After 23 years, Starfield’s ancestor Noctis is still a vision of the future

Exploring the Galaxy in Noctis: A Unique Space Simulator Experience

Throughout my years of playing video games, I’ve had the opportunity to pilot all kinds of spaceships. From sleek futuristic designs to makeshift vessels, I thought I had seen it all. That is until I played Noctis, an extraordinary space simulator developed by Alessandro Ghignola back in 2000. What sets Noctis apart is the spaceship itself, a stunning creation made entirely of glass.

The spaceship in Noctis, known as the Stardrifter, is often lovingly referred to as a “catbox” by players due to the game’s cat-like race, the Feltyrions. But any initial absurdity vanishes when you activate the Depolarise button. This action turns off the electrical current running through the hull, making the glass walls transparent and transforming the ship into a mesmerizing prism of light and color. The Stardrifter reflects the hues of nearby stars, creating a visual spectacle that is enhanced by the game’s 320×200 display resolution.

Noctis | Image credit: Eurogamer / Alessandro Ghignola

This spaceship is truly designed for sightseeing, serving as a lens through which you can explore the vastness of the galaxy. Its interior is reminiscent of a conservatory, with Centerparcs-like viewing domes protruding above and below. But the spaceship is not just a vessel; it also doubles as a screen. The text commands for scanning celestial bodies and engaging the ship’s autopilot are displayed on the forward viewing window, resembling boxy white Casio fonts among the constellations.

While the interface can be unwieldy, the game’s intention is to encourage players to contemplate the nature of light and vision. Moving through the Stardrifter’s fonts and observing how legibility changes under different solar conditions becomes an integral part of the experience. It’s about embracing the delays and ambiguities, rather than striving for optimization.

To enhance the exploration, players can venture outside the ship and enjoy a clear view in their spacesuit. The spacesuit even features a radiation visor that acts as a post-processing filter, allowing players to sharpen or blur the stars as they please.

An Immersive Planetary Experience

While the Stardrifter is a sight to behold, the game also offers the opportunity to land on planets. After selecting a planet and setting the autopilot, the forward window display provides information about the planet’s surface. Once in orbit, players can choose a landing site from a pixel map and be transported to solid ground. The landing vessel itself is ingeniously crafted from the Stardrifter’s viewing domes, which seamlessly join together.

Each descent onto a planet is like moving closer to a densely painted canvas, gradually revealing the details of the terrain. Players can take note of landmarks on the horizon and explore their surroundings. The planetary surfaces feature a variety of elements, such as mineral slabs, scraped earth, liquid pools, and vibrant vegetation. Some planets are shrouded in thick cloud cover, while others boast majestic mountains and valleys illuminated by a radiant sun.

While many planets lack noticeable structures and landmarks, there is a certain allure to these barren worlds. They evoke imagery reminiscent of space photography from the 20th century, before the era of glossy, high-resolution pictures. Exploring these desolate planets can evoke a sense of wonder and isolation.

Venera 10 Venus Surface
The surface of Venus, as captured by Venera 10. | Image credit: Venera 10 / Don P. Mitchell

Despite its captivating gameplay, Noctis has faced compatibility issues over the years. The original MS-DOS version has been made available for free, with one version compatible with Windows 10. However, some players may encounter difficulties running the game. Fortunately, these issues are likely fixable, and the unique experience of Noctis makes it worth the effort.

Noctis is a testament to Alessandro Ghignola’s unique vision. While other space simulation games focus on conquering the cosmos, Noctis presents a spaceship that invites the light in and embraces change. It’s a game that encourages players to contemplate the beauty of the universe and the wonders of exploration.