Throwback ThursdayVideo Games

Throwback Thursday: StarCraft (1997)

Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

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There is a key difference between shooters and strategy games, which is comparable to the key difference between a one-night stand and waiting until marriage. That key difference is patience. In a more up-front action game, you get right to the meat of the game and start painting walls with enemy viscera from the get-go. In a Real Time Strategy game, you must also make sure you have a well-developed army of paintbrushes and the right canvas before you can dive into your palette of varying shades of red.

Extended metaphors aside, the throwback game this Thursday is StarCraft, the RTS game that still influences niche pop culture in its own special–yet curiously specific–way. (To all of you who have ever wondered what that “YOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL PYLONS” card in Cards Against Humanity means, it is indeed a StarCraft reference.) This is a complex strategy game with enough of a difficulty curve to test how much potential an adolescent has to become Ender Wiggen at any point in his or her later life.

This is not to say it is exclusively a hardcore game, per se; the lovely part about this one is how accessible it is for the layman. The controls are intuitive, and the unit structure is very straightforward–i.e. build smaller units to buy time to build bigger units so you won’t find yourself re-enacting the battle of Waterloo. Blizzard Entertainment (back in those days before they owned their own proletariat through World of Warcraft) found an early niche in designing RTS games that can be suited to hardcore gamers and newbies alike. The campaign mode is cleverly designed to ramp up difficulty and objectives steadily, until the player has unknowingly become accustomed enough to the gameplay to no longer feel trapped in an alien game (with the exception of the literal aliens).

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Balance is a tricky thing to nail down in this genre, and Blizzard arguably has never topped their simple three-type model on display here (Protoss-Terran-Zerg), which balances so well it could ruin a seesaw’s dreams of entertaining anyone. None of these species feel like carbon copies or mirror images of their counterparts, but all give the player an equal opportunity to devastate their opponent, or to be likewise devastated. The simplicity of the graphics helps, too; it creates a rugged and gritty aesthetic that is far from unappealing. In that department, it works more effectively than its sequel, which, in keeping up with the current trends in science fiction, threw in a bunch more lens flares, inexplicable-yet-aesthetically-pleasing fluorescent lining, and floating chunks of planet.

One of the more inspired choices Blizzard made in designing this game was the choice of lead Developer: Chris Metzen. He is the VP of Blizzard’s story department, and, because of his influence, the game feels rooted in a suitably outlandish but logical sci-fi universe. Metzen’s grasp on plot and character elements prevent the single player from simply being accessory to the multiplayer and keep the game from flying off the rails narratively. While not as talented as the writers working at Bioware, Metzen’s creative influence gives StarCraft’s space opera-inspired plot a weight that allows the player to get absorbed in its fictional universe–proving that these are the people who, for better or worse, represent the gold standard in video game lore and world building.

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A quick aside about the plot–it is cliché and at times predictable, but clever in how it switches narratives in order to give perspective from every side, which adds a nice dash of flavor to the proceedings. The expansion set, Brood War, turns this conceit on its head: the choice of which species you play as in the final campaign is a fiendishly effective one, which gives both games on a devastatingly bleak, open-ended conclusion for the dozen years between this game and StarCraft II. The voice cast is solid, which makes lines of clunky exposition come off without a hitch. The clear standout here is Robert Clotworthy as Jim Raynor, a backwoods marshal who lends an old western charm to a plot that often needs bringing down to earth.

This game requires patience to play, especially towards multiplayer, and if strategy is not your thing, this game will not be. But for those who enjoy a game with endurance and strength, rather than a fast one-and-done shooter, they will find a good match in StarCraft.

(Game available via Battle.net)

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