Interstel Interstel Bones' Starflight Page


Old but not forgotten...

[Last update: August 9, 2002]

Starflight Ship


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[For purposes of this discussion, I'm mostly limiting it to the PC version of Starflight 1. Starflight 2 was a great game in its own right, and a worthy sequel, but didn't necessarily have the same "magic" that was present in the first (depending on your point of view). Also, I haven't played them on any other platform. The images on this page show the 16-color EGA version, even though I originally played the original CGA version. Only the EGA version works on current graphics cards, unless you use a patch or emulator. The PC version was very successful in generating the sense of awe of being a lone explorer in a vast universe. I'm inclined to believe that the console version was not capable of being as successful at it, but I can't know for sure since I didn't play it, and I have seen people speaking just as fondly of that version]

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Treatise on Starflight

Launch Window
ready to launch
Long long ago, in a game market not so far away, a single game stood out amongst the background noise. Well, maybe it wasn't quite so dramatic, but it did sell over a million copies, and to some of us it left a lasting impression that is part of us to this day. What was it about Starflight that grabbed us all and inspired us? Certainly no one can deny that the influence was profound, since you can see evidence of such impact even on more recent games. Take for instance the Star Control series. Star Control II in particular shows signs of its creators being touched by Starflight.

For one thing, Starflight was a break-through in game technology. It pushed the envelope of what was available and could commonly be done on the computers of the day. The easy to use interface, the skillful use of limited color choices, the fractal universe, and the designers' effort to keep everything in context, and the depth to the story and the back-history were some of the most important aspects that made it what it was. Let's take a look at some of these in more detail...

Most of the games of the day were simplistic games. It was common for games to either be arcade-style, or have complex keyboard commands if the game was any more detailed than a simple action game. Starflight combined form and function in a way that made it easy to learn to play, and also maintained a certain aesthetic appeal that also helped to draw you into the game. Every aspect of it was kept in context, as well. When the system had a long delay due to fractal calculations, you'd be given messages such as "Entering orbit" or "Checking hull integrity". Heck, even the liscensing agreement was completely in-context to the game fiction, even if it wasn't ratified by the Gazurtoid. And when it said that unauthorized duplication could result in the destruction of the offending being, and that it would be enforced by the Interstel Corporate Police, they weren't kidding. Failure to enter the precise numbers off of the code-wheel resulted in exactly that (scanning the ships that chase you down reveals that they look like little police cars). And just when you thought there was nothing else left to be made "in-context", the group photo of the programmers/developers seemed in context, as it was taken in a cockpit, with everyone in flight-suits bearing the Interstel logo.

But I think the one thing that Starflight is remembered for most fondly is the depth and detail. The fractal-based map was one of the best ideas the developers had, as it allowed for a very large universe without actually storing the maps on disk. For a game to take up more than two 360k floppies at the time would have been unwieldy, and by having mathematically calculable planets they could have a very large universe and still pack a lot into the available space. The size and detail of the map itself is of course only one aspect of the depth in the game. On top of that, there were a multitude of mysterious artifacts, ruins with messages, alien races, and an immensely detailed history that all were interwoven and had direct bearing on the plot at hand. To fully understand what was happening and what needed to be done, you had to slowly uncover bits and pieces of the past and slowly build the puzzle. While it is certainly possible to win without knowing all of the history, the real point of the whole game was to explore the universe and uncover the history. In fact, the plot doesn't even begin to show its face for a while after you begin the game.. at the start, you're just an explorer.

Other details that helped to immerse the player were minor things, such as the humor, and the "notices" section at the starbase. Seeing messages periodically appear from other ship captains gave the impression that you weren't out there alone. But where were they? Unfortunately the other ships from Arth are nowhere to be found. I think this was done on purpose to an extent, so that you still get the sense of being a lonely explorer in a vast universe. And that is a feeling that was instilled into the player very well. The universe did seem immense and empty but still interesting and wonderous (though obviously not as vast and empty as real space, which would be so boring that you wouldn't want to play). A natural extension to this would be to make a massively multiplayer game, in the same vein as games like Ultima Online, except done from the standpoint of space exploration. This is an idea that a friend and I discussed from time to time, ever since we first played Starflight, even though the technology didn't quite exist to support such a thing back then, at least not on the scale we see today.

Horsehead Nebula
One of the things I liked about the setup also was the fact that the interface sort-of gave the player a feel of actually commanding the ship, rather than just steering around a bitmap on the screen. The overhead view in the navigation system didn't help with that, but was good for the technology of the time, and kept things simple and easy to use. But as long as you were willing to treat that as a navigation "radar" screen as opposed to the actual view of the ship, you could suspend your disbelief just a little and pretend you were there, in that ship, giving orders to your crew who would occasionally respond "Aye Captain" and the like.

Perhaps the CGA (and later EGA/VGA compatible) graphics adapters, depsite their pathetic nature by today's standards, actually aided the game in some way. Some of the older games, with less visuals, were actually more gripping. Why is this? Perhaps our imaginations fill in for what we can't see. Perhaps some of it was simply due to the fact that we weren't on game-overload, since there weren't as many games around, and they weren't as glitzy as that which is available today. It's hard to say.. But in any event, I've never seen a 160x200 resolution with 4 colors used so effectively, and I'm still impressed by the design of the game as a whole.

Ship Configuration
a maxed-out ship
Of course, the creators didn't work any miracles, or specifically invent anything new. Their efforts were innovative considering how the components were organized, their attention to detail, and the amount of time and effort they spent to make sure everything came out the way they wanted. In today's game market, designers and programmers tend to be overworked, underpaid, and pushed to get a product out the door in a short span of time. And they have to in order to compete. It's been quite a long time since it has been possible for five men to spend 3 years designing a product and have the option of tossing out large amounts of code when a newer and better idea strikes. Maybe today's game market can learn a few lessons from the past. Certainly, I think Electronic Arts could learn a few things from Binary Systems. :)

Starflight was one of the first games I ever bought with my own money (though probably not -the- first; but at any rate, $30 was a lot to me back then). I was approaching 8th grade at the time, and a friend of mine had purchased a copy and showed it to me. I was instantly intrigued, and ran out to get a copy for myself. I then played for over two weeks at about 60 hours a week (I had just gotten off from school for the summer) before I managed to win, and the only reason I managed to win that quickly was because I was being fed occasional hints from my friend with his clue book, who was playing through it simultaneously. Ever since then, it has been my desire to make something similar; to make a game that follows in Starflight's footsteps. While I still have yet to do this, I have made a demo program that was inspired by SF quite a bit. You can download it HERE (runs in DOS, and you should fully exit windows to hear the sound properly, for which you may need to install your sound-card's DOS drivers, and anyone who can't figure out how to do this doesn't deserve to play Starflight, since it was DOS only! Well, the PC version anyway). :-)

More detail to come to this site... all in good time...

The Back-History

Arth Starport
our favorite starbase
If you haven't played Starflight 1 yet, don't read this section, because it will spoil it for you. If you have no intention of playing it through, or only have a vague recollection of it, then this could be for you. :-)

Starflight's fiction spans hundreds of years... Most of this is reconstructed by memory, and through use of the timeline in the game manual, so forgive any mistakes or details that may have been left out.

In the beginning... or rather, at the start of the game, you're given very little background. You're briefed (in the manual) about the recent situation, about 5 ships having been launched before you and they haven't been heard from. Part of the information in the manual is the timeline you see below:

2100 - Man discovers endurium
2150 - Man discovers enduriums' application to superphotonic technology
       and begins exploring. Colonization begins. Start of empire.
2300 - Man meet Velox.
2650 - Major endurium finds usher in Empire's Golden era.
2675 - Empire discovers Spemin.
2770 - Empire discovers Thrynn and Elowan.
3000 - Start of First Wave (?)
3120 - Velox pact of 3120.
3260 - First Wave (?) ends.
3400 - Start of Second Wave (?).
3450 - Project Noah is initiated.
3453 - Launch of Noah 2 expedition.
3480 - Fall of Earth.
3505 - Bomb hit Arth, creates Southern Hot Zone and forces underground
       colonists above ground.
3520 - Arth society collapses and Dark Years begin.
4400 - Arth's new era begins with new council and the industrial 
4500 - Rediscovery of space flight (sublight).
4594 - Discovery of Noah 2 colony and Endurium.
4615 - First group sent out in superphotonic ships.
4620 - Present day.

At first you start out as a simple explorer, trying to make out an existence by mining within your own solar system. Once you can afford an engine upgrade and some serious fuel, you can begin exploring further into space, and find lush worlds to recommend for colonization, and eventually interact with multiple alien races, find ruins and artifacts, and little by little piece together the history of this sector of space, which goes something like this... [don't read any further if you intend to play the game from scratch, as this is one giant spoiler]

A brief history...

The story revolves mostly around the ancients. You pick up little tid-bits about them, but the single most important detail doesn't hit you until nearly the end of the game, but it is what explains how everything got set into motion more than a millenium earlier.

Something known as the "Crystal Planet" has been moving outward in the galaxy, causing solar flares in stars along the way. These solar flares kill all life in each solar system, and as such, all space-faring races that get struck with it either perish, or have to flee. Four of the races that either exist in the game or are merely mentioned have been fleeing outward for centuries. The "First Wave" was the invasion of the Numlox and Phlegmak, who passed through long before the game takes place (though there's a high probability that they were destroyed completely). The "Second Wave" was the Uhlek and the Gazurtoid, who still exist on the map and are two of the major races you encounter in the game, but they're close to the edge of the map already. Your world has been relatively untouched since (because the noah colonies were underground and thus hard to detect), although it has become apparent that a solar flare is soon to occur in your solar system.

The other major races in the game are either far enough out that they haven't been hit yet, or are also in the hot zone. You have to explore and find out what's causing the flares.

Going back a ways, the history of your planet (Arth) and it's people (multiple races, including Human, Velox, Elowan, and Thrynn) is a long and arduous one. Humans created the great Star Empire, and brought these other races in on it. With the destruction of the empire, a colonization project was created to save as much of the population as possible. This was called the Noah project. Many of the Noah ships were never heard from again, but your planet was one of the original Noah colonies (Noah-2), but society falls apart and most of the technology and knowledge of Arth's history is lost soon after the southern hot zone was created.

One of the clues you gain in your exploration about the fate of the Noah expeditions is that you find the old Noah-9 ship floating adrift in a planet's orbit, and also meet the Mechans, who were androids sent in ships ahead of the Noah ships to prepare planets for colonization. The Mechans were waiting for Noah-9, which never arrived, and they assume you to be that ship.

Now here's the real kicker- It turns out that the ancients, this mysterious old race that no one knows much about, turns out to be Endurium, the crystals that you and every other space-faring race uses as fuel for ships. Everyone has been burning the ancients, without knowing that they were alive! The Crystal Planet is their homeworld, and they've been using it as a giant weapon to fight back against all of the technological races in the area. To save your people, you are forced to destroy the crystal planet using one of the "black egg" devices (planet-bombs, basically), thus neutralizing the threat. At this point you are allowed to continue playing the game (a good idea, especially since the game was designed mostly to be an exploration simulation), and the issue of using the ancients for fuel isn't mentioned again until Starflight 2, in which the solution is to use another substance with remarkably similar properties... Shyneum.

The Software

Lost your Starflight disks? Never fear! Download them here: [Starflight 1], [Starflight 2], [Starflight 1, Won + Class 5 all]. NOTE- It is illegal to download them without already owning a legal copy of the game. This is provided as a replacement-source only. I know you'll probably download them anyway, but that's not my responsibility. This disclaimer is unfortunately necessary. Note that you need a 286 or older to really play the game correctly, otherwise certain things will happen too fast, such as the game-clock running insanely fast.

Another good source of the software, plus some useful utilities programs is the Starflight Source Page. Also see the links section below for more sources of utilities, hints, cheats, etc.

You can also download my demo program here: [Probe Demo]

And someone else's interesting demo here: [Space Demo]

Additional files & resources, wholly stolen from other Starflight sites:
[note- I have not tested these, use at your own risk]

  • Mapneg.gif - A Printable Starmap you can use to plot your journeys with.
  • starfrac.txt - List of races you encounter in Starflight and how to deal with them.
  • starfsol.txt - The quick and dirty list of things that need to be accomplished to finish Starflight.
  • starfobj.txt & starfob2.txt - Two different lists of objects and their locations in Starflight.
  • - A huge MSWord document containing everything you ever wanted to know about starflight (everything!). Thanx go out to William Cassidy for this one.
  • starmapc.jpg - Starflight 1 starmap with important fluxes drawn in. Thanks to Cyberius Teaser.
  • - Generates a customizable map for Starflight I. The program is fully configurable by editing a .CFG file. Thank you Dave Sheldon.
  • - Cheat program for Starflight giving you fully trained humans, class 7 everything, and mucho endurium and cash.
  • starfpat.txt - Instructions on how to (manually) patch Starflight to work on EGA.
  • - A TSR enabling Starflight I to be played on a VGA card in 16 color! Big thanx to the author, Jouko Orava! Send him copious amounts of money. (This will only be needed for the real old version... games purchased since 1990 have this bug fixed).
  • - Same as above, but now with screen capture abilities!
  • - Another screen emulator. This one gives the original four-colour cga splendor back to the game, thanks to Dean Beeler.
  • - TSR to put in the Sarflight I code off the codewheel for you.
  • - A snazzy windows version to compute the codewheel code for you.
  • - Html + javascript version of the codewheel code generator. Either download and run it in your web browser, or simply use this one.
  • sf2sthnt.txt - Small Starflight II hint file just to start you off.
  • sf2colonizable.txt - A list of all colonizable planets in SF2.
  • starflig.txt - Complete walkthrough for Starflight II.
  • sf2ultimate.txt - The Ultimate SF2 listing. Shows all races' homeworlds and how to get all the important objects. Thank Lowar if you find it useful!
  • sf2doc.txt - Complete instructions for Starflight II (what? you don't have them?).
  • - Crack and Cheat program for Starflight II (even lets you edit your bank account!).
  • - A couple of windows icons for you to use to launch starflight, so you don't have to see the default MS-Dos one.
  • - This comes with the Top Ten II pack, which comes with Starflight II; ICD.EXE disables your internal cache, slowing the Starflight games to a playable speed, and ICE.EXE re-enables the cache, speeding your computer back up again.

(many are now out of date)
Bones' Space Exploration Page (my page about general armchair space exploration)
Starport Central (Starflight III development)
Will Parker's Starflight Page (good material here)
The Starflight Fan Page (best source of info)
Mac Elstrom's Starflight Page (nicely laid out)
The Jova Lounge (hang out in-character)
Starflight at Home of the Underdogs
Starflight at Digital Press
Starflight Invasion (a Starflight spin-off)

The Creators of Starflight:
Binary Systems Group Photo
Greg Johnson, Alec Kercso, Bob Gonsalves, T.C. Lee, Rod McConnell

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