Elerian adviser saying “The Thinkers have extricated a new technology from the tangled wreck”

Master of Orion

Elerian adviser saying “The Thinkers have extricated a new technology from the tangled wreck”

Retro-gaming is all the rage: the real world seem poised to reproduce Day of the Tentacle, and I bought the remake of Master of Orion. This is not the port of the old dos-era Master of Orion II to run on modern hardware, but a new game.

A few years back, there was a tentative to update the game, called Master of Orion III, while the game tried new ideas, it was really too abstract and no fun to play at all. This time, the game designer went back to the original. Still, Master of Orion is a true modern game, as it sports two features that seem impossible to avoid these days: 3D graphics and paying downloadable content. I could have lived with less of the first and none of the second. A like to play the Elerian, so I had to pay for that privilege.

The first thing that struck me with the new master of Orion is the 3D, you can zoom and pan in the galactic view, the interaction with alien leaders are more natural than simple animations, and the game generally looks nice. The main drawback is that this stresses the graphic card, which on my laptop means a noisy ventilator and quick battery drain. It also means that in windowed mode, the graphics are low resolution (non retina). I’m ok with full-screen games, but not if you have to wait nearly a minute for the alien’s turn to be executed. Master of Orion is not exactly devoid of text, so having low-resolution graphics is a pain.

While the game borrows a lot from its predecessors, the game mechanics have been tweaked. The most significant change is space travel. Solar systems are not just dots, but have multiple planets and multiple warp-points, ships can travel from one system to another if there is a path between two of theses points. Exploration and expansion is constrained by these paths, with the occasional wormhole; there is no notion of fuel range. There is a new type of spaceship, the space-factory, which can build things at the warp-points and on gas giants and asteroid belts.

Building a military outpost at a warp-point prevents fleets from getting in or out of the system, this makes diplomacy and open border treaties interesting. Building StarGates is also much more interesting, they don’t make travel faster, they make it possible, so you colonise systems which are not connected to your empire, and then connect them, even if some other empire controls the space in between.

Spying also has changed: agents each have a name, a level and can have a different mission. They can infiltrate an empire or a precise system. When they are captured, they can be held prisoner and exchanged during diplomatic negotiations. I really like this change, which makes spying a much more interesting strategy.

Leaders are one aspect of the game which has not changed, which I found a bit disappointing. There is master of Orion clone for iOS called Starbase Orion, it has an interesting system for leaders: first they do not apply only with one player, instead there is a bidding system; second, leaders have a richer set of skills than simply giving bonuses, some gave racial abilities, other some technology, other even let you build some special units. Getting one or the other leader would affect the overall strategy. Going back to a system of leaders appear at random and just offer bonuses felt like a step backward.

Still overall I like this new version of the game, and I recommend it to any person who like the original Master of Orion II game. Just wish they would fix the windowed resolution problem.

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Screen Capture of the Game Master of Orion II showing an Elerian spy returning a stolen technology: Neutronium Armor

Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares

Screen Capture of the Game Master of Orion II showing an Elerian spy returning a stolen technology: Neutronium Armor

A mentioned a few weeks back that had released a Mac OS X port of Dungeon Keeper, they have now released , a game from , which was one my favourite games of the time. I already mentioned an iOS clone: Starbase Orion, but this is the original game in its VGA colour glory. The big irony is that there was a Mac OS port, but what is running on my current Mac is not based on that codebase, instead it runs the DOS version within an emulator (DOS-Box), as with Dungeon Keeper the game is neatly packaged as a single, 352.4 MB Mac OS X bundle, with everything included. I bought the bundle that also includes Master of Orion 1 and the soundtrack for $5.99, but it seems it is now sold for $2.99.

In Master of Orion II, you control one species that races to take control of the galaxy. While the species are pretty cliché, the game is interesting because there are multiple modes of interactions with the other species, warfare, spying, cooperation. You can also win the game in multiple ways: total domination, get yourself elected in the galaxy council, or defeat the mysterious people from antares – the annoying guys that randomly pillage your systems and destroy your planets. One interesting aspect of the game is the technology tree, where you can only research one branch, so you typically have to somehow get the other branches, either by trade, spying, or conquest.

Another rich aspect of the game is ship design: different technologies give you different options, which let you design different ships, which in turn let you use different tactics in spatial combat. Sometimes your goal is just to destroy the enemy ships, but sometimes capture is more important, either to get ships for free, or to scrap them and recover the technology they contain.

I mostly playing in windowed mode, and did not try out the network mode. The game is fluid and game play was without issues, I found the music playback choppy at times, but I typically turn it off anyway, so this was not a real issue, in-game sounds work fine. Generally speaking the game feels much faster than on a 486 machine, in particular turn computation. Animations are also much faster, although this means they sometimes look a bit jerky.

All in all, this is a really good port of an excellent game, and I really recommend it to anybody who likes turn-based strategy games.

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Starbase Orion

Starbase Orion Screen Capture

As I stayed home this week-end, I spend some time playing a small game on my iPhone: . This game is relatively direct adaptation of the venerable Master of Orion II game to iOS. The names of the various races and technologies have been changed and a few things have not made the jump, but the game reproduces the gameplay of the old game well and is a fun game, and definitely worth the price if you like the original game.

For comparison, here the main things from Master of Orion II that are missing:

  • Diplomatic exchanges, in Starbase Orion only espionage and sabotage are possible.
  • The Antares planet, and the Antarian raids
  • Tactical combat
  • Some of the race options and some of the more cliché races like the Elerians did not make the cut
  • Some weird technologies, like the gyro-destabilizer

Generally the game is more centred on multi-player games, something which was a technical challenge 15 years ago, but is the main appeal of such games nowadays.
Given the large time gap between the two games, it is interesting to compare the specifications of the minimal machine they need to run.

Master of Orion II Starbase Orion
US Price $5.99 $7.99
Release Year 1996 2011
OS MS-Dos iOS 5
Cpu/Frequency x86/100 MHz ARM Cortex/600 MHz
Minimum RAM 8 MB 256 MB
Disk space 75 MB 54 MB
Screen Resolution 640 × 480 / 8 bits 480 × 320 / 24 bits
Sound chip 22 KHz 44 KHz

This shows that a two year old smart phone has specs that are generally comparable to a PC from 15 years ago. Interestingly, some technological shortcuts from the PC area were avoided, 22 Hz quality sound, palette graphics, no GPU. Systems have way more RAM nowadays and more processing power (GPU + CPU), on the other hand stable storage is much more precious on phones, so the requirement has decreased. Finally, the prices in the table are for buying both games today, so the 15 years old version is only two dollars cheaper than the new software (but this includes two versions of the game). When it was released, Master of Orion II was way more expensive, the economic landscape has completely changed.

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