The Fall and Rise of Space Games
It was PAX South the other week and, as our own Editor can attest, there was a lot of news that came out of the show. However, for me, there was only one item that really grabbed hold of me like the choking grip of a sith lord, and that was the announcement of Homeworld: Remastered.
Homeworld is one of those games I spent an absurd amount of my teenage years playing. I can’t count the nights I stayed up late, eyes glued to my CRT monitor, trying to get past its latest challenge. You can read Editor Matt’s impression of the remastered edition here, but in the interest of summarizing; Homeworld is a three dimensional RTS game where you command the last survivors of a space-faring species by building and controlling a fleet of ships to overcome enemy fleets and a range of deadly challenges.
Despite its groundbreaking visuals and exceptional approach to ship command (it was one of the few RTS’ to let you move ships vertical as well as horizontal), you would have been forgiven at the time for dismissing it as “just another space game”.
You see, once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, almost every game seemed to be a space game. This was the late ’90s, in what some would still call the “glory days” of PC gaming before consoles weren’t anything more then a kid’s toy complete with colourful, childish mascots.
Alongside RTS titles like Homeworld and Sid Meire’s Alpha Centauri were countless space-fighter sims like X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, Starlancer, and the venerable Wing Commander series. All of which were more then enough to meet the gaming needs of any budding Han Solo or (eventually) Mal Reynolds.
It was such an all-encompassing genre that to think of it disappearing almost overnight would have been unthinkable…until it happened. In the first years of the new millenia, space games went from one of the most ubiquitous genres available to being almost completely absent from the marketplace, and once hugely popular games like Freelancer never saw a sequel.
So what happened? Who killed the space genre? Well, not to point fingers… but Master Chief did it.
Ok, maybe that’s unfair, but while Halo:Combat Evolved may not have actually killed space games, it was the herald of the true killer. For Halo was the launch game of the X-Box and a symbol that the age of console gaming had well and truly arrived.
For the ecology of gaming this was practically an extinction level event, forcing games into the harsh embrace of evolution to see if they could cope with their new environment. You see, while relatively simple games like First Person Shooters, Fighting Games, and Third Person Action titles could all thrive on the limited inputs of a console pad, many games that had thrived in the PC days had gotten used to having the range of inputs a keyboard and mouse provide.
In fact, games like X-Wing depended on the keyboard to provide for a dizzying amount of control over every aspect of your ship; from shields to engine power and everything in between. Complex controls like these, to say nothing of the multiple interfaces in your standard PC RTS, became the norm and, like the difficulty of actually assembling a gaming rig, were an intimidating barrier to any newcomer.
So when console gaming became the norm and the action fans left PC in droves, space games ended up on the funeral pyre alongside top-down RPGs and point and click adventures.
This really was a tragedy, as it meant for nearly a decade, avid Sci-Fi fans had to watch graphics and technology make incredible strides with none of it going back into their favourite genre. Not to flog a dead horse, but can anyone imagine Firefly having been and gone without a game if the genre still held the sway it once did?
Of course some of you may have noticed that all those genres share something else besides an untimely demise: all of them have started experiencing a rebirth as HD remakes and indie re-imaginings take on the task of bringing them back from the dead.
This same one-two punch can now be seen working on the space genre, with Homeworld:Remastered joined by the recent X-Wing and Descent re-releases and promising new indie titles like No Mans Sky.
All of these releases are showing great promise so far, and I can’t wait to get my hands on all of them (especially No Mans Sky). Here’s hoping this momentum keeps building so we can once again boldly go where no geek has gone before.
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