A retrospective on the text-based Star Trek computer games created in 1971, and how it had a huge impact on the nascent PC gaming industry.
Before the Star Trek Bridge Crew, before the Starfleet Command series, before even tabletop RPG adaptations like Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game, there was a text-based starship simulator adaptation of Star Trek created in 1971, and it was designed to be playable on any computer system capable of running BASIC. As personal computers started to become a fixture of professional households in the 1970s and 1980s, this easy-to-install game of Federation starships vs. Klingon warbirds wound up inspiring spin-off starship simulators, early Rogue-like RPGs, and other PC games based around the exploration of randomly generated environments.
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In the year 1971, Star Trek The Original Series had been canceled for two years, and prototype desktop computers weren’t quite refined enough to be household goods. Nascent computer programming subcultures generally congealed around computer science departments in colleges and universities, who published and shared their custom programs in professional journals and magazines. Much like today, some of these computer programmers also happened to be fans of science fiction narratives like Star Trek.
Programmer Mike Mayfield wrote the first version of the Star Trek computer game using the BASIC programming language, compiling and testing his game on a Sigma 7 mainframe. Inspired by the early Spacewar! arcade game, Mayfield wanted to create a Star Trek-derived video game capable of running on any computer system; for this reason, he devised a control system based around pressing buttons on a keyboard, as well as a text-based graphical interface that could be displayed on computer screens or printed out on paper. Mayfield shared his Star Trek game as public domain software other programmers could tinker with and run on their own computers, and variants of this game became very popular among programmers, Star Trek fans, and laypeople for three particular reasons.
Star Trek (1971) Pioneered Tactics, Management, & Exploration In Video Games
In the 1971 Star Trek video game, players are the commanders of a Federation-style starship like the Enterprise, charged with the duty of searching for and destroying all the Klingon warships in their quadrant of space before a certain Stardate. In order to make his video game’s premise (described in this Gizmodo article) interesting and challenging for players, programmer Mike Mayfield wound up creating early versions of exploration, resource management, and turn-based tactical gameplay.
More specifically, the core gameplay loop of Star Trek (1971) revolves around players roaming through and scanning different sectors of space (exploration), engaging and destroying Klingon warships with phasers and photon torpedos (turn-based tactical combat), and allocating reactor energy between shields, weapons, and warp engines while also docking at local Starbases to get repaired and re-charged (resource management).
Star Trek (1971) Was A Prototype of Text Adventures & Roguelikes
Nine years before Rogue, the first Roguelike RPG, represented the player character using an “@” symbol, and five years before Colossal Cave Adventure (the first text adventure game) asked players to move between different rooms by typing commands like “go north,” Star Trek (1971) represented the player’s starship with a “<*>,” Starbases with a “>!<,” and Klingon Warbirds with a “+++.”
By using ASCII characters to create visual “Space Maps” for players to interpret, Mayfield created a game that could be displayed on nearly any kind of monitor or even printed out with a tele-printer. Additionally, the simple text-based graphics of Star Trek (1971) made it easy for Mayfield and other programmers to create randomly generated star maps for each new game cycle, pioneering the concept of “procedural generation” seen in video game genres like the RPG or RTS.
Star Trek (1971) Popularized The Idea Of Installable Video Games
As a text-based video game written in BASIC, Star Trek (1971) could – and still can be – run on nearly any computer system, whether through being digitally installed or manually typed in line by line. Nowadays, the idea of installing video games onto a computer is common-place, but back in the 1970s, when video games like Pong or Spacewar! were hard-coded into their arcade machines/early consoles, the concept of “game installation” was revolutionary. By encouraging other programmers to install, run, and modify his Star Trek game, Mayfield helped popularize the concept of PC gaming, demonstrating how Turing-complete computers could be used for both work and fun.
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