When the first Starcraft game was released in 1998, the world was a very different place. The Titanic was rising again on a wave of Academy Awards. Cell phones were expensive bricks with monochrome screens. And an Internet hook-up meant listening to squawks of a 14.4-kbps dial-up machine.
In the dozen years since, Starcraft has become the most enduring real time strategy (RTS) game ever. Sales of the original Starcraft topped out at 11 million units — all the more impressive when you consider that in 1998, the video game industry was still finding its feet and worldwide launches were another six or seven years away. Today, Starcraft is the de facto national sport of South Korea, where top gamers earn as much as star athletes from popular televised shows. And Blizzard — now ActivisionBlizzard — is the biggest video game company in the world.
By 1998, Blizzard was already high on the successes of Warcraft 1 and 2 — both RTS games in which you collect resources, build armies and conquer others — and the fantasy adventure game Diablo. The Warcraft games were relatively simplistic, but helped define an emerging genre. And the fantasy setting of a battle between humans and orcs generated a powerful mythology that culminated in the billion-dollar enterprise that's World of Warcraft.
When Starcraft was announced, many expected it to be Warcraft... in space. In a sense they were right. The basics of the genre needed little change. However, in Warcraft there were only two factions to choose from — humans and orcs — and both sides had armies comprising the same units, just with different animations. The result was a symmetrical match-up with little flexibility and limited scope for tactics.
Starcraft featured a careful mix of units in three factions. There are the humans (Terrans), space colonialists fleeing an overpopulated Earth. They establish a colony in a planet they do not realise is already populated with the brutal Zerg. Before they learn more about the Zerg, the shadowy and technologically advanced Protoss appear, incinerate the planet, and leave before the Terrans can react. Soon we learn the Zerg are part of a formidable collective organism called the Overmind and that the Protoss were acting in self-defence. No side had an obvious advantage and each supports a different playing style. It's a blazingly fast game in which you have to be flexible in planning and strategic management.
This aspect continues in the new sequel, where every gambit is vulnerable to counterattacks by an intelligent opponent, teaching the player to have a dozen backup plans behind every feint. Whether you are a defensive Terran building bunkers to control chokepoints, or a Zerg building a swarm to rush the enemy base, or a Protoss researching technology to keep tactical options open, you need to keep an eye on your borders for clues of what the other side is up to, because you might have to change your entire strategy in minutes.
With Starcraft, and its later expansion Brood War, Blizzard didn't just create a great game, but also a gripping story that many players struggled through the levels to see. For many gamers, it used to be the showcase game — the one you'd show people, mostly non-gamers, to let them know how amazing games could be.
The game rewarded you not with points but with an unfolding story of heroic sacrifice and betrayal. Twelve years ago, when I first experienced Starcraft, I was horrified when Kerrigan was abandoned by her fellow humans to the Zerg horde, and when Tassadar sacrificed himself to the Overmind.
Then there's more. Balancing the armies needs lateral thinking. It allows humans to fight each other through a computer network or the Internet, via Battle.net, which matches you against players at your skill level from around the world. Some of the most skilled programmers — mostly in Korea — have been measured at issuing up to 300 actions per minute, commands you issue to the units in your army, or ordering production at your factories.
Starcraft 2 lives up to the expectations of this following. Perhaps best described as a high-definition update, the game justifies itself for a number of reasons — for nostalgia, for return to a genre in an industry dominated by first-person shooters, and for a game that looks good and sounds great.
It takes forward the narrative but the gameplay does not move far from the predecessor's. The changes are so deftly hidden that it feels both fresh and familiar. But a number of new units turn up the quality of missions.
The game has clearly sold among the old fans — Starcraft 2 sold a million units on day one, July 27. In fact, on the very day of its launch it became the best-selling computer game of 2010.
In 1998, I didn't have a cell phone, my Internet connection was unreliable, and I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was the most irritating man-boy ever. And I played Starcraft. In 2010, I have a phone that's almost as powerful as my computer, an unlimited broadband Internet, and thanks to Inception, DiCaprio might be the coolest hero around. And I'm playing Starcraft 2 — so I guess all's well.
Sathe is founder of the gaming site split-screen.com
Download a copy from Battle.net for $59.90 (about Rs 2,700). It plays only on PCs and Macs