Die-hard "Star Trek" fans may remember the franchise's very first game released in 1979, called Phaser Strike, for Milton Bradley's Microvision. Though a far cry from any modern conception of gaming, Phaser Strike still retains the intrinsic relationship with the 1960s "Star Trek" and its vision of the far-off future, now ripe for nostalgia for everything from the early days of television to science fiction's steady influence on pop culture.
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Thirty-four years later, "Star Trek" is returning to its retro roots -- though with a bit of a technological upgrade -- with Trexels. The new video game venture will debut on the App Store Wednesday at 9 p.m. PT (Thursday at 12 a.m. ET) in the form of a $2.99 iOS game for iPhone and iPad. Equipped with an 8-bit art style and a time-shifting plot line, Trexels mashes up the series' later characters from "The Next Generation" with those of the original crew.
"We really wanted to throw the boundaries away and say, 'Look what we really want to do is appeal to a wider range of Star Trek fans,'" said Craig Bolin, who is leading the Trexels project as part of of partnership between his studio, Xcube Games, and social gaming company YesGnome. "We're starting with 'The Original Series' and 'The Next Generation,' but we could easily expand this into all the different series."
The teams were commissioned by CBS, which owns the rights to "Star Trek" (and also owns CNET under its CBS Interactive division) after a series of corporate mergers and acquisitions took "Star Trek" from its original partial ownership under Paramount Pictures all the way to Viacom and its transition into the CBS Corporation in 2006.
The origin of Trexels' goes back to designer John Martz, who in 2010 mashed up the words "trek" and "pixel" for his 8-bit take on the storied television show's wide cast of characters. His limited-run poster featuring 235 of the series' characters took the Internet by storm prior to an appearance at the 2011 MoCCA Festival, a comics expo run by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.
But following disputes over rights to the "Star Trek" franchise, Martz sold Trexels to CBS. "I can't comment on any new merchandise, as anything Trexels-related other than the original art print has been done without my cooperation or endorsement," Martz told CNET. Texas-based artist Billy Zinser, who leads UI and UX design at Xcube Games, took over and expanded the art style to encompass all aspects of the game.
Old meets new
Even for those non-Trekkies out there, "Star Trek" has earned its place as a household name. The franchise has come a long way from its niche sci-fi roots, producing 12 feature films, countless video games, and six television series since the mid-1960s launch of Gene Roddenberry's vision. It recently found renewed mainstream appeal thanks in part to director J.J. Abrams' reboot films, which brought the the series in line with major Hollywood blockbuster standards. With Trexels, CBS Interactive Director of Games Erika Winterholler is hoping to infuse new life into the series by dialing back its aesthetics and introducing new plot material that blends the old with the new.
"We think that with the series' original music, George Takei's narration, and classic 'Trek' scenarios, Trexels brings a truly authentic 'Star Trek' experience to fans' mobile devices," she said in a statement.
Beyond the obvious high point one might find in Takei's voice guiding the player through six episodic sectors, Trexels will be introducing new material into the series' canon, including new alien races and the time-rift plot device that will pull in later-generation Trek characters.
As for gameplay, it will be as much a mashup of genres as it is "Star Trek" plot points and timelines. A good chunk of the game will involve a building mechanic for your ship, where you delegate different tasks to members of the crew to build up resources and upgrade the capacities of the vessel to allow for more exploration.
Exploration is done through nodes on each of the six starting maps. Those can vary from planets to enemy ships to galaxy clusters, and involve different forms of gameplay. For instance, to initiate an eventual storyline mission that completes the area, one must first probe the object and then follow that up with any one of a number of different mini-game components.
"The idea here is each of these planets can be probed than there's a series of different types of gameplay that exist as a stack within each one of these," Bolin said. Once a mission is unlocked, the plot is pushed along through space or ground combat in a real-time strategy style, medical or engineering puzzles, or in text-heavy diplomacy challenges.
Bolin and his team hope the wide mixture of gameplay and the retro-art style will be combine to make an experience worthy of any and all Trekkies, including those just now geeking out on the series' rich history thanks to the Abrams' reboots.
"If you're a slightly younger 'Star Trek' fan and Data was big to you, we want to leave room for that," Bolin said. "The idea is that we can bring together characters from different time periods. There's different 'Star Trek' episodes that give you some inspiration." Bolin referenced the "Star Trek" episode "The Savage Curtain" in which the crew teams up with Abraham Lincoln.
"So there's plenty of opportunity in the fiction of the universe to bring these characters together," he added.
Trexels for iOS is just one step in the pixelated future of the franchise, though the team is focused on mobile at the moment with no current plans to bring the title elsewhere beyond an Android version in the near future. As for additional story content, the app will be continuously updated. "We're also planning a series of free, additional content updates that we hope fans will really enjoy," Winterholler said.
"The entire design Trexels is meant to be the first module in the series," Bolin explained. "In the sense that we've only got 'The Original Series' and 'The Next Generation' characters. But we're planning on wanting to do a 'Voyager' module, a 'Deep Space Nine,' an 'Enterprise,'" he added.
"You only have the first six pages of the comic book."