2 years, 8 months ago
Thus begins the odd, postmortem life of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
It's interesting how Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine only seemed to increase their cultural capital after the TV shows themselves were cancelled. 1994-1996 can in some ways be read as the peak of their popularity, with their syndicated reruns capturing the world's attention almost more than they did in their initial run. Really the only comparable case study on this front would be their predecessor. And the tie-in media and parody works reached a creative fever pitch right alongside them: Although there was a brand new Star Trek TV show and film series in the works, it's the franchise's Long 1980s output that seemed to to hold everyone's imaginations the strongest.
This was an odd period in my own life and personal fandom because of this. I'd read “All Good Things...”, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Magazine wasn't in stock in my corner market anymore. As far as I was concerned those shows were thoroughly done and over...Yet Playmates' toy lines for them soldiered on for two years more. The DC and Malibu comics series continued to go strong, and I had a whole year's worth of stories to catch up on. I didn't watch Star Trek anymore, yet my Star Trek “fandom” was, at least for the short term, just getting stronger. And in 1994, the serious big kid video games started to come out, and I certainly took notice.
1994 marked the peak of the fourth console generation, a hardware cycle utterly defined, at least in the West, by the turf war between Nintendo's Super Famicom (A.K.A. the Super Nintendo Entertainment System) and SEGA's Mega Drive (A.K.A. the SEGA Genesis). This was a fandom war more or less initiated by SEGA's North American branch in 1989 when they aggressively marketed the Genesis as the home console for hip, edgy young adults (basically meaning 12-year old boys) in contrast to the NES, which they positioned as, if you'll excuse the phrasing, a baby's toy. SEGA of America made their case primarily by comparing (and misrepresenting) internal specs and had an increasingly hard time maintaining this image after 1991 when the Super NES, in almost every measurable way a technically superior machine, was released as a direct competitor to the Genesis. In spite of an archetypal video game industry moral panic kickstarted by Mortal Kombat and enthusiastically pushed by Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman, which briefly saddled Nintendo with a dreaded uncool “kiddie” reputation, they remained the industry leader throughout the fourth generation and are today generally considered the cycle's “victor” by the sorts of unfortunate and disturbing people who keep track of these things.
But that's still a year or so away. In 1994 we're at the cultural, commercial and creative peak of the fourth generation with cult favourite critical darlings like Super Metroid and Final Fantasy VI and the pop culture juggernaut that was Donkey Kong Country dominating industry news and the playground set alike. This was a generational conflict I was more or less disconnected from: I still didn't have any home consoles of my own so I was forced to observe the troop movements from afar. My cousin, who was my window into all things interactive electronic entertainment, had cast his lot with the SEGA Genesis, and thus I had to as well by extension. But we harboured no ill will towards the Super Nintendo, its devotees or its library, and indeed coveted things like Super Mario World. My own introduction to that side of the tracks wouldn't come until the Game Boy Advance was released in 2001 alongside a suite of outstanding remakes and enhanced re-releases of historically significant Super NES games.
But such expanded reissues were limited to first- and second-part Nintendo games. What I never got to see until I started actively pursuing retro game curation were the myriad and sundry licensed titles from this period. A lot of them were forgettable, a few utterly dreadful, but a select handful have stood the test of time and remain sterling examples of that most difficult of feats-Being loyal to their source material and also being a functional video game. Star Trek: The Next Generation's second foray into console gaming was a much more momentous occasion than its predecessor had been even just a year ago: I remember seeing lavish page spread ads for this game a lot of places, and it seemed to be a fairly big deal. There was nothing of the sort for the old (well, by those standards I guess it would have been old) Game Boy game. Part of it was, of course, that the current generation of hardware always got much more attention than the contemporary handheld, but part of what made this game feel bigger wasn't just the new technology, it was considerably more ambitious in scope too.
Like most games of this vintage, Star Trek: The Next Generation's 16-bit outing was a multiplatform release, gracing both the SEGA Genesis and Super Nintendo. Also like other games of its time, there are subtle differences between the two versions, which was typically done to take into consideration the differing architectures of the two machines. What's *not* like other games of its time is the fact the game has *two different titles* depending on which version you got: The Super NES version was called Star Trek: The Next Generation - Future's Past while the SEGA Genesis version was called Star Trek: The Next Generation - Echoes from the Past, even though the two games are basically identical. There are other minor differences too: Echoes from the Past attempts to recreate the full intro sequence from the TV show, while Future's Past just displays the title logo followed by a going-to-warp sequence over a (better and better orchestrated) loop of the theme song. Echoes from the Past puts a generic command officer at the helm station, while Future's Past has Ro Laren there. Echoes from the Past also has some slight word choice changes to make the story seem a bit more dramatic: The first mission has you approaching the Neutral Zone to search for a Federation archaeology team, and it opens with a Captain's Log entry explaining the situation. On the Genesis, Captain Picard says he's kept the true nature of the mission a secret from the crew, though they're smart enough to figure it out. That line isn't in the Super Nintendo version, implying that the captain shared all of his information with his crew, giving a friendlier and lower-stakes tone to the mission.
So due to personal preference for the above, I'm going to be talking primarily about Future's Past here. The Super Nintendo game is also just more aesthetically pleasing due to that console's superior kit: It quite simply just looks and sounds a whole lot better than its Genesis counterpart. However, both games do play much the same as they were both developed by Spectrum Holobyte. They're a new name for us in these video game essays, and they'll be the predominant creative figure in Star Trek games for at least the next three or four years. Unlike Absolute Entertainment's effort from last year which, while fun, more or less boiled down to an arcade-style shooter, with Future's Past and Echoes from the Past, Spectrum Holobyte have attempted to faithfully recreate the feel of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series itself. I mentioned the Captain's Log entry earlier, but that's far from the extent of this game's authentic approach: There's an actual narrative here with branching paths based on your decisions at critical points and, more importantly, you actually get to play as the real crew this time!
Every option and feature you can think of on the Enterprise is available to you. You can receive incoming hails, raise and lower defenses, set a course for a new star system, enter standard orbit and beam an away team down to a planet's surface. The away team stuff is particularly fun because you can build a team out of literally anyone you want-There are absolutely no restrictions and the entire cast as available to you, as well as some junior crewmembers who happen to share the names of the game's development team. Spectrum Holobyte actually went to the trouble of building actual role playing statistics for everyone on the Enterprise, so each crewmember has his or her own unique specialties and skillsets you can call upon based on the situation at hand. I really like this feature, because when I think of how I'd translate Star Trek: The Next Generation to a video game, a party-based RPG of sorts does come to mind. Future's Past isn't that (it's ultimately more of an evolution of the point-and-click adventure setup of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary but with more action and immersion) but it does nod slightly in that direction, which is definitely an intriguing one.
But my favourite part is being able to access all the iconic sets and rooms of the ship. Sure they exist mostly in slideshow form due to the limitations of this generation of console, but it's way more than we ever got before. There's simply nothing like the thrill of clicking on the helm control to plot a new course, actually moving into the turbolift to access the transporter room, or going to the tactical arm to engage in some space combat (even though the space combat itself is admittedly is a bit boring even compared to Absolute Entertainment's Star Trek: The Next Generation game. This is decidedly not Descent: FreeSpace we're talking here). You can even call a conference in the observation lounge, where every member of the crew will give you their thoughts and opinions on how to proceed with the current mission!
(You can, of course, ignore them and go blasting off into uncharted space for the hell of it too. But the game won't take amazingly kindly to that.)
Perhaps its the contemporary context of Star Trek: The Next Generation being a kind of Schrodinger's Genre Fiction show that encouraged this kind of design decision, but either way it's absolutely a winning one. Like all video game stories, the one for Future's Past is episodic, with the Enterprise running from place to place putting out fires dictated to it by one Admiral Baldwin. But there's an overarching story thread throughout the mission involving a pair of ancient artefacts made by a mysterious prehistoric civilisation of unknown origin. They have wonderfully technobabbley nonsense Star Trek names: One of the game's opening lines of “I am T'Lirus, Doctor of Archaeology, investigating the legend of the Integrated Field Derandomizer” has got to be one of the single greatest lines in the history of the series. It turns out the artefacts are connected to an ancient superweapon that was sealed away by their makers, because they didn't feel worthy of wielding its power. The game's climax involves the Enterprise, representing humanity, participating in a test to prove whether humanity in the 24th century has evolved collective maturity. It's a classic Star Trek: The Next Generation moment very reminiscent of episodes like “Encounter at Farpoint”, “The Last Outpost”, “Darmok” and “The Chase”.
Prehistoric civilisations creating ancient mystical artefacts behind for us to find and the Enterprise as a ship of adventure archaeologists are common themes in all of Spectrum Holobyte's Star Trek: The Next Generation games (as well as their original creation of the Chodak species), Future's Past and Echoes from the Past are the first to showcase them, and the series is overwhelmingly the better for it. It's a simple, almost stock conceit, but it's effective. Star Trek ultimately hails from the pulp serial tradition after all and, as we learned from the Dirty Pair TV show, it's perfectly possible to redeem the adventure genre if you start by tossing out the real-world connection and set it in a sci-fi-fantasy world. This suits Star Trek: The Next Generation actually way better than it does Dirty Pair, especially a Star Trek: The Next Generation video game. This to me is actually truer to the spirit of the show and what I loved about it back in the day then it turns out the actual show was the vast majority of the time. This is what the show should have been and wasn't, and the fact we actually got it as not just one video game, but a whole video game franchise, is simple poetic justice. We can actually now live the adventures we always dreamed of going on.
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