Star Scout, a variant of one of the most influential mainframe games

On the 3rd of June, 1969, after 79 episodes and three seasons, NBC cancels the American science fiction television series Star Trek. While the show’s Nielsen ratings were low, it had over the three years gathered an enthusiastic following. In the years to come, the series became a hit in broadcast syndication, remaining so throughout the 1970s, achieving cult status and a developing influence on pop culture including computer games.
In 1971, in his final year of high school, Mike Mayfield, frequented the University of California, Irvine, teaching himself to program. Here he wrote the first mainframe computer game based on the Star Trek television series. Mayfield’s text-based strategy game, simply called Star Trek was written in BASIC on the university’s Scientific Data Systems‘ Sigma 7 mainframe computer.

Alongside the Sigma 7, the university also housed a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-10 mainframe on which he had played Stevel Russell‘s 1962 extremely influential Spacewar! With inspiration from both Star Trek and Spacewar! Mayfield spent his spare time punching in BASIC commands into the Sigma 7, creating a game where the player assumes command of the USS Enterprise, on a mission to hunt down and destroy an invading fleet of Klingon warships. The player could travel through 64 quadrants of the galaxy, locating and attacking enemy ships with phasers and photon torpedoes in battles with the goal to eliminate all enemies within a random time limit. While Spacewar!, unprecedented, had employed an actual display for output and real-time gameplay, Mayfield’s Star Trek employed interaction through a teleprinter, an electromechanical device used to send and receive typed messages and only allowed for turn-based gameplay.

Mayfield rewrote his Star Trek game from Scratch for the Hewlett-Packard 2000C minicomputer in 1972. By January the following year, it was included in HP’s public domain software catalog as STTR1 where it was picked up by David H. Ahl, an employee in the education department of DEC. Ahl ran the Edu newsletter where user-submitted games became was major attraction. He and fellow employee Mary Cole ported STTR1 to DEC’s own BASIC-PLUS language in the summer of 1973, with some additions, and then published the version in the newsletter. In late 1973, Ahl collected many of the game submissions in the book 101 BASIC Computer Games, containing descriptions and source code for many early mainframe games. 101 BASIC Computer Games became a landmark title in computer game programming, and a best-selling title with more than 10,000 copies sold, more copies than there were computers in existence. As a result, many of the BASIC ports of mainframe computer games included in the book, including STTR1, which figured as SPACWR, became the foundation for dozens of variants, and expansions. In 1978, Ahl stated that it was hard to find a computer installation that didn’t contain some variant of Star Trek.

When the personal computer revolution took off in the latter part of the ’70s when fully assembled and turn-key computers became available, early and popular mainframe games like Star Trek, with available BASIC source code, thanks to the effort of Ahl, came to influence numerous programmers, including programmer and soon-to-be editor on SoftSide Magazine, Philip Case, who already had created a few simple games published by the magazine.

In 1979-80 Case spent the better part of a year creating Star Scout, a real-time variant of the now prototypical Trek game. Using both BASIC and assembly language routines, on the TRS-80, he managed to create a well-structured program with graphics, sound, and a save/load routine, all packed into 22Kb.
Case swapped out the USS Enterprise for a small scout ship and the Klingons for Zargonians, a humanoid race, living across the Star Desert, ready to enslave the Confederation. 500 Zargonian ships are on their way and 30 have already taken a position in the Inner Orbits. Your mission, to destroy all 30 ships and visit the 10 space stations, to refuel, repair, reload and retrieve parts for a secret weapon, the Doomsday Machine, able to destroy the Zargonian’s base before all hell breaks loose, all within a certain time limit.

When completed Star Scout was picked up by Scott AdamsAdventure International. Adams had seen much success with his early text adventure games published by TRS-80 Software Exchange and had in 1979, together with his then-wife Alexis, established Adventure International. Besides releasing his own games he started distributing software from other developers, Space Scout being one of the earlier, released in 1980 on cassette and floppy.

Philip Case’s graphical real-time space simulation, Star Scout was picked up by Adventure International and published in 1980
The 16Kb Cassette version, due to memory restrictions, differed from the floppy version by having the galaxy dimension cut in half with only 20 enemy ships to destroy alongside a few other simplifications

Star Scout found its inspiration in the many variants spawned by Mike Mayfield’s original Star Trek mainframe game from 1971. While Star Trek was text and turn-based, using a teleprinter for interaction, Star Scout employed real-time graphics.
All information, like fuel, torpedos, etc is available alongside the edge of the screen. The small center-top window is where the action takes place

Case, in 1980, would continue to update Star Scout from the initial 1.0 version. In 1983, after having worked on a few games published by other publishers he returned to Adventure International to help with game conversions before designing his last game with the company, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension.

2 thoughts on “Star Scout, a variant of one of the most influential mainframe games

  1. I’ve played a number of Star Trek clones, including an early poorly remembered DOS version on my Tandy, but this was a new one! Thanks!

    It is an interesting lineage. Do you know if there was any crossover ever discussed between the early mainframe games here and Empire on the PLATO system? Lots of cosmetic overlap if nothing else.

    1. Thanks, it’s quite interesting indeed. I’m sure there was some overlap.
      I don’t know if Daleske’s Empire was inspired by earlier mainframe games like Star Trek or if it was just the TV series that inspired the theme of the game. Parts of Empire’s design seem very much in line with Mayfield’s Star Trek with added multi-user features from the PLATO system.

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