Flight Simulator: Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity (PC, Mac)
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We’ve talked at length about the odd role the PC plays in the history of the video game medium in this project before. In brief, my argument goes something like this: Despite the fact the first widely available interactive electronic games were made as programming experiments for personal computers, they’re not, broadly speaking, “video games” in the way I personally conceive of them. There are two discrete traditions that make up what we call “video games” today, and a lot of the tension in video game culture probably stems ultimately from this: One comes from those early PC programming experiments and is largely European in origin, stemming from what is called bricolage couture in French. A branch of this took root in the United States where it syncretized with the liberalism-inspired New Age and Hippie movements and the country’s penchant for solipsistic ego-mythologizing to give rise to Silicon Valley.
The other, by stark contrast, traces its lineage to places as disparate as the cathode ray tube manufacturing industry, public houses and amusement arcades and has become most associated with (and defined by) Japan and Japanese culture. The quick and dirty rule of thumb for determining which tradition you’re dealing with when you play an electronic game is to pay attention to the basic gameplay, with the divide more or less being over whether the game privileges real-time action or text-driven interaction and logic puzzles. Or, put another way, which does your game more closely resemble at its most fundamental level, Zork or Asteroids? I’m oversimplifying things to a massive degree here, and as the years have gone on there’s naturally been a lot of overlap and syncretism between these two styles, and most modern games are pretty hard to peg as being one or the other and not both to some degree. But the divide is still there, and I submit you can’t understand the history of the video game industry without being aware of it.
(I would like to stress here that I have never desired to place a *value judgment* on either of these two basic modes of gameplay: I may have my personal preferences, but I think they both have their own situational strengths and weaknesses that deserve to be acknowledged and talked about.)
The PC then is both one possible origin point for the modern video game industry and yet also occupies a weirdly limnal place within it. There’s no disputing early PC games were developed by and for a very specific audience [straight, cis wealthy, nerdy (they tend to be the same thing anyway) WASPy men], but the old joke in games journalism was that once consoles became the norm the PC *always* got the shaft with dramatically inferior ports of console games (though ironically enough in recent years, as of this writing, the PC has become the *lead platform* for many developers due to modern consoles becoming, in essence, shitty PCs). By 1995, however, things had changed somewhat. Cyan Worlds’ groundbreaking Myst, which blew the door off the PC gaming market by opening it up to an entirely new audience (read: normal people) by dropping players in a world meant to be explored, puzzled over and immersed in (and becoming one of the best-selling video games of all time in the process), was two years old by this point. With the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and SEGA Genesis being seen as children’s toys first and foremost in a way even their predecessors had never been (and, in 1995, very much on the way out), the spotlight was now on the PC to deliver interactive electronic experiences for sophisticated adult sensibilities.
Star Trek is actually a really good case study here, as its history of association with the video game industry goes all the way back to the beginning and spans both traditions, but has historically been way more comfortable with one over the other, and not always for the best of reasons. Star Trek’s connection to the PC and PC gaming culture is primordial, so a premier Star Trek game for the PC market of the mid-90s had some serious potential for crossover success. The deeply ironic reality then is that Star Trek: The Next Generation- A Final Unity is in a lot of ways Spectrum Holobyte’s second draft of Star Trek: The Next Generation – Future’s Past and Echoes from the Past, two games for the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis, respectively, from last year. All three games feature a treasure hunt to find an ancient artefact of great power, with various galactic powers vying for its control. All three games have you hopping about the galaxy playing all of the Galaxy-class Enterprise, though A Final Unity does weave its errand-running into its narrative noticeably more elegantly than its home console predecessors. All three games involve a Gene Roddenberry-esque Challenge of Worthiness put on by aloof, semidivine aliens in the climax, and all three games feature Spectrum Holobyte’s original alien culture, the Chodak, in prominent roles.
Despite being essentially a bigger-budget remake of a game for the “kiddie” home consoles, A Final Unity‘s status as a PC exclusive got it a lot of attention from “grown-up” fans. Its ambitions become readily apparent once you dig into the history of the project and learn it emerged from the ruins of a canceled game for the 3DO called Star Trek: The Next Generation – A World For All Seasons. The 3DO was a short-lived home console from the fourth generation that set to compete directly with SEGA and Nintendo, overtly marketing itself as the luxury ticket alternative video game system for refined adult tastes, explicitly taking aim at the Genesis and Super Nintendo’s reputation as children’s toys. The problem was nobody bought a 3DO because it was $700 and the only things you could get for it were bizarre pornography, terrible full-motion video games and ports of stuff you could already play on the PC and didn’t cost $700. But A Final Unity leveraged the grown-up appeal of its ancestor, awkward as it was, all the way to the hilt, featuring a fully voiced experience with the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a script looked over by Naren Shankar and enthusiastic marketing that talked it up as the “Best Star Trek game ever”.
That’s debatable, but Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity is certainly very good and very impressive. There’s no doubt I would have loved this had I been able to play it in 1995. Like its two predecessors, A Final Unity plays out as a kind of Next Generation version of the Star Trek: 25th Anniversary adventure game from the early 90s (though once again the space combat portions are sadly nothing to write home about, but I guess that just encourages you to find other, more peaceful solutions to the game’s puzzles), and in fact this one wears its pedigree on its sleeve far more than either of the two prior Spectrum Holobyte games. This is due to not just the culture of the platform it found itself on but the tech specs as well, allowing A Final Unity to *look* way more like a, well, a next generation update of that style of gameplay. The fully voiced FMVs (“full-motion” prerendered video sequences) are impressive for the time, and really sell the conceit that this is a lost Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.
From a Star Trek perspective one thing that struck me as interesting is how much the Romulans, and peace with the Romulans, plays into the game’s main story. There’s a female Romulan commander deuteragonist who crops up every so often and plays a part in the aforementioned climactic Challenge of Worthiness, and her fate is incumbent on your actions as the player. A Final Unity would certainly be an interesting piece to compare with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Blood & Honor, except for the curious fact the Romulans aren’t actually *called* Romulans in this one, despite using obvious Romulan Warbirds. Instead, they’re called “Garidians”, supposedly an either an offshoot group or an allied political faction. It makes me wonder if Spectrum Holobyte and Naren Shankar were uncomfortable using the vanilla Romulans for this comparatively more sympathetic portrayal because of how their characterization had been flanderized over the course of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV show.
I also really want to praise the art design in this game because it’s really fun and imaginative. The different planets especially are all wonderfully creative and memorable-My favourites are a surreal alien jungle world and the Chodak security station, which reminds me of Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?, or maybe the old Looney Tunes Marvin the Martian short “Hare-Way to the Stars”. All of the environments are bright, colourful and animated with impressive detail: The mid-90s was really the last vanguard of hand-drawn graphics in video games across the board before being deprecated wholesale as the industry shifted focus to rabidly chase the dragon of photorealism with polygon graphics at all costs (including, it would seem, their profits and the livelihoods of countless development houses, but that’s a story for another place). Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity shows the video game industry at this transitional point quite clearly, mixing hand-drawn environments and sprite art with computer generated FMVs and prerendered backdrops in certain areas, occasionally to the point of a jarring stylistic clash. In fact, if I were to imagine a home console that would be a good fit for this game, it wouldn’t be the 3DO, but the SEGA Saturn, a machine whose fate was defined like nothing else by this historic cultural sea change.
Which brings me back to something I teased above. I said “if I played this game” back in the day I would have loved it. A Star Trek: The Next Generation game in the style of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary? That would have overjoyed me beyond all reason. But of course I didn’t play it. I couldn’t. I did, in fact, have an up-to-date computer in 1995 (I got it that very year, in fact), but it was a Power Macintosh, a platform well-known of course for its robust gaming pedigree (and for all you non-gamers, I’m being painfully sarcastic). And while there was a Macintosh port of Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity, I certainly never saw it in stores. That’s not to say I didn’t look: I was aware of its existence through ads in my comics and magazines and I made a point to look for it whenever I went out shopping. You have to remember I grew up in a very rural area, so pickings for things like video games were slim. We didn’t have Internet, and even if we did online shopping wasn’t really a thing back then. The nearest electronics store was an hour away and I didn’t find out about it until years after this game came out, and the only other option were bookstores and office supply places that occasionally had a small handful of PC games in stock every so often. So sure you could find stuff like Myst, but that was about it.
And that’s another thing about PC games: Archival and backwards compatibility are, quite frankly, not what they should be. You wouldn’t think this would be the case, what with the PC supposedly being an open platform as opposed to those evil, closed box home consoles and all that. But in the long run, home consoles have proven themselves *far* more resilient and robust in a lot of different areas. PC hardware is designed to break, and planned obsolescence is baked into its very DNA: I have confidence that any Nintendo console I buy that’s older than 2001 will probably last until the heat death of the universe. That’s just the way those machines were built. But my computer? Well, as of this writing I have a laptop I just bought last year, and it’s already having power management issues.
The same is true for the ROM cartridges all the games for those old consoles ran on. While here in 1995 ROM cartridges are going to become the epitome of uncool in just a few months when the launch of the Sony PlayStation introduces everyone to the tantalizing power and storage capacity of the mighty CD-ROM, in twenty years all those hip and fancy “discs” are going to be staring down the spectre of “disc rot”. Disc rot is a decidedly frightening phenomenon wherein the chemicals binding the reflective surface of optical discs decohere, rendering the disc unreadable and irreparable. Counterintuitive as it may seem, all those old, primitive game carts from the 1980s are going to last way longer then the shiny compact discs and DVDs of the 90s, or the Blu-rays of the 2000s and 2010s, and we’re facing the very real possibility of entire generations of games, data and other media simply vanishing with no way of preservation or recovery because of our technofetishistic overeagerness to adopt optical discs as “the next big thing” in the 1990s.
So the fact remains, if you’re looking to play Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity today, you’re pretty much up a creek. Good luck finding a modern PC that’ll even be able to read that 1995 state-of-the-art Multimedia CD-ROM, provided, that is, you manage to track down a copy that still works to begin with. And that’s even before you take into consideration operating systems programmed to work on specific architecture: A Final Unity was made for DOS and and an obsolete standard for Mac OS systems, but no modern PC *or* Macintosh is backwards compatible with those systems anymore so your only solution nowadays is really emulation through something like DOSBox. But emulation introduces inauthentic quirks by the very nature of what it does, and if you’re like me and view DOS as basically some mystical arcane dead language that requires a doctorate to understand, your only other option is if you’re lucky enough to still have a workstation from the mid-90s banging around for some inexplicable reason (as I thankfully do, so I could theoretically run the Macintosh version of this game if I ever found it, though I have no idea if it’s properly up to spec), in which case you’re hauling out a behemoth of a hardware tower with questionable functionality for a few minutes of curious amusement.
To be perfectly honest, I dread having to cover PC games on Vaka Rangi, because I know all of the games historical enough to warrant talking about are upwards of twenty years old and that it is a near-certainty I’m not going to be able to get them to run without a truly desperate amount of effort, if at all. And if I don’t, I’m going to have to make up a bunch of extra stuff tangentially related to the game to cover for the fact I can’t talk about it with the authority I can other things. Like I just did here. Meanwhile, I look over at my home console collection and know that I have a plethora of absolutely hassle-free options available for taking anything from the Nintendo GameCube generation and earlier and getting it up and running flawlessly in literally seconds. So I ask you. If you wanted to get a vintage Star Trek: The Next Generation fix in video game form, which of the two Spectrum Holobyte outings I’ve looked at so far would you feel more comfortable checking out?
I’ve made my case. But your path, as always, is up to you.
April 5, 2017 @ 9:37 pm
“There are two discrete traditions that make up what we call “video games” today, and a lot of the tension in video game culture probably stems ultimately from this[…]”
Um… I and many others would argue the U.S. military is way more relevant to the development of video games than bricolage couture. The binary you’re setting up here isn’t wrong necessarily, but in the context of a series literally subtitled “Flight Simulator” it’s kind of awkward to not mention the military at all. (Unless you already have in a previous installment.)
April 6, 2017 @ 1:02 am
I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned the old radar games in a (much earlier)previous entry. If I haven’t, they’ll at least get a nod somewhere. They are important.
I was thinking more about the split between computer hobbyist and arcade game cultures here as I found it more pertinent to the topic at hand.
April 6, 2017 @ 4:27 am
Also, Tennis for Two very clearly fits into the category of “real-time action”. I thought that was obvious.
April 6, 2017 @ 2:13 am
Well, after all that build-up, I had a sad when I realized where you were going. I played this game in 1996, and even though I was terrible (I was eleven, and never very good at any videogame), I loved it. The Chodak and the Garidians and the Krindar(sp?) Astrogation Block will forever be in my “headcanon.”
April 6, 2017 @ 2:18 am
No, A Final Unity is super fun. Like I said in the last Spectrum Holobyte entry, this is the kind of thing TNG should have done more often. I just wish I had more to say about it.
April 6, 2017 @ 8:56 am
On the compatibility front- I managed to get Destiny of the Doctors to play on my old late-2011 MacBook Pro, but it took about a week of tinkering with various emulators- and even then, at least I had the advantage of it being a Windows-based game.
Why I though DotD was worth a week of tinkering is beyond me…
April 7, 2017 @ 9:57 pm
This confused me, because I remember playing A Final Unity, and writing a review of it when it came out, which is odd, because by that stage I had been in Japan for 4 years, and therefore 4 years past working for a computer games magazine.
But my recollection of the game differs very much from yours: I found it infuriating, especially the ‘spectacular’ video sequences. Part of this may be that I was 31 at the time, and looking for gameplay in preference to visual wows. But not entirely. I was amenable to visual wows, and was impressed by the first few minutes of A Final Unity. But I found that the repetitiveness of the video inserts dragged, and therefore began to feel like annoying interruptions to the actual gameplay, which undermined their impact.
I do recall being impressed by the way that the game was controlled by choosing which order the captain would give: it seemed a brilliant way to drop you into the TV show.
I should note, by the way, that I simply didn’t play console games, so I judged A Final Unity purely in terms of the PC games I received (mostly for review): games like Alone in the Dark, Ecstatica, Grim Fandango and even 7th Guest (which my wife loved, and which is surprisingly easy to run under emulation on a modern PC).
April 7, 2017 @ 11:19 pm
With the admission a fair portion of this essay was tongue-in-cheek, I tend to feel FMVs are annoying interruptions in general.
Spectrum Holobyte were clearly trying to make this look as much like a TV episode as possible. Whether or not that was advisable or not is up to your personal preference, and I tend to prefer my video games to be as unlike movies as possible.
April 8, 2017 @ 7:23 am
I think you’re bang on with the suggestion that they were trying to make it look as much like a TV episode as possible. And that was where things went wrong, as TV episodes don’t just ‘look’, but have structure, feel etc.