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classic sci-fi time-wasters (2 of 4): Lightspeed

by Rob Friesel

In the first post of this series, I gave a quick introduction to the point of those reminiscent rambling. I’m waxing nostalgic about some older PC science fiction games that I used to play and giving a little thought to what they might be like if they were made more recently. In the last installment, we discussed Sierra On-Line’s colony-building Outpost. This time, we go back a bit further in time to Microprose’s Lightspeed.

Lightspeed was probably the first science fiction “simulation” that I ever played on the PC and it was one of the first games that I saved up my own money to seek out and buy. Granted, when it came out, I was under the naïve impression that it was more of a fighting/conquering game than an exploring/diplomacy game. But in retrospect, this is also one of the things that gave it so much replayability and staying power; come to think of it, I don’t think anyone has really recycled this premise for a newer/updated game1.

Lightspeed screenshot

Lightspeed screenshot

So if the marketing collateral had me falling in love with the scifi/space “simulation” aspect, what kept me coming back was the “meat” of the game — the exploration, the resource gathering, the diplomacy required to negotiate the alien sociosphere… At the time, the only really big disappointment was that there were only two difficulty levels: (1) linear and super-easy with a half-dozen alien species that don’t really interact and (2) insanely difficult, big star cluster with about a dozen alien species that have complex relationships and vastly superior technology and are all really far apart from each other and good luck trying to navigate and find anything useful.

It does beg the question as to what a modern, updated version of Lightspeed would be like.

This is one that I imagine would benefit from some new technology and would still be quite fun to play. First, you should be able to set your difficulty level independent of the size of the star cluster you’re in; you could play a huge star cluster in “easy mode” or else play a small star cluster very aggressively with the difficulty knob turned all the way up. Second, the game could benefit from some randomization factors for increased replayability: select a custom star cluster size (anywhere from a dozen or so stars, up to hundreds of star systems) that then randomly generates their positions (in a 3D matrix, of course) with random distribution of resources and alien races, and then randomly generate which alien races inhabit the map, and further randomize what the relationships between those races are2. Your difficulty settings would (of course) be a big determining factor for things like how many alien races inhabit the cluster, how aggressive they are, how easy it is to find systems with unoccupied resource-bearing planets, etc.

What’s up for debate, however, is whether/not the game would benefit from some kind of research mode that would allow you to manufacture upgrades for your own ship. Trading with the Stentor all the time is OK but it seems like you ought to be able to build an upgraded “spindrive” if you’ve set up enough colonies for metals and radioactive raw materials. Then again, I also get the sense that the lack of this research component was a smart move — it keeps the gameplay simplified. Or if not “simplified” then at least focused on the task at hand: exploring the star cluster, claiming planets for resources, and preparing to phone home and tell the rest of humanity to move in. After all, if we added a research/manufacturing component to the game, wouldn’t that just turn it into Homeworld with aliens?

I’m also not sure that a multi-player component would be worth adding. As I mentioned with respect to Outpost, there are certain science fiction games where the game is “isolated” by design. Lightspeed‘s premise assumes that you are the lone vanguard of humanity in this star system, the fate of the species’ survival resting on your shoulders — and your shoulders alone. You think they called your ship Trailblazer because you’ve got friends and back-up?

What really made this game a winner for me were the alien races. I always loved interacting with them. The game designers really nailed this part of the game — each alien species has a distinct appearance, distinct technology, distinct motivations. After all, they’re alien; they’re not supposed to act just like human beings. The power-hungry Broodmasters with their symbiotic dragonfly caretakers, the arrogant and etheriel Cicisbeo that have “evolved” into genetic perfection, the insectoid Lutin with no concept of past or future… These aliens are what made this one a classic. I’d play an updated version in a heartbeat.

Previously: Outpost

Up next: Privateer

  1. With the exception of Microprose’s Hyperspeed which was basically just “Lightspeed Redux: We Added Some Shit and Gave It A New Box“. []
  2. After all, why can’t the Broodmasters ally with the Jot for a change? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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