by Dave Lebling

Science Fiction

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A Highly Qualified Four Stars, August 18, 2021
by Drew Cook (Acadiana, USA)

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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Alien technology vs. the Infocom world model, October 26, 2018

I needed several hints to finish Starcross and am slightly bitter about it. Not because the game is unfair, but because I really like science fiction and wanted to be good at being inside a sci-fi adventure! Spaceships, computers, aliens, high-tech gadgets... all stuff I like thinking about. I thought the theme would give me the extra determination I needed to tough it out and solve everything by myself, and I did make good headway at first, but ultimately I tripped myself up by thinking too much about how I wanted the game to be rather than how it is.

Starcross is from 1982. It was only Infocom's fifth game. Anyone playing this today should expect sparse implementation compared to modern games, and I certainly knew that going in, having played other Infocom titles. But the setting of a high-tech alien spaceship turns out to be a mismatch in a way that the more whimsical settings of Zork and the like are not. In Zork, when I come across a weird room containing something out of a myth or fable, I take it as a goofy fantasy reference and don't expect there to be much point in poking around the edges of the scenery. But in Starcross, when I came across a room with lights or machines or dials or doors in the descriptions, I wanted to examine everything closely. And in some cases, the game lets you. My favorite parts were when the game gives lengthy, detailed descriptions of control panels and what the symbols look like, and you have to figure out what it all means and how to make it work. There are some very good puzzles in this game that involve fiddling with alien technology. But there is also lots of scenery that I wanted to prod for clues, but couldn't.

The upside is that there isn't much cruelly hidden stuff (there is one case where SEARCH really should yield success, but I didn't get stuck because of it). There aren't even that many objects you can pick up. The room connections are straightforward and the ship is quite easy to map out. Almost all of the possible dead-ends come from doing things in the wrong order or wasting items in ways that obviously have no effect. I can only think of one action in the game that seems like an alternate solution but actually ends up making the game unwinnable. There are also no wacky, jokey, implausible, or otherwise off-the-wall solutions. In that respect, the game is quite fair. Thinking "What sort of thing might I actually try if I was in that situation?" can get you a long way. Of course, you may come up with several plausible solutions, so you still need a lot of methodical perseverance to figure out which particular one was implemented, and the game isn't going to give you any nudges if you only get close, but that's just how you have to play these old games. Overall, the structure of the puzzles and traps has more in common with an old Dungeons & Dragons module than, say, Riven. I should have remembered that, and I should have spent less time wishing for clearer details from the game and more time thinking about how to give my actions more specificity. Old Infocom games may not implement every single noun, but the world model does allow you to specify where you put something or where you look.

The parts I liked best about Starcross probably make up 50% of the game. I wish the whole game was figuring out symbols and technology, but the other half is still well-constructed and fair, so I give this game high marks for the era. Also, as it turns out, there is an in-universe explanation for why the game's puzzles are the way they are. It's not a terribly satisfying one, but I appreciate the attempt at thematic consistency.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Helped spur my interest in sci fi novels?, June 14, 2016

I was born in 1971 and I think I played this game in 1984.

Not long afterward, I would become an avid reader of science fiction novels (particularly form Asimov and Clarke), and this game may have helped kick-start that habit.

Playing this game, I would fill my head with imagery of a colossal cylindrical spacecraft, primitive inhabitants, alien machinery, etc. The text-only interface was more than adequate for navigation, interacting with objects, and communicating with beings.

My main complaint with the game is that there is a critical challenge with a non-intuitive solution. This is the task of obtaining the red rod. I was never able to find the solution to this on my own.

There was one other critical challenge that I wasn't able to solve on my own. That was the task of using the pair of disks. However, unlike the challenge with the red rod, the game developer had provided a hint that I could have picked up on.

The game would have been better if there were more rooms to explore, more objects to find, more inhabitants to communicate with, and more puzzles (with intuitive or multiple solutions) to solve.

One final comment: there seems to be a strange hole in the plot where the game developer forgot that you (the visitor) and the inhabitants breathe the same atmosphere. However, this issue can be easily overlooked.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Infocom's first scifi; big map, Star Trek feel. Little comedy, lots of wonder, February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: Infocom

Star cross was fun to try on my own without a walkthrough, at first. You are a miner in space, looking for an asteroid, when you encounter an unusual object.

This game plays out on a large cylindrical map, with dynamics similar to those described in Ender's Game. You encounter a wide variety of creatures. The map eventually overwhelmed me; it is a huge map, and hard to draw out yourself (just look at the official maps!).

I used a lot of hints, eventually (including one near the beginning).

The main gameplay mechanic is a lock-and-key type puzzle, where you find about a dozen color-coded objects and corresponding places to put them.

I actually preferred this to Planetfall; that game's 4 timers (hunger, sleep, (Spoiler - click to show)disease, flood), combined with an empty map and red herrings, left me frustrated (Enchanter's three similar timers were compensated for by a simple map and dense useful object placement). Star cross was fun, even though I mostly used a walkthrough. The deaths were all fun, too.

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
The original 'hard SF' game, April 5, 2010

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.

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Imagery that sticks in the mind, April 3, 2008
by J. Robinson Wheeler (Austin, TX)
Related reviews: infocom rods

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.

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