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A Trio Of Indy Space Games

With a fancy mechanical keyboard and computer case upgrade in the mail, I decided to cash in the warranty on my current chair (due to faulty pneumatic cylinder activation and no play in the seat anymore) in order to get a new chair, and somehow ended up with a $250 chair that was marked down to $150.  Altogether, I feel a bit as though I'm living above my means right now... due to three purchases of low-price common consumer goods... I'm just a tad jealous of my own humility right now.

Right, then!  Currently, I'm thinking about the kinds of Sci-Fi space games I've been wanting to play.  I've tried out a few more space games, but I haven't quite found what I'm looking for yet.  I may, indeed, have to make it myself in Game Maker at this rate.

Smugglers V

Here's what Smugglers looks like during combat.  You, them, and only so many action points per turn.
I've heard of the Smugglers series before, but this is the first time I gave one a try.  It's basically what happens when you take the space flight and trading simulator game formula and make it completely turn-based.  You travel to other planets by double-clicking on them.  When you get there, a simple menu-driven interface allows you to buy or sell cargo, meet the governor (a nod to Sid Meier's Pirates!) get missions, upgrade your equipment, and so on.   It works fairly well, but I can isolate a few issues with the game:
  • The name "Smugglers" is fairly terrible in that it's so generic it'll never show up on a Google search.
  • The turn-based combat's randomness is a tad too random.  During the tutorial, I tried to jam the missile that was coming for me 6 times, but failed.  Then I proceeded to miss with my primary weapons several times despite having the "aim" buff active.  Fortunately, you can't lose the tutorial battle, because I managed to lose all my shields against this supposedly easy opponent, and it was all the fault of the dice.
  • Speaking of the tutorial, apparently they replaced the "taunt" ability on the bounty hunter, but the Tutorial is still thinks you have one.  Fortunately, you can progress past that point without having to abort the tutorial.
Either the demo highly under-represents the game, or there's not really a whole lot to it.  All I did was travel from planet to planet, buying low and selling high, which the game makes easy to do because you can see the prices for all the commodities in the star system at any time.  From time to time, a random event navigation point showed up, so I went there and collected the free upgrade.  Time travels very quickly in this game, and my "200 turns" (game days) in my demo game were up rather quickly.

At $30, I think the full version of Smugglers V is a tad too expensive, but it becomes a little more reasonable if you buy the whole series in one go, as you can get the other 4 games (Smugglers I - IV) for just $5 more.  (A discount that may only exist at the time of this writing.)

Flatspace IIk

I have a great deal of respect for the Flatspace series.  I rather like the idea of going 2D with games for some reason - perhaps it's because I've seen what 3D can do for games, and it's really not all that great in terms of game depth.  Well, Flatspace is done in 3D graphics, but it's very much a 2D game, and that's why they call it Flatspace, with lore to match.
Flatspace Let's Play resource: alehks.

Flatspace has everything you need.  A fluid, open-ended arcade environment with a surprisingly good combat balance (at least once you've got some flares, otherwise you're missile fodder).  An open galactic map that is randomly generated every time (it's usually a mixture of asteroids, bases, or none of the above).  A full fleet of ships to upgrade to, including the space stations themselves!  The means to communicate with other ships, mostly requesting their designation or making demands.  Space station docking (menu-driven trading/upgrading/ect).  Asteroids that are, in fact, able to be mined. 

I've only really three complaints about the game:
  1. If you're running it on Windows 7 like I am, you'll want to disable Desktop Composition and Visual Themes on the shortcut.  This will get the game to run, but you'll still miss the cool "wormhole" introductory sequence.
  2. Screen resolution options are very limited, but turns out you can edit the "config.cfg file" to get the exact resolution you want.  (The interface is very minimal so it should work without scaling issues.)
  3. You may end up spending a long time just wandering around hoping another ship will show up - at least, this was the case when I tried to do a bounty mission.  Better sensors help by allowing you to target other ships from further away (which gives you a bearing to them).
The demo is capped fairly heftily at not allowing you to upgrade your ship to another hull, and the full version of Flatspace II costs a whole $24 - quite a lot for a 2005 game!  Well, Flatspace II was 2005, IIk is 2012, although Flatspace IIk looks like more of a minor patch to me (in fact, the technical issues in #1 and #2 above were present when I played it).  Keep an eye out, it seems I just missed a "pay what you want" deal on Flatspace I and II.

Black Market HD

Another game whose very name makes it difficult to find on a Google search, Black Market is a game you can play in Flash over your browser or you could download and play on your computer, Black Market HD.  Despite having HD at the end of its name, it's not actually on the iPad.  A pity: it'd make a great touch game!

Black Market has one of the better Sci-Fi stylings I've seen in any video game, gorgeously animated through Flash, somewhat reminiscent of Protostar or Sins Of A Solar Empire (the Trader Emergency Coalition ships in particular).

But how does it play?  Quite simplistically, actually.
  • When on the overmap, you're pretty much flying around, placing mining drones, scanning areas for free loot, avoiding enemies, ect.  It's all presented via a map with node-based navigation, fairly easy click-to-go-to-destination control scheme.  There's also a larger galactic map with intelligent pathing, but it travels rather heedlessly straight into enemies if you don't interrupt it.  I was surprised in that I tended to run into a lot of asteroids or something along the way which required I visit planets fairly frequently for repairs (which are fortunately dirt cheap and done automatically on docking).
  • When at a planet, you're limited to a menu-driven interface.  There's a difference as to what each planet offers.  Some have ship yards in which you can buy new ships.  Some have places where you buy ship equipment.  Some have places where you can fit equipment.  I'm not saying a planet only offers one service - many of them offer several, some of them all of the above and more.  Surprisingly, not all planets have a market you can buy/sell to.  Although all planets do seem to have a bar you can visit in order to chat up the locals or get missions.
  • When you get into combat, it's an arcade-like experience, but you're pretty much just firing off everything in your hot bar, trying to take down the enemy by focus-firing them.  You can move left and right with (in an awkward choice for a mouse-based game) the left and right keyboard keys, but I'm not sure evasion actually works... combat seems to be more of an RPG in the way it plays out: equipment is what matters, and your character's combat stats are pretty much about unlocking better ships and gear.  That's kind of realistic, if you ask me, because considering the distances involved in space it's not really all that feasible a human pilot's skills matter much.
The game is a bit of a grind, requiring several hundred trips before I can amass enough credits to upgrade to the next ship from the starting ship, but maybe that's just my inexperience at knowing the most effective way to make a profit.  Besides, aren't nearly all of these epic space games grinds, at least when it comes to ship-to-ship upgrades?

I was rather surprised to see that Black Market is not a free game.  If you get far enough into the HD download, they'll offer you a chance to unlock the rest of it for $14.95.  I see there is an "unlock" button visible on the bottom of the flash game.  Otherwise, it would seem Black Market is concealing it's available for purchase at all.

Overall

Though visiting SpaceGameJunkie's blog reminded me of them, I've already either heard of or played these games at some time in the past.  None them are quite as comprehensive as Egosoft's X^3 series or the incredible godsend that was Space Rangers, although I do think they have a certain unique charm of their own.

Black Market somewhat supplants Smugglers, in overall presentation and gameplay, but Smugglers has a bit more depth.  Flatspace in particular is a rather charming game, a ballet of 3d ship polygons with just the right presentation to have a unique taste to it.  Despite its age and compatibility issues with my system, Flatspace is the one of the three reviewed here that I'm most interested in buying.

I think that a couple of really obscure indy games, Prospector and ASCII Sector, are actually a lot closer to what I'm looking for.  Prospector has awhile to go yet before I'd say it's a very cohesive gameplay experience, but the ambition is remarkable.  ASCII Sector would seem to have stopped development, and I'm sort of worried it's courting a cease and desist letter with all the borrowing Wing Commander Privateer assets: put some new names on things, create his own sound effects (SFXR is great for that) and it'd probably be fine.

Well, I think we all know the real solution to my problems: if I'm so picky about my space game feature set, I'll need to get into the practice of creating my own.  I do have Starbound and 0x10c to look forward to, so I suppose I'm not completely screwed if I fail to motivate myself ever.  Then again, failing to completely motivate one's self ever is sort of the definition of completely screwed, isn't it?

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