RELEASE DATE: 12/21/90 – (JP)
This is Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” video, featuring at-the-time groundbreaking computer animation.
Outside of Michael Jackson, few artists recognized the potential for videos as art in the early 80s. Indeed, most bands chose to use cheesy live footage for their videos. So when “Money for Nothing” debuted on MTV in 1985, nobody had ever seen anything like it. Decades later, the computer animation still looks distinct. As Mark Knopfler and co. play their hearts out on “the MTV” in the background, two blue-collar dudes, weighed down by life and polygons, mouth some of the lyrics and wander around. The taller one has an 80s sitcom apartment and a dog that looks better rendered than either of the men. It’s a trip! Save for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” few 80s music videos are as iconic.
Star Cruiser is the Mega Drive equivalent of Dire Straits’ landmark video. The game is comprised mostly of 3D graphics during a time where 2D had yet to peak. It has a surreal tone that’s eerie, but also endearing. Even though it broke ground in many of the genres we know and enjoy today, it still has a feel all its own decades after its release. And just like “Money for Nothing,” Star Cruiser is filled with some killer tunes. I don’t know what overachiever at Arsys thought it would be a good idea to port this Japanese PC game to the Mega Drive, but good on him for not taking “Are you mad?!” for an answer.
You control a bounty hunter with no name, caught up in the war between an evil military nation known as VOID and Federation Earth. VOID wants all aliens to be deported from “civilized” society, so much so that they’re willing to wage war against the entire galaxy to make it happen. Federation Earth strives to keep the peace between everyone, but secretly, they want to see VOID fall. As the hunter hired by Federation Earth, you travel across the galaxy, looking for ways to infiltrate the VOID collective and put an end to their fiendish pursuits.
Star Cruiser can’t be defined by genre labels. Yes, it’s an adventure game, in that, you’re constantly moving from one place to the next, searching for new people and new information to move the game’s plot forward. But it’s also a first-person shooter mixed with a dungeon crawler, with bits of action, puzzle-solving, and space combat. All in 3D.
Outside of some prerendered backgrounds and the 2D character portraits that pop up when you talk to someone, every inch of Star Cruiser is in glorious, awkward 3D. Buildings, walls, trees, lampposts, spaceships, planets, they’re all deliciously polygonal.
Because the majority of the game is comprised of polygons on a system that wasn’t designed to bear such a burden, the framerate is understandably sketchy. You’ll get 10 FPS while walking around if you’re lucky, and if you stumble upon a couple turrets, that will drop to 5 and below. I know that sounds awful, but unless you’re a gamer who demands high framerates at all times, it’s actually not that bad. Save for the outposts which have an abundance of 3D objects within close proximity of each other, most of Star Cruiser‘s environments, including the dungeons, are pretty barren.
Most of the dungeons I encountered looked about the same: a mix of open rooms and winding, narrow corridors, decked out in blue, white, or orange colors. They’re crude looking, to say the least, and it can be hard to navigate through them, due to the size of your character model (you’re almost always in a tank, though sometimes you move about on foot). The dungeons contains a handful of enemies, gate keys as big as your body, and the occasional computer or trashcan to search, that’s it. I realize that probably sounds uninteresting, but if you’re in the right mindset, they’re a blast to explore. Their primitive design coupled with the awkward, early attempt at first-person shooting really makes for an engaging experience.
Over the course of the game, you acquire and upgrade several weapons, including my favorites, the Laser Shot and Homing Missiles. The missiles will hone in and destroy enemies from afar, while the Laser Shot is a powerful, up-close-and-personal weapon. Both have a limited supply, but you always have far more of the Laser than the missiles.
Combat keeps you on your toes. As I mentioned previously, there aren’t many enemies, but the ones that are present are precariously placed so you have to fight them. Get hit a few times and you’re dead, but you can cancel any enemy’s shots with shots of your own. Stationary turrets are a cinch, but fast-moving tanks will take you down quick if you don’t keep up with them. The latter are almost always placed in open rooms, and you’re forced to strafe in order to cancel out their shots and take them down.
Once you successfully steal the Star Cruiser from the VOID, you’re ready to travel the galaxy. Just hop in, and go to the ‘Warp’ option on your menu. In order to visit certain planets, you’ll need NPCs to open up a path to them. There are lots of little colonies to explore on your own, however, and if you’re just looking to fight some other ships in space, there’s coordinates for those too. All told, there are upwards of 30 areas to visit, some of which can be visited in any order you want. Does this make Star Cruiser the first 3D open-world game? I can’t think of any others released prior to 1988.
Unlike the ground combat, the space combat is an absolute mess. Enemy ships swarm around you and attack from every side. They move quickly, unencumbered by anything, while you’re stuck wrestling with the slow framerate. By the time you turn around to look for them, they’re still firing at you, but they’re not in your line of sight. I never encountered a section of the game where space combat was necessary, but I had this nagging feeling that later sections will require you to engage in some dogfights before you can advance. Beware.
According to SegaRetro and other sources, Star Cruiser was about to be released by Namco in North America in 1994 with its name changed to Star Quest. For whatever reason, this never happened. In November 2016, however, we finally received an English version of Star Cruiser translated by Celcion and cccmar. Hats off to them and their hard work, as this is one Mega Drive game that deserves to be appreciated by the wider world.
Star Cruiser innovates all over the place. When it’s not melding seven different genres together (with mostly positive results), it’s providing a fully 3D open-galaxy for you to explore. Cool, yes, but none of this would matter if the game didn’t compel you to explore its ancient polygonal temples nearly 30 years after its release. I fell in love with the game’s deliberate pace, its mysterious story and characters, the antiquated 3D, exploring the dungeons and fighting the VOID, the ability to travel to different planets, and the incredible chiptune soundtrack by Toshiya Yamanaka. I have yet to play another Mega Drive/Genesis game like Star Cruiser. I have yet to play another game like Star Cruiser, period. It’s Phantasy Star meets Wolfenstein 3D meets Starfox meets friggin’ Mass Effect. It’s not for everyone, but for its time and for this Mega Drive port especially, it is an absolute triumph of both storytelling and technical ingenuity.
11 replies on “Star Cruiser (Mega Drive, 1990)”
There were a heap of wireframe 3D open world games that popped up on 8 bit computers in the early to mid 80s. Elite is the earliest that springs to mind (1984) but I forget what progenitor inspired it.
1987-88 seems to be when filled polygon open worlds started to take off, with the rise of the Freescape engine and with Mike Singleton making the transition to 16-bit development with games like Midwinter.
This kind of technology seems pretty unprecedented on console though. Even better that it plays well!
“This kind of technology seems pretty unprecedented on console though. Even better that it plays well!”
Yeah, if nothing else, Star Cruiser shouldn’t be as good as it is on the Mega Drive.
Some of those early 3D games were a lot of fun. I had a copy of Stellar 7 on Apple II back in about 1987 and it was really fast and furious. It blew my 8-year-old mind. I’d like to give it another go to see if it still holds up.
Sounds like a very ambitious game, fair play to Arsys for porting it!
I think I really should go play this game. The translation patch is out. If only because of recent news about a possible remake of this game. I’d never even heard of this until like a month or two ago. So the deal is the programmer a few years ago tweeted if they get 1000 retweets they will look at making another game like this. Well it was it was not picked up on in the West until recently and the tweet went viral this year generating some news story’s. I guess in Japan there is a lot of nostalgia for this game. And appently there are not a whole lot of games like it. I mean if Target Earth recently got an HD remake on PS4 recently, why not a good game like this?
A part of me would love to see a remake of this game, but I wonder if it would lose part of its originality and charm. If you do play Star Cruiser, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, Sean.
Cccmar here, found your blog by chance (well, via the Sega forum, haha) and decided to mention a few interesting things of note concerning Star Cruiser:
– now we’re working on the PC-98 only sequel, SC 2 – it’s pretty much done, but we still need to test some stuff. It has almost twice as many lines as the SMD version of the first game (around 8000 vs 4000)
– anyway, in the original PC-88 version of the first game, the hunter’s name is always Brian (you can’t name him) and he has a very well defined personality (a hard-ass hunter with little regard for anything else but money). Also, Daigo Sakai is named Daigo Hidari in every other version of the game for an unknown reason. Same goes to SC2.
– instead of Freddy (likely named after Freddy Mercury), in the other versions of the game there’s just a generic COM who (that?) talks very little in comparison to Freddy.
– the canonical version of the game is the PC-88 version – however, it has many different plot points and characters. Interestingly, it also has a much, much smaller script than the SMD version (only around 1500 lines). The second (and the last) game in the series takes place 5 years after the conclusion of the PC-88/x68k version of the game.
– overall, I’d say that the SMD version is by far the best version of the first game (even though it’s largely a remake), closely followed by the x68k version (best graphics/soundtrack most likely)
– and also – this game was pretty revolutionary for its time, that’s why we translated it in the first place. 😉
Good luck with your project! Hope everything goes well. 🙂
cccmar! So awesome! Glad you stumbled onto the site. Thanks for stopping by and for sharing these facts. Based on what you’ve told me and what I’ve read elsewhere, the MD version is indeed the best version, though I do wish they’d given the main character a touch more of the hard personality found in the PC-88 version. Best of luck on the remainder of the Star Cruiser 2 translation!
Some more things I forgot to mention: the other versions of the game are grindy – you need to buy everything, which means that you need to grind for money. In space. And yeah, the controls aren’t any better in the older versions, as you might expect. That’s one of the reasons why the MD version is superior, as you can’t really get stuck in an unwinnable situation, thankfully. There’s only one mandatory boss battle in space, I think – other than that there’s nothing too bad there. It’s worth noting that the original PC-88 version was even more of an open-world game – you could basically go anywhere in a given system at any time, there were no limitations pretty much. It made the game somewhat more difficult to play without any knowledge of Japanese though.
Also, Arsys released Reviver: The Real-Time Adventure a year before Star Cruiser. I’m looking into it now, and it’s fascinating – it introduced real-time persistent world, day-night cycles adjust the brightness of the screen to indicate the time of day etc. Also, certain stores and non-player characters would only be available at certain times of the day. We’re talking 1987 here, so that’s pretty forward-looking. This could’ve been a dry run for SC and the very first free-roaming 3D game, but I can’t say much more for now. Guys from Arsys had a penchant for mixing ideas – SC2 has a racing minigame, some “real” adventure sections (point’n’click, since PC-98 could use a mouse) and turn-based RPG elements – yup, you can use the turn-based system throughout most of the game.
Speaking of translating MD games, I wanted to translate Surging Aura as well, but I think the original hacker finally found someone to knock that one off the list. At least I hope so, since the French/Russian versions of the game have been out for ages. Anyway, just wanted to highlight certain things regarding Star Cruiser, but got a bit sidetracked. 1991 is an interesting year for MD, since the majority of Japan exclusives were released at that time. I’ll make sure to follow your journey, since I happen to really enjoy Sega’s output, especially during the 16-bit era. Anyway, signing off. 🙂
Wow, more good stuff. Thanks again, man! I look forward to more of your comments.
This looks like it’s quite similar to something like Stellar 7 on the PC from that time – an early attempt at 3D gaming before the tech was really ready for it, yet somehow it still kind of worked better than it should have. I might have to check this one out.