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About the StoryStarcross, Infocom's science fiction mind-bender, launches you headlong into the year 2186 and the depths of space. And not without good reason, for you are destined to rendezvous with a gargantuan starship from the outer fringes of the galaxy, peopled with both harmful and helpful beings. But the great starship serves a far larger purpose than mere cultural exchange. It bears a challenge that was issued eons ago, from light years away - and only you can meet it.
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Starcross has imagery that sticks in the mind, even after two decades: colored rods. Why these rods would be so -- hmm, I want to say "primary," and I don't just mean in coloration -- distinctive and mind-etching, I'm not sure, but if you're talking to someone about playing an old Infocom game, and they say, "Which one is Starcross, again?" and you say, "The one with the rods," they know exactly what you mean.
You find yourself on a large cylindrical spaceship of alien origin, with all systems controled by fitting these rods into like-colored slots. You start the game with none, but you need all of them to get to the end. Thus, the main thrust of the game is finding these rods in their various hidden places, and solving the puzzles that keep them from easy acquisition. It's not a bad way to plot out a puzzle game; in fact, it's archetypal at this point, although you can't really do colored rods any more without its being a complete ripoff. Instead, to this day one can still play new IF games that involve finding different colored widgets and fitting them into wodgets.
The various ways of dying in the game reveal a meta-plot at work: (Spoiler - click to show)the reason everything is so puzzly and challenging is, apparently, because the race of aliens that created the spaceship are trying to find lifeforms intelligent enough to bother with. You are a lab rat in a little maze of death traps, basically, but you can eventually prove that you are a sentient lab rat.
Some of the puzzles are clued pretty well, and some of them are rather notoriously unfairly clued. The red rod, in particular -- (Spoiler - click to show)one of the first you need to get, because there is a time-critical aspect to doing so -- shapes up as a guess-the-verb situation, with not enough feedback along the way to point you to the correct solution. I think the main failure is that the author pictured the obstacle quite differently in his mind than he ended up describing it.
Apart from the trouble with the red rod, I managed to push through this game, which 21 years ago I found impossibly challenging, on my own. Indeed, I experienced one of those primal moments of IF pleasure while playing this game. I was frustrated with not being able to find any more rods at one point, and traced and retraced my steps, and couldn't see what would produce progress. I decided to quit the game. Just as I did so, a new thought popped into my head: "Hey, what if I ...?" I reloaded the game, tried my idea -- and it worked! It's been too long since I allowed myself this kind of pleasure; it's too easy to go to the Hints or a Walkthrough or ask a friend for help these days. But the only way to get this feeling is to solve a toughie unaided.
The game has quite a few NPCs, all of them about as shallowly implemented as you would expect for a 1982 game that had to work within severe space and memory requirements. A little bit of lively writing goes a long way in these cases.
Overall, quite good, but showing signs of age. For puzzle-solvers, I don't think it'll ever go completely out of fashion, and the concept of colored rods and slots will live on in the collective IF consciousness for years to come.
The most notable feature of this work is its extremely consistent internal logic. There are no quirky or humorous solutions here -- though you may need to have a flash of insight to comprehend a particular puzzle's symbols or structure, the solution is always clear enough (if not necessarily immediately reachable) once this occurs. The author does a perfect job of providing you the information you need to solve a puzzle without making it instantly apparent which information is significant to which puzzle.
This game is definitely 'old school', and, as such, may seem unfair to someone more attuned to the modern IF style. It is extremely easy to make the game unwinnable without realizing it. Somehow, this fits the style of Starcross well -- you are exploring an unknown vessel full of alien technology, and it seems right that you must rely on your own intuition instead of an author-supplied 'revelation' that you just made a mistake. Sure, you should make use of the save command frequently, but, when you find yourself stuck, you should always be able to deduce where you went wrong after some reflection.
If you're an SF junkie, you'll probably love Starcross. If not, expect to feel frustrated and lost a good chunk of the time.
Starcross is from 1982. It was only Infocom's fifth game. Anyone playing this today should expect sparse implementation compared to modern games, and I certainly knew that going in, having played other Infocom titles. But the setting of a high-tech alien spaceship turns out to be a mismatch in a way that the more whimsical settings of Zork and the like are not. In Zork, when I come across a weird room containing something out of a myth or fable, I take it as a goofy fantasy reference and don't expect there to be much point in poking around the edges of the scenery. But in Starcross, when I came across a room with lights or machines or dials or doors in the descriptions, I wanted to examine everything closely. And in some cases, the game lets you. My favorite parts were when the game gives lengthy, detailed descriptions of control panels and what the symbols look like, and you have to figure out what it all means and how to make it work. There are some very good puzzles in this game that involve fiddling with alien technology. But there is also lots of scenery that I wanted to prod for clues, but couldn't.
The upside is that there isn't much cruelly hidden stuff (there is one case where SEARCH really should yield success, but I didn't get stuck because of it). There aren't even that many objects you can pick up. The room connections are straightforward and the ship is quite easy to map out. Almost all of the possible dead-ends come from doing things in the wrong order or wasting items in ways that obviously have no effect. I can only think of one action in the game that seems like an alternate solution but actually ends up making the game unwinnable. There are also no wacky, jokey, implausible, or otherwise off-the-wall solutions. In that respect, the game is quite fair. Thinking "What sort of thing might I actually try if I was in that situation?" can get you a long way. Of course, you may come up with several plausible solutions, so you still need a lot of methodical perseverance to figure out which particular one was implemented, and the game isn't going to give you any nudges if you only get close, but that's just how you have to play these old games. Overall, the structure of the puzzles and traps has more in common with an old Dungeons & Dragons module than, say, Riven. I should have remembered that, and I should have spent less time wishing for clearer details from the game and more time thinking about how to give my actions more specificity. Old Infocom games may not implement every single noun, but the world model does allow you to specify where you put something or where you look.
The parts I liked best about Starcross probably make up 50% of the game. I wish the whole game was figuring out symbols and technology, but the other half is still well-constructed and fair, so I give this game high marks for the era. Also, as it turns out, there is an in-universe explanation for why the game's puzzles are the way they are. It's not a terribly satisfying one, but I appreciate the attempt at thematic consistency.
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