Back in 1992 I split my gaming time between PC and consoles fairly evenly. I was 11 years old and was willing to try anything that my parents would allow me to install onto our PC. When the hard drive filled up or our computer's specs fell behind what current releases demanded, I would go through magazines trying to find games I might have missed and try and decide what to delete to make room. I vividly remember a friend bring "StarCon 2" to my house, telling me that his older brother had given it to him, but his PC wouldn't run it. Mine probably would, but I would need to clear up some hard drive space first.
After some deliberating on what to uninstall, we made room for Star Control II. I had never even heard of Star Control, but my friend assured me that I didn't need to play the first one to get what was going on. We patiently waited for everything to install while studying the game's physical star map pack in (which doubled as the copy protection). For some reason I really wanted to go and see Procyon, but more on that later.
Star Control II starts with some of the best intro music and story setup for a game from that era. Earth has fallen against the mighty Ur-Quan and has been totally enslaved. In fact, nearly all of the galaxy's inhabitants are either enslaved or at war with the Ur-Quan and their allies. You, a human born on a distant research colony world that has lost contact with earth during the war, are chosen to pilot an alien spaceship back home to find out what happened to earth and to inform them of the colony's current state. Upon arriving, you find the earth sealed under a planet-blanketing slave shield. A small space station ran by humans greets you, and they're quite ready to help you begin the process of starting up a rebellion against the Ur-Quan.
Star Control II is an open-world, wait, no, Star Control II is an open-galaxy game that literally lets you explore hundreds of star systems across the Milky Way. Equipped with planetary landers, you can visit star systems and scour the surface of planets in search for minerals of varying value, alien artifacts, resources, and even other alien civilizations. Your goal is to try to recruit alien species to join your rebellion or at least to lend their support in some manner to help you free earth and the rest of the galaxy from the Ur-Quan. As you recruit a new species, you will gain access to the plans to build their unique starfighters, which you control in skirmishes with the Ur-Quan themselves, hostile civilizations, and malfunctioning AI.
The game is divided into three main gameplay types. First, there is exploration. You are free to explore the starts and planets. Where you choose to go is up to you, but the game gives you slight guidance on good places to check out as you meet new species and learn from them of possible points of interest. Still, you're free to wander all you want, but you do need to follow the bread crumbs at some point to be successful in the game. Eventually I made it to Procyon, and woudn't you know it, there were quite a few surprises there waiting for me.
The second main gameplay type is diplomacy. As you meet aliens, you'll have conversations with them with branching dialog trees. Say the wrong thing and they may cut you off or declare you an enemy. Say the right thing, you might end up with a new ally. Say something in between, and things can be left in a "try again later" sort of scenario. Recruting some aliens may push others away from your alliance, or it might attract more. It takes multiple times playing through the game to experience all the potential allies in the game. Part of the diplomacy goes beyond talk, as you may need to do some fetch questing or prove your strength in some manner. The dialog in the game is clever, fun, and at times layered with cool mysteries.
The third gameplay type in the game is combat. The combat in Star Control II is nothing short of amazing. When you enter combat, you choose from the available spacecraft at your disposal and engage in a top down 1-on-1 fight to the death with the enemy. When one ship is destroyed, you or the enemy can deploy another fighter and continue to fight. When all your ships or their ships are gone, the melee is over. This is where your alliances are so important. Certain ships are much more suited to specific engagements, so you'll want a variety of ships at your disposal. Trust me, you'll want a Spathi Eluder when you start mixing it up with the Ur-Quan Dreadnoughts. This combat mode, referred to as Melee, can also be played in a 2-player head-to-head fashion apart from the main game.
As the game progresses, the Ur-Quan (and later on another huge threat) expand in their influence, but so does your alliance/rebellion. Depending on how you fare in your conversations and interactions with other species, the game will play out differently each time. Some aliens way disappear from the game completely in one play through, while another time they become a major player. Your choices matter, and they shape the journey quite a bit.
While the story has many branches and variances based on how you play, there are a handful of set endings to experience, but they're all great. There's really no reason not to play the game multiple times to experience all that Star Control II has to offer. In fact, this is one game that I play through at least once per year.
Star Control II is hugely influential. Many modern games, such as Mass Effect, have their roots in what Toys for Bob created over two decades ago with Star Control II. And in many ways, Star Control II still does open-world and branching storylines better than even what the newest AAA titles achieve. Now available for free in a totally 100% legal download, anybody can easily experience one of the greatest games of all time for PC, Mac, Linux, PSP, Android, iOS, Nokia devices, and much more. Seriously, go and get this game.
Star Control II is one of those video games that will probably always own a slot in my top ten games of all time. No matter what great stuff comes down the line, and no matter what old gems I discover that I may have missed, there's simply no way that Star Control II will ever get crowded out.