Gaming spaceships through time

Space travel is undoubtedly exciting. The design of spacecraft doesn’t always match that brief, but that’s fair enough. Without wanting to overstate the obvious, building a working spaceship is hard, and it’s fair to say that style isn’t the most pressing matter.

Gaming spaceships through time

Video-game design, on the other hand, literally isn’t rocket science – and I don’t mean that pejoratively at all. Free from the need to consider physics, aerodynamics and not killing anyone inside at the time of lift-off, video-game designers have long had NASA beat when it comes to designing an aesthetically pleasing spaceship.

Here’s a look at how they’ve changed over time.

Space Invaders (1978)


To be fair, it was never exactly clear if the green blob firing out white lasers was actually a spacecraft, or some kind of laser cannon on rails defending against the onslaught of aliens. Let’s hope it’s the latter, otherwise those are some enormous invaders attacking Earth.

Also in this shot is the classic “UFO” floating across the top of the screen. Interestingly, despite being over 30 years on from the first description of a “flying saucer”, Space Invaders sticks with that design rather than going with something more contemporary (Star Wars was released the previous year).

Asteroids (1979)


When Asteroids hit the scene back in 1979, you couldn’t really go for fine detail in your graphics. If you squint, though, you can just about see the resemblance between the tiny outline and the Apollo spacecraft that landed on the moon a decade earlier – both have a triangular point. The difference is that the Asteroids ship doesn’t have much else.

Elite (1984, 1993, 1995 and 2014)

elite_cobra_iiElite burst onto the scene in 1984, but the screenshot above is from Frontier: Elite II, released nearly a decade later. The Cobra Mark III is the ship pictured, and arguably the most iconic of the series, blunting the triangular style from the earlier space games, and adding a couple of much-needed thrusters at the back. Certainly necessary for the travel involved – which, unlike its predecessors, wasn’t confined to a single screen.

Wing Commander (1990, 1994)


WC News

Wing Commander, released in 1990, moved closer to aerospace than outer space, with the ships having a clear cockpit and grey military aesthetic. To me, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the F-14 Tomcats popularised by Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer four years earlier in Top Gun.

Star Fox (1993, 1997, 2002, 2005)


In contrast, Nintendo’s Star Fox was clearly much less serious and more colourful than Wing Commander. Then again, it also had an anthropomorphised animal cast doing the piloting, so perhaps I shouldn’t read too much into its spaceship design.

All the same, this is the first time wings appeared obviously on gaming spaceships (or the main ones, at any rate). You may wonder why it needs wings, when it’s designed for space travel. However, as you can see from the screenshot above, the ship is designed to enter planetary atmosphere, and so needs to be aerodynamic. Either that or I’m reading way too much into this…

Metroid (1986, 1991, 1994, 2002, 2004, 2010)


Slightly out of sequence here, purely because Samus’ gunship didn’t appear in the first Metroid game. Various models have followed over the years since, including the one above, which has a more “alien” feel to it. The design varies massively over the series, with some having wings and others not, but the glowing colours and curved design seem pretty consistent.  

Homeworld (1999, 2000, 2003, 2015)

homeworldHomeworld – a fully 3D real-time strategy game – offered a selection of spacecrafts to control, requiring much more creativity than the previous “copy aeroplanes, but make them more spacey” approach. Quite a lot of the ships were floating geometric shapes, acknowledging for once that space isn’t the same as the sky, and therefore aerodynamics aren’t that important.

Freespace (1998, 1999)


Wings! Look at all those wings! As you might expect from the ship models – which all look as though they’re suffering from some kind of interplanetary paint shortage – the game plays more like a plane dogfighter than a realistic space sim.

System Shock 2 (1999)

system_shock_2_screenShodan Wikia

The Von Braun – a starship hanging in space, and home to the creepy action of System Shock 2 – owes more to the Sulaco from 1986’s Aliens than other spaceships listed here. No wings, no go-faster stripes: just a weird metallic gun-shaped hunk of metal.

Mass Effect (2007, 2010, 2012)

mass_effect_normandyNow this is a bit more like it: losing the wings, but keeping enough thrusters to look suitably rocket-like, the Normandy has stuck with the Mass Effect crew through three games. What’s more, this is how you make silver and grey look stylish rather than, well, silver and grey.

Dead Space (2008, 2011, 2013)


…aaaand we’re back to Alien-inspired ships. In this case, the Ishimura, an abandoned mining ship. Well, abandoned, if you don’t count all the monsters, which seems a bit of a glass-half-empty attitude if you ask me.

As for the colour scheme, I’d have favoured something a bit more jolly and less gothy, but I suppose the game would seem less frightening if you were battling your way through a Hello Kitty-themed vessel.

Aces of the Galaxy (2008)


Speaking of colourful, hats off to Aces of the Galaxy – a 2008 Xbox Live Arcade game – for attempting to move the colour palette on from drab shades of grey.

Despite the game itself being reasonably forgettable, it at least had a variety of spaceships, going easy on the pointy rocket ships with wings approach.

FTL (2012)


FTL, other than being a personal favourite of mine, gives a rare insight into the insides of the spaceships – in fact, you don’t really see any of the vessels with their lids on, giving each ship the “Foxton’s floorplan” perspective. Each craft has rooms dedicated to the pilot, shields, weapons, engines, oxygen, medicine and, slightly creepily, surveillance.

The ships themselves owe more to Star Trek than others, with the main ship of choice (always dubbed “The Kestrel”, but free to rename) bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Space Shuttle.

Destiny (2014)

destiny_jumpshipImage: MakeUseOf

The most recent high-profile space game was Bungie’s Destiny. Spacecraft don’t come in too often, but when they do, the dropships owe the biggest debt to Wing Commander and the Top Gun military approach of space-fighting – with wings and pointed tips bringing us pretty much exactly to where we started.

In short: game designers should take a minute to be way more imaginative with their designs. You can build what you want – get creative!

Have we missed your favourite gaming spaceship? Let us know in the comments.

Images: ThreeHeadedMonkey (header). Others: public domain, or via each game’s publisher, unless otherwise stated.

Disclaimer: Some pages on this site may include an affiliate link. This does not effect our editorial in any way.

Todays Highlights
How to See Google Search History
how to download photos from google photos