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Year: 2021

BRIEF – Starbase Zero (1979)

For this second BRIEF, I will cover another game that I found while checking the Mobygames list : Starbase Zero. It was released in the September 1979 issue of CLOAD magazine and coded by Peter Trefonas, a prolific coder for CLOAD Magazine in his early 20s, who later moved to a different career entirely.

What was CLOAD magazine you ask? It was a cassette magazine, in other words, a magazine fully embedded in a cassette, except for a few intro pages. You would buy the cassette, put it in your computer (a TRS-80 in this instance) and then access its content, among which there would be a handful of software, including games. Wikipedia mentions that these were later replaced by disk magazines, and then by Internet directly. I distinctly remember the era before Internet, but not disk magazines, so I suspect they were superseded, at least in France, by video game magazines in plastic wrap sold with a CD-Rom.

Starbase Zero deals with a story as old as computer games: a state-of-the-art spaceship, a dashing pilot, energy shields in four different directions, and energy as sole currency. At this point, you are going to exclaim “Star Trek !” but you would be totally incorrect, it is absolutely not Star Trek related.

It is Galactica related.

I actually never realized that Galactica was a series originally from the late 70s ! I had only heard of Battlestar Galactica.

The game starts with a familiar situation :

So, of course, doing what any player would do in my situation, I start shooting at the closest Klingon Viper. Meanwhile, more Vipers, which were off-screen, move close enough to appear on my screen.

So you may be wondering : “this is a Trek73 clone, why are you covering it ?

Well, it is indeed a Trek73 clone, possibly the first one on personal computer. But Starbase Zero is interesting for one reason : it is in simili-real time. SLOW simili-real time :

You can see my command at the bottom of the screen : F316 to shoot the laser at angle 316°, L to re-energize my laser, A to recharge my shield, in the two latter cases from my energy pool.

Of course, the “real-time” is actually turns passing whether you do something or not, but one could say the same of more prestigious precursors like Cytron Masters.

It is beyond archaic though, the program sometimes “eats” input, and you cannot correct your mistakes (you cannot even use backspace !), meaning you are going to often miss. If you don’t write commands in advance, you are going to lose turns. If you write them too much in advance, you are going to shoot behind your target, and miss :

Still, with my tachyons torpedoes, I manage to easily destroy the closest Viper :

I killed the Gamma ship with 3 torpedoes.

But my shields take some hits. As they go down, I can easily fill them up again with a simple command, but as I have several “fire” orders lined up this “reshield” order arrive too late, and I receive some damage :

My “Angle” system is destroyed so I cannot see the angle of the enemy ships compared to me. The “orient” system allows me to rotate my ship so another shield faces my enemy

Finally my order to recharge my shield arrives, and luckily my angle system is fixed. I destroy Alpha that I had hit several times in the beginning.

But the other Vipers are too close, and they are difficult to hit (they move from one side of my ship to another), so my shoots miss. I spend some energy to repulse them from me (order X/)

I then lose some precious seconds shooting at Delta at angle 0. “F0” is quick to type, so I chain up a bit too many of these orders and I keep shooting at angle 0 long after my target moved.

Eventually, I run out of energy and cannot recharge my shield :

I am defeated shortly thereafter. The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes.

The only interest of Starbase Zero is that it is an early example of real-time tactics, and one totally forgotten today. One reason is obvious: the game is a terrible Trek73 clone with very little tactics and an atrocious UI – also the reason why it is a BRIEF here. As far as starbases go, you’d be better off picking Starbase Hyperion. In addition, unlike Legionnaire or Cytron Masters, there is no adaptation of the game design or UI to the strengths and constraints of real time.

The game commands. A typical Trek73 had 20 to 30 commands, which then had subcommands. Starbase Zero does not even allow you to transfer energy from shield to reserve.

But I also suspect that the fact that the game was on TRS-80 and not on a more prestigious platform like an Atari 8-bit or Apple II played a role in its demise. The final nail in the coffin for Starbase Zero‘s legacy was probably that it was distributed through a cassette magazine rather than sold stand-alone. For these reasons, the game was bound to be seen as a curiosity at best, not a precursor.

If you are interested, the CRPG Addict covered another CLOAD Magazine game by Peter Trefonas : Dungeons & Dragons. The latter really sends the same vibes of “forgotten precursor” as Starbase Zero.