The USS Heinlein, under command of Captain Hikaru Sulu, is missing. You, James T. Kirk, in command of the USS Enterprise on her second five-year mission, have been charged with locating her and her crew. The Heinlein was last known to be in the Trianguli region, a zone with ten star systems containing a wide range of civilizations, cultures, and planetary conditions. You must guide the Enterprise through a variety of encounters in order to complete your rescue. Oh, and you're starting out with a major handicap—the shuttlecraft is damaged and inoperable, and even Scotty can't seem to fix it.
In case you were worried that you might not be up to the task of bringing Sulu home, take heart: in the game world, all of this has already happened. The "Kobayashi Alternative" is so-named because the computer program is meant to be a simulation of a simulation. This mission from the Enterprise's logs is to be used as a new training aptitude evaluation, replacing the flawed "Kobayashi Maru" scenario which Captain Kirk poked holes in years ago.
Star Trek: The Kobayashi Alternative is one of the most unusual text adventures of all time. The mid-80s were a time of tremendous experimentation in computer gaming. With the first wave of truly consumer-oriented 8-bit computers firmly entrenched and coming of age, developers saw an opportunity to pioneer new methods of storytelling, pushing beyond the narrow confines of coin-op twitch action and mainframe-inspired text adventuring.
Most text adventures of the day, even the really good ones, tended to fall flat when it came to speaking to other characters. Many adventures stopped at a simple "talk to man" interface (which often yielded boring "The man has nothing to say to you" stock responses). Some, like Infocom's detective games (Deadline, Witness, Suspect) focused on requiring you to ask xxx about yyy.
The Kobayashi Alternative's innovation was to turn this model on its head. Instead of speech as a sideline, everything the player types into the command window is spoken aloud by Captain Kirk. Movement and the manipulation of objects is accomplished with arrow and function keys. So although you would never type get rock, you might type Spock, scan the rock.
This can actually be fast, smooth, and useful. Instead of an Infocom-esque maneuver which might require:
Take out the communicator
Call Spock with communicator
You can simply enter the universally understood call phrase
Kirk to Enterprise
and someone will answer. (Provided you're near an intercom or have your communicator, that is.)
The catch, of course, is that an 8-bit, two-disk-side parser can't be expected to possibly account for the vast majority of things you might like Captain Kirk to say or ask about. The parser is slow and all too frequently either returns an error chiding you to use proper Starfleet protocol, or even worse, returns nothing at all. (A particularly picky moment comes when trying to access the computer. The syntax computer data spock works, but computer data on spock will silently fail.) The game initially shipped with a command reference card listing most of the useful (and understood) commands, but soon after the publisher had to start including a hint manual for free, with more detailed information and guidance on using the command interface to get things done.
Movement takes place using the arrow keys, and somewhat skimpy feedback about your location based on an X/Y coordinate system (or X/Y/Z in space travel). There are a few really inventive locations in the game, but a whole lot of empty rolling plains with nothing to recommend them. Inventory management is extremely quirky. You can swap out your clothes for casual wear, hot or cold gear, or a space suit while in certain locations by accessing the inventory and pressing the key associated with your current clothing set. There are relatively few objects to collect in the gameworld itself.
Sanity management, on the other hand, is a problem. The sluggish and complicated interface, limited range of responses from your crewmates, and the fact that it is all too easy to get the game into a situation where you simply seem to have no way to do anything make the game extraordinarily frustrating.
There was a noble effort here to give the player the sense that they were truly interacting with the Enterprise and her crew. The key characters of Spock, McCoy, and Scotty were given unique flavors to their dialogue, and the supporting materials which come with the game do a very good job setting the stage. Well-regarded Star Trek novelist Diane Duane was brought in to write the storyline and content, and I can't help but feel that with a variety of other interfaces, the game's content could have been unlocked in a very enjoyable manner. Unfortunately, the quirky approach of The Kobyashi Alternative makes the secrets of the Trianguli region virtually inaccessible to anyone without a tremendous deal of insight, or a walkthrough.
|GRAPHICS - 5/10|
|SOUND - 5/10|
|PLAYABILITY - 3/10|
|The awkwardness and sluggishness of the interface cannot be overstated.|
|OVERALL - 5/10|
|Somewhere in this mess was a truly enjoyable game waiting to be played, but the experimental game engine was a failure.|