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.