The Ur-Quan Masters (Star Control II) – PC
Developer: Interstellar Frungy League
Release Date: November 1992
Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10
Reviewed by Malefico
Well, this year as every year around this time I get nostalgic and think about past times with family and friends, and of course old school video games. And this one truly is a golden oldie. Originally released as Star Control II for PC (DOS), it was ported to 3DO two years later and in 2002, the source code was released under the GNU GPL. A dedicated group of fans gathered together and started working to make the game run under Windows. The game was a follow-up to Star Control, a title I really enjoyed on Sega Genesis. That game featured fast-paced space combat and a simple campaign mode where you explored a random map and fought for control of planets which rewarded you with resources needed to build more and better ships to beat your opponent, either the AI or a human.
Star Control II introduced a much larger game world, a more complex economic system and expanded the number/expounded on the nature of the alien races from the first game. I owned and loved it on 3DO (an undeservedly maligned system IMHO that had a lot of great games I still remember fondly) For those of you too young to have played this game, it was and is one of the memorable video game titles of all time. As an indication, 21 years after its release it still has a cult following today and folks are even now creating new content to expand the universe.
I found this on the web as a free download from sourceforge.net, and it runs fine on XP and I am assuming newer versions of Windows as well, since they support XP environments. That may change this year with the cessation of XP support from Microsoft. However, I think the same folks who’ve kept it alive for this long will probably find a workaround to keep it going.
In the Star Control universe, the events of the first game have culminated in the utter defeat of Earth and its allies comprising the Alliance of Free Stars. Simultaneously, a group of human colonists has made an astonishing discovery on a remote planet- a city built by the Precursors, a mysterious race which left known space thousands of years before. You find a factory with just enough materials to build the skeleton of a single starship. As a result of the Alliance’s loss in the war, the victorious Ur-Quan and their Hierarchy of Battle Thralls have sealed Earth beneath an impenetrable shield (when an enemy is vanquished, the Ur-Quan deliver an ultimatum- join the hierarchy or suffer permanent imprisonment on the home world). The few “free” humans crew an orbiting star base, but with no ships of their own they are utterly dependent on Hierarchy supply ships for supplies and repair materials. Having lost contact with Earth, you and a handful of other survivors have piloted the Precursor ship back to Terra to find out what is going on. After you discover the fate of your home planet, you decide to use the unique Precursor ship to fight theUr-Quan and restore freedom to the galaxy.
Due to the age of the program, the game only supports keyboard, no game controller or mouse option. The keys are simple and easy to remember as shown below, and it looks like two humans could play against one another using the same keyboard, a little cramped but if your chica likes games no problem.
Also, because of the antiquated nature of the program full screen display looks chunky and high-res is not supported with max resolution at 1024 X 768. But that seems to be scaled from a lower resolution because it looks terrible. Although I don’t have any experience with emulators, I imagine folks who play emulator games are used to these kinds of concessions.
The game play is simple and easily learned. Basically, you fly around space exploring new worlds and gathering minerals and life forms. Your ship requires fuel for exploration and mining, crew members to replace those lost in battle or when exploring dangerous planets and additional modules to complete its design. You can add additional crew, cargo weapon and other modules while upgrading speed and turn rates on your ship. You’ll also need credits to build new ships as alien races join your team. All of this can be accomplished at the Earth star base, which joins your crusade after you defeat a Hierarchy patrol ship.
But, this all costs money so out you go into the depths of space to find valuable items to exchange for credits. Some planets contain minerals, life forms, or both. Minerals have value based upon their rarity, and life forms can be sold to a mysterious race, the Melnorme for unknown purposes in exchange for advanced technology to upgrade your ship and planetary landers. A planet’s color, as seen from space usually gives a clue to the quality of minerals present. Once you orbit a planet, the detail menu gives you info on the planet including temperature, seismic and weather conditions, and gravity which affects how much fuel it will cost to send you lander to the planet to mine or collect life forms.
Outside of the solar system, your Starmap will let you see all of explored space, and as you uncover each race’s sphere of influence it will be marked on your map.
As you explore, you’ll meet races from the first game as well as new additions. Some of the aliens are friendly, some hostile and some neutral. It will be up to you to decide how to bring allies into your new alliance in order to defeat the Ur-Quan. During dialogue with aliens, you can choose from different postures in order to further your relationships. Often, aliens will want you to perform tasks for them in order to win their loyalty, while others can be cajoled or intimidated into joining up.
So, what makes The Ur-Quan Masters fun to play? With its design rooted in decades-old technology, it certainly isn’t astounding graphics or sound (although the Interstellar Frungy League has done a great job updating the music). Rather, now as when it was first introduced the game provided an enjoyable world all its own. For me, the unique personalities of the aliens makes exploring the galaxy fun. The game is packed with humor, and may well have you laughing out loud during play.
The game world is HUGE… VAST… FRICKIN’ BIG. There are literally hundreds of planets that contain goodies and surprises for the intrepid explorer.
The space combat, while set in a simplistic 2D field, is engaging. This game is all rock-paper-scissors- you’ll quickly learn which ships to match against enemies for the best results. Although some vessels do well against a variety of enemies, others fall more readily into the role of victor or victim depending who they are fighting. With 25 different ship types each with their own speed, turn rate, weapons and special attacks, the game offers plenty of variety to keep the combat fresh and entertaining. Unlike many modern titles, the ships offer inventive ways to fight and require you to develop different tactics for each ship type you acquire. To practice your combat skills, the game offers a melee mode allowing you to pit hand-picked fleets against AI opponents.
The Bottom Line
Compared with contemporary games, titles like this stand out Although you do have a linear set of of storyline goals to achieve, nothing prevents you from exploring the vast map at your leisure, finding cool little areas and generally enjoying the freedom to fly around doing what amounts to nothing constructive. The game doesn’t pressure or penalize you into coloring within the lines. This game comes from a time when genres weren’t so clearly defined or all that important in the grand scheme of things. The video game industry was still in its infancy, and there was room for quirky little games like this to take center stage, something that sadly isn’t very frequent these days.
UQM is entertainment for its own sake. It never takes itself too seriously and provides laughs and a roomy universe to explore. Released to critical acclaim and awards back in the 90’s, it deserves both.
Of course, graphics devotees will be disappointed. You can clearly tell the game is over 20 years old and by today’s standards, the animations and cut scenes are primitive at best. The meat and potatoes of the game, mining and gathering life forms can become monotonous, though you can acquire enough wealth early on to fully upgrade your ship and then take your time roaming around and solving the game. Also, when you engage in space combat you and the enemy ship are spawned in random locations within the battle space, so you can sometimes die quickly after appearing next to a powerful enemy or even better, within the gravity well of a planet (every combat area has one). In the early stages of the game, before you can upgrade your engines and turn rate, you large, clumsy ship will beat itself to death against the planet, unable to escape the gravity. Luckily, you can save the game as often as you like. It’s a good idea to do so frequently.
But like any really good title, the weaknesses don’t seem to matter that much- they don’t ruin the experience, just make it less perfect. Despite the poor graphics and simplistic combat, including the frustration of dying to to poor initial placement, UQM is enormously entertaining. With the volume of game content, the novelty of exploration and diplomacy, and the epic scale of the story, this game is worth a play-through. Any fan of vintage games should definitely give this one a try.
I’m giving The Ur-Quan Masters 7 out of 10.
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