icon is so the player can have their spaceship repaired and/or have things purchased for it, as well as their Terrain Vehicle). The player can also choose text speed as a function while in this hallway, along with turning music and/or voice synthesis off and doing a sound test as well, plus the player can quickly skip to the docking bay (by pressing the C button on the controller) and launch their ship (assuming it's ready) by pressing the A button, rather than having to enter a code and endure the countdown on the DOS original.
Also while in Starport, there are many new weapons for the ship (rather than just the two on the DOS original), the player starts off a game with 50,000 m. u.s rather than 12,000, and there are now several upgrades for the Terrain Vehicle (or "TV", as it is called on this version); originally all it had was a Flat Device, whereas here some things have to be bought, like pontoons, or else it could sink (which it would automatically go over any planetary surface on the original). All messages can be read now in the Notices section, rather than only the few last previous ones that were posted at any given time on the DOS version.
While in outer space, the player can access the Starmap at any time, even in a solar system (this could only be done in hyperspace on the original), and commands are quicker, as with just the press of a button will bring up a menu (the C button to close out a dialog box, like after being told that your ship was scanned), rather than having to hit the keyboard, choose Captain and then go from there for most functions in general.
There are also some additional planets that can be recommended that weren't on the original, and the player can't get "lost" with no matter how poorly trained their navigator is when they hit a flux; the player's location is instantly shown on the Starmap the moment they exit a flux, rather than taking many seconds before the Navigator can figure out where they are. The fluxes are also much easier to spot as well.
The engineer is now in charge of cargo this time around, rather than the captain, and other functions have been changed, like with how artifacts don't have to be brought to Starport before finding out what they do, along with paying a fee for that as well, unlike with the original version. The doctor can also cure patients way faster than on the original.
Also while in space, the player can just fly over a solar system, and can enter it by pressing the A button on their controller, rather than physically running into it to enter the system as the original required. Planets also have to be orbited in order to scan them or land, as the player's ship drifts around, rather than starting and stopping on a dime (with no drift) than on the DOS original. Planets are also proportionally way smaller than on the original, as in some cases the player can land on a small planet, launch the TV, start moving north and make it's way back to the ship from the south without running out of fuel, which no planet on the original was that small!
Also, landing on a planet is not automatic this time around; the player has to press the A button to activate thrust and prevent their ship from crashing down on the surface and causing damage. They can also skim around on the surface and decide on another place to land if they wish, rather than landing, launching, and choosing another site to land on again while in orbit as on the original. Disembarking the TV is also instantaneous, as there is no "hull integrity check" message to wait for or anything, and rather than messages telling of the weather conditions on the surface, the entire screen will shake if there's an earthquake, tornadoes will form if the weather is really bad, along with the TV being blown around as well, plus the player can dig their TV into the ground for protection while waiting for a storm to pass as well if they wish.
The player also has to dig with their TV this time around in order to find most of the minerals, as there is an onboard scanner to show where the minerals are underground, rather than just relying on finding outcropping icons with the original. With each scan though, it takes up 10 units of the TV's fuel, and unfortunately the player has to blindly pick up minerals, since there is no Scan or Look commands to determine what the minerals are before collecting them, unlike with the original. A rescue ship will save everyone if the TV runs out of fuel as well, rather than having the crew walk back to the ship if this happens.
Flying/floating life forms can be caught this time around as well, although it is usually difficult to do so, and the TV's only weapon is a stunner (or a Wide Angle one that shoots in three directions at once if purchased from Starport). Life forms are also totally different this time around, no vegetation (foliage life forms and all) can be picked up, and it is also very unlikely that the crew will be damaged by creatures attacking the TV, since it has armor this time around, which it takes quite a beating before any crew member lives become jeopardized. The player can also capture and sell as many duplicate specimen as they wish, as there was a limit on the original, forbidding the player to keep on capturing and selling the same species over and over again.
Also on planetside, various surfaces will slow down the TV (the TV would just move at one speed on the original, no matter what the surface), and there is almost no Endurium to be found at all (it's much more common in the original version), there are hardly any ruins, almost no messages to be found in ruins either, and rather than a bunch of trinkets scattered in planets all over the galaxy, there are only a main artifacts to be found this time around (no "Wee Green Blobbie" and all like on the DOS version).
As far as communicating with aliens goes, they are harder to get out of this time around, since, even if the aliens terminate the conversation, they won't leave immediately: if the player tries to fly off, usually they will keep up with the player's ship until they finally go their separate ways. (It's usually a good idea to just wait until they fly off by themselves once communications are terminated before the player continues piloting their ship.)
There is also a full cinematic ending when the game is won, showing the player's ship entering Starport with waving, greeting astronauts, and a Velox presents the player with the highest award possible, unlike with the original where a short musical piece is played and the player receives a medal, and that's it.
And in a few final random notes, the message from the Mysterions was changed, the player can orbit a sun in a solar system, Arth is represented as a space station, rather than a generic planet when the player returns to it, the Uhlek territory has been expanded to the upper right corner of the Upspin/Coreward area of the galaxy (which isn't shown on the printed, included Starmap, but Uhlek ships will be found there though if the player visits that area), the game runs smoother and quicker/less "clunky" than the original, some of the major artifacts behave differently this time around and there is no glitch any more saying someone is still being treated by the doctor, even if they were already healed on the original.
It is also debatable that the shields are glitchy, as people have noted that they can have class four shields, get banged up during a fight, then their shields have gone down a class, or even more than that. It could be they were specifically designed that way with this update, since the player is originally granted over four times as much money at the beginning than with the original. Glitch or not though, it's still a difference between the two versions.
Differences with Commodore 64 version
There is no holographic captures of life forms on planets available, unlike with the DOS version.
Additions/differences with Amiga, Atari ST and Macintosh versions
Mouse support is added alongside original keyboard controls.
On planetside with the Amiga version, the player can choose an automining command.
The Amiga version also features slightly updated graphics and increases the allowed number of game saves from 1 to 5.
- The original Starflight took the equivalent of 15 man-years to develop.
- When it was originally released, Starflight came with the game disk, a printed Starmap, an instruction book, and several versions of the game (the DOS and Amiga versions) also included a decoder wheel, which had a row of planet names, objects, and races. Whenever the player was about to launch from Starport, the computer would ask for a code in regards to turning the dial a certain way and asking for a number in the alien races section. If the player didn't have the wheel or gave the incorrect number the computer asked for, they would find themselves surrounded by Interstel police at one point, and they could be blown to pieces and the game would end if they couldn't escape the cops or provide the correct code!
- The Sega Genesis version's instruction book also has a short story set in the Starflight universe written by award-winning sci-fi author Robert Silverberg. The story isn't a cluebook of any kind (a totally separate one is included at the end of the instruction book), but rather was inspired by Silverberg's experience with the game and tells of a crew with their problems with exploring, dealing with the Thrynn, and their remarkable discovery at the end.