STAR CONTROL 2: THE UR-QUAN MASTERS / Toys For Bob + Open Source / PC
Star Control 2 is, overall, one of the most excellent PC games ever created. Though of course it is dated, the graphics are still pleasant enough if simple, the MOD digital music files still sound quite acceptable (without need for a specialized MIDI sound card), and the gameplay is still rock solid. Most importantly, the writing is high caliber, which is a refreshing change from the trend of dumbed-down cutesiness from the major Japanese developers on one hand and dumbed-down graphic violence from the major American developers on the other.
That said, it is also a difficult game to get newcomers into - particularly those who are used to the hand-holding prevalent in today's gaming. It is a game that harshly punishes small mistakes, constantly threatens you with death, and forces some significant amount of trial and error in order to proceed right from the beginning. But let's first talk a little bit about how the game works so that we have a framework established in which to explain these things.
The story has you as a starship captain, returning to Earth after having grown up on a far-flung colony world. By some means or another, you were part of a group that uncovered a Precursor ship on this world - basically a giant death-dealing tank of a battlecruiser left behind by a mysterious alien race that now seems to be extinct. You've been chosen to helm this thing on the triumphant return to Earth, but upon arrival it is of course not all joy and festivities, or we wouldn't have much of a game on our hands. While you were gone, an aggressive empirical conquering sort of alien race known as the Ur-Quan Hierarchy defeated the Earthpeople in a war and locked everyone, exception of a lone space station orbiting the moon, on the planet encased in an impenetrable "slave shield". Your goal for the rest of the game becomes a search for technologies to bring out the massive potential of your Precursor ship, as well as the help of Earth's former allies in the war, in the hopes of sticking it to the Ur-Quan Man once and for all and freeing humanity.
You begin with nearly nothing to your name though - an under-armed ship, little fuel, no idea where anything is or where to go. All you can do is pick a direction and see what's out there. While this is exciting, what usually ends up awaiting is dissapointment and death. You blow your whole wad of fuel galaxy-hopping only to come back with some bunk load of minerals that can't even buy you a cheese sandwich, or you get stranded in space, or one of the many speedy Slylandro Probes floating around chases you down and breaks you down into your component minerals while you try to come to grips with the battle system, or you accidentaly land on some flaming mess of a planet and your only lander gets destroyed before you can even react. It is understandable why newbies flee from this game - it requires literally hours of just randomly trying stuff and checking stuff out and saving and restoring as you die horribly all the time. This presents a dilemma - you can of course go to one of the many FAQs online for pointers, but Star Con 2's best bit is letting the mystery of the story gradually unfold and seeing what happens next, and the more you come to rely on FAQs the more of the story and surprises are going to be spoiled for you. At the very least, you must have a notepad and writing utensil handy as you play - Star Con 2 is very old skool in this way, you need to write down everything that might seem important for future use (particularly coordinates).
Resource-gathering consitutes the early portion of the game. It is much like the old game Oregon Trail - you steer around, if critters pop up you shoot them with a little pellet blaster and save them to sell to intergalactic traders later. It isn't horrible - each different type of planet at least has a colorful unique 3D design to keep you from falling asleep - but it starts to feel like filler after awhile. Fortunately, after you get established in the game somewhat and begin making contact with other species, resource-gathering takes a backseat. You'll eventually get an item that allows you to take shortcuts through warp portals all over the galaxy, and you'll get another item that calls the nomadic merchant Melnorme to you wherever you are so you can get a handy fuel fillup at any time without having to chug all the way back to Earth every time you run low.
The combat system is not perfectly balanced, but it is pretty well done. Each ship has unique weaponry, speed, turning ability and little bonus abilities. There is no one real dominant ship - even the big bad Ur-Quan can be defeated handily by a skilled player using the comparitively weak Spathi or Arilou ships. You basically just have to learn what ship is strong against which, and what the tactics are to use in each particular matchup. It's really pretty fun, and you can hone your skills in Super Melee mode outside of the main game using any of the ships against any other.
Interaction with the various alien races is the game's strongest point, however. It's very witty, and well-written. It manages to pull off comedy and drama in equal measures. Each alien race has a distinctive voice (highlighted by a unique font) and character, all of which are handled extremely well. Additionaly, the game world is somewhat dynamic - the races will pursue their various own agendas as you putter about doing your thing, and whether (and how) you intervene in their affairs or not determines their ultimate fate. It's what makes putting up with the game's steep learning curve worthwhile.
The original release of Star Con 2 was a nice little peice of programming - it ran well even on old 386-based systems, and the use of digital .MOD music files meant little trouble futzing about with various types of sound cards. Unlike many old DOS-based games it's pretty easy to get running on nearly any system. Developer Toys for Bob has done us one better though - a few years ago they released the source code to the public domain, and an open-source edition of the game (called The Ur-Quan Masters for legal reasons) is now freely available thanks to the efforts of dedicated individuals. It's pretty much perfect, runs fine under any flavor of Windows as well as Linux and Mac, and even has the ability to install various expansion packs like music remixes and such. It's available from Sourceforge by clicking here, and the basic game (without music remix packs or anything) is about a 20 MB download. It's quite possibly the best freely (legally) available game there is.