On Friday, November 27th, Leonard Nimoy passed away at the age of 83. Many people knew him as his most popular character, Mr. Spock from Star Trek and he was a versatile actor that I also remember from many other films and series such as the original Mission Impossible TV series to being Galvatron in Transformers: The Movie in the 80s. Yet I keep coming back to Spock because that’s who I remember him the most as and whose character led my imagination on through the original series and the films literally taking everyone on to where no one has gone before.
As a very humble tribute to his memory, today I’m taking a look at Star Trek by Sega. Released in 1982, it was a vector-based shooter where players flew the famous Enterprise, destroying Klingon warships, protecting starbases, and eventually confronting the nefarious Nomad in one-on-one battle. Trekkies know Nomad as a probe that had suffered damage in deep space where it was discovered by an alien probe (whose purpose was to sterilize soil samples) that merged with it giving it an unintended new purpose — that of sterilizing new life.
At the time, Sega was owned by Gulf+Western, an American conglomerate, who also happened to own Paramount Picutres who, in turn, owned Star Trek. With Sega in their stable of companies, it seemed like a no-brainer to make an arcade game based on the franchise, especially with Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan which came out in the same year and which apparently gave inspiration to how the game would look based on the tactical computer graphics used in the film during the Kobayashi Maru scene.
It ran on Sega’s G80 Vector Hardware which, according to the arcade archive at System 16, had a trusty Zilog Z80 CPU as its brain and “various combinations” of sound systems including speech. This was all on one board and it ran a number of other vector-based games such as Eliminator and Space Fury.
The premise was that it was a “Strategic Operations Simulator” used to train command officers as it “vividly recreates actual battle conditions encountered by Federation Starships on patrol”. It was a nice way to make Star Trek, which involved more exploration, as an action game. This could be purchased as a regular stand-up cabinet with a dial control and buttons for important functions. Alternatively, there was also the option to buy it as a sit-down “cockpit”.
It was a pretty sophisticated game for its time that tried to translate the feel of space combat at the helm of a complicated starship down to the twitch experience of the arcade and it didn’t do a bad job. Controls were simple — the Enterprise flew along a plane allowing it only to turn left and right, could fire unlimited phasers, had a limited number of photon torpedoes and warp speed energy, and also had shields to help absorb a few hits from enemy fire.
The screen was divided into three major sections — the bottom half was dedicated to a first-person view and the top half was split between the gauges for three of the Enterprise’s main systems (shields, torpedoes, and warp speed) and a window showing a top down view of the sector the fight was taking place in. Starbases were where players could “dock” by touching them with the Enterprise and replenish a level of shielding, torpedoes, and warp energy. They also had to be defended from the Klingons. If one was destroyed, though, it just meant that you didn’t get a nice point bonus at the end of the round.
Enemies were Klingon warships (for any Trekkies reading this, they looked a lot like the D7 class of battle cruiser) which, uncharacteristically, could be blown up with one phaser blast. Torpedoes acted as area-of-effect weapons with huge explosions that could take out ships close to each other at long range and were handy if you needed to snap off a shot without being accurate. Warp speed allowed you to get out of a tight spot with a burst of speed, but you only had so much of it, too.
If shields were lost, the next hit destroyed the shield gauge…then torpedoes…and then the warp drive. Docking with starbase immediately repairs everything but not to full capacity.
Each successive stage escalated in difficulty adding more and more Klingons. Some Klingons were tasked to attack only starbases. Others, marked in purple, were focused on attacking only you. Later stages added new enemies such as saucers and, eventually, an encounter with the zippy Nomad and its exploding space mines as a sort of boss encounter.
The game also had synthesized speech in addition to clips of similarly synthesized music, such as the opening fanfare from the TV series’ theme. Speech announced each sector (1.2, 1.3, 2.2, etc..) as you progressed through the game and the neat thing about it was that it sounded a lot like Mr. Spock himself. James Doohan had also loaned his voice to the game. The sound effects were also pretty solid as enemy fire impacted your shields, Klingon ships exploded, and phasers fired, though it was amusing to fly a surprisingly fighter-ship-agile Enterprise around even if it was only along one plane of movement.
It was ported to a wide range of platforms with a number of enhancements along the way such as replacing the vector graphics with colored sprites. It found itself at home on systems like the Apple II, Vic-20, the Commodore 64, the ColecoVision, and the Atari 2600. Unfortunately, it didn’t find a berth in later generations and remained firmly rooted in the 80s as an arcade classic.
Sega had managed to find a way to bring a piece of Star Trek into the arcades and it was a great, action filled shooter that gave players more than just targets to aim for. Staying alive with star bases, protecting them for points, and blasting foes coming after you before meeting Nomad created a varied experience that was fairly unique for the arcades. That and it had some great box art when it came home. Star Trek was a very different animal from Star Wars which could make it tricky to find a way to make games around it in the arcade, but for a brief moment in ’82, and with Mr. Spock and Scotty’s help, Sega managed to do it.