I’m loving the current trend of old games getting polished up and ported to new platforms. It exposes new audiences to ideas that maybe don’t get the due they deserve nowadays, dishes out nostalgia to fans of the original, and explores how old-school gaming can adapt to the pick-up-and-play modern world.
But it’s not often one of my old favorites gets a reboot. Galactic conquest game Spaceward Ho! was a mainstay on the Mac in the 90s, burning through five major revisions over 13 years and helping pave the way for the likes of Mater of Orion and Gazillionaire, and now it’s been resurrected for Android. Let’s see how classic holds up.
Spaceward Ho! puts a quirky turn-based twist on the 4X — explore, expand, exploit, exterminate — space genre, plonking you down in a hostile galaxy with a single colony planet and a couple of scout ships. Your goal is to eliminate the rival (computer-controlled) players, of which there could be anywhere from one to eight, and grow your galactic empire.
It all plays out on a simple 2D map, with cartoony-looking planets — each colony is represented by a hat the color of its owner — starkly outlined by a dense blackness. Spaceward Ho! isn’t the prettiest game around, especially given that its low-budget, yet personable, graphics have barely advanced since its last Mac release 10 years ago, but the relatively spartan visuals emphasize the depth of gameplay.
Ships cost money and metal. Metal must be mined from planets or scrapped from existing ships, while money comes from your colonies. Planets need to be terraformed before they can become profitable colonies, with an ideal temperature for each race. If a planet’s gravity is below 0.4G or above 2.5G, it will never turn a profit — strip-mine it and get out.
There’s only a finite supply of metal in the galaxy — which may be tiny or colossal, depending on your start settings — so it won’t be long before you brush up against rival players in a deathly arms race. Spaceward Ho!’s tense end-game of desperate battles for scant resources avoids the pitfalls of many games in the genre, keeping you engaged right to the very end.
Expect to be savagely beaten early on, and each time you choose to ramp up the difficulty — the computer opponents are no pushover, and their relentless aggression tricks you into a losing strategy where you spread defenses too thin and counter rashly.
You can spend money on technological research that enables building of better ships — improving Range, Speed, Weapons, Shields, and Miniaturization (use less metal) — as well as “radical” research that results in major advances in all sorts of areas of your interplanetary empire. You cannot upgrade ships, but they can be scrapped for metal.
Adjusting the distribution of spending here involves tapping on pseudo-logarithmic bars. It’s a fairly imprecise exercise, but you can see at a glance which technologies are emphasized in research, which colonies are getting the most investment, and what proportion of income you’re burrowing away in savings.
The first ship built with a given set of attributes costs significantly more (in metal as well as money) than any identical future crafts, pressing you to be smarter and more economical about making use of technological advances. It’s often better to stick with ship types for longer, and to be frugal in allocating income to mining/terraforming a particular planet.
There are six different categories of ships:
- Scouts are great for exploring, travelling further than any others
- Fighters battle it out with enemy ships
- Dreadnoughts are the battleships of the universe, with immense strength and power (and cost)
- Tankers help you keep a fleet from running out of fuel on some deserted alien planet
- Colony ships establish bases on faraway planets
- Satellites act like turrets, passively defending a colony.
You have no control over battles, which take place over planets (travel between them is conducted via hyperspace). They are dice rolls, based on colony size, number of ships, and the strength — specifically Speed, Weapons, and Shields — of each ship, which you can watch in a separate screen.
Ariton clearly put effort into adapting a 23-year-old Mac classic to a touch-based interface, with pinch to zoom and HUD elements flattened into a toggle menu on smaller displays, and the core game transitions flawlessly from mouse to touch controls, but there’s plenty more to be done.
The bars for technology research and income/savings distribution are hard to adjust, especially on smaller devices, it’s not very inviting to first-time players, there’s not much in-game documentation — the help messages and Help menu do help, but so much is left unexplained — and the visuals could do with some upgrading.
Spaceward Ho! has no music other than in the main menu (it never did, either, as far as I recall), but its sound effects remain a huge part of the charm. While you can enjoy it without audio, there’s a delightful charm in the “Let’s get out of here” of evacuating a planet, the “Hyah!” of travelling to a new planet, or the “Hmmm” of arriving at a new planet ripe for the picking, and the interface sounds are all remarkably tactile.
That’s kind of the appeal of the whole game — the tactility of the Spaceward Ho! universe, whether locked in a heated tête-à-tête war or preparing Armageddon or escaping the death of the galaxy’s sun. It feels somehow real, and there’s endless replayability — even without multiplayer, which should be coming in a future update.
Glorious 4X Simplicity
At no point in its five major Mac revisions from 1990 to 2003 did Spaceward Ho! stand at the cutting edge of graphics or gameplay, yet for the whole period (and still today) it elegantly abstracted galactic conquest into a thrilling race for resources that echoes the lawlessness of frontier America.
A few rough edges aside, the Android version is every bit as glorious as it was in the early days of color Macs. If you’ve been gunning for some good 4X gaming on Android, climb aboard. Master of Orion vets should enjoy its quirky simplicity, too. Spaceward Ho! stands not just as a fine game of galactic conquest, but also as an accessible — if inadequately-tutored — entry into the genre.