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StarCraft: A Game That Stands the Test of Time
Some Games Are Just THAT Good
I've got a fairly narrow range of games I will play. I would say I'm more picky than most but I have to confess that there are some titles that lure me in against my better judgement and as much as I want to dislike them, I have to admit defeat and cry out, "You win! You're an awesome game and I enjoy playing you!". Games I thought too immature for me like Pokémon, or too medieval for me like Amnesia became part of my list of personal favorites and StarCraft was no exception. I'm not big on strategy games, especially low resolution, time consuming, difficult strategy games like StarCraft... but it was a hit back in 98 and it did have a sci-fi slant to it so I figured, "What the heck! Let's give 'er". And I did. And I liked it :)
I liked it so much in fact that for several periods over the last decade and a half I couldn't stop playing it. I became somewhat adept in memorizing the stats of every unit and knowing exactly what build order and what timing was necessary to counter a specific enemy strategy. Unfortunately my execution time was a little slow so I had to settle with mediocre win:loss ratios on Battle.net as I struggled to keep my wins just barely higher so I wouldn't get booted from multiplayer games.
All in all though I have to admit there's a potent addiction factor at play and I would say there are few games out there quite as durable as StarCraft. Every time I've walked into my local game store, even though the PC section has all but vanished completely, the one dusty old display box that's never moved is the StarCraft battle chest. The store may not have the real-estate to put a single shelf of PC titles but they can justify keeping a place of honor for that battle chest! So what's Blizzard's secret anyway? How'd they do it? What's so awesome about StarCraft?
Early Game Insurance
Blizzard didn't get ahead of themselves when making this game. In fact they're known to be rather slow with game development but they make no apologies for this and the results are worth it. That's because they establish a set of core principles and stick to them. StarCraft wasn't a complex game, notwithstanding the complexity of the various units but beyond that, it was pretty basic. You've got 2 types of resources, a few main building archetypes, which are largely copied across the 3 races, barring some creative details differentiating them, several intuitive map designs offering a balance of pros and cons for each base location, ground and air units with special abilities and that's about it. The graphics and sound were good enough to represent what they were supposed to but that's it. StarCraft is really just a well designed playground that only comes to life when the human element factors in. That was the game's strength.
One of the reasons the game never got stale was because of how well Blizzard managed to balance the units. Granted each race was fundamentally designed such that every unit and every attack had a counter but given that the units were not carbon copies with different names and textures, it did require a lot of investment to make sure that the game played fairly no matter which race you chose.
Take for example your basic infantry units, the zergling, the marine and the zealot. They are roughly equivalent in the build hierarchy and they are the earliest units you can produce but they have vastly different characteristics, which means that you can't possibly make the game fair by simply trying to balance all the units of a given class. You have to cross-balance units from different tiers and allow weaknesses from different times in the game to become strengths later on and vice versa. It's a rather complex simulation that doesn't come down to matching hitpoints. The marine was the only starter unit that could use a ranged attack AND hit air units. Quite an advantage. Too bad they're so weak, they die with a couple of hits and have no air targets to shoot at early on. The zerglings had even fewer hitpoints but they spawn in 2's and are quite agile. Many naïve players have fallen to zergling rushes. The zealots are stronger than a tank and can decimate a group of marines or zerglings but they're expensive and slow to build. It's easy to pick on something like attack and say the game's not fair but that's not the case. There's a clever workaround for everything, like putting my weak marines behind supply depots or in a bunker until I have something strong enough to defend myself with.
With the release of the Brood War expansion pack, new units were added, which drew some criticism for throwing off the delicate balance of the original game but in time, players just learned to think differently and find new ways to deal with the cheezy exploits that the new units opened up.
A huge part of the game's success hinged on having an online multiplayer network where humans could face each other. It was far more competitive to face a human player who could mock you and counter your carefully prepared strategy. When it didn't work, it caused frustration and a renewed sense of purpose to become better, thus feeding the addiction and keeping the online community well stocked. The single player campaign was really nicely done in my opinion, with the briefings, NPC dialogue and cutscenes adding tremendous depth to what would have otherwise been a redundant and repetitive exercise. As good as it was though, most owners of the game spent the vast majority of their time playing it online against other people. The competitive nature of Starcraft became so profound that entire occupations and tournaments grew out of it, where teams would publicly do battle against each other in front of thousands of passionate gamers and fans. If you browse youtube you can see for yourself how serious StarCraft become for some gamers. The publicity and buzz only drew mor attention and more new players to this now juggernaut of a game.
Which Race Do You Think Is Best?
As I mentioned before, there is pretty much a counterpart in each race for every unit and every building but it's not clear cut. For example, while the Protoss and Terrans have Barracks and Gateways for their starting infantry, the Zerg use their starting "command" building to produce units, which is definitely a sideways move but it's an interesting one because having to build hatcheries every time you want to increase your unit output has drawbacks for one's economy but also simplifies the list of unit prerequisites since all units spawn from the same place.
The dizzying array of fascinating spells that units can cast make fire fights very interesting and intensely challenging. You've got psi storms and emps going off burrowed defilers and nukes flying to and fro. There are parasites spying on you and unseen tanks blasting away from the other side of a river. With all the unique abilities each unit brings to the table and none of them being trivial to counter, you have to be thinking 10 steps ahead of your opponent and if you guess what he's going to do incorrectly, it's a mathematical nightmare of trying to alter your strategy on the fly with mere seconds to salvage the game sometimes. That's what made the game hard for me. I knew everything about what beats what but I couldn't retrieve the information fast enough during play to beat my opponent. It was either, guess right from the beginning and win or get caught with my pants down and lose, which unfortunately has a higher probability of happening. But that's why the game is attractive to people. It sharpens your mind and brings out the fighter in you.
A Basic Terran Build and Tank Push
How Long Will the Legacy Last?
StarCraft's been around for about 16 years now and with StarCraft 2, Blizzard breathed new life into the game so maybe it's got another decade to go before people start to forget about it. Personally I think the volume sold may dwindle eventually but never disappear. StarCraft has left far too much of an impression worldwide for people to simply forget about it. People will be playing it for years to come, perhaps in the privacy of their own houses or with their friends. Heck, Blizzard may surprise us again and release another StarCraft product that will be sure to re-kindle the old flame but it's too early to tell. For now I'm content with the first StarCraft. It's more than enough of a challenge for me ;)