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A Highly Qualified Four Stars, August 18, 2021
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.