There are key dates in life…weddings, graduations, initial release dates for video games…the usual. Among these, August 15, 1986 saw me sitting in front of my IBM PC/AT with a brand new computer game on 5.25″ floppy diskette! All I knew is that it had something to do with space exploration, mining, trading and negotiating with aliens. The game would not only make history, but also become the influence for many future space-themed titles and series. Of course, I’m talking about Starflight, from Electronic Arts…the first space-themed open world roguelike sandbox.
As of this writing, the game is still in early access. And although there are clearly elements missing, the graphics, humor and especially the soundtrack make this space sim one to watch.
The story is introduced very simply. It seems your beloved aunt, who is no where to be found, has gifted you a space cruiser called the Rasputin. You are directed to an initial space station where you meet various characters, one of whom hands you a strange object to carry with you on the journey to come.
The gameplay itself consists of repeated (and somewhat repetitive) phases. Aboard various space stations you visit bounty boards for missions. You can also hang out at the bars to pick up local gossip and potentially hire mercenaries as wing men and women in flight. Other areas include a market where you can buy and sell resources necessary to outfit and upgrade the Rasputin‘s weapons and cargo capacity, and eventually purchase newer and more able ships.
When you’re all equipped, disengage from space dock and head out. Rebel Galaxy‘s environment consists of a number of solar system maps, connected by “warp gates”. My heart fell a little as I explored the first system, as I was hoping to land on planets and perhaps mine, trade or otherwise interact with the locals. In the game’s current build, the planets are in the form of gas giants, making them impossible to inspect up close. What’s more, your ship’s warp drive is disabled if you fly too near a planet, rendering them a big spherical hindrance. So for now I use planets simply as navigational markers.
As you fly around the system looking for mission items and random loot among space debris, combat may occur. Alien ships of varying degree of hostility can suddenly appear on your mini-map….as well as on the main screen right in front of you! Until upgraded, the Rasputin‘s arsenal contains a light rotating auto-turret, as well as a more powerful (albeit unidirectional) broadside cannon. While shields are an optional accessory, they should be purchased and equipped early; at least until you get better with the game’s tactics. Then if you’re up for it, try playing without shields!
Next is the subject of movement and navigation. The universe is a big, breathtaking place. For some reason though, the developer chose not to present it to us in that way…at least not yet. The solar system is marked by a bright, distinguishable “horizon” line. This may have been done to give junior fliers a sense of balance. But as veterans know, there are no quarks in space; it’s a veritable 360-degree free roam…but not here. Of the three rotational axes, your ship has access to only one: yaw (left/right steering). There is no up/down pitch control, neither is there a side-to-side barrel roll. So space flight is reduced to the same two-dimensional mechanic as road racing in your favorite car sim. Overall, is Rebel Galaxy worth it? Yes, it is. Keeping in mind that the game is still in pre-release, we should expect marked improvements to content and presentation in future patches, upgrades and add-ons. Discovering and landing on planets, mining for ore and sending back terraforming recommendations would an amazing next step. I did these things 30 years ago in Starflight on my IBM PC/AT…which still works…sitting in my closet…waiting.