To Boldly Go - Star Trek: The Rebel Universe, Commodore 64

Space... The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Singleton. Its mission... To explore new frontiers in space adventure immersion... to seek out new bytes... etc.

Star Trek: The Rebel Universe set forth on a voyage to Atari ST space in 1987, followed by excursions to the Commodore 64 and DOS PCs the following year. No Amiga version, sadly! And it's the Commodore 64 port that I'm going to wax lyrical about today as it was the version I first played in 1989 and have the most fondness for - and my first ever Star Trek game.

Published by Simon & Schuster in North America and by Firebird in Europe, The Rebel Universe has you taking on the roles of Captain Kirk and the rest of the command crew and tasks you with a deadly mission: You have five years to uncover the cause of a spreading wave of mutinous behaviour that is causing Federation captains to go rogue - Klingon scheming is suspected! An entire sector of space has been quarantined and the sector's isolation will become permanent unless you complete the mission - trapping the Enterprise inside forever!

The game itself still has a pretty unique look to it, using a bespoke graphical interface and a series of collapsable windows. Move the cursor with the joystick/mouse to a crewperson's portrait, click it and it'll bring up an overlapping window showing their appropriate crew functions; Sulu for Navigation, Spock for scanning and analysis, Uhura for communications, etc. 

What helps is that the framed portraits will change to previously selected windows, making navigation back to the bridge or anywhere else you need to go back to a breeze. It's a well-thought-out and visually attractive interface, one implemented by a master of visual interfaces - Mike Singleton of Lords of Midnight fame. Yes, this is one of his games. The first time I learned this, it suddenly made so much sense why Rebel Universe is how it is. 

Rebel Universe is effectively an open-world space game. You're free to go to any of the hundreds of star systems in the Quarantine Zone and explore, picking up artefacts and bits of information needed to complete your mission. There are multiple ways of achieving your goal and elements of randomization - another lovely thing that adds replayability. Playing the game really gives you an authentic Star Trek TOS feeling with appropriate sound effects (sampled on ST and with speech!) and Scotty warning you that the engines canne take it, cap'n if you travel at too high a warp speed for too long.

Starship battles are a thing in the game and they're pretty simple stuff. Using a combination of a radar and a crosshair over a wireframe model of the enemy ship, you pew-pew away with phasers and torpedos. It feels more tactical than it actually is but I appreciate the effort that went into giving it a Warth of Khan feel.

The third main gameplay element draws from text and choose-your-own-adventure games. Certain worlds will be life-supporting and this is where the majority of the puzzle-solving will take place. Beaming down with an away team of six crew, you'll go through a series of encounters and obstacles. Each of the crew you've taken with you will have a particular suggestion as to how to resolve it. Spock will always be more analytical, Checkov will often suggest firing a phaser, Uhura will want to beam signals at it, etc. This is where the experience can become a bit repetitive and frustrating as you're often just picking what feels most appropriate and hoping for the best. And if a crewperson is injured, you'll have to beam back to the ship, wait in sickbay for them to regenerate health, and then go back again. 

Sadly, there are no first-contact situations or alien diplomacy. Occasionally you'll encounter someone who'll pass on information if you pick the right action but aside from your crew's status reports, there's no other verbal interaction in the game. Thankfully, there are no no-win Kobiyashu Maru scenarios in the game where you can lock yourself out of a vital object or clue by picking the wrong choice. 

Star Trek: The Rebel Universe still impresses me to this day, especially on C64. It's a smartly thought-out and ambitious Trek adventure simulator. And while Binary Systems' Starflight from 1986 excels in the elements Rebel Universe falls short in, there's still much to enjoy about it in 2023. 

A piece of advice from one captain to another - Watch out for Catastrophe Pods!

Download: Star Trek: The Rebel Universe
Youtube: Sharka's RetroBytes

1 comment:

  1. I remember when this came out, back in the day - seeing the lovely graphics in the magazine, but wait a minute, if this came out in 1987, then I must be wrong - I thought I saw it in Commodore Format..? Was there another nice-looking C64 Star Trek game after this one, as featured in CF..?