Flight Simulator: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Crossroads of Time (SEGA Genesis, Super NES)

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While both official and unofficial video games based on Star Trek: The Next Generation were quick to release upon or soon after the show's premier in 1987 and have been in no short supply over the years (my inability to play almost all of them when they were current notwithstanding), that wasn't the case for sister show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It took a good two and half years after “Emissary” before Commander Sisko and Co. started getting representations in video game form, and when it finally happened it happened a weird way.

Without rehashing the whole history of the video game medium again, it's perhaps unsurprising that the earliest Star Trek: The Next Generation video games were fanmade or otherwise small-scale affairs for DOS and similar personal computers of the mid-to-late 1980s. The first proper “mainstream” Next Generation game I was aware of (at least, the first on a video game console) didn't land until 1993 on the Game Boy. There is a very good reason for this, of course: It wasn't until 1993 that it was eminently clear Star Trek: The Next Generation was a pop culture juggernaut that deserved more recognition than it was getting from tie-ins. 1991 might even have been a more on-point date, but Paramount was slow to capitalize on this and took their time getting their marketing gears in action and doubling down on quality control and brand uniformity. By the time all was said and done of course Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was out, but it didn't get a companion release.

Of course, there certainly wasn't a *complete* dearth of merchandise before 1993. The Playmates Toys line launched in 1992, and its quality and speed make a good case for it being the definitive Star Trek: The Next Generation tie-in. And yet even so, it is fundamentally bizarre that they should be the ones to self-publish the first Star Trek: Deep Space Nine video game: Crossroads of Time on the SEGA Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Let me make something perfectly clear for those of you who are not versed in the history of the video game industry: A toy company spontaneously deciding to start a video game publishing house is not a normal thing. Sure, it's happened before-Bandai-Namco is still around, but Namco was, you know, an actual game developer. Mattel and Coleco both made halfhearted stabs at competing with the Atari 2600 in the early 80s, but the current status of those companies gives you an idea of how well that worked out for them. The one notable exception is, of course, Nintendo, who, for a good 70+ years or so was known almost exclusively for their hanafuda playing cards until then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi decided to aggressively expanded into other markets, namely video games.

(It is also perhaps interesting to note how Star Trek: The Next Generation's first games went straight to DOS, while Deep Space Nine's went straight to home consoles. I think that says something about where the presumed audience was at that point in time.)

But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. There just really isn't a track record for this sort of thing happening. And, while the home console industry was certainly more diverse in the 1990s than it is now, this still would have stuck out as kind of an oddball move. Granted Playmates was a publisher, not a developer and that's a bit of a different story, but it's interesting to think about a time when a toy company could still see expanding into video games as a logical business move for diversifying their portfolio (indeed, it was only because of Nintendo's output in the late-80s and early-90s in North America that video games and toys even began to be seen as kin in the first place, and Nintendo's as-of-this-writing recent attempts to get *back into* the toy business where they started has had mixed results to say the least).

Much to my surprise though, while doing research for this piece I found out that while Playmates Interactive Entertainment didn't have a huge output, they did put themselves behind some games that met with some degree of acclaim during their apparently brief existence; games like Skeleton Warriors, MDK and the Earthworm Jim games (well, there's no accounting for taste there surely). But one of the odd little consequences of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Crossroads of Time's parentage is that when the game was new you could send away for an exclusive young Commander Sisko Playmates action figure done completely in the style of their in-house DS9 line, but based on one of the levels from the game. I never had this toy because I never had the game: Like all of my video game experiences during this time it was my cousin who had it, and I'm not sure if he ever had the figure himself either.

Another weird thing about this game is the release date, for a variety of reasons. I already said the game was in development hell for several years, which means it didn't actually see release until the back half of 1995. It wasn't until I started work on this essay that it struck me how unusual this was, and what a *late* fourth generation release this truly was. I mean, the PlayStation was already out by this point (hell, it'd been out for a year in Japan), and yet this went straight to consoles that were already most certainly being seen as obsolete. This is no doubt a consequence of its lengthy development period, but this does start to make things look not so good for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But while the late 1995 release date does seem to put Crossroads of Time curiously, well, *out of time* with current tech trends, it also puts it out of step with what Star Trek itself was doing in this period. Because this is a game very explicitly about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as it existed three years ago-In fact, you could in some ways read parts of it as basically a retelling of “Emissary” (and truth be known the game started development before “Emissary” even aired). The simple explanation is of course, again, that the abnormally long development time is to blame.

But we don't like simple answers here.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Crossroads of Time is divided into different missions, each broken down into at least two different acts with different gameplay types. You start in a lovingly recreated sidecrolling representation of Deep Space 9 itself that serves as your hub world. Here. you can talk to different characters (go chat to Quark at the bar! Listen to Miles O'Brien complain about the security grid!) and get clues about the story of that mission. From there you proceed to action stages, which usually take the form of platforming levels, with the exception of one level where you take the Rio Grande on an intercept mission and the game turns into a sidescrolling space shooter. For me the big draw was actually the hub world: Being able to explore Deep Space 9 as one of my favourite characters on a home console was somewhat mind-blowing, especially given how true-to-life the in-game representation of the station is. For DS9 fans with home consoles in 1995, this should have been enough to please even the most rabid rivet counter. Unfortunately, the cast of playable characters is somewhat limited, with Commander Sisko being the primary protagonist, though some levels have you playing Major Kira, Odo and Doctor Bashir too. But even so, this is way more options than a lot of other games of this type ever gave you.

The story involves a group of Bajoran terrorists called “Redemptionists” (ha) who attempt to destroy the station with explosives in the cargo hold. After saving the station and the Cardassian Galor warship docked at it, Commander Sisko sends Major Kira on a recon mission to find information on those responsible, only to learn Kai Opaka (yes, Opaka) is in danger, as well as the Orb she carries. Sisko figures there's more going on than meets the eye, and figures the Redemptionists are getting information and support from a third party. Just then the terrorists strike again, assaulting the monk at the station's Bajoran shrine. The monk survives and says his assailants were after the Orb inside. A DNA test of the monk's robes reveals artificial Cardassian hair and this, combined with a Cardassian-made replicator found during the intelligence mission convinces the crew that the the Cardassians are secretly backing the Redemptionists in a bid to destroy the station, cover their tracks and regroup for a new invasion of Bajor. The Galor warship docked at the station is, of course, in on the plot and cuts off all their lines of communication. Now Commander Sisko realises the clue to saving everyone may lie in a part of his past he'd rather not relive...

In contrast to last year's Star Trek: The Next Generation - Future's Past/Echoes from the Past from Spectrum Holobyte, which also got a multiplatform release and where I recommended the Super Nintendo version over the SEGA Genesis one, here I'm going to do the opposite and say that if you're interested in checking out Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Crossroads of Time you should check out the SEGA Genesis version. Both releases are, of course, very close to being identical (there's in fact even less differentiating these two games then there was Future's Past and Echoes of the Past) with only graphics and sound quality varying between them. Given this, one would expect the Super Nintendo version to be superior given that console's superior tech and while I suppose in some ways it is, I largely think it comes down to personal aesthetic preference, and my preference is actually for the Genesis version in this case.

The sprite art in the Super NES version *is* noticeably more detailed...But only in certain places. Granted those specific areas tend to be where it counts, such as in character models and animation: The characters definitely look more recognisable and distinctive on the Super Nintendo, and their faces remind me a little bit of the infamous expressiveness of the chibi sprites in the Squaresoft JRPGs fans of this system get so starry-eyed over. My favourite example is actually the Easter Egg Klingon lady who hangs around on the Promenade: She speaks Klingonese and only Commander Sisko can fully understand her (which shouldn't be a problem I know because of the universal translator but Shut Up), and she looks really cute and pouty in this version (even turning her head to track yours, which was kind of a big deal for 1995), whereas in the Genesis she looks as muddy as everyone else. Also the walk/run cycles and general animation *are* more fluid on the Super NES, as one would expect.

But it's not as clean and decisive a victory as you might think. While the animation is *better* on the Super NES, there's *more* animation on the Genesis. For example, on the Genesis, if you run in a straight line as Commander Sisko for a long period of time and stop, Ben will visibly pant and catch his breath. In the SNES game, you just come to a dead stop and he kinda runs like a Terminator. But the biggest thing against the look of the Super Nintendo release is its colours, which look alarmingly and distressingly drab and washed-out: The Genesis, despite having a more limited palette, actually gives us a game that looks *far* brighter, more vibrant and more colourful, and its lighting absolutely nails the cool neon look of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Both games have some absolutely gorgeous parallax scrolling effects though, most notable on the Promenade and in Ops.

Another distinguishing factor is the music. Given its synthesized orchestral sound, the Super NES *is* a better translation for the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine soundtrack, and both the theme and incremental music sound loads better over here. On the *other* hand, the theme song is only sampled for *10 seconds* or so on the title screen before it cuts to the demo, which is just criminal in my opinion. While it doesn't sound as nice, at least the Genesis version of the game gives you the whole song. But while the music the game inherits from the TV show sounds better on the SNES, the *new* music written for *this game* sounds *way better* on the Genesis, almost as if it was written for the Mega Drive's 80s keyboard and guitar sound. The overworld theme for DS9 in particular sounds positively *kickass* on this version.

(Also, just for personal preference, I like Genesis controls better than Super Nintendo controls. The diamond face button layout has become standard today, but the the SNES' day I feel developers felt tempted to spread the buttons out as much as possible more often than was probably advisable. I'm a big defender and proponent of two-button controls.)

So for these reasons (as well as some admitted personal bias as this was the version I played at the time), I have to recommend the SEGA Genesis port of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Crossroads of Time over the Super Nintendo Entertainment System one. It's kind of neat to say that the SNES got the best Star Trek: The Next Generation game, while the Genesis got the best Deep Space Nine one (of course, you can't really go wrong with either version if you're *super* particular about console choice). Crossroads of Time also feels a lot more like a Genesis-style platformer to me, though unfortunately this time I don't mean that as a positive...Platform games on the Genesis tended to have a lot of verticality to the point you couldn't see the whole stage at once, which made it really hard to navigate. Also, with better graphics came the temptation to make levels *look* nice at the expense of playability, and both are sadly big problems here. It can be really hard to see where you're going in the action stages, and to tell what parts of the environment you're allowed to interact with and what parts you're not. It's a big enough problem it turned a lot of people off of the game back then, but if you're a big enough Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fan (as I am) you may be able to overlook that.

Crossroads of Time is a very fitting name for a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine video game in 1995. Like the show itself, it comes at a point in time where past, present and future all exist simultaneously. And, as a video game, it encourages us to choose our own path and direction. For me, a moment of singularity. Everything I loved about the present moment encapsulated neatly in one recommendable package.The fact remains, whatever the circumstance, that a relatively high-profile Star Trek video game came out in 1995 that ran directly ideologically counter to what Star Trek in 1995 was selling. This is The Time. Eternity Waits Beyond the Final Frontier, but your path from here is Yours and Yours Alone. While others can help you find the way, the search for permanence is by definition a solitary one; a path you must be willing to walk alone into the night...

Comments

Jacob 4 months, 2 weeks ago

The mail-away action figure is what catches my attention here (you can see where my interests lie). I never this toy existed!

And it looks like a beauty too!: http://www.trektoy.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=5457

I'm going to have to hunt one down. And I'll have to give the game a try too. Good ol' Playmates.

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Jacob 4 months, 2 weeks ago

Also -- Although I was a huge Star Trek fan in 1995, I was never aware that the majority of the video games you've covered even existed. Among the Trek fans I knew at the time (a very small group of junior high geeks and outcasts), the Star Trek Collectable Card Game was HUGE at the time. The CCG was pretty much exclusively how I interacted with Trek in game form around 94-96. In fact, the tv shows, CCG, and comic books *were* Star Trek to me back then.

I'm curious, Josh, if you've ever played the CCG, or if you plan on covering it at all? It still holds up as a fun game, and was pretty popular in the cultural moment your currently describing.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 months, 2 weeks ago

Is the collectable card came the same as Decipher's "customizable" card game from the late 90s?

If it is, I have the Deep Space Nine starter pack from that game, but nothing else. I was always fairly intimidated by it and never felt compelled to dig further. Nobody I knew played it (as far as I know) but there could be a whole host of reasons why that might be the case.

I would assume trading card games would be more geared towards hardcore fans rather than casual viewers, which is who I would presume these video games were targeted towards. Though I say that and remember how ginormous Magic the Gathering and the Pokémon TCG were at roughly the same point in time.

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Jacob 4 months, 2 weeks ago

Yeah, sorry, it is Decipher's Customizable Card Game. I've always called it CCG. I can never remember what the first C stands for. :)

The game was definitely aimed at hardcore fans ... although at the particular moment that it came out ... 1994 IIRC ... Star Trek (TNG in particular) was so popular that it caught on with gamers and comic book types in a major way. I remember the game being sold en masse at every game, card, comic, and collectable shop I frequented. The massive popularity of Magic the Gathering and Pokémon helped as well, for sure.

And I agree that a game like Crossroads of Time would've been aimed at a wider audience, but ironically, to me at least, my friends and I (who were avid SNES and Genesis players) never knew Crossroads existed, while CCG was all the rage.

I do understand how a game like CCG can seem pretty intimidating, but it's not so bad once you get used to it. I bought a complete set of the first wave of TNG cards, along with the DS9 starter set, last summer for next to nothing. I play it with my kids, and they love it ... It's still a great game. I think you'd dig it, Josh ... it's very thematic and heavily character and storyline focused.

I wish I had more objective information on its place in Trek and pop culture history ... but alas, I only have my own fading memories .. and I was 14 at the time. But it was very important to me.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 months, 2 weeks ago

If it was sold primarily through comic shops, that would explain why I never saw it. I just never rolled in those circles. What few comics I had I got from the corner grocery store.

Maybe I'll take a closer look at it someday. Given the way money is right now though, investing in a trading card game is looking pretty unlikely.

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