“The power of the Starship Enterprise is at your command. Cross the galaxies with Warp Drive and Impulse Power. Defend the Federation with Photon Torpedoes and Phasers. Ward off the treacherous attack of the Klingons, the villians of the cosmos!” --
TI-99/4A Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator Manual
The 1970s and 1980s were pioneering days for the video game industry. Paralleling the innovations of home gaming and computing systems was the return of Star Trek in the form of new movie adventures. This parallel makes more sense when considering that it was Star Trek that helped inspire some of the real-world technologies that produced the video game revolution. The shared history of home video game systems and Star Trek is fascinating, and one of the earliest and most popular examples was the porting of SEGA’s 1983 Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator (SOS) vector game to home systems like the TI-99/4A.
Inspired by the Kobayashi Maru sequence from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and sporting visuals related to that training sequence, SEGA released the SOS to local arcades about a year after the film’s premiere. Available in both standing and sitting cabinet designs, the game had the unusual feature of both two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphics on the same screen. Starting with the voices of James Doohan informing players that “You are the Captain of the starship Enterprise” and Leonard Nimoy saying, “Welcome aboard, Captain,” the game challenged players to navigate around space, mines and other anomalies, while protecting starbases from Klingons, UFO flying saucers and Nomad. The game proved popular enough with fans that it was offered for the new desktop computer market (Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64, Apple, and the TI-99/4A are some examples) and the new home video game console systems (ColecoVision, as an example).
The TI-99/4A was the first personal computer available to consumers with a 16 bit processor. Debuting during June 1981 and manufactured by Texas Instruments Inc., this early PC was a breakthrough in technology, especially because of its advanced solid state speech synthesis capabilities. Not only could the TI-99/4A’s games speak, but users could purchase a special headset that allowed speech-to-text and the control of certain game features via voice only. When a user said “run,” for example, an avatar in a baseball video game did as instructed.
Those kinds of futuristic features made the pairing of Star Trek and the TI-99/4A inevitable, especially considering the TI-99/4A’s speech capacities. Unfortunately, technology limitations of the era did not allow for Doohan or Nimoy’s actual voices to be used, but a synthesized voice spoke the same lines and introduced each section of the game with warnings such as “Entering Sector 1.6. Avoid mines, Captain!” The TI voices did have emotion and inflection, adding to the drama of the game.
The TI-99/4A graphics were a close approximation to its arcade inspiration, although not as detailed, with three boxes on screen. One screen provided information about shield capacity, photo torpedo inventory and warp power, and the other two boxes were two- and three-dimensional views of the action.
Interestingly and for no discernable reason, the game manual that is included with the TI-99/4A flips the image found on every other company’s manual and box version using the Klingon perspective-themed artwork. In all other versions, the Klingon phasers are firing from the left, yet with the TI-99/4A version, the phaser beam is from the right. Looking closely, then, the name of the U.S.S. Enterprise 1701 is clearly backwards on the hull.
None of that distracts from the fun of the Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator, one of the first games that allowed players to immerse themselves in the world of Trek and a herald of modern games like the virtual reality Star Trek Bridge Crew. One of this article’s authors, John, had a TI-99/4A and the Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator during the early 1980s. Amazingly, his computer still functions and the game works fine after more than 30 years.
That is engineering that would make Scotty proud!
Maria Jose and John Tenuto are both sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies. The Tenutos have conducted extensive research on Star Trek’s history, and have presented at venues such as Creation Conventions, ReedPOP's official Star Trek 50th Anniversary Convention, St. Louis Science Center, and to the towns of Riverside, Iowa, and Vulcan, Alberta, Canada. They've appeared in episodes of the Netflix show The Toys that Made Us and written for the official Star Trek Magazine. Their research has been featured on BBC Radio, WGN News, CBS News, and in USA Today and WIRED Magazine. Contact the Tenutos at firstname.lastname@example.org