Around the Universe in 20 Minutes
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I have a pile of lesser known sci-fi books collected from the dusty desks of co-workers when they moved on to new jobs, from library sales where everything was just a quarter, and several that friends have lent me with no intention of ever recollecting. A lot of these books, especially the short stories, contain some real gems. Sure, you have probably never heard of either the authors or the story title, but just because something is not embraced by the mainstream does not mean it's bad. I love many of these books, and some of the stories they contain are every bit as good as ones written by contemporary masters like Asimov, Crichton, and Clarke. When I read them I not only enjoy the story, but I am happy at the prospect of discovering something that otherwise I would not have known about.
I get this same fond feeling when I play Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, possibly the best game you have never heard of.
SAIS at first glance reminds me of those old Star Trek games I used to play on my original IBM PC. You know the ones. You had a grid and you typed in coordinates for your Enterprise-looking ship to fly along. Then you might run into bad guys and you had to issue commands to fire torpedoes in a certain direction. Man, I used to play games like that for hours.
Anyway, SAIS is a timed game. You are basically charged with taking your woefully under-equipped spaceship, and yes it does look like the Enterprise, and explore as much of a new sector as possible in 10 years. At the end of the 10 years, you should return from your mission because the ship is basically rented. When you return, you are given a score based on how much stuff you have discovered, how many alien allies you have, what booty you were able to acquire in space battles and any artifacts or strange life forms you colleted on planets. After your mission and loan repayment costs are factored in, thus the need for a prompt return to avoid compounding interests, you are paid the difference which makes up your score.
There is basically two screens in the game. The first is the overview map, which randomly changes with each game and can be configured somewhat based on the difficulty settings you choose. This map shows the location of the different systems with planets throughout the sector you are going to explore. There are about 15 planets most times. To navigate, you simply click on a planet and a line will form between your ship and the destination. The map will also display how many days it will take to reach your destination. With a slower star drive, it might take years to reach the new planet. With some of the quickest ones, you can travel there instantly.
The second screen occurs when you get into combat. Combat occurs because sometimes there are nasty space aliens orbiting the planets you would like to explore. Some of the races you meet are peaceful and don't want to fight you, some are hostile one game and nice the next, and some won't ever even give you the time of day before trying to blast you into atomic particles.
The combat interface is very much like the main map in that you click around to move. There are no obstacles, so basically you are just trying to stay away from or close to your opponent, depending on your strategy and ship configuration. If you hit the retreat button, you will attempt to outrun the bad guys. As long as you hit the retreat button right away, you will probably have no difficulty leaving the battle. If things go badly later on however, you better have a fast impulse engine. The combat interface reminds me a lot of Star Control, and some of the creatures seem strangely familiar too.
If you win the combat or find a planet without a guardian, you are normally given an item or treated to an event. Sometimes the item is an artifact or creature for the cargo hold, sometimes it is a ship component like a weapon or shield, and sometimes an event like a solar flare occurs or a thief attempts to steal something from your ship. Most of the time, the events are good. You can upgrade your ship with stuff you find around, or if you have found the race of space traders (hint: they are always one jump away from your starting location somewhere) you can offer your booty for something cool they have. Upgrading your ship is the only way to get the higher scores, since you are at the onset about the weakest thing in the galaxy.
While you are doing all this the clock is ticking of course. Time moves when you do, so you can take a break while orbiting a planet and nothing will happen. So the skills needed are more the route planning type as opposed to rapid fire mouse clicking.
The graphics of the game, while totally functional, are pretty 1980's looking, or at least early 1990s. They work well, but don't expect too much eye candy. The sound however is surprisingly good in both the soundtrack and sound effects departments.
Gameplay, as I mentioned before, is surprisingly easy to learn. And the humor found in the game, sometimes overt and sometime subtle, will keep you coming back for more every time. Even the names of the planets, one is named after D&D master Gary Gygax for instance, shows that this game was programmed by geeks, for geeks. I guess most of the GiN staff must fall into that category, because it has become one of the most popular ways to waste time in the lab since it was installed.
I took off a few points for gameplay for two reasons. First, I found it annoying that I could not plot points on the main map, but was forced to travel in a straight line. You see there is this nebula in the middle of most maps that really slows your ship down unless you find the right star drives. Often times I found my ship having to travel through a tiny corner of the nebula just to get to a new planet, which added several months to most jumps. Of all the technical inventions, the ability to just steer left a tiny bit would have been helpful. Perhaps they could add an alien steering wheel in the game to find.
The second problem I have been having is the lack of documentation in the game in regards to components. This would be ok if you could use the combat simulator on the main menu to try out new and different components. I would find several different types of impulse thrusters for example, but would have no idea which one was best. Since combat is somewhat rare and often spaced pretty far apart, it's difficult to tell what works best by limited trial and error. In the combat simulator, you have to use the standard ship like when starting the game, which other than training new commanders how to issue commands, makes it kind of worthless.
Despite a few flaws, the game is a perfect diversion. If you have only 15 minutes free time and need your game fix, then SAIS is perfect. Just be careful, because your 15 minutes of diversion could turn into hours of "I think I can get a higher score if I try just one more time."
The best part about the game is that you can get an incredibly fun title for the money you find inside your couch, well, my couch anyway since the weekly RPG group seems to all have holes in their pockets. SAIS is being published by famous cheapo board game publisher Cheapass Games, and can be had for just 15 dollars from cheapass.com. It runs on any PC above a Pentium II, basically we could not find a system old enough not to be able to run it, so it's great for a travel game on a notebook too.
If you want to explore the galaxy and obtain the famous Tentacular Tiger, then get ready for some strange, and fun, adventures in infinite space.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.