Space Trader: a blast from the past



One of my all-time favorite games is the original Elite. As a kid, I spent countless hours playing it on the Speccy (and its sequel on a PC). But when I tried an open source clone called Oolite a few years ago, it proved much too hard for my grown-up self. Specifically, the flight simulator part, however arcade-like it remains. Not sure how much of that is age and how much is changes in game balance; in any event, it left me frustrated for a while.

Somehow, in all this time I had managed to miss Space Trader, a classic game in the same genre made for PalmOS all the way back in 2000. Should probably try it belatedly, though nowadays the old machine runs out of juice fast when used for anything except reading books.

Luckily I don't have to, because a port of the game was recently added to F-Droid thanks to the wonders of open source licensing. And damn if it's not a great addition to any Android device.

First impressions: the package is of non-negligible size, but not the most bloated out there either. The game starts fast, moves fast, and uses the battery in reasonable amounts. Unless you forget to stop playing, of course. Which is easier than you might think.

Speaking of which: the game surprised me right away with a character creation screen. I simply spread out the points equally, which proved to be an error: you want an extra point in Pilot and Trader at the onset. You're not going to fight any pirates with the piddly pew-pew gun on your starter ship anyway. Might as well be able to run fast. That the second-cheapest weapon is six times more expensive, nearly as much as the first decent ship, is telling.

This is doubly important as without the 3D flight sequences, encounters with other ships are relegated to a dialog box with simple choices like "attack" and "flee". With no strategy in sight, the dice need all the help they can get. Otherwise, the game supports you nicely, pointing out which products sell better in neighboring star systems. It even remembers what you bought something for, in case you can only sell it later.

With shortcuts to only four screens, the UI seemed minimal at first, until tapping the title bar brought up a hefty menu system. There's a lot to the game, including generous configuration settings. All of it should be familiar to fans of the genre though. The game auto-saves, but otherwise it runs on a permadeath system; you can play two captains in parallel however, and there are mitigating features such as escape pods and insurance policies.

Gameplay-wise, there are nice additions to the formula, such as an end goal, quests, crew members, and wormholes for jumping around the galaxy quickly. It can come in handy, as it's about as large as in the original game and travel takes time. You'll want to travel, too, as many worlds are so backward they don't export any product more advanced than furs. A more popular merchandise than you'd expect, as many other worlds seem to be of the snowball variety.

Speaking of which: the setting is whimsical, as befits the soft sci-fi premise, yet thoughtful: there are running themes throughout, like the ship classes named after insects. I'm flying a Firefly right now, and yes, this game was released long before the famous TV series. Its galaxy is quickly becoming a familiar place, with the various regions having personalities of their own. Can't wait to see more of it, and maybe sample some hidden delights not readily available to beginning captains.

For now, I'm just starting to make progress a little faster, and get used to the little details, such as paying attention to reported pirate activity. Not too shabby, after confidently starting on normal difficulty first, without reading any hints. And hey, it can still be fun to play a game that takes many hours to finish. Hardly a problem when you can play in 20-minute chunks, or even less, and you can just go anywhere and do anything the way you like.

Game designers still have much to learn from the past.


Tags: strategy, review