I've saved the Lylat System from Andross and I've faced off against Dr. Nefarious's orbiting Biobliteraor weapon, but sometimes all I really want to do is launch into a stable orbit. We gamers spend so much time in the cockpits and bridges of Arwings & futuristic starships, firing photon torpedoes & traveling between solar systems at the speed of light, yet we never seem to get behind the controls of an actual real honest-to-goodness space vehicle. I spent my childhood watching in my front yard as NASA launched space shuttles from just a few miles down the road. Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour sparked my imagination in more ways than I can possibly count, and while there's always room in the video gaming world for a fresh Starfox or Ratchet adventure, where are the games based around realistic space flight?
My first computer was a Commodore 64, and in 1987 at the age of six I was given a new "space game": Project Space Station. Unlike the arcade shooters I usually played, Project was a simulation game that challenged players to build a space station in orbit around Earth. Think of it as a SimCity with more hands-on gameplay. Initially players must allocate several billion dollars to the space program, plan which equipment will be required, which staff must be hired, and which space station modules should be constructed first. Once the budget is approved, the player must schedule space shuttle launches with specific crew and equipment to carry to orbit. Over the course of the game players take modules to space one or two at a time and assemble them during brief side-scrolling EVA missions. Once the station has the capacity to house the crew, dock EVA pods, and conduct research, shuttle personnel can transfer to the station to begin working on whichever type of research has been outlined in the budget. Successful research means commercial profits which end up padding the budget. The game ends after fifteen game years with either a successful space station or a mis-managed project. Despite the fact that I never quite knew just what was going on beyond the EVA missions, I loved Project Space Station. The game's realism set it apart from the common "destroy the alien" games of the era thanks to NASA's input during development.
Several years later I moved up to an Intel-based PC and was introduced to Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space. This strategy game carried a similar theme to Project Space Station, but was instead set during the Cold War and required players to beat the opposing nation (United States versus the Soviet Union; players could play as either empire) to the moon. The game's space project starts from scratch and players must allot for research, testing, astronaut selection, and eventually, launches. There is no action-type gameplay, and instead the results of launches and testing play out as news clips that report on events. Although more complex and historical than Project Space Station, I couldn't get enough of the game at the time.
It surprises me that game designers continue to develop fantastic space worlds that tend to boil down to the same elements in terms of space travel. We need fiction, yes, but why not design games based around actual space travel technology? Where is Project Space Station 2000? Where is Race To Mars? Space shuttle launches continue to dwindle as aging technology and safety concerns hamper the program. With the retirement of the shuttle fleet looming ahead, I really want to see at least one last shuttle-based space game hurrah. Like the man said, let me play among the stars.