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This Starflight tonight

The kids are now all grown up, so I am no longer as cash-rich/time-poor as I used to be.

With all three brats at Uni, I am definitely not cash-rich any more, especially since Mrs Fiendish was made redundant late last year. I do have a lot more time on my hands, though, as evidenced by my experience over the weekend.

Saturday was unseasonably warm, and the sort of day which would have demanded a trip to the seaside back when the kids were toddlers; with even the youngest of my progeny leaving the ranks of teenagers this week on his 20th birthday, none of them were up for a trip to the seaside, which is probably just as well, as they all have plenty of catching up to do on their course work.

Old habits die hard, however, and so Mrs Fiendish and I drove to Southend-on-Sea with our children-substitutes: the dogs.

A 100-mile round trip for a 90-minute walk along the beach with the dogs seems a bit excessive, but for various historical reasons, Southend is one of my happy places. It was the place where my parents took my sister, brother and me for day trips; the place where I took my kids and, I hope, will be the place where my kids will take their sprogs if and when they have any.

Mrs Fiendish, having been raised in a seaside town, sees very little appeal in a day by the seaside, but she humours me nevertheless, helped by the bribe of the peerless vanilla ice cream made by Rossi’s (get the scooped ice cream, not the curly gloop that comes out of a machine).

What was once termed as the “Blackpool of the south” is not the East-End-on-Sea attraction it once was; the pier – the longest in the world – is empty, the Kursaal fun fair is long gone, and the amusement arcades seem to be barely hanging in there in this Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii era.

So long as Rossi’s ice cream parlour in neighbouring Westcliffe remains open, however, it will always be worth a visit.

The other sign of me having more time on my hands is a return to serious amounts of time spent on playing computer games. In keeping with the theme of nostalgia, I am starting with the games I already have that I never got around to playing, or which I never completed.

One of these games is Star Control II, a sort of role playing game in a science fiction setting.

My return to vintage gaming was sparked by my transformation from being primarily a Windows user to primarily a Linux user. Great though Linux is, especially if you are trying to breathe life into a 20-year-old computer that you are too stingy to get rid of, it is not exactly a big market for the game publishers.

One of the games I did notice while looking through the Linux software packages was called “The Ur-Quan Masters”. I thought the name was familiar, and sure enough, it is a port of the aforementioned Star Control II.

Though I like Star Control II, it is clearly heavily influenced by Starflight, a Star Trek-style game that was, like Martin Peters, ten years ahead of its time. I like this game so much I have kept a 5.25” floppy drive in the loft just so I could play it again should I ever get the urge. Hard though it is to believe, the game originally came on two 360k floppy disks, and yet somehow they managed to cram a whole universe on those two disks.

As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered keeping that 5.25” disk drive around, for two reasons: one, the game is available for download on numerous abandonware sites; two, when I did download the game and then went looking for the game manual and star map, I discovered that I had transferred the files on the 5.25” disks to 3.25” disks.

The trouble with playing some ancient games on modern computers is that the clock speed of modern computer chips makes the game unplayable, at least when it comes to the occasional action sequences in Starflight. By the time I have instructed my crew to raise the shields, I am usually toast.

Last time I played Starflight, back in the early nineties, I got round this by using some software that slows down the motherboard. Thanks to Starflight fan sites on the web, I learnt the modern way to go these days is by using DOSbox.

Ah, DOS. Time for another digression. Fascinated by the chance to travel back to the eighties and a command line interface (I know what you are thinking, but Linux is a graphical environment these days and I hardly ever use the Terminal command line), I experimented with putting DOS 6.1 on a memory stick, and booting from that on one of my Acer Aspire One netbooks. There was even room on the USB stick for the Starflight files.

As it happened, it was possible to run the game this way, but you still need to slow down the motherboard, even on the low-spec netbook. Fun though it was to mess around with DOS – it is surprising how many DOS commands I can still remember – DOSbox is definitely the way to go.

I reckon I spent about 40 hours playing Starflight before I failed in my mission to save the galaxy. As ever, I got fixated on making money and not on solving the mystery.

I will probably give it another go, but not just yet. To be honest, though the storyline and the open-endedness of the game still hold appeal, the harvesting of minerals from planets does get a bit wearing after a while.

In the meantime, a number of delights await, including various Ultimas, Tunnels & Trolls, various Civilizations, two Railroad Tycoons (like crack cocaine for me), Dune II, a couple of Imperium Galacticas, a couple of X-Coms and, God help me, Championship Manager .

After that lot, I might move on to games made in the 21st century, though that is dangerously modern for me.

Lest you think I am a total loonie, I am not the only person doing this: if well-old computer games are your thing, you are advised to check out the CRPG Addict’s blog.