Review: Star Trek: The Next Generation – Echoes from the Past

Here it is, friends, the special post I’ve been promising.  This is more than just a review—but what makes it special will be near the end.

So you’re picking through old games at the local shop, or you’re clicking through the bargain pages of a web site. Either way, you come across Star Trek: The Next Generation – Echoes from the Past, and you’re pondering picking it up (the version discussed here is the Genesis version; there are some differences between that one and the S.N.E.S. version which we’ll get to in a moment). Sure, you can go off of reviews written when the game was new–but what was cool as a newborn tribble then may be trifling better than a violently epileptic targ now. So how’s one to know? That’s what I’m here for.

Published in ‘Ninety-Four, Echoes from the Past was the latest in almost two dozen titles based on the Star Trek franchise.  The entire series, up through Echoes and beyond, has run any gamut you care to name—genre, platform, reception.  Tactical shooting, R.P.G.-light, somewhat “sim”-esque, and everything else.  You really couldn’t judge just one title by the others—you might not like the one that was all about space combat, but the one with more exploration might be up your alley.  Or maybe the shooter by this developer wasn’t your thing, but that one might have done something more to your liking.

Like most other Trek-based games, Echoes from the Past offered a few interesting things to the dedicated Trekkie, the hard-core young gamer, and everyone else alike.  There were puzzle elements, ranging from easy to ludicrously difficult.  There was a story feeling very similar to Star Trek: The Next Generation yet it wasn’t necessary to know a Picard from a hole in the ground to enjoy the game.  There were some in-jokes and other references that might be missed, but to play the game, to understand what was going on, the gamer didn’t even need to know who Captain Kirk was.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there was a “sibling” title, which was published on the Super Nintendo, known as Star Trek: The Next Generation – Future’s Past.  It was very similar, though there were many notable differences.  First of all, the graphics were a touch better in Future’s Past, but more importantly, the story was a bit different, the order of missions were swapped around a bit, level design was tweaked here and there, and so on.

It was, functionally, similar enough for the gamer who played one to jump right into the other without much mental stumbling, but the storylines being basically the same (and a touch more fleshed out in Echoes from the Past) meant that the gamer who owned the Genesis version didn’t really need to check out the Super Nintendo version.  I’ve never really done much with the Super Nintendo version, which is why we’re going to cover the Genesis version—though it’s fair enough to suggest that if you like the one, you’ll like the other.

Okay, so—over seventeen years have passed since Echoes from the Past hit shelves. How does it hold up?  Is it worth purchasing now?  Those questions and more are what we’re going to explore right now (with plenty of links for anyone not familiar with the franchise).

Game Play
Starting up the game, if you idle at the title screen for a moment you get a decent enough rendition of the opening to each episode, including a surprisingly good rendition of the theme.  It will then go back to the title screen, and there’ll be a loop of title-screen-intro-title-screen until you finally hit Start.  You then read a Captain’s log by Captain Picard, and from there you go to the bridge, where you answer a distress call from a scientist, whom you have to go rescue.

From the start, you’re nicely introduced to the game’s mechanics a little bit at a time.  The interface dealt with while on the bridge is one that will likely be unfamiliar to many gamers today, though I think it’s fair to say that real-time strategy gamers might find it easier to deal with.

From the bridge, you have access to the captain’s ready room (basically his personal office), where you’ll get his thoughts—often given through a Captain’s Log—on whatever you’re supposed to be doing at the moment.  He never really gives any clues as to what you’re supposed to be doing, which occasionally leads to some head-scratching on the player’s part, but thankfully the objectives aren’t really too obtuse, save for the very end.

Anyway, you have access to the transporter, which we’ll get to later, and a row of computer terminals along the back.  You have access to three things, there—Engineering, where you’ll allocate repair resources to different parts of the ship; the computer, where you can save and load your game along with access the library, which itself has a crazy amount of information; and the sensors, which give you nearly useless information about whatever planet you’re orbiting or starship you’re facing off against.  It’s interesting information, to be sure, but nothing really helpful—and thus not anything really useful.

Out of all of those, you’ll be spending most of your time at the Engineering station, since you’ll be getting into ship-to-ship combat now and then.  Speaking of combat, it’s a system that is nicely simple.  Ostensibly a view from the tactical station, there are two screens—a top-down, two-dimensional grid with the Enterprise in the middle, and, above that, a view to the “front”, which is to say wherever the Enterprise is facing.  The latter isn’t really necessary, and something you won’t use hardly at all if at all, but it’s sort of nice that it’s there.

Ship-to-ship combat is, again, rather simple system, letting the player get right into things without having to worry overmuch about what button does what.  The D-pad maneuvers the ship, the A button fires the ship’s phasers, and the C button fires the photon torpedoes.  The phasers only work in medium- to short-range, while the torpedoes can be used from short- to long-range.  Depending on the enemy, though, they may spend a lot of time long- to extreme-range, but that’s not exactly a bad thing.

At the right of the top-down screen, you have an outline of the Enterprise, with various systems highlighted.  They start out green, and go through the spectrum to black as they get damaged.  If the player knew what to do before the first battle, or learned after the first couple battles, they’ll have resources already allocated in Engineering, which means certain systems will be fixed on the fly.  So, staying away from your enemies can actually help you.

Unfortunately, no matter the enemy you face, there really isn’t any difference between them, strategically-speaking.  The only differences between enemies are how fast they go and the damage they deal and take.  Both differences are rather minor.  The real difficulty comes in how many enemies you face at one time.  Near the beginning of the game, it’ll be between the Enterprise and one or two small-time enemies.  By the end, though, you’re facing six or so tough, quick enemies.  On the other hand, you never face more than two at a time, so you’ll always have a good chance of winning.

Next thing you’ll experience in the game is when you arrive to help the scientist.  You have to pick an away team, which is a team of people sent down to a planet or to another ship.  Each team can consist of up to four people, including most of the recognizable members of the cast and a fair amount of random crew (who are actually members of the game’s development team, interestingly enough; their faces were digitized and added to the roster.  Even more interestingly, the members of the development team differ between the Genesis and Super Nintendo versions) who exist mainly just to fill the thing out.

Each crew member is rated in one of four areas: TEC, HEA, TAC, and STR.  There really isn’t an explanation for what they are; I think it’s “technical”, “health”, “tactical”, and “strength”, in that order.  I’m not really sure what they each do, either.  Based on a lot of game play, I think “health” is how much damage each member can take, but I don’t even have a guess for the other three.  There’s nothing really “technical” that doesn’t involve the player putting something from their inventory into something else, I haven’t seen the away team members controlled by the computer act differently depending on the character, and the only combat the away team will get into is with a phaser, so I can’t see where “strength” would come in.

I usually pick characters from the television show, but it really doesn’t seem to matter.  When you beam down to rescue the doctor, you’ll find a few Romulans milling around, and that’s where you’ll get your first taste of person-to-person combat.  Your only weapon is a phaser, which is basically like a laser weapon you’ve used in numerous other video games—a thin beam is emitted in the direction you’re pointed, and it damages enemies.  It’s somewhat frustrating, though, that you can’t fire and move at the same time.  Thankfully, enemies can’t, either, but they can fire, move, fire, and move quicker than you can really keep up.

You can also fire in only eight directions—left, right, up, down, and the diagonals.  Since enemies move about, it’s all too easy—and far too common—to fire right next to an enemy, missing them completely.  This wouldn’t be so bad, but there’s a mission (two, technically, but we’ll get to that later) where you deal with enemies who can fire in any direction.  Since there are a lot of those enemies in that mission, it can feel a bit cheap.

By the end of the rescue mission you’ve been introduced to most of the mechanics you’ll be using for the rest of the game.  There are a lot of subtle variations involved, but navigating through space, ship-to-ship combat, and away teams comprise a large portion of the game, and Echoes from the Past does a rather good job easing you into each of those.

There are some puzzle elements you’ll come across later in the game, though they really don’t get very complex until very late in the game.  Most of the time, the missions you’ll embark upon are finding X while dealing with enemies Y.

For example, there’s a mission where roam through a labyrinthine set of mines.  You actually visit this place twice, but the first time you’re told to go there (you can go there at any time, even before you’re told to) you have to find some miners that were captured by a native life form.  Those things are everywhere, and, inconveniently, so are the trapped miners.  The entire mission is just dealing with these life forms while freeing the miners.

That’s actually what most of the missions involve throughout the game.  There’s an alien ship you have to rescue, and you go through it, collecting parts while dealing with respawning robots.  Then there’s a bit later in the game where you wander around a moon collecting things and defeating robots.  Or a planet where you wander around, collecting things and defeating ambulatory plants.

There’s only really one mission that’s different—one of the very last.  There aren’t any enemies, per se, though there are a few areas that can be dangerous.  It’s actually a rather complex collection of puzzles, which makes for a refreshing change of pace, especially by that point.  Thankfully, the missions are all different enough in setting, from background graphics to enemies, to never feel too repetitious.

Thinking on the away teams, if any member’s health bar gets completely depleted, the entire away team is teleported up to the ship.  There’s a static scene with the ship’s doctor, Doctor Beverly Crusher, examining the person in question, saying he or she needs to be removed from active duty, then there’s a static scene showing Captain Picard in his ready room with Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor, saying that he can’t go on, people are getting hurt, so on and so on.

But, umm—okay, I realize this is a game play element to give the player a sense of danger, a threat looming over their heads.  I get that, and in that fashion it certainly works, but—there’s a fully stocked, bleeding-edge sickbay, basically a miniature hospital.  Why can’t the crew member just be out of rotation—unable to be used on an away mission—until the next time they get to a starbase?

That aside, and speaking of starbases, there are three in the game and you’ll be visiting them now and then.  Once as part of a mission, and the rest of the time to refill your photon torpedo allotment, heal injured crew members, and repair any damage to the ship you didn’t get to.  If you know where they are, you can usually get to one without running into a random ship-to-ship battle, so that’s handy.  Remembering where they all are, though, that’s the trick.  I can only ever remember one, but that’s served me well enough so far.

One small but interesting thing is a subtle way the missions can be different depending on the away team you use.  There’s one where you have to hunt all over a planet-based outpost for a certain person, and the civilians present will react to you differently depending on who’s leading the away team.  Deanna Troi, the empathic counselor, will generally get them to open up more.  It doesn’t really affect the outcome, but it adds a different “flavor” to the mission.

The main problem with the game play is that it doesn’t change much, input-wise, as the game progresses.  The missions don’t feel too repetitive, that’s true, but you also don’t really feel challenged, you don’t really learn anything after the first mission.  It’s not like other games of the era, where you could take what you’d learned early in the game and implement that knowledge in a new and/or just different way near the end.

Still, it’s more than serviceable.  It lets the player enjoy the story and the settings all the more.

While going about their business, the crew of the Enterprise answer a distress call from a Vulcan scientist, who’s under attack by a group of Romulans.  After saving her from the Romulans, they head on their merry way, and soon become tasked to rescue some miners on some moon.  It seems that some alien which looks suspiciously like a horta from the original series episode The Devil in the Dark.

In fact, the entire mission is something like a “stripped down” version of that episode, but it works well enough.  It’s mainly just background for why you’re picking your way through the mines and freeing the miners from what look like giant cocoons.  Anyway, after they rescue the miners, the away team teleports back up to the ship and are soon asked to deliver some medical supplies to a planet.  On the way, they run into a ship just drifting in space, which is obviously not a good sign.

An away team teleports over, fixes the thing up, and in the ensuing conversation with the other ship’s captain, you learn they were on their way to some intergalactic hub-bub, and ask the Enterprise to go in their stead, teleporting over a device that will essentially let you into the party.

Naturally, because it just wouldn’t be right if anything went their way, they have the device, alright—but it needs power.  After running back to the Vulcan scientist, she tells you that it’s powered by two types of ore—which, Picard realizes, is conveniently available pretty much everywhere in the mines that held the trapped miners.

So back the player goes, to traipse through the horta alien-blob-thing-infested mines—unless a player knew this was coming and worked their way through the mines gathering ore before having to go there and save the miners.  In that case, not only is collecting ore a cakewalk, but Picard notes how lucky it was that they’d collected all that ore in the first place.

This is where the plot really kicks in—the few random (and only seemingly random) missions lead into a race against two other species, the Romulans and the Chodak, the latter a species created specifically for this game.

Over all the story really feels like something taken from the television series—you’re in a race against two other species for an ultimate, god-like power that would all too easily shift the balance of power in the Alpha Quadrant—if not the galaxy as a whole—forever.

For a game of its time, Echoes from the Past actually looks pretty spiffy, though the Super Nintendo version is noticeably prettier than the Genesis version.  The bridge looks a bit low-resolution, but that’s to be expected, really.  Like with the “profile” pictures of the crew in the menu to select away team members and in the crew biographies, pictures of the actual cast were digitized, and that rarely looked really great back then.  If this is the first retro-ish game (say a gamer parent or other such relative introducing their gamer offspring to older games), it might be tough to really enjoy the visuals, as they really can’t compare to today’s.  They don’t even float by with “nostalgia charm”, really.

Still, that one, small complaint aside, everything looks really good.  Idling at the Press Start screen gets one a version of the introduction to the television show, which was faithfully reproduced.  It’s actually nice to just idle and watch it, really; it’s not overly long, so it shouldn’t let the player get too fidgety.

The place where the game excels is also the place where it kind of lacks—the away missions.  Aside from being all grid-based, with locations basically built around squares, there are a few recycled locations.  With that said, the locations really look wonderful, really fitting.  The mines look dark and cramped, a jungle looks lush and tropical, so on and so on.  It’s genuinely fun to just walk around.

There’s actually very little palette swap, aside from a few missions settings.  Creatures and such are all sufficiently different, though there’s one small bit of copy-and-paste I noticed.  Two completely separate sets of enemies in completely separate missions with nothing at all connecting them but the player’s involvement use the exact same projectile attacks.  A small detail, and certainly not one to cause any reaction stronger than, “Huh.  Interesting.”

One thing I really liked, easily one of the more interesting bits, visually, is that the screen when controlling an away team is designed to look like a an L.C.A.R.S. screen, otherwise, and affectionately, known as an Okudagram, named after the design’s creator, Michael Okuda.  It’s really an interesting take on it; it doesn’t detract from anything as the things like character portraits and such don’t cover up much of the screen.

Since there are no voices, the player naturally focuses on the music and sound effects, so let’s address them in that order.  There—really isn’t any music, save for the opening theme.  That’s done rather nicely, though the high notes can be a bit shrill.  It’s not too obnoxious, primarily because the higher notes don’t last too long.

That leads us to the sound effects, and they’re very good.  Some sounds I’d believe were taken straight from the television show—things like the fizzle-whoosh-sort’a-thing sound of the phasers, the tinkle-ish of the teleportation, the whoomp of the Enterprise going into warp—they all sound very good.  Then you have the sounds of the various critters and enemies—the high-pitched shriek of certain plant-like things, the beeping of robots.  Very nice there, too.

There’s actually some replay value—the story itself is interesting, again with a definite feel of stories from the series, so it’s worth experiencing more than once.  On top of that, there are a few missions where you can approach them differently.  Granted, the outcome will be the same, but the execution will be a little different.

There’s also one mission that’s mandatory in the Super Nintendo version but optional in the Genesis version.  It’s a pain to get, and a worse pain to complete, as getting the mission requires negotiating a dialogue tree in such ways that don’t really make sense, and if you fail the enemy rushes off, not to be found again.  If you succeed, you take on what is easily the hardest mission in the entire game.  I think I’ve gotten it only a small handful of times in my entire life, and beaten it, like, once.

That said, it is, again, a fun little story, so if one enjoys the television show they should enjoy replaying this game.  Conversely, if for whatever reason one hasn’t watched the show in a long time or has never seen it, this game is a decent enough test.  It’s not a sure-fire thing, by far, that if you like the game you’ll like the series, but it’s likely enough to give it a whirl.

Final Recommendation
So, how does it hold up seventeen years later?  Surprisingly well, actually.  There are plenty of different planets to see, all looking interesting in their own rights, plenty of interesting locations to beam down to, and the puzzles are all interesting, a few with answers hidden in plain sight, in a good way.

While in the realm of Star Trek video games it may not break the top three, it still holds up to this day as a fun video game that asks you to use your brain without cheapening that experience with things like unnecessary and illogical timers.

It’s such a fun game, in fact, that I made a Let’s Play out of it.  It’s my first, so there is definitely room for improvement, but I’ll go into more detail about its creation at another time.  That’s actually the announcement, too—what made this review a bit more special, and because of issues I had with the creation of the Let’s Play, what delayed the review.

Game Play: GOOD
Easy to learn mechanics, a shallow climb in general difficulty that shouldn’t leave anyone feeling too frustrated, and interesting combat that’s easy to get into but leaves the player satisfied.

It’s really like a Next Generation episode recreated for a video game, but even with with different dialogue options it can still feel a little bit too much like it’s “on rails”.

Graphics: GOOD
Everything from the mission settings to the away team to the enemies to the ships look beautiful.  There’s a bit of copy-and-paste with a few mission settings, but it’s uncommon.  Everything fits, everything looks like what it’s supposed to be, whether underground or a jungle.

Sound: GOOD
Whether sound effects taken from the series or sounds for creatures and other such things created new for the game, everything sounds good—everything fits.

Replayability: AVERAGE
There are a few dialogue options the player might want to explore, which, though they don’t ultimately affect the outcome of any mission, let the player learn different aspects to the story.  There’s also one mission, optional in the Genesis version, that’s a royal pain to get and will take multiple attempts just to obtain, much less complete.

Final: GOOD
It can be something of a test; if you like the series, you’ll like the game, and the reverse is likely true as well.  It also offers the player a chance to really control the Enterprise and take her from one star system to another.  There’s plenty to see, and the missions are all interesting, challenging the player’s brain as well as their determination.

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