Orbital Mechanics
by Rohan

So, my recent review of Moonbase: Alpha got me thinking about space games. That is, games set in actual space, with a bent towards realism and hard science over TIE Fighters, lazy beams and reversing the polarity of the… whatever-the-fuck. There’s been a serious drought of these recently.

It’s reached the point where there’s even been a drought of even the fluffy, space-opera style games of late. Used to be we got a new Elite or Wing Commander-style game every few years – now we’re limited to rehashes of Freelancer like DarkStar One and insanely complicated and bug-infested Spread-Sheets-In-Space like the X-series.

We’ve seemingly overshot the era of truly enjoyable joystick-flyable space operas such as Freespace by a few astronomical units, and past hard-science space games by several hundred thousand light-years. But here’s the thing: not all the hard space titles have vanished into obscurity due to archaic platforms and outdated user-interfaces and hardware support. There’s a couple that either still run marvellously on modern hardware, or are maintained in open-source / hobbyist-developed form so they can once again grace our computers.

This article is about some of the hard(ish)-science space games that have survived the test of time, some that haven’t, some newer titles worth looking at, and even some notable failures that did their darnedest and should be commended for trying.

No discussion of manned space flight in video gaming terms could justify existing without a mention of probably the only serious space strategy game ever created – Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space, by Fritz Bronner.

Race Into Space is an incredible and endlessly replayable game from 1993 where you (and sometimes another player via hotseat) would butt heads as the leaders of either the Soviet or United States space programmes from 1955 through to either 1975, or your first moon landing – whichever happened first.

Each turn (two per year) sees you managing finances – allocating money between the various space programmes, training astronauts and planning launches.

The game allows you to follow in the footsteps of NASA and methodically move from satellites to one-man capsules towards the three-man capsule for the moon-landing if you’d like, or try different approaches which in reality never saw the light of day – from sending your two-man Gemini or Voskhod capsules to the moon with tiny one-man landers to going straight for the space shuttle designs.

While still (obviously) a very much simplified model of the kind of decisions and technologies that must have gone into managing space programmes, BARIS does something truly unique – it not only takes us through this process and lets us land a man (or woman) on the moon in our own terms… but it makes it both edge-of-your-seat tense and just down-right fun.

BARIS is an example of a game so good that it couldn’t die. Not only do people still play it in emulators, still play the board game (Liftoff!) it’s based on and maintain fan sites, but the entire game has been rebuilt open-source on almost every platform you can think of as Race Into Space. If you’ve ever sat on the edge of your seat watching Apollo 13, or stared in amazement at footage of the first spacewalks and docking operations… you owe it to yourself to play Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space.

Going back to several years before BARIS, we hit a number of hard-science sims. Just the year before, Activision released Shuttle: The Space Flight Simulator, a highly realistic and therefore staggeringly difficult game in which you, unsurprisingly, get to pilot the space shuttle on various missions.

It’s certainly one for pretty serious space buffs – in fact, the missions take the amount of time they would in real life (so, often numerous days) meaning you have to rely on time acceleration if you don’t want to actually sit on the pad for hours waiting for the final countdown to even begin.

My memories of this game include crashing into objects while attempting to dock, breathing a sigh of relief when I finally hit a low-eccentricity orbit, and nearly falling off my chair in surprise when I first actually landed the shuttle at Cape Canaveral.

Two years later, Microsoft made an effective follow-up / remake of this title called Microsoft Space Simulator. The graphics were much better, and it had a similar level of difficulty (extreme) but really, they covered such similar ground it did seem a little redundant.

These games are hardly worth looking at now unless you’re somebody with a strange interest in the history of space games. Conveniently, somebody has continued this legacy of hard-science space simulators, and has done so in a way that outstrips every sim that came before it.

Not only is Martin Schweiger’s incredible Orbiter space simulator pretty, full-featured, and free… but it’s also extensible. So if you’re tired of playing around in the space shuttle and the numerous fictional vehicles it comes with, visit the Orbiter Hangar and find any number of space craft and space-going objects to play with.

But what if you’re more into the strategic side of space? Find yourself crashing into things despite the incredible emptiness of space putting the odds against you? Was Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space far more your thing?

There are a few other older titles worth inspecting from early on. If you can handle the vintage graphics, a slightly irksome interface (and you can FIND a copy of the game), Project Space Station from Lawrence Holland (creator of TIE Fighter and X-Wing) is a fascinating simulation of the management side of the process of building an orbiting laboratory above Earth.

Along a similar vein is the slightly less-realistic Earth Orbit Stations, which focuses on the construction and management of a privately-funded space satation. So, in contrast to the usual ‘work within a budget’ in PSS and BARIS, you effectively have to sort out your own budget by making your station commercially viable.

A fascinating concept, if nothing else.

As a final entry, in the almost-ran position, we have a strange not-quite-hard-science title which had a cult following even before it was released. It’s a combat/trading space sim which sits as a fascinating spiritual successor to Elite and Privateer, but with an always-functioning world and a dead-hard newtonian physics model behind it.

I’m talking about Terminus, a flawed but noteworthy game released in 2000 by Vicarious Visions which allowed some fascinating space combat to be simulated.

Some high points of this game include being able to customise your ship to an extreme degree – almost literally building it out of an empty hull and turning it into a viable space trading craft. Due to physics being modelled quite well, you also had to take into account the amount of thrust you’d need to generate to move your ship.

In one instance I built a huge freighter, but forgot that my engines would need to push not just my own craft, but also 40+ tons of ore which I might be carrying after a mining expedition to the asteroid belts.

The result of my failure? It took me nearly 15 minutes to get to a useful speed, and a full 15 minutes to stop near enough to the space station to ask for help from a friend.

The game’s story would continue with or without you, and you were directly able to influence the plot by either being there (or not) during key plot events.

Oh, and did I mention it was multiplayer?

It is quite a pity the game fell down in so many ways (low production values and a rather bland story didn’t help) but to this day it sits in my memory as a fairly good happy-medium between hard science and space opera.

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2 Responses to “Orbital Mechanics”

  1. PKD says:

    Awesome post!

    I was always much more of a Deuteros, Millenium 2.2 and Fragile Allegiance type space game than the sims, but I do remember the ZX Spectrum having a space shuttle simulator that I never ever EVER managed to land.

    Still in my defence I was about 7!

  2. Rohan says:

    I never really got into 4X games too much beyond Civ. For some reason, space-going ones never appealed to me as much as ones with a more ‘human’ feel – including, of course, Alpha Centauri, the best of the lot.

    There is a funny irony to me loving space in almost every genre but strategy.

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