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Game #25 : Space Ace 21 (1981)

Lieutenant Narwhal ! Apparently you are familiar with space combat ?

Sir Yes Sir ! Among other, I destroyed two Kling… Klargon ships in Operation Warp Factor !

Well, we have another mission for you. You know the drill. Take command, destroy the enemy.

One question Sir ! I hope the combat will not be in 3D ? I am not really good in 3D combat.

Well, I don’t know, check the documentation.

< checking the documentation >

Oh God, no !

Just beamed in. Well, where is my ship ? Let’s ask those guys ! HEY, ALIEN FELLOW ! WHERE IS MY SHIP ?

< sad alien noise >

What do you mean “the last ship blew up” ? How am I going to save you guys from whatever it is you need saving from ?

< alien noise >

You can build a new ship according to my specifications right here right now ? Interesting ! Let’s do that !

< Excited alien noise >

Ok, so, let’s start with the top of the ship, and not at all from the bottom of the ship – newbie mistake there. I want weapons, obviously. What do you have on the menu ?

Phasers are long range weapons, whereas disruptors, nominally long range, only deliver their maximum power at very close range (36 km), and are worse than phasers at 200 km and more. I want both. One phaser shoots 5 times every 10 seconds, two phasers shoot 9 times – and that’s the limit. So I only need two, and now let’s have a look at those fancy-ass miss…

< very sorry alien noise >

Bugged ? Both missiles and torpedoes ? They don’t work as designed ? Ok, no missiles then. Let’s start with 3 blocks of phasers and two of disruptors on the front, for redundancy. And add some armor.

Life Support, Generator and Bridge are necessary components. Rather than duplicating them for additional resilience, I will put them next to an armor module. People mistakenly believe that you should put the armor on the sides of the ship, but that’s another newbie mistake. We’ll put the armor in the middle, so it protects both left and right. Very logical when you think about it.

Also, I have one extra slot I can put next to armor. Let’s say, I don’t know, sensors – my phasers will be 10% more accurate.

Added Life Support, Armor, Bridge, and then Generator, armor, and sensors

And then two extra generators so I can power all my phasers and then more, a lot of fuel, and finally three engines at the bottom.

My alien friends, can you explain me quickly how to read the display in the pilot’s cabin ?

< Pedagogic alien noise >

Half those panels are useless ! Well, let’s undock. I have something on my radar. Heading toward the target, my alien friends. Pray for me !

Hmm… This is going to be tough !

Our enemies have missiles AND torpedoes. Do you know if theirs are working ?

< alien radio noise >

You are not being helpful there, little alien friends. Well, with my luck, I bet their missiles are not bugged. They have phasers as well, so no safe range. My best chance is to engage at distance until the missiles are damaged – one hit each is enough – then get close and engage with my disruptors. Wish me luck! OVER !

< encouraging alien radio noise >

I am in range, now turning so that my azimut and my speed match theirs, so we remain at constant distance.

I only realized while writing the AAR that their missiles and torpedoes had disappeared – I was still afraid of missiles at that point.

Target engaged. And, err, target engaging me too.

First three rounds of combat

Enemy missiles destroyed. Turning toward my target to engage it with my disruptor at 200+ range. OVER !

Alien Command ! Why is my ship so slow to turn ? All my engines still seem functional !

< Alien radio noise >

Newtonian physics ? And you could not tell me this before ? It is going to take ages, and meanwhile it is going to be a phaser duel where I don’t have much of an advantage.

< Apologetic alien radio noise >

.… so… long… to… turn…

Oh well, I am finally getting closer ! About to use my disruptor ! OVER !

Hurrah ! Target is crippled ! Its fighting capacity seems residual, two or three phaser shots every 10 seconds ! Dropping by the starbase for refuel, then finishing it off

... voilà ! Destroyed !

< Excited alien radio noise ! >

And now let’s move to the rating and rev…

< Different, threatening, alien radio noise !>

Another one ! How am I going to fight this ? Computer, status report !

P = Phasers, D = Disruptors, B = Bridge L = Life Support, G = Generator S = Scanner F = Fuel and E = Engine

Still fighting at close to 100% firepower, but I have 50% of my engine power left, and no more redundancy on my phasers, generators and disruptors. More hits to those modules will weaken me fast ! Anyone has a plan ?

< Radio alien noise >

That’s a really stupid plan ! Well, I guess we will follow MY plan. The enemy has one missile, so if I go toward it at a 30% or so angle, I will be able to either turn and face it at disruptor range if I destroy its missiles, or get away and try another pass if I don’t !

I had still not realized they cannot use missiles either...

The enemy ship has damaged me badly with its phasers – I am down to 5 shots every 10 seconds now, but its missile is destroyed – I am now moving towards it ! OVER

Getting very, very close actually. I am at torpedo range now ! Its torpedoes ! But it is not shooting

… and at THIS range, my disruptor will shoot at maximum power !

It is as good as gone. Only to finish it off now :

< Joyful alien radio noise >

Et voilà again ! Heading home for the 4R : Rest, Repair, Rating and Review !

< Yet another threatening alien radio noise !>

What ? How many are there !

< Alien Radio noise >

Ten ? Ten ? And you never told me ? Have you seen the state of my ship ? I am heading home, you will destroy the remaining 8 yourself

..oh no ! It is already in range and shooting at me. The engines are dead ! Now I understand what happened to space aces 1 to 20. Where is the evac button ? I need to…

< explosion noise >

A huge “Thank you” to Ira Goldklang who provided me with the game and told me how to run it on emulator.

Review & Rating

Space Ace 21 by Synergistic Solar, USA
First release : 1981 on TRS-80
Tested on : TRS-80 emulator
Total Hours Tested : 3
Average duration of a campaign: 10-15 minutes per enemy ship
Difficulty: Easy (1/5)
Would recommend to a modern player : No
Would recommend to a designer : Yes
Final Rating: Obsolete.

Space Ace 21 is the second game I’m covering from Synergistic Solar, a mostly forgotten company that released a string of space related games for TRS-80 in the early 80s, in addition to the already covered Ants!!!. I have very little additional information on the company sadly, and my attempts to contact Synergistic Solar’s developers has so far been fruitless, so I can’t say much about the context around which this game was developed.

As sometimes happened in that early era, Space Game 21 was sold as face A of a cassette – face B had a Star Trek clone called New Starship Voyage that seemed pretty unremarkable from the reviews I read.

A. Immersion

Let’s be clear, there is no context whatsoever in this game, so I had to make everything up. On the other hand, I am pretty impressed by the ship graphics (for 1981 & a TRS-80), especially since the modules change shape depending on where they are positioned. That impression did not last: when the ships are damaged they quickly turn to pixel soup.

Rating : Very bad

B. UI , Clarity of rules and outcomes

Giving orders is reasonably well-optimized. You have the key information always in front of your screen, and it does something that SSI games like Computer Air Combat or Torpedo Fire did not : the game allows you to directly point toward the enemy, or toward your space base, rather than having to manually input the direction every time.

There are some issues still. I would have appreciated to know a bit more about my chance to hit at long distance, or how close to running out of battery [generators] my phasers are. Worse, when damage starts to accumulate it is extremely hard to check at a glance which modules are damaged and which are not ; for your own ship you can request a status report (which is still relatively hard to read), for the enemy ship you cannot and need to check almost pixel by pixel.

Good luck knowing at a glance which system is functional.

Rating : Bad.

C. Scenario design & Balancing

There are 3 scenarios :

  • Smuggler is about intercepting a ship that needs to go through the battle area. In single player you cannot be the smuggler. It is probably the most interesting scenario as trying to intercept an enemy ship in Newtonian physics is not trivial… or rather it would not be trivial if the AI was not just trying to make a run for it by the shortest route. In multiplayer it should be fun,
  • Refuel Option is actually a duel between two ships, with a starbase on each side allowing players to refuel and to rearm the missiles and torpedoes, though of course these don’t work,
  • Phoenix Decathlon is only against the computer. The player needs to destroy the 10 AI ships one after the other. It is not trivial.

The computer has 10 available ships (you choose what you face) – 5 are more for the smuggler scenario, 5 are combat ships.

As for the AI, it is not subtle : it beelines at you and shoots.

Ranking : Meh. Mediocre.

D. Systems

I believe the fundamentals of the game are pretty clear from the AAR. Space Age 21 innovates in a lot of ways : it is the first game in which you build your space ship freely and the first turn-based game I’ve seen with Newtonian physics. Unlike Warp Factor for instance, you don’t consume Fuel / Energy if you keep your speed and direction constant – and if you accelerate and then your engines take a lot of hits, good luck slowing down !

  • I don’t think 3D adds anything to 2D in this type of game. In an air combat game, all dimensions are not equal : it takes more time to climb than to dive, defensive weapons are directional, etc. In a space combat where weapons are not directional, 3D adds complexity without opening new strategies ; though I understand that “combat in 3D” for the sake of it is a strong selling point,
For the record, I can win the game in 3D. I just don’t find it more interesting than in 2D

  • A lot of the point of customizing the ship is wasted :
    • in my version, 2 of the 4 weapons were not working – none of the reviews report this so I believe it is a problem with my copy specifically,
    • there is a hard limit to how many phasers or disruptors you can shoot in a turn, even if you have 10 modules of them,
    • damages and attacks are not directional : all your weapons can shoot at 360°, and damages are randomly allocated to the enemy, not allocated on the side where you hit your target.

The combination of those three elements (two of which are really the game’s fault) badly reduce the number of building strategies. You cannot for instance build a ship that only shoots backward, or a ship with a lot of guns in front and armor on the back for deadly boom-and-zoom passes. This in turn makes speed and turning rate irrelevant, which means you should always strive to have the largest ship possible and not care about weight, except for the smuggler scenario. Therefore, the only viable strategy is having a mix of phasers and disruptors, with the only choice being which modules you want to be more redundant.

Rating : Bad. It could have been Good or even Excellent.

E. Did I make interesting decisions ?

The most important decision is how you build your ship, but as I explained, there is not much choice. In combat, it is more calculation than decisions, so overall – very few interesting decisions. The stakes would have been higher if my missiles and torpedoes had worked, of course.

F. Final rating

Obsolete. It is sad as, again, a few limited changes to the rule set could have made this game a really good game.

Contemporary reviews

I could find two reviews for Space Ace 21. Arès (the oddly specific “magazine of science fiction adventure gaming”) in its winter 1982 issue calls the game “fast and furious” with “realistic bits of fun”. The reviewer even modified the BASIC code to add new computer ships to fight against.

W.D. Ives covered most of Synergistic Solar games for 80 Microcomputing in April 1982 ; as for Space Ace 21 Ives was impressed by the realism of the game and by how visceral combat is : “It is much more meaningful to watch your ship get ripped to shreds by a lucky hit than it is to read some message like “engines down to 70% effectiveness […] Space Ace 21 is a very good game and an excellent situation. It is one of the best computerized wargames that I have seen. I strongly recommend it”.

Despite those reviews, I can’t imagine the game sold well : the Space Gamer put Space Ace 21 in its “game for which we are looking for a review” list from its issue 42 (August 1981) to its issue 51 (May 1982), but never found any takers. A survey in that same issue where readers were asked to rate games put Space Ace 21 relatively highly (7 on a scale from 1 to 9) … but it was also one of the least well-known (37% had “never heard of it“).


I realize that my wargaming blog looks a lot like “the space gamer blog” but what can I do – space games were great when you had limited graphics. We should see the end of it though, after Avalon Hill’s Conflict 2500 we will be left with mostly SSI traditional wargames – except if I find the lost documentation of the remaining Synergistic Solar games.

2 Comments

  1. Is it tedious to make a ship? As in how hard are the controls for it?

    • Building ships is easy. Each module is associated to a letter, and the game asks you in order what you want to build, starting at the top left. You type the required letter and it moves to the next slot.
      Once it is done, the program checks if the design is viable (=has engine, bridge, life support and generator, and there is an empty cell behind any engine not at the bottom). You can build ships with “holes”.

      As for playing, there are 3 sets of instruction to give
      – Direction : Do you want to point at something (enemy, your starbase, enemy starbase), do you want to manually a direction, or “no change”
      – Speed : Do you want to accelerate / slow down as much as possible, do you want to manually input a target speed, or “no change”,
      – Weapon : You can only use one weapon by turn, so pick one – or none.

      The most difficult part of the game is taking into account physics when you plan several turns in advance : if you are too fast turning is extremely slow as you need to fight momentum. It is important mostly for 2 players smuggler mode, where there are real decisions to take when building your ship (eg if you are the smuggler you might go for a weaponless ship with a lot of engines… but beware of running out of fuel fast).

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