We talk a lot about video game preservation and retro rereleases these days — but one part of gaming that stands at great risk of being lost forever is the varied and interesting world of licensed games such as Star Trek: The Next Generation for NES and Game Boy — simply because no-one wants to pay up to re-license these games.
While licensed video games weren’t always the best — on ’80s home computers in particular, they were often quite derivative, unimaginative affairs that didn’t really do justice to their source material — there are a number of occasions where the developers behind these titles really put some effort in. And that’s what we’ll be celebrating in this occasional column: the licensed games that we’re at risk of losing forever, but which really don’t deserve to be forgotten.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was released in 1993 for NES and Game Boy. It was developed by Absolute Entertainment’s in-house studio Imagineering, a company best-known for titles such as A Boy and His Blob and several The Simpsons games for NES. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game only released in Europe and North America, skipping the systems’ native Japan altogether.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation you take on the role of a Starfleet cadet participating in a number of simulated scenarios in the captain’s role. Specifically, you’ll be sitting in Captain Picard’s chair on the bridge of the Enterprise NCC-1701-D, and you’ll have access to the services of a virtual Lt. Worf, Lt. Cmdr. Data, Chief O’Brien, Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge and Commander William T. Riker.
Star Trek: The Next Generation unfolds as a starship simulator in which you play a series of semi-randomised missions in the hope of raising your rank and taking on more complex challenges. You’ll have to order your crew to navigate the Enterprise, orbit planets, track down both friendly and hostile starships, engage in combat, repair and boost various systems and operate the transporters. It initially seems quite complex, but it won’t take long for you to realise that each mission is simply a case of knowing which procedure to follow when.
For example, the first mission you play in the game demands that you pick up an ambassador who is aboard a friendly starship, then deliver him to a planet in order to help prevent a war. This process primarily involves using Data: his interface allows you to warp to the location of the friendly starship and manually pilot the Enterprise under impulse power until you’re within range.
At this point, Chief O’Brien takes over and you play what is effectively a “hot or cold” minigame to beam up the ambassador. Following this, you get Data to warp to the destination and orbit the planet, the latter part of which involves flying the Enterprise through a series of squares in order to establish a stable orbit.
Worf’s role is pretty simple: he can raise and lower the shields, and he can activate or deactivate the weapons systems. There’s very little reason to deactivate the weapons at any time, though you’ll need to lower shields to use the transporter.
Geordi, meanwhile, takes care of any necessary repairs to the Enterprise automatically — though you can tell him to prioritise a particular system if multiple are damaged. You can also ask him to boost power to one of the Enterprise’s main systems, and this leads you to probably the most complex minigame in Star Trek: The Next Generation — a puzzle-like affair in which you need to switch various “gates” in order to lead sparks to the appropriate destination for the system you want to boost.
Riker is almost entirely useless, since his entire function is simply to remind you of your mission objective and tell you the current stardate. Each mission has a time limit, and if you fail to accomplish your objective in that time you’ll be given a new one to try. There are no major consequences for failure — you’ll simply have to give a new mission a go instead of the one you ballsed up.
Star Trek: The Next Generation feels pleasingly elaborate and deep when you first start playing. Imagineering has made a real effort to make the game feel like a proper simulation of operating the Enterprise despite the limited hardware it’s running on — though the longer you play the more you start to feel the game’s limitations a bit.
For example, while in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, the crew would typically default to finding diplomatic solutions, only engaging in combat as a last resort, your only option in a hostile encounter here is to engage in battle. And the battle sequences are deliberately cumbersome and clunky — you’re piloting the deep space equivalent of a massive naval warship, after all — so taking out a single enemy can take quite some time, particularly since Nintendo photon torpedoes appear to completely lack the lock-on facility that their TV series counterparts have.
Some of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s game mechanics could have also done with being fleshed out a bit more, too. As it stands, there’s little reason not to travel at Warp 9 with your shields up and your weapons armed at all times, since there’s no “energy management” aspect to the game besides the “boost” mechanic; you can’t run out of power at any point. If Star Raiders and the classic mainframe Star Trek could incorporate this back in the late ’70s, they could have definitely made it part of a game in 1993 — presumably its omission was an attempt to make the game a little more accessible.
There’s also no real end goal to the game besides ranking up as much as possible — you can’t “beat” the game, since it just keeps going even once you reach Captain rank. That said, once you reach Captain, you do have a chance of coming up against a mission that pits you against a Borg Cube, so you can treat this as the “final boss” if you so desire.
Ultimately, while Star Trek: The Next Generation for NES and Game Boy may pale in comparison to later Star Trek games that attempted to do something similar — 1995’s A Final Unity for PC remains one of the best examples of how a complete “life on the Enterprise” sim could be handled very well indeed — it’s an interesting game worth spending an hour or two with. Its bite-sized missions are particularly friendly to handheld play on the Game Boy — so if you ever wanted to bellow “Engage!” while sitting on the toilet, now you have the perfect excuse to do just that.