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About the Story
Starcross, Infocom's science fiction mind-bender, launches you headlong into the year 2186 and the depths of space. And not without good reason, for you are destined to rendezvous with a gargantuan starship from the outer fringes of the galaxy, peopled with both harmful and helpful beings. But the great starship serves a far larger purpose than mere cultural exchange. It bears a challenge that was issued eons ago, from light years away - and only you can meet it.
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Starcross has imagery that sticks in the mind, even after two decades: colored rods. Why these rods would be so -- hmm, I want to say "primary," and I don't just mean in coloration -- distinctive and mind-etching, I'm not sure, but if you're talking to someone about playing an old Infocom game, and they say, "Which one is Starcross, again?" and you say, "The one with the rods," they know exactly what you mean.
You find yourself on a large cylindrical spaceship of alien origin, with all systems controled by fitting these rods into like-colored slots. You start the game with none, but you need all of them to get to the end. Thus, the main thrust of the game is finding these rods in their various hidden places, and solving the puzzles that keep them from easy acquisition. It's not a bad way to plot out a puzzle game; in fact, it's archetypal at this point, although you can't really do colored rods any more without its being a complete ripoff. Instead, to this day one can still play new IF games that involve finding different colored widgets and fitting them into wodgets.
The various ways of dying in the game reveal a meta-plot at work: (Spoiler - click to show)the reason everything is so puzzly and challenging is, apparently, because the race of aliens that created the spaceship are trying to find lifeforms intelligent enough to bother with. You are a lab rat in a little maze of death traps, basically, but you can eventually prove that you are a sentient lab rat.
Some of the puzzles are clued pretty well, and some of them are rather notoriously unfairly clued. The red rod, in particular -- (Spoiler - click to show)one of the first you need to get, because there is a time-critical aspect to doing so -- shapes up as a guess-the-verb situation, with not enough feedback along the way to point you to the correct solution. I think the main failure is that the author pictured the obstacle quite differently in his mind than he ended up describing it.
Apart from the trouble with the red rod, I managed to push through this game, which 21 years ago I found impossibly challenging, on my own. Indeed, I experienced one of those primal moments of IF pleasure while playing this game. I was frustrated with not being able to find any more rods at one point, and traced and retraced my steps, and couldn't see what would produce progress. I decided to quit the game. Just as I did so, a new thought popped into my head: "Hey, what if I ...?" I reloaded the game, tried my idea -- and it worked! It's been too long since I allowed myself this kind of pleasure; it's too easy to go to the Hints or a Walkthrough or ask a friend for help these days. But the only way to get this feeling is to solve a toughie unaided.
The game has quite a few NPCs, all of them about as shallowly implemented as you would expect for a 1982 game that had to work within severe space and memory requirements. A little bit of lively writing goes a long way in these cases.
Overall, quite good, but showing signs of age. For puzzle-solvers, I don't think it'll ever go completely out of fashion, and the concept of colored rods and slots will live on in the collective IF consciousness for years to come.
Starcross is the only Infocom game with an 'Expert' rating that I ever completed without any outside help. This was no doubt due to my near-limitless enthusiasm for hard science fiction at the time the game was released. Although no particular story was instrumental in helping me figure out the game's many puzzles, the background in basic physics and familiarity with hard SF space travel conventions were essential to feeling at home in the game universe.
The most notable feature of this work is its extremely consistent internal logic. There are no quirky or humorous solutions here -- though you may need to have a flash of insight to comprehend a particular puzzle's symbols or structure, the solution is always clear enough (if not necessarily immediately reachable) once this occurs. The author does a perfect job of providing you the information you need to solve a puzzle without making it instantly apparent which information is significant to which puzzle.
This game is definitely 'old school', and, as such, may seem unfair to someone more attuned to the modern IF style. It is extremely easy to make the game unwinnable without realizing it. Somehow, this fits the style of Starcross well -- you are exploring an unknown vessel full of alien technology, and it seems right that you must rely on your own intuition instead of an author-supplied 'revelation' that you just made a mistake. Sure, you should make use of the save command frequently, but, when you find yourself stuck, you should always be able to deduce where you went wrong after some reflection.
If you're an SF junkie, you'll probably love Starcross. If not, expect to feel frustrated and lost a good chunk of the time.
I'm trying to work my way through the Infocom catalog, posting my thoughts on a gaming forum all the while.
In 1981, Dave Lebling assumed responsibility for porting Zork II to home computers. Meanwhile, Marc Blank worked on Deadline. The next year, Blank wrote/developed Zork III while Lebling worked on his own pet-project, a hard sci-fi adventure that would come to be known as Starcross.
Both Deadline and Starcross struggled mightily with the size limitations imposed by microcomputers: these games had to run on systems like the TRS-80. Blank, rather ingeniously, overcame some of the problems by the use of feelies, thereby moving in-program text to packaging. Lebling, unfortunately, did not have the same opportunity. In a game about exploring the unknown, how could feelies do such textual heavy lifting?
It seems uncharitable to hold Lebling accountable for the TRS-80's shortcomings, but these problems must be talked about all the same. The Starcross map is large--entirely appropriate for a massive alien artifact. The most important objects in Deadline are its suspects, and they are deeply implemented. Starcross, as a function of its large map, is wide but shallow. Most objects are briefly described (if at all), and interaction is largely limited to objects that in some way progress the game.
Depending on a player's taste, this may or may not be an issue. Starcross is chock-full of difficult-but-fair puzzles, and those who enjoy such fare are in for a treat. Be warned that some require very basic knowledge of chemistry and physics. I have seen a reviewer state that Starcross is not "Zork in Space," but I'm not sure how true that really is. In fact, I think that Starcross is a sort of "lessons learned" effort for Lebling. It improves upon Zork's weaknesses while capitalizing on its strengths (except for the jokes, which is a matter of taste): fair(er) puzzles, a logical and well-designed map, treasures that serve a clear function, and sense of exploration that feels purposeful. It is the intermediate step between Zork and Spellbreaker. I find a clear throughline leading from point A to point C.
Even forgiving as I do Starcross's light implementation, I should acknowledge two flaws. One is minor, and one less so--which is which depends entirely on your tastes! Many have pointed out the unfortunate possibility of verb-guessing in getting the red rod. I think these critiques are fair. The other problem is the ending. (Spoiler - click to show)I won't spoil it here except to say that it feels randomly tacked on and retroactively makes a good deal of the game rather nonsensical. It would seem that Lebling started with Rendezvous with Rama and ended it with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think one Clarke novel per game is enough.
My rating is therefore a highly qualified four stars. If you are interested in Infocom games (perhaps Spellbreaker in particular), this is at least worth a look. There are many hard, satisfying puzzles here. The exploration is enjoyable despite the limited interactivity. However, those more interested in story and rich interaction will likely have a two-star experience.
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Average member rating: (27 ratings)
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Average member rating: (7 ratings)
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