Reviewed by Mister Parvenu

Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again”… I respectfully disagree.  For the gamer in me, Star Control II, or what is now known in the open source community as “The Ur-Quan Masters”, is a homecoming.  Released in 1992 by Toys for Bob as a sequel to the 1990 original Star Control, Star Control II (SC2) features rich dialog, pointed humor, excellent music, harrowing plot, challenging combat, and some of the most sprawling space environments to confront a player in all of video game history, let alone video games of the early nineties.  This is by far one of my favorite games of all time, not simply because it was for its time an amazing game (which undoubtedly it was), but this game continues to hold a grip on me because of so many things it leaves up to the imagination of the player.  Letting the player do some of the imagining “legwork” is something modern games have long forgotten how to do.

The Star Control game series is built around its one-on-one “Super Melee” ship-to-ship combat game mechanic.  The space combat simulation genre was born in 1962 with the groundbreaking title Spacewar! coded for play on a PDP-1 computer.  Various other titles in the genre were released culminating in the creation of the Star Control series.  What this means is they’ve had thirty years to get the game play ironed out.  That being said, the combat is really not the best part of this game.  Not to diminish how good the combat actually is, but the writing and characters, the moral dilemmas and weighty themes presented in the game are really where SC2 shines.

Did I mention it’s free?  Originally released for the computer, then ported to the Panasonic 3DO and finally licenced by the GNU General Public Licence in 2002, the game is available, free of charge, for PC, Mac and Linux machines.  I’ll show you how and where to get the game, and what I consider the optimal install options later, but first a primer in “retro” gaming is necessary for today’s players who are used to modern games.  If you’re a seasoned veteran in older style computer games feel free to skip the next section.

Brief Guide to Retro Gaming:
First of all, don’t expect a tutorial of how to play the game.  Back in the “good old days” you were expected to read the manual (RTFM!) and then play the game.  This game is no exception, many of the features and controls are not blatantly obvious.  All downloads of the game come with the manual.  Read it: manual.txt, or at least read the selected parts I point out next.  If you don’t care about the technical aspects of how to fiddle every game setting switch on the command line (and Lord knows I don’t even care about that stuff), read “Starting the Game” and skip over to “The Story So Far”.  I recommend skipping the ship descriptions as well, because they are often well described in the game, and when they aren’t it’s for good reason… somethings are better left as surprises.  Definitely read the Game Control section, although the keys are assignable in the game’s startup screen “Setup” menu, it’s nice to know what the defaults are before you start monkeying with them.

Take notes during game play.  There isn’t a way to revisit dialog once you’ve left a conversation (you can press the spacebar to see a transcript of the response that was just given, so you need not feel hurried in reading the auto-scrolling dialog).  Lots of hints, locations, instructions, will be revealed in conversations, and you won’t remember it all.  Write it down.

You can lose this game.  SC2 is not a game that kindly resets you back to a position where you can retry as many times as you’d like.  It is very possible to wedge yourself right up against total and inevitable annihilation or worse. With that in mind…

Save early and save often.  You’re given a lot of save game slots.  Use them. Take notes on which slots are what.  For instance if you need to be at a certain star cluster by a certain date, save your game, write down what the name of that save is and make a note that reminds you of where you were headed at that time and why.  This is very helpful if, for instance, you’ve fallen into a non-winnable state, and need to go back to a save game you made 20 days ago, but have no idea what you were doing back then.  Yes, it may seem like a lot of work… but it really does add to the feeling of accomplishment when you beat the game, knowing that it didn’t coddle you like so many spineless games of today.

Sometimes you will need to run away.  “Discretion is the better part of valor” after all, right?  You can’t win every fight, especially at first.  Don’t feel too bad about running away from an armada of Ur-Quan dreadnoughts.

Installation Instructions:
When a game as old as SC2 is being jury-rigged into a modern machine running a modern OS, well, you’ll have to jump through a few hoops.  The game runs fine in all of the major operating systems, but there are a plethora of settings that can be configured due to the two major release versions of the game (namely the PC and 3DO versions) creating a multitude of installable permutations.

By default the game download contains all the bits to simulate the original PC game experience, however, should you choose, you can also grab the 3DO and third party (that is: fan-boy) content that can be used in place of the original PC content.  I’ve tried to minimize the barrier to entry for you by providing optimal install paths for the most common of operating systems and showing you what I consider to be the best version of the game to play.

Windows XP:
Download the game here:
Choose the Windows executable file uqm-x.x.x-installer.exe (where “x.x.x” is the version number, the latest at the time of this article was 0.6.2)
Run the installer and choose the type of install you want.  There are two basic versions of the game:
PC – this version mimics the 1992 PC release of the game, the one I am most familiar with.

3DO- this install will mimic the 1993 Panasonic 3DO version of the game, with voice acting for the dialog and differnet music.

All Content- downloads all packages of content and allows you to switch at any time during game the load screen of the game.

Mac OSX:
Download here:
Choose the file uqm-x.x.x-macosx.dmg
Mount the disk image and drag The Ur-Quan Masters icon to the desired install location.

There is no “nice” installer for OSX like there is for windows that allows you to auto-install other content, but you can still get it.  Just download the files you want that are listed in the above link under the heading “Content”.  The files all end with .uqm extension.  Then find the local copy of The Ur-Quan Masters that you just dragged to your Mac, and right click on the icon and select “Show Package Contents”.  A new Finder window will open.  Place the .uqm files in the Contents/Resources/content/packages directory and then you’ll be able to select the 3DO options from the start screen.

If you’re running a Linux distro and can’t figure out how to install it, you need to switch operating systems pronto.

If you grab all the possible content, then you’re afforded the possibility to configure a custom “mix and match” version of the game.  The three kinds of content are the PC (default) content, the 3DO content and the “remix” content, made well after the original by fan-boys.  I prefer the PC version because that’s what I grew up with. However, I do strongly warn against using the voice-overs or the Windows remix versions of the music as I find them distracting and they often don’t match what I would imagine the aliens are meant to sound like.  To turn off the often horrible voice acting, be sure the Setup -> Sound Options -> Speech Volume is set to 0.

Full Motion Video:
Because of licensing issues the full motion video that accompanied the 3DO version of the game isn’t packaged with the Sourceforge version listed for download above.  If feel you really must have it (I don’t feel the video adds much, if anything makes the game feel more dated than it need be), look for a download here: (under the FMV section).

A note about the music:
In any version of the game under the start screen menu Setup -> Sound Options -> Music Format you are presented with two options: PC and 3DO/Remixes.  On Windows if you’ve downloaded all the content and select 3DO/Remixes you get a version of the music that sounds much more recent, but not at all very good.  The same 3DO/Remixes option on a Mac, however, gives an updated version of the familiar original PC music, which is slightly better in some instances, and slightly mundane in others.  Thus, it’s basically a tossup as to if you want to use the PC or 3DO music on a Mac.  On Windows however, I very much recommend the PC original music.

Recommended Settings:
Here are what I would consider the optimal settings for playing SC2 on a modern machine.
Graphics Options:
Resolution: 800×600 or above (depending on screen size)

Display: Windowed (you never know when you’ll have to respond to an e-mail)

Scaler: HQ

Scanlines: Disabled (more clear), Enabled (gives you that old-school pixel effect)

PC/3DO Compatibility Options:

Menu Style: Text (makes navigating the in-game menus easier)

Font Style: Gradients (looks cooler)

Scan Style: Text (more understandable when scanning planets)

Scroll Style: (either option is fine)

Subtitled: Enabled (you’ll need them if you turn off the voice acting)

Melee Zoom: Smooth (allows you to see asteroids and planets easier… you’ll know what I mean when you start playing)

Cutscenes: Movie (shows the 3DO movies I mentioned above, otherwise defaults to the original content)

Slave Shields: Pulsating (looks cooler)

Sound Options:

Music Volume: 100

SFX Volume: 100

Speech Volume: 0

Positional Audio: Enabled

Music Format: PC (for Windows) 3DO/Remixes (if you have a mac, switch between both and figure out which one you like better).

Resources Options:

This menu is not functional in the version of the game I’m using (0.6.2).

Configure Controls:

Select the Edit Control option from the Configure Controls screen and then select a named set controls to edit. You can then assign which keys you want to map to which controls.  I find that it’s easiest for me (in a single player situation) to use the arrow keys for navigation and the Control key and the Alt key for Weapon and Special respectively.

Advanced Options:

Use Framebuffer: If Possible
Show FPS: No
Sound Driver: MixSDL
Sound Quality: High

Review Proper:
SC2 was born of Star Control, which was simply a game about one-on-one ship-to-ship combat.  Thus it makes sense to start the proper review of the game with the “Super Melee” mode.  In Super Melee you are allowed to select a fleet of as many as 14 ships per side and play against an opponent. The opponent can be the computer, a human playing alongside you on the same computer, or a remote network game can be played.  If you’ve never played SC1 I recommend honing your starship combat skills by playing with the two sets of ships that represent the original playable vessels in the first game: The Old Alliance Ships and the Old Hierarchy Ships.  Start with an easy computer opponent just to get the hang of what kinds of ships you can expect to encounter, and to have a grasp of what the Alliance and Hierarchy strengths and weaknesses are.

In combat you’ll be presented with a 2-d top down view of a planet along with a smattering of asteroids as well as your ship, and your opponents ship. Each ship has a crew compliment, which is essentially a measure of how many hits it can take before dying, and an energy level.  Most energy batteries recharge on their own at varying rates (though there are some exceptions), and generally the main weapon takes less energy to fire than the special weapon (again there are exceptions to the rule).

The goal in this mode the annihilation of your opponent.  This can be accomplished in many ways: primarily by firing weapons at your opponent; or by your opponent, either by circumstance or force, colliding with the planet enough times to explode.  In some cases you can even direct the enemy’s fire against themselves.

It’s really fun trying to slip past an opponent’s defenses while dodging asteroids and using the planet’s gravity to slingshot you into a superior attack posture.  Issuing forth volley after volley of varied kinds of fire.  Figuring out the best ships and tactics to use against the 25 different starships is challenging and makes for hours of enjoyable combat.

Starting the single player adventure game introduces you back into the world of Star Control.  It begins in the same time as that of the original game.  You’re informed that a Human scientific expedition was cut off from the Alliance force by a sudden Hierarchy attack just when the scientists have discovered a massive underground facility filled with advanced technology of an ancient, long extinct, race: The Precursors.  Out of contact for twenty years, the scientists begin to colonize the planet and discover the purpose of the advanced alien facilities.  They have discovered a Precursor starship factory.  However, due to poor planet resources, the Human scientists are only able to construct a skeleton vessel.  Undaunted they set themselves on the task of returning to Earth to determine what happened in the course of the war, and you are selected to captain the vessel.

Upon arrival to Earth, you find that the human race has been encased inside a “slave shield” imposed on them by the Ur-Quan.  The orbital platform is in disarray and in need of material resources that you must deliver to them to learn more.  The story unfolds from there and is really one of the best parts of the game.  Mysterious, deep and imaginative, the plot grips you from the start and won’t let up as you’re dragged across the universe uncovering alien plots for dominance, saving species against genocide, causing rebellions, forging alliances, imitating deities, navigating moral dilemmas and other inter-stellar swashbuckling.

There is a palpable sense of danger when navigating unknown space, and a genuine sense of discovery upon meeting new alien races or discovering and investigating anomalous energy signatures.  Combat, as I’ve mentioned above, is harrowing but often very difficult and should be pursued with caution, though you are often left with no recourse.

The star map is truly immense and gives you the sense of an almost limitless space open for exploration.  You’ll need to consult the star map often, here is a good scan of it: be sure to bookmark it as you’ll likely refer to it often.

The game is non-linear and you’re allowed to explore and stumble into whichever plot line you wish to pursue.  The major limiting factor is how far you can travel in your main ship before you’re out of fuel… and fuel is expensive.  In order to keep your ship fueled up you’ll need to gather and return resources found on other planets back to the Earth orbital station.

Resource finding and gathering is a large part of this game.  It consists of launching a landing probe to planets that often harbor hostile environs to gather a melange of raw materials of different value.  Early in the game the probe is very susceptible to damage and can only sustain a limited number hits before all the crew on board die and the lander explodes.  Watching a lander explode with a full cargo of valuable minerals is rather demoralizing, so keep some extras on hand, and/or be sure to save often.

As the game progresses you’re able to upgrade your planet landers which allows you more access to resource rich, but environmentally inhospitable planets.  When making allies with aliens, you’re generally allowed to purchase their particular race’s ships and add them to your armada.  Even the Precursor vessel you command is configurable and, given enough resources and technology, can become a brutal death-dealing tactical weapon later in the game.

Speaking of aliens, the cast of characters in this game is fantastic, I quote from Jam Enslaver’s review (which, by the way is excellent and can be watched here:

Star Control II has to have one of the best cast of creatures ever assembled in video games featuring wildly different species each with their own personality and extensive background fiction.  Most of the friendly ones will have some task that needs performing which breaks up the routine of gathering resources and always creates interesting little side stories.  It’s amazing how a throwaway background form the first game was turned into such a complete and coherent universe that I just can’t get enough of.

Star Control II stands as a high water mark for my experience in playing sci-fi adventure games in particular, and playing video games in general.  It is a game worth playing today, only tarnished slightly by the inhospitable nature of retro gaming, though the open source community deserves credit in largely diminishing that barrier.

Outlined below are some tips on how to play the game well, and some user-interface nuances that might not be apparent at first blush:

  • Navigate menus with the space and enter buttons.
  • When buying fuel from the starbase, press enter on the Fuel(20) menu item and use the arror keys (up and down) to increment or decrement units of fuel.
  • Likewise when buying crew.
  • Below the name of your ship on the right hand side of the screen during space navigation, you can see icons representing the number of planet landers you have.
  • Below the number of crew there is a representation of your cargo holds.  A grey bar for each hold, and full holds turn light grey.
  • When landing on a planet be keenly aware of three things
    • Temperature: the hotter a planet, the more likely you’ll encounter a flame spurt that can damage your lander.
    • Weather: rated on a scale from none to 8, the higher the number the more lightning strikes per second.
    • Tectonics: from none to 8 again, the higher the number the more earthquakes.
    • All the other information given during a planet scan is inconsequential.
  • Some minerals are not worth very much… if you find in your travels that you’ve run out of cargo space and want to jettison less valuable minerals in favor of more valuable one’s just navigate to the Manifest -> Cargo menu, select a category of cargo and press Enter to offload 1 unit of junk material per button press.
  • Your ship is equipped with an autopilot.  In the starmap use the arrow keys to find a location to travel to, press enter to lock in the coordinates and then press space bar, and away you’ll go.
  • Your maximum travel range, determined by the amount of fuel currently on board, will show up on the starmap as a grey circle superimposed and centered on your current location.
  • Since running away and/or outmaneuvering an opponent is so vital, I highly recommend purchasing turning and engine upgrades for your main ship before pursuing any other technologies.
  • Enjoy the ride!
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