Nostalgia in Review Part 1: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

Standard

I got the idea for this feature a few weeks ago while flipping through the big CD book where all my old games are. I was smiling at my childhood favorites, remembering how much fun I used to have playing them and wondering if and when I’d ever get around to playing them again, and then it came to me: I could play them and then write about them for the blog!

And that’s when I started thinking about the nostalgia factor, and how it relates to revisiting your childhood, even one as recent as mine. Before going any further I should mention my age, and how it might be on the young side to be writing about nostalgia. As the games I’ll be talking about in this feature will eventually come to indicate, I am, at the time of writing this, only seventeen. However, I feel that that I’m well enough out of my childhood to make revisiting it worth while, especially when it comes to video games (which, as anyone who’s grown up playing them can attest, begin to show their age far more quickly than any other media). For example, where an 8-9 year old movie can easily be just as watchable today as when it first came out, a video game that old would be noticeably and significantly out of date in everything from its graphics (visuals) to its gameplay (controlling the game and moving around the game world).

I won’t go into detail about why video games age so much more rapidly; its been explained elsewhere already and I’ve already rambled long enough, but suffice to say that they do.

The Rules

Before I get started talking about the first game I’ll be doing, I’ll explain the rules I’ve set for myself. There aren’t many, and for the most part there not particularly strict, but here they are.

1: The game must be from my “Childhood”.

For the purpose of this feature I’ll be defining childhood as twelve and younger, I.E. games from 2007 or earlier, earlier releases being preferable for the purposes of seeing how well they hold up over time.

2: I can’t have played the game in question in the past few years.

This means exactly what it says, I don’t want to review anything for this feature that I’ve already revisited in the past few years.

3:  I must go into the game cold.

Meaning simply that I can’t do any research on the game beforehand, I.E. reading manuals, watching Youtube videos, looking at wikis, etc.

4: I must play at least 5 hours of the game.

Again, exactly what it sounds like. I won’t necessarily have the time to finish every game I play for this feature, but I want to be sure I play enough, and I thought 5 hours seemed like a good minimum time.

Well, I think that’s everything. Now on to the feature itself.

Nostalgia in Review

(Note: While I had intended to take screenshots for this feature myself, I encountered technical issues and was unable to do so. Therefor, all screenshots used herein were found via a Google image search.)

The Game: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri: released Jan. 31, 1999: platforms PC and MAC: genre, turned based strategy game: ESRB rating, E for EVERYONE.

Alpha Centauri’s box art

The Nostalgia: (Note: in future installments this section will be written BEFORE I play the game; unfortunately by the time I came up with the final format I had already played several hours of the game.)

By the time I first played Alpha Centauri I was already familiar with the Civalization franchise, having  sunk dozens of hours into Civ 3 already. While Civ 3 (Released Oct. 30 2001) may have been somewhat flashier graphically, I’ve always loved science fiction, and so I remember being quite taken by Alpha Centauri’s somewhat dark sci fi setting.

One of the things I remembered most about Alpha Centauri, and the thing that set it apart from the Civ franchise in my mind, was the eerie sense of place the game had. The creepy, alien, menacing qualities of both the graphics and the landscapes they depicted.

The main menu of Alpha Centauri

The Reality: Simply put, Alpha Centauri is a fantastic game, one that holds up surprisingly well in many ways, while also clearly being a product of its time. The most noticeable sign of aging, and the hardest to overlook, is its unwieldy user interface. The majority of Alpha Centauri’s extensive menu systems are, by today’s standards, exceedingly clunky, unintuitive, and needlessly complex. Even after I readjusted to the old style of the UI, it still took me at least twice as long to perform most tasks as it would in Civ 5, the most recent installment in the series.

Functionality aside, I actually think the menus look fantastic. With the exception of the simple menu that pops up when you right click on the screen to issue orders to units (It looks like the menu that pops up when you right click on your desktop in Windows), the menus all have a simple, gritty, stylistic 80s-90s sci fi aesthetic that I’ve always loved.

Actually, the whole game’s style holds up remarkable well. While the graphics might not be fantastic (The resolution is low and the texture quality is poor) the style they convey is timeless and evocative. There’s a mildly unsettling bleakness to everything that, combined with the nature of a lot of the military tech, always make me imagine several of the various factions are on the verge of losing their humanity and falling down a rabbit hole of bloody warfare and unethical technology.

In fact, Alpha Centauri actually has something of a story to it. Besides the intro movie which sets things up, there are periodic “interludes” of somewhat cryptic prose that tells a vague but intriguing story. A story that I have unfortunately never seen the end of, I being the type of person who tends to get two thirds of the way through a game of Civ and then get bored and start a new game as a different faction.

 The factions of Alpha Centauri, seven all together, are one of its strong suites, and another thing that sets this game apart from other installments in the franchise. While the number of factions is much smaller In Alpha Centauri than in other Civ games, the relationships between said factions are much more dynamic and lifelike. Where as the factions in any given Civ game tend to feel like they react more or less randomly towards each other, the factions of Alpha Centauri feel like they have much more personality, and while the specifics play out differently in every game, certain factions always react each other in the same general manner every time. For instance, Miriam of the Lord’s Believers (in some ways the Gandhi of Alpha Centauri, Civ players, you know what I’m talking about) almost always sets out on a bloody religious war against, well, anyone she happens to be close to geographically.

When the UN goes wrong…

Another, perhaps better example would be the relationship between Lady Deirdre Skye of Gaia’s Stepdaughters and Col. Corazon Santiago of the Spartan Federation. Skye is a nature loving hippie dedicated to protecting the native life of the planet, and Santiago is a militant gun nut who’ll attack anyone she feels threatens her way of life. As you might imagine, these two almost never get along.

As for the gameplay of Alpha Centauri, anyone familiar with the Civ franchise will find it quite familiar. Players begin the game with a single base and a solitary combat unit and a map of the world that extends only a few squares in any direction from their base.

In the beginning…

From there, players are tasked with expanding their empire by exploring the world, building new bases, discovering new technology, growing their army, and improving the lands they claim with farms, mines, solar collectors, roads, and more.

What the game looks like

There are four ways to win a game of Alpha Centauri, they are: conquest, in which the player eradicates and or conquers all other factions;  diplomacy, whereby the player convinces the majority of the other factions to elect him/her to the position of Supreme Leader; economics, in which the player through a mixture of technology and money effectively buys off all other factions; and transcendence, whereby the player progresses far enough down the tech tree to develop the “Ascent to Transcendence” secret project and cause humanity to leap forward in its evolution.

Another picture of gameplay

All in all I think that, providing you can get past the somewhat clunky interface, Alpha Centauri remains one of the best turn based strategy games ever made. It’s certainly still just as fun, and addictive, as any of the Civ games to come after it.

~NekoShogun

More Nostalgia in Review:

The Hobbit

Advertisements

One response »

  1. Dear Nekoshogun,

    Thanks a lot for this review. I’ve been doing the same as you – except for the actual work of writing such detailed and careful reviews. :-) I have recently played Baldur’s Gate 1 for reasons of nostalgia, and I’m currently reliving fun times with Fallout 2.

    However, my experience is that these games, which took so much of my attention when I was 14-18 years old, nowadays (I’m 26) are no longer able to “capture” me for a long time, say for weeks or even months. It’s a bit sad that this is the case, and maybe I should just be more disciplined and play them through. But – having played through the game already earlier -, in my opinion it gets boring fast. Great idea anyways, I hope to read more from your Nostalgia in Review posts, which I find very valuable.

    Cheers,

    P

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s