Star Trek: 25th Anniversary casts you as Kirk, in command of the rest of the familiar Enterprise crew, setting its adventures somewhere in the vicinity of the original five-year mission. Originally released in 1992, the definitive version of the game is usually held to be the CD-ROM release, which made some minor changes (the Starfleet admiral who gives you your missions is now a woman), tuned up the sound effects and music (including more sound loops from the original series) and, perhaps most importantly, had voice acting from the original cast.
In fact, this game and its sequel (of which more later) represent the last Star Trek thing which Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Takei, Koenig, Nichols, and Doohan would all appear in together, and perhaps the greatest joy of the thing is how well it captures the tone of the original series – right down to Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov not really getting that many lines, Uhura enjoying a bit more spotlight thanks to her comms role, and most of the cast interplay taking place between Kirk, McCoy, Spock, and whichever redshirt you happen to have tagging along with you on a particular away team mission. (Hilariously, the redshirts all look the same, and whenever danger crops up in a mission the redshirt usually buys it first.)
In some ways, the game was very ahead of its time, since it presents an explicitly episodic point-and-click adventure experience. Each episode in the game is kept fairly short and simple, with the idea being that you can play through a single episode in a reasonable amount of time and enjoy the game in bite-size chunks. This certainly enables the game to present players with a wide range of scenarios without needing to weave them all into a single narrative, and enhances the sense that you’re playing through a lost season of the original show.
The game is split into two distinct modes – the away team missions, which play out like point-and-click adventures, and the starship command section. This is mostly about space combat, with a very perfunctory set of other functions which aren’t so significant tacked onto it (like hailing starships, consulting the computer banks for potentially useful background information, and so on).
When it comes to the actual gameplay of the game, I found the point-and-click sections somewhat hit-and-miss. They can sometimes be over-fussy, and in general they’re a little too short and simple (they perhaps could have done better had they trimmed themselves back from seven episodes to four or so, and used the saved space to flesh out the remaining away team missions.
There’s also some points where the story logic simply goes out of the window. An alien who has literally just been awoken from cryogenic suspension a second ago somehow knows everything that happened during the episode you encountered it in. On receiving information that some sort of virus that adversely affects Romulan physiology has been accidentally released in a research station, there’s no option to tell Spock to stay on the Enterprise bridge and take someone else on the away team instead of him, which is just absurd because given the close connection between Vulcans and Romulans you’d expect any virus that affects Romulans would be quite likely to affect Vulcans too. (Take Scotty! As an engineer he won’t be entirely lost when it comes to the technical side of stuff, and your communicators will let you get clarification from Spock if it’s needed.)
Still, as brief little point-and-click puzzles to solve in an hour or so, they’re not terrible, and it’s particularly nice that the game does not insist on you following One True Path to the end. There’s various different ways you can progress, some more annoying to Starfleet than others; at the end of each mission the Admiral assigns you a points score to give you an idea of how well you did. That’s a really neat idea for an episodic game – it means you can blaze through the episodes to get the whole story comparatively easily, then go back and try for perfect outcomes in the earlier episodes at your leisure. (I’m reminded of how the Hitman games give you similar post-mission assessments, and encourage you to go for the “Silent Assassin” accolade which is the game’s hallmark of peak performance.)
The big problem with the game is the space combat. Each episode typically includes some space combat and some point-and-click, and the space combat is frankly kind of dogshit. Compared to contemporary efforts of the time like Wing Commander, it just isn’t very interesting, and it’s so awkward to use and badly-explained in the manual that it ends up being annoyingly difficult. When you’re not in the zone, it’s a deeply aggravating barrier to progress. When you are in the zone, it’s often tedious – too often I ended up in boringly long stalemates where the enemy couldn’t hit me fast enough and hard enough to actually take me down, but I couldn’t do likewise to their ship.
By itself, this would be bad enough. Mixing videogame genres is a risky business. At its best, the two genres end up blending together into an interesting whole which reinforces the best of both worlds – this is the great accomplishment of the first Quest For Glory game, for instance.
However, no such blend is attempted here – the flight simulator-ish space combat and the point-and-click adventure gameplay are basically siloed off from each other. When you take this approach, you really need both aspects to truly shine. Even then, you will likely infuriate adventure purists who strongly dislike the flight sim parts, or flight sim fans who just aren’t interested in the point-and-click stuff; you’re only likely to truly please players who are keen on both genres, so you are already limiting yourself.
If one of those sections is utter garbage, then you have completely sabotaged your game for no reason, and that’s kind of what happened with 25th Anniversary. No matter how good the point-and-click sections are, the space combat inevitably drags the game down, and even enthusiastic fans of the game usually roll out a caveat about how the space combat wasn’t that great. It doesn’t help that most crew interaction and dialogue happens outside of combat – which means that the big draw for the Trek fan here, the original cast’s voice acting, is largely tied up in the point-and-click sections and in the space navigation/consulting-your-computer aspects of starship command. If all the space combat sequences were just cut scenes and nobody ever knew that there’d been space combat planned for the game, I don’t think anyone would be complaining about its absence.
In fact, that’s kind of how Interplay resolved the problem – they put out a patch for the game which allowed you to mash F8 to skip past starship combat entirely. Unfortunately, they only put out the patch for the floppy disk version of the game – the enhanced CD-ROM edition didn’t get the benefit of it, which means the version of the game you can legitimately get these days from GOG or Steam doesn’t benefit from the patch.
You can (sort of, just about) use the replacement STARTREK.EXE file in the patch to boot the game, but this breaks enough that you can’t play much with it – at best, you need to rename your STARTREK.EXE file temporarily, dump in the patch, skip the battle you want to skip, save, remove the patch, put your original STARTREK.EXE file back to its original name, and then restart that. Even then, I found that I couldn’t access the load game menu unless I turned off all the game sound before entering when using the patch – and my save wouldn’t actually load.
Unless someone pulls their socks up and is able to put out a patch that implements the battle-skipping functionality in the CD-ROM version of 25th Anniversary, the game is doomed to be a fondly remembered botch – a game which is nice enough to play through to the extent that you can, but which will sooner or later ruin your day with a horrible space battle.
This aspect is made even worse with a fact that I hadn’t been aware of previously, until I read Jimmy Maher’s article on the Interplay Star Trek games, which reveals a truly infuriating game mechanic: the lower a percentage you get in the missions, the harder the later starship combat sections become.
As Maher points out, this completes the sabotage job the starship combat did on the supposedly laid-back, episodic, bite-size, you-can-finish-one-episode-an-evening angle the overall design ethos of the game seemed to point towards. In addition to this, I’d point out that it’s a total ass-pull, not justified on any level by the narrative or the internal logic of the world. Why should Starfleet being grumpy about your performance make Elasi pirates better at starship combat?
Maher is also correct to be annoyed at another deeply silly aspect of this game mechanic – namely, that the player is never told about it, it’s not even hinted at. Indeed, the very self-contained nature of most of the episodes means that there’s no reason to think that your performance in a previous episode should have any effect at all on the events of a later episode. (Your inventory is cleared down back to the basics between episodes, after all, so you don’t have a “if you didn’t pick this item up in episode 1, you’re screwed in episode 4” thing going on.) And given how clunky the space combat is, it’s entirely possible that the player will never even realise it’s theoretically more difficult in playthroughs with low assessment percentages! It’s a game mechanic which seems to exist solely so a developer can feel like they’ve got one over on a player, rather than something that adds something to the experience.
Still, Star Trek 25th Anniversary was sufficiently enthusiastically received to greenlight a sequel, Judgment Rites, which thankfully includes a difficulty setting which allows you to turn the space combat off. It also has somewhat richer away team sequences – likely because the developers realised that if people were playing the game with the space combat turned off, it’d seem a sparse experience if the point-and-click sections weren’t firmed up a bit.
An effort is made to string some of the point-and-click sections together into an ongoing plot involving the Brassicans, a race of alien cabbages, but a lot of this seems to involved nods to the ongoing plot tacked onto the end of otherwise-irrelevant episodes. Still, the individual episodes are all solid. One of the more involved is No Man’s Land, which is a sequel to The Squire of Gothos, an episode of the original show, but skillful writing ensures that watching the original show isn’t necessary to follow the plot. A welcome change is that the away team composition is more varied this time, so all the bridge crew get a chance to shine here and there.
Some puzzle logic is a little oblique, but by and large the deeper, more involved away team missions help Judgment Rites put across the sort of genuinely thought-provoking scenario worthy of the very best episodes of the original show. Whilst I’ll leave 25th Anniversary aside (and kind of hope SCUMMVM takes on the game and implements combat-skipping, which would make me much more likely to give it another try), I can heartily recommend Judgment Rites to anyone with affection for the show.