Thursday 9 March 2017

Missed Classic 38: Starcross - Introduction (1982)

Written by Joe Pranevich

A few weeks ago, Zork III fell to the might of my trusty elven sword. That’s four games on our Zork marathon completed and I remain excited for this series and what comes next. It’s time to take our first official side-trip: Starcross. Released simultaneously with Zork III and tied for the mantle of Infocom’s fourth game, Starcross is another genre-buster for 1982. While Marc Blank proved that text adventures could work for mysteries, Dave Liebling went after hard science fiction. I’ll be playing it because (I am told) it has elements that directly tie it into the Zork universe, albeit not part of the main series. We’ll have to wait and see.

Right off the bat, Infocom wanted to make Starcross unlike any game that had come before. Only a few months after introducing the “feelies” with Deadline and starting to distribute their own materials, Infocom took creative packaging to the next level by utilizing a distinctive “UFO” shape for the release. The “box”, if you can call it that, was a plastic flying saucer. I vaguely remember reading about this gimmick years ago; boxes literally rolled off the shelves. It’s a funny way to start what promises to be a serious game but let’s hope they didn’t pour more creativity into the packaging than the game itself.

As with Deadline, this game requires you to read the manual before you play. Not only does it include a copy-protection scheme (more on that in a bit), but there are a handful of game-specific commands and required backstory. Those of you that played with the “Lost Treasures” set may be disappointed to learn that the humorous diary entries and advice on inter-species contact were not in this release. The additional backstories for this game as well as all of the Zork games were included in the “grey box” re-releases and I’ll do something special to cover them when I get to the right spot in the timeline.

The manual sets the stage: the year is 2186 and there is an urgent need for new sources of energy. Thanks to new technologies, humanity has expanded into the solar system with colonies on the moon, Mars, and even larger asteroids. My character is a space-miner of sorts; our job is to find and harness pinpoint-sized black holes which can be tapped for their energy. (The manual helpfully adds that this is based on “theories from the 1970s”. Disco was a theory from the 1970s and look where that ended up…) My ship, the Starcross, is loaded with a mass detector and specialized magnets to snag and transport the black hole if I find one. The manual reveals that as the game begins, we will instead discover a massive ship from the outer reaches of the galaxy. I’m not sure if that gives too much away, but it does sound more interesting than space mining!

There are only a few specialized commands that we will need. Directions on the ship will be nautical rather than compass: “fore”, “aft”, “port”, and “starboard” replace north, south, west, and east respectively. (They will be mapped to the traditional names as well so our finger-memory won’t suffer too much.) We also are given instructions on how to talk to the computer using “computer, <command>” just as dialog worked in other Infocom games. And finally we will have to type “computer, confirmed” to lock in a course when the time comes. Let’s play!

The future still uses tapes!

We awake in our bunk on the Starcross with an alarm blaring. In medias res! I have to stand to get out of bed, but I’m told that the alarm isn’t in this room, it’s on the bridge. I poke around my cabin for a bit but only find a “tape library”. I nab it before heading out. You might be wondering why they still use “tapes” in the future, but that question has already been conclusively settled by the sci-fi comedy series, Red Dwarf. The last living Earthling and his pals ended up back in our present in a DVD shop and had the following exchange:
Lister: Hey, what are these things?
Kryten: They're digital versatile discs, sir. DVDs for short. They were very popular at the beginning of 21st century, before they died out and were replaced by what we use now.
Lister: Well, you mean videos?
Kryten: Precisely. Back then no one knew that the human race were utterly incapable of putting the DVDs back in their cases. You can see the point. Over two trillion went missing in just over 20 years. Videos are just too big to lose.

While I’m poking around, the computer is warning me that if I don’t turn off the alarm soon, we’re both going to have a headache. Perhaps there will be bits of sci-fi comedy here as well?

On the bridge, we find the mass detector, a couch, a view screen, plus access to a utility closet. (There’s a space suit and a safety line in there which I grab as well.) The detector has two buttons: a red one and a blue one. I experiment and find that the red one stops the alarm while the blue one spits output onto a printer. I love past versions of future tech! The detector also has a small view screen which simply reads, “mass UM08”. What does that mean? It’s time for copy protection! The printout is included in the packaging:

The futuristic computer screen couldn’t display this?

I do not understand the coordinate system very well, but I know we need to provide three of them: “range”, “theta”, and “phi”. I look for UM08 on the map and try to work it out. Range looks to be 75 (the distance on the x-axis?), theta is 270, and phi is 017. How am I supposed to treat that little direction line next to the UM08 point? Do I need a protractor to play this game? I punch in my numbers just as described in the manual, sit in the comfy couch, fasten my safety belt, and punch it. Game over. I arrive in empty space and the game ends; I must have gotten the numbers wrong. Later editions of the game abandoned the map and just gave you the answers in a table format so I must not be the only person confused. On the next time around, I get UM28 as the code and am able to enter the coordinates successfully. While traveling to our destination, I fiddle with my tape library and get it to play random bits of music or an educational lecture. There’s no “browse” or “search” function that I can find so if there’s a clue hidden on the tapes, I will need to figure it out later.

After waiting a few turns, we arrive at the object and (surprise!) it is an alien spaceship. It would have been more of a surprise if the manual didn’t give that away, but I suppose it’s not a spoiler if it happens in the first few moments of the game. The spacecraft is a cylinder, around 5 km long (3.1 miles) and 1 km (0.6 miles) in diameter. The fore end has a crystal dome. The ship scans us then starts to pull us in with some kind of tractor beam. There’s not much I can do except wait, but at least we get to see more of the ship as we are pulled in and different areas come into view. I manage to spot:

  • A blue dome with something that looks like a spaceship held down by silvery ropes
  • A yellow dome that is damaged and littered with debris
  • A green dome with a long and silvery spaceship tethered nearby

When we near a red area, wires pop out and grab the ship. Unfortunately, since I had taken off my seat belt, I’m killed immediately by the force of gravity as I hurl into the wall. I restore to stay buckled and this time the tethering completes and the giant spaceship is above us. I get that it’s “hard” science fiction, but I’m not sure that random deaths are “fun”. On the other hand, I should not have taken off my belt while the ship was in motion!

Spacesuits may look cooler in 100 years, but this is pretty cool.

I put on the spacesuit and cross through the ship’s airlock, emerging into the “Red Dock” where I find my first obstacle: there is no way into the big ship. The docking area contains a hook that I can tie my safety line to plus a strange-looking sculpture. It has ten bumps on it: the first one large and centrally located, the rest scattered. The pattern is a large one, then four small, then two large, two medium, and then two small. What could it mean? I have absolutely no idea.

After spending some time fiddling with the hook and safety line, I discover that the sculpture reacts to touch: if I touch the first bump, all of the remaining ones retract and the object becomes completely smooth. I have to restore to bring the bumps back and I get the same results for the second and third bumps as well. What does it mean? With only ten possibilities, I brute-force it: when I touch the fourth bump, a new column appears the same distance from the center as the first bump. When I touch that one, the whole thing flattens again except revealing a black rod. Picking up the rod opens the airlock! I pass through a simple outer and inner door (closing the outer one first so as to not let any atmosphere out) and emerge into a red hall way with some wilted plants. There’s breathable atmosphere on the ship and I can take my spacesuit off. The rest of my explorations will have to wait for next week.

This has been interesting so far, but I doubt I’m into the real part of the game yet. I feel bad for “solving” the sculpture using brute force but I bet someone here will tell me that the solution is obvious. I restored a few times and verified that only the fourth bump had that effect. I hope I don’t find all of the puzzles in the game to be this inscrutable…

One final note: the registration in the ship says it was manufactured by “FrobozzCo Astronautics”. That sounds more like an Easter egg than a connection to Zork, but I suspect there will be more soon.

Inventory: Library tape, space suit, safety line, detector output, black rod.
Time played: 50 min

Since this is an introduction post, don’t forget to try to guess the score. Thus far in our marathon, Dungeon scored 41, Zork I scored 35, and Zork II scored 32 points, and Zork III scored 42. Deadline, the Infocom game that immediately preceded this one, scored 45 points. Dave Liebling’s previous game as the primary developer was Zork II; This is his first true solo effort.


  1. The bumps represent the Sun and the planets in the solar system. The fourth bump represents the Earth, and you're from there, so that is the bump to push. Not sure how an ancient alien spacecraft knew that though. It's like the baseball puzzle in Zork II. Nonsensical in the place you find it, but with an obvious solution when you know what you are looking for. I'm pretty sure I got stuck there too.

    Range, theta, and phi are the variables used in a system of polar co-ordinates. Range represents the distance from the point of origin to the target, while theta and phi represent the angle you have to travel on a flat plane to get there and (in 3 dimensions) the angle you have to travel on the vertical axis.

    Wikipedia notes that there is no agreement as yet as to which angle is theta and which is phi....

    1. Obvious in retrospect, thanks! And see: even aliens think Pluto is a planet!

      I absolutely did not catch that it was supposed to represent our solar system and, as you point out, it hardly makes sense that it would. At the very least, it was easy to brute-force so not much of a puzzle at all.

    2. The puzzle with the bumps would probably make a lot more sense if we had a graphical representation, but alas...

    3. With regard to incongruity: I think it's worth noting that you're not inexplicably finding a depiction of our solar system off in deep Heechee space or wherever - the game itself is actually taking place inside our very solar system (just beyond Mars if I recall correctly).

    4. This just raises the question, whether there really are tiny black holes to harness around our solar system and whether their effect to the movement of planets wouldn't have been detected by now - but I guess we'll just have to suspend our disbelief on that matter.

    5. The incongruity is that you find a ship from somewhere else in our solar system, nowhere near Earth, and they want you to identify Earth on a map. Any other alien lucky enough to find the ship, wouldn't have gotten that right especially since you only get one try.

      As I get into in the second post, there is some hint that there's a sci-fi "Dungeon Master" behind the scenes but it still doesn't quite make sense to me that they would even start with this specific puzzle. Are they trying to prove intelligence? Because navigating a spacecraft seems like that would be proof enough.

  2. I don't remember this one well, except that I was disappointed about it because I hoped for another Planetfall. I guess it will end up somewhere near Zork III. Let's say 41.

  3. I guessed too high last time so I'll guess low here - 31.

    And bonus credit for being ahead of their time - a package that would be a perfect fit for a CD long before games were even considered for CDs!

  4. I'm going for a lofty score of... 35!

    I awarded them 5 points for the box alone.

  5. Absolutely AMAZING painted map based on mainframe Zork. Check it out:

    1. Updated version of the map here!

  6. The key on the right side of the diagram says that the line coming off the objects is their vector of motion, i.e. which way they're travelling.

    Looks like the coordinates for UM08 should be Range 150, Theta 210, Phi 017, though those numbers are certainly a lot harder to work out than the coordinates for UM28. Definitely not helpful that the Theta marking is cut off on the page!

    1. I just tried to work it out myself and was going to post my results until I saw you'd come up with the same results I did.

      You need to remember your high school circle mathematics, where range is the radius, theta is the angle in degrees from the top (between 0 and 360) and phi is just some random thing they've blatantly written for you.

  7. As far as I am aware of, this game is loosely based on....(could be a spoiler, so i ROT13 it)

    Eraqrmibhf jvgu Enzn sebz Neguhe P. Pynexr, bar bs gur orfg fpvrapr-svpgvba abiryf rire jevggra. N terng ernq naq n fbeg bs pbzcnavba cvrpr gb guvf tnzr.

    My guess is 41 for the final score.

  8. Oh sorry, Ilmari got 41, I change my score to 42

  9. I had the original edition of Starcross and I never made it past the opening scene because I never managed to read the map correctly.

    I finally played it again years later in Lost Treasures and managed to get through it. That was one hell of a design error which they fixed...

    1. I had the same problem with the Starcross map. I found it very hard to stay oriented and move around. I've still never finished that one.