Over the weekend, I went home with a single purpose. With no internet for at least a week, I figured it was a good opportunity to grind through some single-player games, like Andromeda or something else in my Steam library.
But on the back of a whim, I ended up binging through the original StarCraft campaign instead.
Ahead of the launch of StarCraft Remastered earlier this year, Blizzard announced they would be making StarCraft free to download with version 1.18. That includes the original and the Brood War expansion, although both games are playable through the same client (unlike WarCraft 3). The expectation is that StarCraft will be made available through the Battle.net launcher at some point, but for now you can download the game for free via a link Blizzard helpfully posted on the official forums. (You can't actually buy the original StarCraft through Blizzard right now anyway; the Battle.net launcher says the game is "sold out".)
I have plenty of fond memories with the original StarCraft. I remember it was one of the first games I borrowed from a family friend - a friend who had copied a cracked version of the game onto 20 or so 31/2 inch floppy disks. Dad discovered the disks and, not being thrilled about his youngest son's new-found affinity to piracy and the potential viruses/nightmares that could ensue, proceeded to scream the living shit at me.
Later that year, StarCraft became one of four video games I ever remember playing with my Dad as a kid. The other two were the Links LS series, F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, and Virtua Pool.
We didn't play for very long; only a minute or two at the very slowest speed. But I still remember that time, all those years ago.
The funny thing about StarCraft going free-to-play now is that it should died years ago. StarCraft 2 was supposed to be the successor. It was supposed to be the golden child. Brood War greats like Bisu, Flash, Jaedong transitioned over, forgoing their legacies to conquer a new frontier.
When streaming started to take off, StarCraft 2 was at the tip of the iceberg for all the right reasons. The scene was filled with personality, whether it be the analytical humour of a Day, the brash shit-talking of an IdrA, or the endlessly likeable veterans like White-Ra, who gave everyone hope that they could still compete. It was a fantastic game to watch: people wanted to learn, or appreciate a level a skill they either couldn't, or didn't have the time to, attain.
On top of that, SC2 was blessed with - by esports' standards, at least - a fairly warm and welcoming community. There were often times when Street Fighter players would often point to SC2 as the sort of sanitised existence that the FGC should seek to avoid.
But times change, trends ebb and flow. And one of those trends has been the rise of MOBAs, games that have lower barriers to entry, easier mechanics, more gratification.
Within that narrative, StarCraft 2 maintained one narrative in its favour: it was the hardest game in esports, the complete package. It required speed. Strategy. Planning. Study. Endurance.
But it wasn't really the hardest game of all - because Brood War never died.
Remembering why StarCraft was the hardest game
Where it all began, with the Confederacy.
Replaying the original StarCraft requires some concessions, even if the non-remastered game has been patched to play nicely with modern systems. The first: you'll probably end up playing in windowed mode, if only to avoid the annoyance of input lag that persists in fullscreen or windowed fullscreen. (I tested this on two different systems, with three different mice, to the same result. Your mileage may vary, particularly if you're not running Windows 10.) Keyboard commands won't register if you're pressing a mouse button at the same time; v-sync screws with your mouse speed, hotkeys occasionally stop working, and the game looks weirdly pixelated in windowed fullscreen,
Something else you'll miss: multi-building select, perhaps the most contentious change between StarCraft to StarCraft 2. MBS lets you treat buildings like units. Mostly it's useful for grouping multiple buildings on a single hotkey, so you can have all of your gateways, factories, command centres or hatcheries on a single key.
Not having that in 2017 feels like you've been virtually handicapped. It's such a stark, painful exclusion. Games are simplifying themselves more and more, limiting abilities to three or four, reducing strategy to a single resource and a randomised deck of cards in some instances.
To choose between your command centre, barracks, factories, starports, and what units you want hotkeyed as well - because you can only select 12 at any one time - is difficult. It forces you to choose where you invest your concentration, because you can't completely manage your base without looking at it and clicking on it. And if you burn all your hotkeys, or at least the ones you use most often (which generally falls down to 6 or 7), then you'd better be good at flicking between the minimap and back.
And then you remember the little things as well. If you want to build something and a unit is in the way, you have to move the unit first. The game doesn't automatically shove the unit out of the way. Occasionally units won't go where you want because other units are blocking the path, and of course they won't move until you tell them to. That's another order you have to issue.
Sometimes reaver scarabs don't do damage when they explode, just because. Mutalisks will wander off and suicide like a dog chasing a car if not properly managed. Not watching your army while a Lurker is around? They're gone. And don't forget that every unit will always spawn at the bottom of a building - if there's no room, they'll get stuck. A Korean progamer actually lost a match because of this, believe it or not:
It's an incredible amount of small things that are really the failings of the engine underneath. You wouldn't call them features, certainly not in 2017.
But they're also the things that make StarCraft great.
The original voice-overs and graphics still hold up
Kerrigan lays down the law.
Remember the days when a StarCraft or WarCraft cinematic was the standard? The campaigns were almost worth playing alone just for the CGI, as much as the solid missions.
It's hard not to crack a smile rewatching them in 2017. Sarge's thick, almost comical Southern accent is almost like a lightning bolt to the memory. "It's a Zergling, Lester."
"I love you, Sarge."
But what's surprising is, even without the advantage of the remaster, how well the voice-acting holds up. The original Terran campaign is a bit of a nuisance - enjoy using stim packs on Marines without any healing, the fragility of Wraiths, or trying to keep multiple factories going with one or two vespene geysers for the most part. But the exchanges between Glynnis Talken and Robert Clotworthy are still solid, almost two decades on:
Mengsk, played by James Harper, was wonderfully menacing; Zeratul instilled the sense of an elder, like a Dark Templar should. The script didn't always do the actors justice, although it's hard not to enjoy the final mission where Kerrigan gracefully tells Artanis, Mengsk and the UED to shove it:
Obstinate to the end.
Weirdly, the graphics have stood the test of time as well. The original textures are lacking sharpness and a bit of colour, and details on units tend to blur together a bit. But most importantly, everything is immediately recognisable and in its own way, it all stands out. It's a testament to the original design that even in this official comparison, courtesy of the StarCraft Remastered website, the medics are more identifiable from the terrain in the original StarCraft than the remaster:
The browns blend into the terrain just a fraction too much; it's almost like the medics are a fraction transparent. The other before and after clips don't display this quirk, although there's only one scene where any genuine conflict occurs. It's much of a muchness anyway; most people won't be troubled, and it really only served to highlight how well Blizzard nailed things the first time around.
The campaign missions can be clever, and they're not too bloated
The mission design wasn't too bad either. The original Terran campaign only really has three or four genuine missions, with the others functioning more as unspoken tutorials not just for the Terran race, but Starcraft as a whole. You're not force-fed instructions, though, and the game never jams strategies down your throat.
A good example hits midway through the Protoss campaign. You're given Tassadar, a hero High Templar, and a couple of zealots. The map is overflowing with Zerg, but there's also a few Infested Terrans lying around. You could brute force your way through, taking hits with Tassadar and then microing units out to recharge their shields. Alternatively, you could use hallucinations to scout the burrowed Zerg out, find where the Infested Terrans are, and then lead the Infested Terrans into the other Zerg, wiping everything out:
It's really a sweet bit of design: there's an efficient way to handle things, but you can butt your head against the wall if you want, and the game doesn't mind.
The scripted missions can still be a bit of a pain thanks to the pathfinding, which sees units charging in the most sub-optimal firing formation: single file. But on a whole, the missions aren't padded with filler detours and bit players, gimmicks are kept to a minimum and there isn't an overabundance of escort missions; the ones that do require transporting something from A to B can usually be done once the map has been cleared out. You can knock most levels out in under 20 minutes, which still works in 2017 if you have commitments, families, and so on.
The competitive scene for both games lives on
Flash, one of the most dominant Brood War players of his time, retired from SC2 in 2015. He returned to Brood War in early 2016 and retook his place as one of the scene's greatest players, winning the second season of the Afreeca Starleague
Let's wind the clock back a year. Twitch is no longer ruled by the Zerg and Protoss, instead dominated by League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike and another Blizzard property, Hearthstone.
Esports has moved on, too. In October last year, the chairman of the Korean Esports Players Association (KeSPA) announced the end of the world's longest running esports team league, the StarCraft Proleague. Having run since March 2003, the Proleague was a model for the rest of esports, a way organisers and broadcasters could build a product and an infrastructure that fans could buy into. At the same time, four of the seven KeSPA-backed professional teams also shut down.
It didn't mark the end of the professional StarCraft scene by any stretch of the imagination, and it wasn't even the end of the road for some of the teams. But it was an indication of just how far the ground had shifted under StarCraft's feet - and also a marker of just how much damage repeated match fixing scandals had taken upon the sport. Only last April, former Blizzcon champion Lee "Life" Seung was charged for receiving a 70 million won bribe (more than $82,000) to throw two KeSPA Cup matches.
The real kicker was that the bribe was seven times the prize money for first place. It was arguably as damaging to the game's reputation as a similar scandal in 2010, when 11 players were permanently banned, including the bonjwa (a moniker given to the most dominant StarCraft players of their time) Ma "sAviOr" Jae Yoon. SaViOr has returned to some semblance of professional video games since, playing in clan wars and amateur events, but the charges at the time were so severe people were concerned the damage to esports, in South Korea and elsewhere, could be irreparable.
Of course, StarCraft lived on. It was always going to: kids were never going to stop playing games, and the rise of streaming meant younger generations consumed less traditional media, forcing broadcasters, content creators and (importantly) advertisers to come to them. But it's hard to see that far into the future when you're working in a career with little to no safety nets, generally low salaries, and dark clouds on the horizon.
Those things took their toll on StarCraft, but they would never kill it off. Both games remain a class unto themselves: SC2 as the hardest game in Western esports, while Brood War retained a sense of purity, a game for true champions. Only StarCraft can truly replace StarCraft.
There are joint tournaments showcasing Brood War and SC2, although the former has some work to do in encouraging younger talent to pick up the game. Another Brood War offline tournament will be televised from next week, courtesy of the Korean streaming service Afreeca.
SC2 still receives plenty of support from Blizzard too. The World Championship Series continues to drive tournaments around the world, while a string of solo and team leagues are running in Korea. The Global StarCraft League and Code S, one of the most challenging tournaments to win in all of esports, has carried on just fine. Foreigners haven't gotten close to the podium in the last few years, although there have been plenty of fairytale victories - and Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn, the most successful female gamer and one of the most skilled SC2 foreigners in the history of the game, recently qualified comfortably for the next Code S season.
What's staggering is that despite everything that has transpired, all the changes in esports and the advancements in games, Brood War has lived on. StarCraft Remastered, which is built to work with the original version of the game just fine, ensures that. But even without a HD update, the original StarCraft has withstood the test of time in a way few games have, a way few games ever will.