The making of Super Star Trek 1978 meets 25th Anniversary
The story of how I created this free fangame/remake of Super Star Trek mixed with the Interplay adventure and how it became so popular.
As you probably know by now, I love old computer games, and I love to tinker with their source code. Super Star Trek holds a special place in my heart, as you have read in the other articles I published here.
To recap a bit, one of the first Star-Trek-inspired computer games ever created is called simply Star Trek. It's a text-only strategy game written in 1971 by Mike Mayfield. Later it was expanded by Bob Leedom, who also gave it the title Super Star Trek. The most popular version of this early turn-based strategy game was published in 1978 in the book BASIC COMPUTER GAMES, a collection of program listings collected by David H. Ahl, the founder of Creative Computing.
Super Star Trek was the most popular entry in this book. Most people were buying BASIC COMPUTER GAMES just to be able to type the source code of Star Trek into their computers.
Super Star Trek text-only version
If you follow this blog, you know that I ported the original BASIC code of Super Star Trek to the LUA language a few years ago. I also did another small thing, which was adding, to the text-only game, the "voices" of the original cast. Not authentic voices, of course, but just the transcript of lines Kirk, Spock, McCoy & co said during one of the episodes of the original series. You can download the LUA source code of Super Star Trek: the TOS version from my GitHub page.
After this task, which was more complex than you might expect, I decided to create an entirely new version. It was time to add a graphic interface. I chose to adapt the game to the PICO-8, a fantasy console with 16 colors and a 128x128 pixel screen resolution, a sort of virtual Game Boy. There are two main reasons for this choice: first, I'm not an artist, so I can create something acceptable only if the screen is tiny and I have few pixels at my disposal. Second, when you have a platform with limited capabilities, you are forced to focus on the game design. This is why many PICO-8 games are so great.
Star Trek PICO-8
The biggest challenge was deciding how to change the user interface, which was previously entirely text-based, to make it playable on a handheld console that had only cursors and buttons (no keyboard). To adapt the game to the virtual device, I introduced the warp speed jump to go directly to a different sector. While moving inside the sector, the Enterprise would use impulse speed, a feature not present in the original game. I also replaced the torpedoes course with a graphical compass that you have to rotate. Similarly, you move a slider instead of entering the value to give energy to shields or phasers.
You can play Star Trek PICO-8 on my itch page.
Despite the UX changes, I managed to preserve the core mechanics. Phasers, damages, long-range sensors, the galaxy map, and docking work precisely like the original version.
I am very proud of the final result, and I consider it my best achievement in terms of game design. I released the game in March 2021, but this story is not about the PICO-8 version.
The making of the 25th Anniversary version
During the summer of 2021, I was working on another game, a graphic adventure. I was developing it with a tool called Adventure Game Studio. I was stuck on this project because I was waiting for the graphics. Anyway, I wanted to become more familiar with AGS, so I needed an alternative idea to spend some time on. The idea arrived while replaying an old game, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. This is a fantastic game released by Interplay in 1992, basically a Star Trek Episode simulator: a mix of point-and-click graphic adventure and an action game where you control the Enterprise from the bridge.
Apart from being one of my favorite games, it has another virtue: it features the best pixel-art Star Trek graphics ever created: the way the characters (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, and others) were designed is fantastic. When the game starts, you see the bridge of the Enterprise, with Sulu and Chekov in their place, Uhura at communications, Spock on his science console, and Captain Kirk on his chair, shown from behind. The big screen of the Enterprise is in the middle.
Seeing this, I thought: what if I could play Super Star Trek from the point of view of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, issuing the commands to the crew and using the Enterprise screen as a playfield? I grabbed a screenshot from the original game, modified it to add the needed elements, and created a quick prototype on Adventure Game Studio. It was June 3rd, 2021. When I launched the prototype, I thought: this is so cool; I must make it real. Of course, it was just a free fangame; I had no expectations. I considered it the side-project of my side-project (the adventure game), but it could have been fun.
I used the source code of the PICO-8 version as a start. Unfortunately, porting all the LUA code to the AGS scripting language was much more complex than expected. AGS is not precisely the best tool for strategy games. However, In one month, I completed the main core of the game, designed the data structure, and wrote the code for the galaxy generation. I also designed the sprites and placed them on the screen. It was already possible to raise shields and fire phasers. To create the explosion, I converted the particle effect I made for the PICO-8 version to AGS. I need to thank the amazing Adventure Game Studio community for their help during the development; when I started, my knowledge of AGS scripting language was very basic. Without the help of the AGS community, I wouldn't have completed it.
Below is a video I recorded on July 2021; this was one month of work (in my free time). Not bad.
The result was excellent, but despite the good start, completing the game would have required much additional work. The goal seemed too far, and my motivation dropped, so I paused the project. After that, no progress for several months.
Seven months later, in February 2022 - I don't remember why - I decided to continue the game. I added the photon torpedoes, the galaxy map, and warp speed. I kept the design choices I made for the PICO-8 version for the warp and impulse speeds. The Enterprise could move from one sector to another, so the game was playable.
Then I had another idea: I had already selected the lines from the TV episodes when I created the LUA version. Adventure Game Studio allowed me to add speech to my game. Why not grab the actual voice of the actors from the TV episodes, and add it to my game? For example, when Kirk says, Lay in a course, Mister Sulu, I would have heard William Shatner saying those lines.
So I tried to record one of them. It was a piece with Kirk saying, We are going to battle, all hands battle stations, red alert!. I added it to the game; it was the coolest thing ever. I spent the following days on Netflix, searching for the moment when the actors said the lines I needed for the game and then recording the voices. The audio needed to be cut precisely, so it was a long and painful process, but the result was terrific.
At the end of the month, I had a lot of audio files, but the game still needed to be completed. When I realized the work I still had to do to finish it, the excitement faded, and I stopped working on it. Again.
Somehow, in December 2022, I decided I could not waste all the work done so far, and I decided to continue my Super Star Trek project. In the meantime, I had become much more expert on AGS. I realized the code I had written the previous year was too messy, and I had to restructure it. After that, I started adding the missing features; I programmed the algorithm to calculate damages to the ship systems and the effect broken systems had on the gameplay. I added the docking procedures and the impulse speed movement. I didn't have a specific plan in mind, but at some point, around Christmas day, I suddenly discovered the game was complete. Of course, games are never finished. I could have added more voices, sounds, and animations, and the code could have been improved. But all the features were there. You could start, play and win (or lose). I just needed to reward the player. I created the victory screen when the admiral calls you to say congratulations. I also added the Star Trek theme music during the final credits.
Finally, I had to decide on the title. I opted for something straightforward: Super Star Trek 1978 meets 25th Anniversary (short version: Super Star Trek 25th).
Ultimately, it took almost another month to release the game between playtesting, debugging, and preparing all the assets for my itch.io page. I published Super Star Trek 1978 meets 25th Anniversary version 1.0 on January 19th, 2023. Two days later, the game had been downloaded 50 times and played on the web almost 100 times. For me, it was already a success. I immediately received some feedback that led to an improved version I published on January 28th.
The first website to speak about Super Star Trek 25th was IndieRetroNews, which published a short article on February 20th. In the following two days, the downloads increased to 100/day. Then, a few days later, I checked the stats and saw over 400 downloads and 2500 browser plays in one day. What the hell happened? I found out PC Gamer published an article about my game. The title says everything: This fan remake of a Star Trek text game from 1978 is way better than it has any right to be. LOL
People started leaving many comments on itch.io, showing appreciation, suggesting features, and reporting bugs. Others volunteered to translate the game into their language. A small community was born. Some YouTubers even reviewed my game, and a Star Trek podcast interviewed me. More articles were published on GameStar (in German), Den Of Geek, Allyn Gibson, High Voltage (in Czech) and more. There was also an excellent discussion on Reddit. Honestly, I was not prepared for that and was so happy.
All this interest and support were beneficial for the game, which was playtested in every aspect. I released five more versions after the first, every time adding bug fixes, improvements on the UX, sound effects, voices, and more. The most notable release was Super Star Trek 25th v1.11 which introduced the support for different inputs: mouse+keyboard, keyboard only, touch screen, or controllers (yes, people played the game also on Steam Deck, Tablets, and portable devices). The game was translated into Portuguese, Catalan, French, Italian, and Czech. With the help of a friend, I also added the cover graphics and a new logo, plus the Steam Deck assets. All the people who helped me are listed in the closing credits.
The game's popularity made me happy, but a particular comment on the itch.io page was the ultimate reward. One day I woke up and noticed a new comment on the Super Star Trek 25th page from a guy called "TechnoRobert".
Yes, Bob Leedom himself, the guy who wrote the original Super Star Trek in the '70s, found my remake and liked it. After that, I had the chance to talk to him and exchange a few emails. It was amazing. As you probably know, some years ago, I had the opportunity to meet David Ahl, the other co-author of Super Star Trek, so I can now say that I met both my heroes.
For a project for which I didn't have any expectations, it's not bad.
What's next? The list of requests I received is long, but I don't think I will make all of them. An idea that I have been trying to define since I started working on the text-only version is to add a story. Mixing the strategy mechanics with a plot is something I would like to experiment with. I'm not sure when it will be ready, though; as you have seen, letting the projects rest for a while sometimes it's useful :)
If you still haven't tried the game, you can download it or play it on your browser here: Super Star Trek 1978 meets 25th Anniversary