The real-time strategy genre has been a long-standing staple of PC games, continually challenging its players to flex their skills through the years. Whether it’s executing an optimal build order, maintaining an efficient flow of resources, micromanaging armies, or countering enemy strategies, there’s always plenty to handle in an RTS. In the early years, the likes of Dune II, Warcraft, and Command & Conquer were regarded as the standard bearers. And as great as those games were, nothing had quite the cultural impact as StarCraft.
Leading up to its release, developer Blizzard had already established itself as a force in strategy games with Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, the sequel Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. But in March 1998, Blizzard traded the fantasy setting for a science-fiction theme, taking us to space when it released the original StarCraft. Not unlike Warcraft, deep and intricate lore served as the foundation for the world of StarCraft. Humans, known as Terran, had their own complicated internal politics as they became mired in an ever-evolving conflict with the insect-like Zerg and the psionic humanoid Protoss–two species created by the ancient Xel’Naga. Through animated cutscenes and in-mission dialogue, StarCraft’s single-player campaign delivered compelling characters.
While the lore worked as a strong hook and characterized each faction to great effect, StarCraft’s longevity lies within its timeless gameplay.
We grew to despise Arcturus Mengsk and sympathize with Jim Raynor, or get caught up in the complex arc of Sarah Kerrigan. Tassadar’s sacrifice remains a powerful and iconic moment for those of us who became invested in fate of the Protoss, and Kerrigan’s ascension as the new leader of the Zerg swarm. Blizzard embedded personality and a web of relationships to envelop you into the Starcraft lore. While it worked as a strong hook and characterized each faction to great effect, StarCraft’s longevity lies within its timeless gameplay–this is a 20-year old RTS with wide player-base after all.
StarCraft wasn’t perfect on day one; post-launch support with continuous patching was the key to cementing its legacy. The expansion pack Brood War was also a crucial piece to the franchise’s competitive sustainability. It has reached its peak in terms of finding the best balance to the point that long-time players don’t want it to be touched, and it goes to show how fragile the RTS balancing act can be. But even to this day, the game is still receiving quality of life improvements. What made StarCraft so rewarding was how open-ended it’s gameplay could be. Although every unit and structure among the three factions served a specific purpose, players were constantly coming up with creative strategies to keep opponents on their toes. Jumping into Battle.net, scrolling through the server browser, and not knowing if you were competing against someone way out of your league made for adrenaline rushes the moment you sent your workers to gather minerals. Every multiplayer match was a fast-paced and thrilling battle of minds.
No matter what race you play, after scouting your opponent’s position, you have so many possibilities with build order. As Terran, would you go full mech with a gang of siege tanks against another Terran or roll out an army of firebats against a Zerg opponent? How would you react the moment you saw them building towards air units? Do you have the means to get turrets up before it’s too late? You might also be trying to manage a one barracks fast expansion, keeping an eye on SCVs doing their job, or not getting supply blocked which would delay your build order. These are a few of the things that run through your mind in any match, and given the pace of StarCraft, it can get out of hand quickly. That’s just coming from the perspective of a Terran player.
It’s always fun to toy with opponents using a flock of mutalisks, yet nothing is quite as satisfying as pulling off a late-game ultralisk-zergling push with the defiler’s dark swarm ability.
Playing as Protoss, with pylons dictating both base layout and unit supply, is whole other aspect to handle. A simple 12 nexus fast expand or two gateway observer opening is pretty standard, but those plans have to be backed up with the right number of zealots and dragoons, so your micromanaging skills better be on point. Any long-time StarCraft player is all too familiar with the infamous zergling rush, but the nasty Zerg swarm has its own twist on buildings and roster of devastating units. It’s always fun to toy with opponents using a flock of mutalisks, yet nothing is quite as satisfying as pulling off a late-game ultralisk-zergling push with the defiler’s dark swarm ability. Keep in mind that many of these strategies are contingent upon your enemy’s build order, so hopefully you’re in the habit of keeping an eye on them and adapting to situations. We’re only scratching the surface here, which is a testament to how deep StarCraft goes and why it remains relevant.
StarCraft’s complexities result in what feels like a hectic match of speed chess. High APM (actions per minute) isn’t just an in-joke among StarCraft players, it’s indicative of whether or not you’re playing efficiently enough and spending every second wisely. The game is daunting, especially for newcomers at this point, but StarCraft’s biggest accomplishment is in how it fine-tuned and found the right balance between asymmetrical factions with dynamic unit composition. Just walking through different strategies should bring back memories of the myriad of permutations these matches can take on.
Custom maps and modes were born out of the StarCraft community and spawned surprising, sometimes lighthearted, ways to play. Playing countless 4v4 matches on the map BGH and developing strategies specifically for it provides a unique sort of fun, especially since you had access to unlimited resources. But the creativity of user-made UMS maps speaks to the community’s imagination, whether these were missions with predetermined scenarios based on other games or silly modes like cat-and-mouse.
Admittedly, it’s jarring to play an RTS where you only control up to 12 units at a time, can’t map multiple buildings to hotkeys, and must micromanage workers–but even these limitations are part of the fragile balance that has held StarCraft together for all these years.
At its heart, though, StarCraft (Brood War, in particular) is competitive game and has thrived in the professional competitive gaming scene, almost solely in South Korea. It’s a cultural phenomenon there, and the franchise’s current production lead Tim Morten said, “It really was that catalyst, that example of what esports could be in terms of popularity and drawing people in. There were people who didn’t even play the game but just enjoyed watching the events, which made superstars out of the players.” As of now, a total value of $7.43 million USD has been awarded as prize money with $6.81 million of that coming from South Korean competitions; 92 of the top 100 players are Korean.
This long legacy lives on as Blizzard modernized the original game with StarCraft Remastered in 2017. Native 4K widescreen support, high resolution textures, and redone artwork truly gave it the proper treatment from a visual perspective. Players can seamlessly swap between the new and old graphics for a burst of nostalgia, and regardless of which version you play, everyone is matched in the same Battle.net servers. Matchmaking and player rankings are icing on the cake when it comes to ushering a two-decade old game into a new era. However, it did not touch a single gameplay element. Admittedly, it’s jarring to play an RTS where you only control up to 12 units at a time, can’t map multiple buildings to hotkeys, and must micromanage workers–but even these limitations are part of the fragile balance that has held StarCraft together for all these years.
Real-time strategy isn’t the prominent genre it once was, yet StarCraft stays installed on so many of our PCs and has a thriving online community. It goes without saying that games have dramatically evolved since 1998, but personality, balance, and the systems in place have helped StarCraft transcend generations.