Press A to Boldly Go: A History of Star Trek Video Games

Studios and developers have been creating Star Trek video games for nearly as long as there have been video games. Star Trek games date as far back as a 1971 text adventure written in BASIC by a high school student. Like that other blockbuster space adventure series — what’s it called, it’s definitely “star” something — Star Trek has been the subject and setting of dozens of video games on PC, consoles, and mobile devices. But while The Distinguished Competition has produced celebrated games across generation and genre, Star Trek games have developed a reputation for mediocrity, even among die-hard fans. But is this reputation earned? Is there a great Star Trek game out there?

It’s Fun, Jim, but Not as we Know It

First off, what makes a “great” Star Trek game? This is a two-part question, because as any Trekkie will tell you, “is it good Star Trek?” is an own extremely loaded question that fans will attempt to separate from other media criticism as if it exists on a higher order than something so juvenile as, say, “Film Studies.” Because of its legacy as a platform for progressive social politics and as the inspiration behind countless young peoples’ pursuit of careers in science and engineering, Star Trek carries a burden of expectations that most media entities don’t have. Star Trek is expected to simultaneously entertain and inspire, to educate, to make you think about the world in new ways.

Do all Star Trek episodes accomplish that? Not even close! In fact, many of the most celebrated and beloved installments don’t check any of those boxes. But the absence of some of these markers can be enough for fans to dismiss a work, even one that’s otherwise a critical and financial success, as “Not really Star Trek,” or at the very least, not using the property to its full potential. (This is something most Star Trek products have been accused of doing upon release, only to find acceptance years or potentially decades later.)

If creating an extension of the Star Trek brand is a perilous task even when working within the medium for which the world was built, transplanting it into a still-different medium is even more of a challenge. As much as fans can debate the essential ingredients of a good Star Trek episode or movie, they can at least agree on a few examples as a model and say, “that’s good Star Trek.” And for the most part, the elements that make for a good Star Trek episode don’t map easily onto a video game. Though, it has been attempted…

Star Trek: Judgement Rites
Star Trek: Judgement Rites

Press “Q” to Solemnly Quote Shakespeare to Yourself

Much of Star Trek favors a procedural format — the crew often starts aboard the ship, which encounters a new place or person, either takes aboard some guest stars or beams an away team somewhere to meet them, where they’ll have to resolve a cultural conflict, investigate a scientific phenomenon, or solve some sort of mystery. During the 1990s, multiple studios adapted Star Trek into point-and-click adventure games that aped that structure, essentially letting the player guide the characters through a few episodes.

In Interplay’s Star Trek: 25th Anniversary (1991) and sequel Star Trek: Judgement Rites (1993) for MS-DOS, players start each mission on the bridge of the Enterprise, where the player can interact with the entire classic crew as voiced by the original cast and participate in some surprisingly playable three-dimensional space combat. Then, the meat of the mission begins as Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a rotation of expendable security officers beam down to a planet or space station, where they’ll interact with aliens, collect and utilize found items, and solve some sort of complicated puzzle. Spectrum Holobyte’s Star Trek: The Next Generation — A Final Unity (1995) uses the same structure, but with the titular spin-off’s cast and more sober tone.

These games closely match the style and subject matter of their respective series, and contain the kinds of story elements common to Trek — encounters with ancient civilizations, political intrigue, even some courtroom drama — and at times they’re pretty fun. The puzzles require creative thinking, and there’s often a nonviolent solution to confrontations, a central tenet of the Star Trek ethos. These games plainly meet the prerequisites for “Good Star Trek,” but fail to exploit the biggest advantage that video games have over television — the ability to put the player into the fantasy. It’s neat to be able to maneuver beloved characters through a story rather than just watch them do it themselves, but it’s disappointing to ask yourself “Where am I in this story?” and have to answer, “Nowhere.”

Two more Star Trek point-and-clicks (both released in 1996, both with scripts by veteran Trek writer Hilary J. Bader) attempt to confront that problem by giving the player their own original character with their own perspective and story to tell. In Stormfront Studios’ Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Harbinger, you play a diplomatic envoy charged with investigating the murder of your mentor, with members of the DS9 regular cast playing a supporting role. In the full-motion-video choose-your-own adventure Star Trek: Borg, you’re zapped back in time by pan-dimensional imp Q (John de Lancie) and given the chance to alter history and save your father from his predestined death at the Battle of Wolf 359, an important event in the franchise’s fictional history. Borg manages to be the most fun game of the lot due to the charm of its script and performances, and the way the story’s structure makes the players’ repeated deaths and retries part of the story rather than an interruption. Still, it’s hard to call any video game “great” when the player can only make binary choices at predetermined junctures.

More Trek:

Star Trek: Starfleet Academy
Star Trek: Starfleet Academy

Songs from the Big Chair

Interplay’s 25th Anniversary and Judgement Rites bookend most of their episodes with segments set aboard the bridge of the Enterprise, where the player interacts with members of the bridge crew at their stations and takes direct control of the ship for some quasi-first-person 3D ship combat. In 1997, the studio would expand this minigame to become the center of Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, where the bulk of the game is played from the center seat. Populated mostly by original characters (but with cameo appearances by George Takei, William Shatner, and Walter Koenig, the last time the latter two would don their spacesuits on camera), Starfleet Academy employs full motion video to bring your bridge crew life to life and offers the player the chance to influence their performance and their relationships with each other in playable scenes with multiple dialogue options.

The character scenes in Starfleet Academy, while generally unimpressive, are an attempt to imbue what is otherwise a combat simulator with a bit of Star Trek’s humanist soul, allowing the player the opportunity to interact with their crew as people, and to explicitly stand up against bigotry. The space combat also lets players choose to disable rather than destroy ships, and to defuse some conflicts without having to fire a shot. (For players who would rather just blow shit up, consider the sequel, Star Trek: Klingon Academy.)

The spiritual successor to Starfleet Academy is Star Trek: Bridge Commander (2002), from Totally Games, the developer of the acclaimed Star Wars: X-Wing/TIE Fighter series. Like Starfleet Academy, Bridge Commander puts you in charge of a Federation starship and surrounds you with a cast of original characters, with guest appearances by fan favorites (in this case, Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner). Bridge Commander lets players relay orders to their senior officers, but also take direct, intricate control over helm and tactical for some very satisfying capital ship combat. The detailed ship combat engine has made this one of the best received Star Trek games of all time, and also the longest-lived; Bridge Commander is a heavily modifiable program, and modders continue to add tons of additional ships, missions, and features as recently as 2018.

Bridge Commander’s greatest weakness is that it introduces the player to an ensemble cast, but gives them little to say and no way to interact with them beyond the business of completing the mission. Despite the camaraderie between the crew being one of Star Trek television’s most beloved qualities, there’s yet to be a Star Trek video game that makes managing character growth or relationships a priority.

This issue is circumvented in Ubisoft and Red Storm Entertainment’s Star Trek: Bridge Crew (2017) by placing a real-life person at every bridge station. Bridge Crew is essentially a streamlined Bridge Commander in VR, in which players must communicate and trust each other to complete short research and combat missions. While the variety of missions is limited, Bridge Crew stays fun through rotating between the different available stations (each of which has unique responsibilities), and through the constantly-shifting dynamic as players swap roles and are replaced with other players. Impressive virtual reality sets the stage, but it’s the in-game interaction between players — the ability to shift from playful banter to fast-paced problem-solving to cheers and celebration — that completes the Star Trek fantasy in a way that no previous game has approached. Unfortunately, while the game can be played without VR equipment, this detracts from the experience significantly, and the cost of Oculus or PlayStation VR is a major barrier for entry.

Star Trek: Armada
Star Trek: Armada

Star Trek…That’s the One with Those Wars, Right?

Despite Star Trek’s explicit preference towards peace and diplomacy, nearly all video games based on the franchise are centered around combat, whether it be ship-to-ship or face-to-face. Violence is rarely Plan A on Star Trek television and many Star Trek games pay lip service to that, encouraging you to try other solutions first, even though nearly all missions are ultimately resolved with phaser fire. But just as often, a Star Trek game’s story conditions drop players into all-out war and grant them permission to spare the stun setting.

It’s no surprise that Star Trek has been the inspiration for a lot of space warfare strategy games. After all, the license comes complete with a variety of well-established alien cultures with their own unique starships, aesthetics, and modus operandi. What is a surprise is how many of these games are played on a two-dimensional plane rather than in three-dimensional space. The Starfleet Command trilogy (1999-2002) is an adaptation of a quasi-official tabletop game, which begins to explain why it’s so dimensionally constrained. But Activision & Mad Doc Studios’ Star Trek: Armada (2000) and Armada II (2001) and Bethesda’s Star Trek: Conquest (2007) also use this simplified approach, using a top-down view over what are essentially naval battles on still black seas.

Licensees attempted to mash Star Trek into a number of action game subgenres during the franchise’s boom years. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Crossroads of Time (1995) is a pretty decent side-scrolling platformer for the Genesis and SNES. Star Trek: Invasion (2000) is a space dogfighting game for the PS1 that has more in common with Rogue Squadron or Starlancer than it does with any other Trek game. Star Trek: Away Team (2001) is an XCOM-style isometric squad tactics game.

But the video game genre that ended up producing the best-received Star Trek game of all time is probably the last one you’d expect: the first-person shooter. Activision and Raven Software’s Star Trek: Voyager – Elite Force (2000) was a genuine hit in its day, scoring solid reviews and garnering attention from gamers without a previous investment in the franchise. Elite Force features performances by the entire regular cast of Voyager, but centers upon a concept original to the game: the Hazard Team, basically a SWAT team dispatched on especially dangerous missions during Voyager’s long journey home from the far-off Delta Quadrant.

Elite Force works because it’s a good FPS first and a Star Trek game second, but its Star Trek flourishes are also very well handled, with painstaking attention to the detail and accuracy of its setting, creative use of established Trek technology and lore, and the occasional bone thrown to fans who don’t think Starfleet should ever follow the instructions on the box and “Set Phasers to Frag.” Star Trek: Elite Force II (2003) didn’t make the same splash as the original, but should get credit for including more puzzles and minigames, and for being the only Trek game to date to include a playable romance plot.

Star Trek Online
Star Trek Online

A Continuing Mission

Star Trek’s ubiquity and popularity waned at the turn of the century, to the extent that Activision successfully sued to end their licencing agreement in 2003, after which Star Trek games for Mac, PC, and consoles were produced much less frequently. Bethesda distributed a trio of ship-based games in 2006 and another in 2007. A co-op third-person adventure game based on the rebooted films was released by Digital Extremes in 2013, which was torn apart by critics and personally disavowed by film director J.J. Abrams for its poor quality. Like much of the industry, the Star Trek license has found more prosperity in smaller, cheaper, free-to-play mobile games. There are a number of Trek mobile games on the market, the most popular being the shallow but addictive 4X strategy MMO Star Trek Fleet Command from Digit Game Studios and the quirky character collecting game Star Trek Timelines from Disruptor Beam. Apart from the aforementioned VR game Bridge Crew, Star Trek is no longer the subject of console and PC games, with one major exception.

After years in development hell, the MMORPG Star Trek Online launched in 2010 to tepid reviews. It followed the trend from a subscription-based to a free-to-play model less than two years later, but has continued to regularly expand the depth and variety of gameplay, as well as providing a ceaseless stream of new story featuring guest appearances from across the Star Trek universe. Now celebrating its tenth year, Star Trek Online features 19 “seasons” of story and counting, delving into every corner of the franchise’s mythology and featuring returning cast members from every incarnation of Star Trek, from the late Leonard Nimoy to Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green.

Star Trek Online’s aim is to be the only Star Trek game you’ll ever need. It’s an RPG with a very robust character creator, crew and starship customization, and in-game economy. It’s a 3D space combat simulator with better pacing and spacial awareness and more manageable controls than any of its predecessors. STO’s ground combat isn’t nearly as smooth and feels about as out of place here as in any other Star Trek game, but what Star Trek Online offers that no other game can is the freedom to wander and explore the massive Star Trek universe, not just for missions but purely for the joy of exploration and discovery. More than anything else, the trait that separates Star Trek Online from other Trek games is the sense of scale and wonder that is so important to the series.

Star Trek Online is largely an exercise in fanservice, but it’s a very sincere and effective one. It’s more concerned with piggy-backing off concepts and characters from the franchises’ five-decade history than it is with breaking new ground or provoking big thoughts, and it’s certainly unlikely to inspire anyone to pursue a greater education in science or philosophy. To date, no Star Trek game has accomplished this. For a top-shelf space sci-fi experience containing all the expected messages about cooperation, ethics, and diversity, there’s still no better Star Trek game than Mass Effect. But while no individual Star Trek game fully lives up to the potential of the name, collectively they offer a variety of avenues for a fan to place themselves at the center of the grand Human Adventure.

P.S.: Let me know if anyone is interested in developing my ideal Star Trek game, which is basically a dating sim in which you try to convince your favorite Starfleet captain to adopt you.