The Game: Captain Picard places Commander Riker – that’s you, by the way – in charge of the Enterprise, which is currently on a mission to find out who is launching terrorist attacks on mining stations in the Aquila solar system. Riker can use the Enterprise’s computer to analyze objects and ships, or to look up Federation data files on the various people involved in the growing conflict. And of course, he can call upon the knowledge and experience of his crewmates for advice, or bring them along as he beams down to the various locales on each planet or asteroid in the game. One thing not at Riker’s disposal is time: the attacks continue, and whoever is mounting the attacks is getting bolder with each attempt. And someone in the Aquila system knows more than they’re telling. (Simon & Schuster Interactive, 1989)
Memories: Though it sailed through some troubled creative waters behind the scenes of its first two seasons on television, Star Trek: The Next Generation was on the receiving end of a remarkable amount of patience from its viewers, simply on the strength of its name. With an unprecedented amount of money riding on a series that was sold directly into syndication rather than to a network, Paramount Pictures was eager to cash in as soon as possible. Even so, the first computer or video game to be set aboard the new Enterprise took some time to complete.
The evidence is clearly on display in the storyline for The Transinium Challenge, published by Simon & Schuster (whose Pocket Books division also happened to hold the exclusive license for Star Trek books). The character of Dr. Beverly Crusher appears in the game, but was gone from the show as of 1989 (though she would return later, but her absence wasn’t expected or accounted for during the game’s development cycle). There are a few other elements of the game bound to drive Trek trivia fans crazy, such as Data’s personnel file showing that his creator was a Dr. Nguyen Soong, and the player’s inability to use the “analyze” function when off the ship (apparently, nobody in the away team ever remembers to bring a tricorder with them).
If the mouse option is chosen, the interface is actually rather nice: it’s easy to immediately get from any game play function to nearly any other game play function at any time. Movement is controlled by a graphical version of the old “obvious exits are east, west, and Dennis” text adventure chestnut; a generic sort of portals for eight-way movement is shown, but movement is only possible where a portal is accompanied by the name of a room in that direction. In combat situations, a special action selector panel takes the place of the similar panel for “peacetime” options. As far as early point-and-click gaming goes, the interface is terribly intuitive (which was the exception rather than the norm circa 1989).
Speaking of “circa 1989,” a big deal was made of this game’s use of images and even short moving image sequences directly from the TV show. In retrospect, it seems a bit goofy – the graphics are all monochrome and very low-res (the game’s top resolution setting was EGA), reminding me a lot of my attempts to do video screen captures on the high-contrast setting with an old specialty Apple II peripheral called ComputerEyes. The animated sequences of which the game’s packaging boasts are seldom even 30 frames total. Longer animated graphics are usually back-and-forth loops of a shorter (10-12 frames tops) sequence, lending a bizarre Max Headroom look to the show’s stars.
The game’s plotline is a little bit byzantine, but the familiar characters ring true (right down to Worf’s eye-roll-worthy assessment of an evasive NPC as being “without honor”), and in true Star Trek fashion, emphasis is placed on finding a non-bloody solution to the problems at hand. If you have Riker respond to a combat situation with all guns blazing, the rest of the crew will chastise him sternly. For whatever fine-grain Star Trek continuity details it doesn’t get right, The Transinium Challenge manages to feel like an early TNG episode.
The conversation engine is the game’s biggest letdown: in some cases you can either agree or disagree in response to some provocative statement… and that’s it. Even Ultima IV was more verbose than that. Balancing that out is one of the better built-in hint/clue systems I’ve seen, disguised as the “consider options” button: Riker’s internal dialogue helpfully nudges the player toward a possible course of action.
Frequently forgotten in the annals of Star Trek gaming, The Transinium Challenge has become obscured by the brighter glow of later titles such as A Final Unity. But this is where gaming in the 24th century began, and it’s really not all that bad.