Stellar Track (Atari VCS, 1980)
The genetic precursor to Stellar Track is a main frame computer game called Star Trek, based on the franchise of the same name. You can read all about the history of the Star Trek Game at Wikipedia. It isn't that I'm too lazy to just paraphrase the entry, (though I am), but I'm more or less trying to keep this about the particular game rather than its history.
When you start a game of Stellar Track you're given a mission screen. Here is an example:
A good beginner's game is recommended in the manual to be between 25-35 Aliens with as many Stardates as you can get. In my experience, those sized games are the most fun.
You exist in a galaxy consisting of a 6x6 grid of quadrants. Amongst the 36 quadrants are the number of aliens you're hunting as well as your two starbases. When you start the game, you don't know where anything is. Here's what your Galaxy Map looks like at the beginning of the game. You can see that it tells you you're located at Quadrant 3,2 (third quadrant from the left, second from the top).
At the moment the only thing you know is that you're in a Red Quadrant which tells you you've got alien ships near by. If you perform a Short Range Scan, you can see them.
(That example is taken from a different playthrough, so don't let that quad coordinate confuse you.) Yes, you're the ship that looks a little like the Enterprise, and your enemies look a little like Klingon starships.
If you found yourself in a green quadrant, you could be more relaxed and take a Long Range Scan to see what occupies the quadrants immediately adjacent to the one you're in. Here is an example of what the galaxy map looks like after I've scanned it from two locations: 3,2 and 3, 5.
You can see that in the quadrants surrounding my scans, there are numbers. A "20" means there are two alien ships and zero star bases in that quadrant.
Later on, from this next scan, you can see that I've found a Starbase, shown by the indicator "01" at quadrant, 6 (across) 5 (down).
The strategic part of this game is being aware that you have a limited amount of Stardates to spend, and knowing that every time you warp from one quadrant to the next, you're burning up a stardate. For instance, warp to a location three quadrants away and you're burning up three stardates. The game demands that you balance searching for aliens with slaughtering them. You also have to consider repair trips to your starbases as well.
Coupled with the strategic aspects of this game are the tactical aspects. When you do warp into a quadrant with enemies in it, you have two ways of taking them out. Weapon 1: Photons can only be fired in a straight shot down a row, column or a diagonal in a quadrant, but are guaranteed to hit and obliterate target in their path. Weapon 2: Phasors are a sort of radial destruction beam that dissipates as they spread like ripples on a pond. They are guaranteed to hit the enemy ships in the quadrant but damage decreases with distance. You choose the direction to fire the Photons, but their main disadvantage is that you may need to scan the quadrant before firing, leaving yourself vulnerable to attack. You choose the power level of the Phasors, the advantage here is that you know you're going to hit whatever is in the quadrant, but you don't know necessarily how much damage you're going to inflict. If it isn't enough, then expect return fire.
Here is an example of a quadrant with no enemies and a starbase in it.
The gray background is indicative of a starbase's presence. To dock at a starbase, just warp on top of it. So, why dock at a starbase?
Well, you use up energy as you travel from quadrant to quadrant (100 units per quadrant), you use it up warping from sector to sector within a quadrant (10 per sector), you lose energy when you are "hit" by the enemy, and you use it up firing phasors (up to 999 units in a single shot, though that's overkill). So, one good reason to visit starbase is for fuel. However, in addition to losing energy when hit by enemies, your various ship functions can be damaged. You can lose your Short Range Scan, your Long Range Scan, your Photon Launcher and/or your Phasors! I have found an effective combat tactic to be warping into the center of a quadrant, and firing off a good sized phasor blast before even scanning the quadrant. This will usually take out two or three of the aliens in the quad. If I waste time doing a short range scan just to see where they are, then they all get a chance to try to damage me after that scan.
This is a game I wish I had discovered back in the day. I'd seen Star Trek on a home computer or two (probably a TRS-80, but I wouldn't swear to it) and was very curious about this type of game. Now that I've found it, while I don't think I will choose to spend a lot of time playing it beyond what I have for this article, I can say that were I to have had this back in the day, it would have been a huge time sponge. Each time you start a new game, depending on where you are in the galaxy, and depending on how many aliens and stardates, you have to plan your strategy differently. There are difficulty switches which control the effectiveness of your shields and your phasors, but I've been keeping them on Novice. Here is what I'm used to seeing when I finish a game.
Which means I suck. However, I find it hard to believe that if I wiped out 60 out of 61 aliens and ran out of time, that we'd still need to surrender to them, but the game needs to have boundaries I guess.
I have gotten as high a rank as Commodore.
I think I've played about a dozen games now, and I've only won once . The highest rank achievable is Admiral and it's based on your use of resources in addition to actually defeating the aliens. Okay, truth be told, I'll probably continue to play until I see an Admiral ranking. So far, I prefer the recommended "beginner" games, with between 25-35 aliens and 35-40+ stardates. The games with less aliens also give less startdates. Since the aliens can appear in quadrants in groups of 1, 2 and 3, with less aliens it's possible to find your targets spread out over the galaxy and hard to reach with the amount of star dates you're given. When you get many aliens and many stardates, you may have plenty of time to track them all down, but it can be a long and tedious process.
I've found screenshots of this game on the webanets, but they'd been taken with an emulator which grabs just a single frame. Due to the programming technique used to display the text in this game, the only decent screenshot is a good ol' fashioned picture of the TV. Here are some of the remaining screenshots.
When you warp into an occupied quadrant, it's good to do so with phasors firing.
This is what you want to see after you've fired some phasors blindly.
By the way, it looks like I've just killed an alien but still have a full compliment of photons and energy. The status displayed here is the status displayed prior to me firing any phasors. To see my current status, I'd have to use the Status command again. The Commands are selected all via moving the joystick left or right and pressing a button to make your selection. It seems awkward at first, but one gets used to it quickly. Programming in warp coordinates also quickly becomes second nature, though I won't get into that here. I do recommend you play this game with the instructions!
The background is green - the quadrant is clean!
This is not an action game by any stretch of the imagination. It is a "thinking" game, and it is a chance to play a game formerly limited to big computers on your itty bitty Atari VCS. While there's little chance of interesting my son in Stellar Track (as long as we've got Spore sitting on our Mac), it has certainly kept me engaged the last few evenings. heheh, 'engaged', that's, like, a warp pun...
Next entry: Steeplechase. Yeah it's another Sears game, why the heck not?
(EDIT Jun 2022: fixed the photo links and associated an album, though I don't know why the TI 99/4a picture is in that album.)