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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Remembering Starglider, the flight sim series that gave rise to Star Fox

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From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, the Egrons are invading Noveria in wireframe spaceships, and that’s all the plot you need… though not all the plot there actually is.

I could never work out why flying too low in space kept damaging my ship. Turns out I was flying over a planet the whole time. In retrospect, I guess I should probably have read the manual.

Starglider came out in 1986, and was one of the first games I remember playing. I was old enough that I shouldn’t have been confused by the difference between ‘planet’ and ‘not a planet’, but there you go. Once, I watched a whole episode of Captain Planet without realising the TV was off. (It improved the plot considerably, and I’m pretty sure the energy savings spared a whole forest.)

Starglider was impressive for its time, originally intended to be a Star Wars game (and though it didn’t get the license, the similarities are pretty obvious) with fast 3D arcade action, wireframe graphics, and a novella that made a valiant effort to pretend that the lack of solid shapes wasn’t because computers at the time had as much 3D processing power as the average wristwatch, but was instead an awesome tactical assistant that any pilot would kill to have access to in the field.

With an effort, Jaysan managed to close the canopy. As he did so, the view through the plastiglas changed in an extraordinary way; the walls of the workshop became transparent – as if they had been suddenly and unaccountably turned to glass. “Good grief,” he exclaimed.

The further justification is that the ship you’re flying—not a Starglider—was intended as a ground attack unit, and thus being able to see tanks behind buildings and so on represented a key strategic advantage. Clearly, the planet’s surface is densely populated, filled with the wiliest of enemies.

…or, y’know, not. The sequel later took all these explanations and said, “Haha, no.”

Incidentally, the pilot of the dreaded Starglider One—the ultimate alien attack craft of the invading Egrons—goes by the name “Hermann Kruud”. With far too many possible jokes about that to pick just one, let’s just leave it alone. We can’t however skip the fact that, while it wasn’t in the PC version, Starglider was a mid-80s game with its own theme song. Sing along if you know the words…

Well, I didn’t say it was a very long theme song. But wouldn’t it be great if that had become the pattern that future games had followed, including the developer/publisher tacked onto the end?

Brave heroes, it’s time to form your party

Head into danger, in the game, Final Fantasy

Oh, all the wonders that you will see

Until it’s ruined by linearity

By Squaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaare!


Starglider was one of those games that I played for hours and hours without ever entirely being sure of the goal. Obviously, you shoot stuff. You shoot a lot of stuff, in a variety of colours and increasingly wacky shapes that range from a red Walker—fair enough, and another reason I probably should have worked out this was not in fact set in space, to snapping pyramid things that look like their attack method is to try and pluck planes out of the sky/spaceships out of the space. King of the enemies is the yellow Starglider One, a constantly cloaking pain in the arse that mocks your lasers to the 10th generation.

Despite its simplicity as a game and a 3D world, Starglider was full of really cool touches for the time. To get missiles for instance you had to fly into silos—silos rotating constantly, in a way that I think warrants a refund on at least one stupid point for the “How could you think this was space?!” thing. You had to line up and zoom in, at which point you flew through a quick tunnel and were given a missile to take into battle. This was really cool. Fire it, and a second screen slides in over the HUD so that you can miss absolutely everything  precisely guide it into a tougher enemy. Also interesting, if not actually fun , was having to recharge the ship on the move by precisely flying past energy pylons.

As far as a specific mission goes, “Kill that thing!” is probably enough. Starglider wasn’t exactly great at explaining what it wanted, though. Despite being in a warzone, flying into a silo and asking for a specific mission just produces “There are no missions currently available!” Really? Not even a general “Kill everything!” or “Save the world, genius” to get started with? It’s fairly obvious that shooting down Starglider One is the priority, but I never came close to landing the three missile hits I’m told that took. I think at one point I grazed it and was then betrayed by the ground.

There’s not really a lot more to the game than this—it was a simple shooter, but one I remember fondly even if I never did get very far in it. That’s true of a lot of games of the time though, where manuals only occasionally offered any real help on how to play or what you were meant to be doing, and actually finishing something was a rare treat. Somehow, I doubt the ending would have been worth waiting for in this case. I’m assuming it would have been a text screen saying “Mission Complete” or similar. Still, you never know. A developer that could make the Atari ST literally sing its praises might also be the developer that found a way to get a Hollywood quality outro into 100kb or so. No reason to be cynical.

Here’s some footage of the game in action. It looks simple, but remember: 1986. The sequel followed soon after, but probably the most famous part of the Starglider legacy doesn’t bear its name at all. The intended Starglider 3 instead went through Nintendo and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, where it became the on-rails shooter Star Fox (Starwing in the UK). The creators weren’t exactly thrilled about that idea originally, but it still made a splash on the console that made “Mode 7” sound cool.

No theme song, though. Tssk. So much for progress.

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