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Wish Fulfilled: A Week with FTL

Saavik: So you’ve never faced that situation? Faced death?
Kirk: I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.
—Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn

Is there any sci-fi geek of my generation (anyone born in the 70s) who hasn’t wanted a video game to bring the infamous Kobayahsi Maru scenario to video games? Various games have tried. There have been actual Star Trek games that have tried. None that I’ve played have ever quite captured that spirit of crewing and powering and surviving aboard a starship like FTL: Faster Than Light. This rogue-like in space that stumbled into $200,543 in Kickstarter funding, while petitioning for a mere $10,000, is the game I’ve been looking for ever since I first heard Kirk tell Sulu to lock phasers on Reliant and “await my command.”

It’s been a long wait…

Before I descend to full on hyperbole, let’s dispense with the notion that the game is perfect. It’s not a beauty. It’s limited in scope. What plot there is, is best not looked at too closely (or at all). Because you can’t play a crew past the end-scenario or play with custom ship builds, it doesn’t go quite far enough to offer a lasting experience. It screams for an iOS or Android iteration. And it still needs a certain something, even if I can’t quite put my finger on what that something is.

It’s also the $10 product of a two-man operation – Sunset Games’ Matthew Davis (programming/design) and Justin Ma (art/design). I wouldn’t know these two gents if they walked up to me and signed my belly, but it’s obvious that what started off as a flight of fancy, as a “I bet we can do this” project, has turned into something neither could possibly have anticipated. Given that, it’s understandable that the game doesn’t present like something that was funded at 2,000% of its goal. At the same time, what these two accomplished would be amazing to me if they were funded at $2,000,000. (That, if you were wondering, is the beginning of a chorus line of Hyperbole.)

In FTL you are given a starship and an initial crew that’s usually comprised of three our four people that can come from a variety of races, each of which has the usual array of strengths and weaknesses. All ships –there are something like eight, each with a variant model– have a few core systems: Life Support, cockpit, engine room, medical bay, shield control, etc. There are additional systems found on some ship variants by default but that must be installed on others, like cloaking, transporters (for boarding actions), and drone control. All of these systems have some kind of upgrade potential that increases their performance or adds capability. You assign your crew to these positions as you like, which both increases that system’s effectiveness and, as they gain in experience, that crewman’s ability to man it. For example, manning shields incrementally increases its recharge rate.

The goal is clear: You are part of a crumbling Federation, under siege from oncoming Rebel forces. You have information vital to the Federation’s survival and must safely reach your fleet at Sector 8. Each sector is composed of a number of jump points and you jump from point to point and sector to sector. Every stop along the way has some kind of encounter that ranges from exchanging goods with merchants to being attacked by rebels or pirates to helping the locals fight off a spider infestation. (Why must it always be spiders?) Although survival is possible, the game really isn’t so much about survival as it is about seeing how long you can survive. It’s the Kobayashi Maru. That is the challenge and the fun.

I’ve manned the captain’s chair of no less than a dozen starships and only one has both reached the promised land and then survived the final encounter (at which point the game ends). That one successful foray was played on the game’s Easy mode (there are only two difficulty settings). Most of my other attempts have ended in destruction before so much as reaching Sector 5. But then, in the realm of legendary starship captains, I probably rank alongside Jason Nesmith.

Backwash!

What separates FTL from other attempts to crack this impenetrable genre is balance. It doesn’t overplay its hand or try to take on more than its core design can handle. Its UI is simple enough that you can pick it up and understand how to play within minutes. You don’t need a rulebook filled with turn ratios, consumption curves, and hull thickness specifications. You don’t have to learn how to fly the ship because there is no flight control. You don’t have to line up cross hairs or do anything else remotely twitchy. Really, all you do is issue orders, balance power usage, and upgrade your ship. You are The Captain. The Decider. Trust me when I tell you all that keeps you plenty busy.

Power and scrap, the latter of which functions as currency, are everything in this game. Although there are ship systems you can find or purchase, all upgrades require scrap and power. Upgraded engines that improve your dodge chance and speed the time it takes to activate your ship’s Jump capability require you to feed them more power to take advantage of those benefits. Did you add a new ion cannon? I hope you have the scrap parts needed to both enhance the weapons control’s power capacity and your ship’s ability to feed it the power it craves. What’s taken me a dozen hours of play to learn is that trying to fully power every system at once, or even most of them, is folly. You’ll spend all your scrap just upgrading your ship’s power capacity while not being able to afford the actual upgrades needed to survive the range of scenarios you’ll face, not to mention keep your ship maintained (fuel, missiles, drone parts, and armor are all expendable resources you must replenish).

Survival demands knowing when you need a system and when you don’t. It’s easy to turn off a med-bay when the crew is at full health or risk shutting down life support for a few minutes in the name of activating a second weapon or drone, but that kind of thinking will only get you so far. If a pirate is coming after you with a single fire laser and a pair of hull-breaching missile systems, having upgraded and fully powered shields but only stock engines isn’t going to mean much. No, the laser isn’t getting through, but missiles ignore shields and, if you can’t dodge them, wreck both hull and systems alike. This is the moment where you’ll wish you skipped a bigger battery in favor of engine upgrades to which you could’ve diverted power away from your shields. Of course, next time around you’ll encounter a rebel ship that does its damage by sending over a boarding party . If only you had upgraded to security doors when you had the chance, maybe you could’ve slowed the invaders from taking out your ship’s sensors or life support.

Then there is the pain and delight of managing your crew. Having your Rockman put out a fire in the security room or sending your robotic Engi crew member to repair a damaged system is a no-brainer. What about when you’ve vented the ship to repel boarders and only then does life support, which is all the way on the other side of the ship, take a critical hit? (Ship design and system placement also plays a huge role in how you manage your crew.) Somebody has to hold their breath. And which critical post do you abandon in order to repair it? Can you afford to leave the helm when under missile attack or for your weapons to charge up a few seconds slower? And when your ace pilot is killed trying to aid a sick colony do you put off ship upgrades while you look for a jump point with a general store that might or might not have replacements readily available? And even if they do, you’ve still lost half a game’s worth of experience at the helm. It’s a never-ending string of decisions that you have to make and, very often, you have to make them blindly.

This is where the genius of FTL lies. Jump to jump you have no idea what you’ll encounter and, although there is a counter to every attack, there is no way to outfit your ship to handle everything you might face. One minute you’ll wish you had the ability to power more weapons, the next you’ll wish you had saved enough scrap to afford that transporter that would’ve let you send crew over to take out a ship from the inside that that you can’t even hope to scratch on the outside. One minute you sit smugly in your chair knowing a rival can’t touch you, the next you’re cursing the gods as you frantically send crewmen to extinguish a fire and repair a damaged engine that is your only hope of escape. It’s a game of strategic and tactical choices, but it’s also a game of luck. It’s an addicting combination that never ever plays out the same way twice.

FTL may not quite be everything I’d ever wanted from or hoped for in a starship simulator, but it’s much, much closer than anyone else has ever gotten. Matthew Davis and Justin Ma deserve every accolade they receive for this effort, but mostly I just want them to get to work on a bigger and badder version, be it add-on content or an outright sequel. In the meantime, look for FTL as a digital download from either Steam or GOG.com.

Skills Eroded: My Trip to The Las Vegas Pinball Museum

Pinball Museum Las Vegas

I am not a connoisseur of pinball. I can’t recite the history of great tables from the 60s through to the present day or tell you why one table or another is particularly legendary. But that said, I’ve certainly played my share, be it the racing themed machine in the basement of my childhood home (I no longer remember its name), or the steady stream of tables at the bowling alley my dad took me to every Saturday morning, which ranged from Funhouse to Dr. Dude to T2, or the plethora of tables that put in an appearance at the local arcade – Pinbot, Elvira, Star Wars, Twilight Zone and several more I don’t really remember. My favorite pinball machine of them all was the one located in the basement of the student union where I attended Western Michigan University during the mid 90s – Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was good at it too. At least I think I was. I could plug in a quarter and knock that ball around for a good long while.

As I discovered during my trip to the Las Vegas Pinball Museum, if I ever really was good at that game, or pinball in general, I’m certainly not anymore…

I should blame my reflexes for the degradation of whatever skill I did have, or maybe the fact that I’ve not played pinball regularly for 15 years. It’s much more fun, however, to blame Zen Pinball. I’ve written favorably about Zen Pinball on more than one occasion over the past year – both the XBLA and iOS versions. In fact I dumped a good hour of my flight to Vegas into the Captain America table on my iPad. I knew it wasn’t a dead-on balls accurate simulation of the real thing, but I always gave it credit for being reasonably close. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget what real pinball is like. And just how far off the mark the iOS version of Zen Pinball actually is.

It’s been too long since I last played the XBLA version to say this fairly, but in the iOS version the ball is much too light. It’s far too stuck to the table. And the almost instantaneous power of the flippers are absolutely nothing like the unreliable, almost soft flipping, mechanics of the real thing. I’m not sure I’ll look at that game the same way again. In fact, I just picked up the much more authentic feeling Pinball Arcade from the App Store. I haven’t played around with it much so far, but it’s notably more authentic feeling than Zen (and not just because it re-creates actual tables).

Back to the museum.

When some friends and I walked into The Pinball Museum it was a unique feeling; the sort of feeling you get when you cross through the gates of an amusement park for the first time, or catch your first glimpse of the main floor at E3. This is the only approximation I can think of…

The mind reels as it contemplate the very notion that a place such as this could exist. 10,000 square feet loaded to the gills, almost exclusively, with pinball machines of every possible stripe. New. Old. Conventional. Experimental. There’s a machine there, called Pinball Circus, that’s one of only three in existence. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was cool to see nonetheless. I spent my first twenty minutes there just walking up and down every single aisle, taking it all in. There was nostalgia from seeing old favorites that I’d long forgotten playing, curiosity about an era of machines I’d never seen or played, wonder over some of the modern machines that have been produced over the last few years that you won’t find at the local arcade (because there aren’t any more local arcades of any consequence for pinball fans).

By the time I was finished touring I was ready to spend hours pumping quarters into as many machines as I could. Ten bucks in quarters ought to do the trick, especially if I stuck to the less expensive machines from before 2000 (the newer machines cost upwards of 75 cents a play depending on how many credits you put in for at a time; the “older” stuff was typically.50 or three plays for a buck). It’ll be the best value versus time bet I can make in Vegas! I played Pinbot. I tucked quarters into the slots of Black Knight 2000. Funhouse wasn’t working, but I got in time with T2 and Addam’s Family. All the while I eyed the Star Trek: TNG machine, which seemed to always have somebody there playing it already. About 45 minutes later I was down to my last dollar in quarters.

Wait. There was a time when that kind of money (even at 50 cents a play) would have lasted me an entire afternoon. I flailed wildly as the balls went down the middle. I inadvertently set off the tilt trying to keep balls out of the gutters. I would fire off flippers too soon for the shot I was aiming to hit or stare helplessly as a ball rocketed with unexpected speed down a flipper and would already be in the drain by the time I snapped free from paralysis long enough to actually press the flipper button.

What happened to me? I used to be able to do this, dammit! I glanced at the four quarters in my hand and then up where the TNG machine rested, no one in front of it. If there was any pinball game for which I could get my money’s worth in this place it would be that one. I remember taking on its “quests” by the bushel, usually knocking out a couple of them on one ball. Sometimes more if I had a good run. Warp Factor 4. Shuttle rescue challenge. We have engaged the Borg.

Bring it on.

In went the quarters. Three plays of three balls each.

That first game may have lasted a grand total of five minutes. The second one was better. It might have been ten. Maybe I was getting my feel back. The third game was shorter than the first. And just like that, it was over.

I’d love to blame the crappy physics of Zen Pinball, for warping my idea of what that shiny sphere can do as it jets from bumper to flipper to ramp to gutter, and I’m sure there’s an elements of that to it, but the truth is the harmony that once existed between my hands and eyes and brain isn’t what it was. Hello, my name is Todd. I’m 38 and my reflexes are shot. Thanks so much, Pinball Museum, for making that fact plain. Oh, also for being so amazingly awesome and bringing back so many cherished memories. As the T2 machine said as I walked away from it, “I’ll be back.” Next time with more cash in my wallet. It’s still a far better value than anything else you can do in Vegas.