Some games are released and gain an instant cult following, yet do not find a larger audience with the larger PC gamer market. Sometimes they are too quirky. Sometimes the game’s instructions are confusing, and require a great deal of experimentation to learn and understand. Sometimes the genre is experiencing market oversaturation, and no matter how good the game is, people are too tired of playing that kind of game. Whatever the reason, great games have been released that did not find more than a toehold in the gamerverse, and disappeared into the mists of gaming history. Ascendancy, released by The Logic Factory in 1995, was one such game.
Ascendancy was a turn-based strategy game set in a sci-fi universe, and gave the player several species options to choose from – 21 in all. (Interestingly, Humans were not included as one of those races. ) Each species had its strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages. For instance, some races were better negotiators, some better scientists, some better weapon makers, some better at defending their turf, and some better at invasion. How soon you met these other species depended on how dense of star cluster you chose at the beginning of the game. The denser the cluster, the more planets existed, and more star lanes connecting them. Those star lanes were the key to victory, as could be controlled by a particular alien race, and that control could vary as systems were conquered. For even more variety, the computer randomized your opponents, which meant never knowing exactly what you faced; the game was different every time you played it.
An interesting feature of Ascendancy was the Tech Tree, which was a three-dimensional representation of the scientific advances that were available to the alien race. As each discovery was made, new paths – branches – were opened for development. The Logic Factory outdid itself with the names of the techno-advancements, with such titles as Tonklin Diary (which allows for Tonklin Frequency Analyzers) or Spacetime Surfing (which allows for Star Lane Drives) or Gravity Control (which allows for Quantum Singularity Launchers) or Momentum Deconservation (which allows for Concussion Shields), and so on. Of course, you could jumpstart your research by locating and searching through alien ruins on the planets your fleet visited for lost technology, which was yet another random variable that made Ascendancy both ever-changing and immanently replayable.
Ascendancy was a wonderful game with a huge flaw: the AI. Although casual gamers enjoyed the game’s challenge, more advanced gamers found the AI to be weak and easily mastered. The Logic Factory responded by issuing a patch which greatly enhanced the game’s AI, but in 1995 few people were on the Internet, so the patch never found widespread release. For those itching to play the original Ascendancy with the Antagonizer patch, here it is: ANTAGONIZER and README.
As could be expected in any multi-civilization strategy game, Ascendancy included a robust diplomacy element. As new species discovered your existence, their attitudes and responses were influenced by how you reacted to them. Peace treaties, hostilities, technology exchanges, invitations to join in current conflicts were examples of some of the outcomes resulting from an exchange of diplomatic pleasantries. As in real life, species who considered you weak would make broader demands and reject overtures; species who considered you strong worked on making you their best friend.
Ascendancy was a quirky game, but it found a receptive audience due to its stellar gameplay. It earned a 93% score and an Editor’s Choice award from PC Gamer, and received some high praise from the grognard’s grognard, William R. Trotter (which has an interesting story and legend surrounding the review and his subsequent strategy guide work on the same game). Ascendancy also won a Codie Award for Best Strategy Software in 1996, in a field that included Allied General and Command & Conquer. (Mind you, they gave the Best Adventure/Roleplaying Game award to Oregon Trail II that same year.)
Time has passed and the prospect of a sequel remain dim. However, a new version built for the iPhone (and iPad) has been released, and has received some solid reviews from those who game on those platforms. But for the retrogamer, the original Ascendancy remains supreme in turn-based space strategy exploration and conquest, and well worth investing a little time playing once again!