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The Ur-Quan Masters

by Howard Wen

When the original developers of Star Control 2 contacted the online Star Control fan community, they presented an enticing question: if they released the source to the 3DO version of Star Control 2 under GPL, would anybody be interested in porting it to modern-day computers?

Michael Martin, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student at Stanford University, answered the call. After removing proprietary 3DO-specific components from the code, the developers released the source for Star Control 2 to the public. Martin and other Star Control fans then organized themselves to port the game to run on modern systems and operating systems. They renamed the project The Ur-Quan Masters, because they do not actually have the rights to the name Star Control.

In November 2002, the fans-turned-developers released an alpha of their port. The current release is still in an alpha state, but it's playable from beginning to end. The only major missing features that correspond with the original 3DO version of Star Control 2 are a user-friendly, in-game configuration system, and content displays. The Ur-Quan Masters is a fully playable port of the 3DO version of Star Control 2 done by fans of the Star Control games. Figure 1 shows the Linux version of the port.

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Figure 1. The Linux version of The Ur-Quan Masters--click for full-size image

"While it's an alpha, it's more stable than many commercially released games," claims Serge van den Boom, a 26-year-old computer science student at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. Among his contributions to Ur-Quan, he developed the Linux port of the game.

The most obvious question is: why port Star Control 2 at all? It ran on Windows 98 with some effort, but rarely if at all on newer versions of Windows without the use of an emulator such as DOSBox. As the project's goals page suggests, bringing the story and game humor to other platforms for the first time was a major reason for the work. As Figure 2 shows, even the original graphics still look nice, though UQM scales them to look prettier at higher resolutions.

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Figure 2. The port features improved graphics resolutions--click for full-size image

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Speaking of graphics, another project goal is to allow people to make their own modifications for the game. There are no plans currently to produce new graphics add-ons, but there are three or four new music packs. Of course, the game will still be playable and fun with the original media files.

"Star Control 2 is generally considered to have been one of the greatest sleeper hits of the early '90s," says Martin. "It also hasn't really been runnable on any system once Windows 98 became standard, and its 1993 console port was to a system, the 3DO, that sank without a trace. Those of us working on the project are all part of its fan base, so the project more or less justifies itself for us." Martin's primary work on Ur-Quan has involved updating the original code's 2D graphics rendering engine.

Additionally, the 3DO version of Star Control 2 contained a lot of extra content and some modifications that made for a smoother gameplay experience. To reiterate, it is the source code of this version that Martin, van den Boom, and their fellow fan developers have used to update for play on modern computers.

Martin and van den Boom spoke with us about the unique process they've been going through in their porting of GPL, formerly closed, code.

Howard Wen: What would you like people to pay notice to most about your Star Control 2 project?

Michael Martin: The game itself. It borrows a number of gameplay elements from earlier games. The Starflight series is the most obvious influence on the exploration segments, and the combat system was explicitly designed as a modernized version of SpaceWar. The synthesis [the Star Control games] created of them has not been credibly--or even feebly--imitated since.

Serge van den Boom: Everyone I know who played Star Control when it was originally released loved it. Anyone who is bored of modern games, which provide little more than fancy graphics, should try it. Those who originally played the game on the PC may want to try [our port] too, as it includes the speech and other enhancements of the 3DO [version].

Also, I'd like to direct your attention to a related project by a group called Precursors. They are remixing all the music of the Star Control game. It was started at the same time as the source was released. We've been in constant contact with them.

HW: For now, what are the technical limitations of your port?

MM: The core code is still convinced that it's running on a 320-by-240 screen. So drop-in replacement of higher-resolution graphics or the like isn't really feasible.

The code also does a lot of rather questionable pointer arithmetic, and as a result is not currently "64-bit clean." Issues have been seen to arise on architectures where structure alignment is a requirement as well.

SvdB: On the other hand, the game is already playable on [32 bit] big-endian systems, like Macs.

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