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What is Starflight?

Starflight 1 for the PC

Back in the 80ths, an unknown company called Binary Systems published the game Starflight. The game puts the player in the role of a starship captain sent to explore the galaxy. There is no set path, allowing players to switch freely between mining, ship-to-ship combat, and alien diplomacy. The broader plot of the game emerges slowly, as the player discovers that an ancient race of beings is causing stars to flare and destroy all living creatures. The game has been widely praised by both contemporary and modern critics, and is one of the earliest instances of a sandbox game. The game influenced the design of numerous other games for decades after its release.

To find out more about the game check the following links:

You can buy the game at GoG

What is this project about?

The first time I heard about the game I wanted to play it. However, I was too young and could not speak English. 20 later I tried again and it was a very pleasant experience. The exploration is fun, the storyline is epic and ends with a surprise, that is one of the best I have experienced. Sure, the game hasn't aged well, but you can feel the devotion of the developers to the game. There’s an art aspect to this game as well as a craftman’s attention to detail.

As much as playing this truly amazing game is fun, so is reverse engineering this game. You follow in the footsteps of the developers and experience their thought processes as if it were the year 1985 again. For this game expect the unexpected. Normally when you reverse engineer such an old game you have to receive ten thousands of lines of pure assembler code, which you can analyze with the usual tools such as IDA Pro. But not this time. Actually for this game you can throw the usual tools away. They are useless. You are on your own. The reason is that Starflight was written in Forth, a language I barely knew about.


Forth is the language with the ultimate minimalism regarding syntax. There is no more syntax than the space between "words". You can write a Forth reader and interpreter basically in a few lines of code.

In a modern language you write something like


to print the result of 2+3. In Forth however it looks like this.

2 3 + .

Forth is a stack machine, with a reverse Polish notation. The interpretation is as follows

  • push 2 on top of the stack
  • push 3 on top of the stack
  • pop the last two stack entries and add them together. Push the result back on top of the stack.
  • pop the top value from the stack and print it

The syntax is simple and the interpreter is simple. "2", "3", "+" and "." are just called "words". There is no syntactic distinction between data and code. Certainly a language that lived up to the limitations of the early home computers.

Disassembly description

When you dissect the executable STARFLT.COM it reveals some fantastic internals

  • The compiled code retains the structure of the Forth source code. No optimization by the compiler. A word in the source code are two bytes in the compiled code.
  • The x86-assembly code consumes less than 5% of the size of the exectuable
  • More than 90% of the executable are actually 16-Bit pointers.
  • 2000 of around 6000 word names, which you would call debugging symbols nowadays, are still in the code, but encrypted. This enables us to reverse engineer a high portion of the original source code.
  • The Forth interpreter (not compiler) is still part of the executable and can be enabled
  • The executable is slow. Besides of some assembler optimized routines, the code wastes at least 50% of the CPU cycles just by jumping around in the code.
  • The executable makes heavily use of code overlays, which makes the decoding much more complicated

The main building block

As explained above Forth is a stack machine. As coding mechanic it uses indirect threading, a very space efficient method to store your compiled code. Threaded code has a form that essentially consists entirely of calls to subroutines. Indirect threading uses pointers to locations that in turn point to machine code.

Let's say your instruction pointer points to the address 0x1000 and contains the 16-Bit value Read16(0x1000)=0x0f72.

0x1000: dw 0x0f72

The value 0x0f72 is the coded equivalent of the Forth word '+'. Remember the description above. The word '+' pops the last two stack entries, adds them together and pushes the result back on top of the stack. According to indirect threading this 16-Bit value 0x0f72 is a pointer to a location that in turn points to machine code. When you read the memory content Read16(0x0f72) you get the pointer to 0x0f74. And indeed, when you look at this memory location and disassemble it, you receive the following

0x0f72: dw 0x0f74
0x0f74: pop    ax
0x0f75: pop    bx
0x0f76: add    ax, bx
0x0f78: push   ax
0x0f79: lodsw
0x0f7a: mov    bx, ax
0x0f7c: jmp    word ptr [bx]

The first four instructions perform exactly the operations that the word "+" should perform. The last three assembler instructions starting from the "lodsw" increase the instruction pointer and jump to the next code.

Let us go on. Now the instruction pointer points to 0x1002

0x1002: dw 0x53a3

Reading the address 0x53a3 reveals

0x53a3: dw 0x1d29
0x53a5: dw 0x0001

and the corresponding code

0x1d29: inc    bx
0x1d2a: inc    bx
0x1d2b: push   bx
0x1d2c: lodsw
0x1d2d: mov    bx,ax
0x1d2f: jmp    word ptr [bx]

At this time the register bx contains the word address 0x53a3. So this code just pushes the address 0x53a5 on top of the stack. What we have done is to provide the program a pointer to a variable. The variable has the content 0x0001. The Forth word '@' would pop the address from the stack, reads its content and pushes it back on the stack.

So far I could identify 6256 words that contain either code or data.

  • 3711 are words, which execute other words. I guess you can call them functions.
  • 906 16-Bit variables or data arrays. In very rare cases (~20) the data array contains x86 machine code
  • 356 data structures which define content of the tables stored on disk (see below)
  • 346 data structures which define content of the instance tree data structure (see below)
  • 278 words contain x86 machine code
  • 235 16-Bit constants
  • 127 switch-case expressions
  • 105 words contain data structures to define the code overlays
  • the other words are of different type

And that's actually all you need to know about the code structure. As you can see this can be a space efficient encoding, but speedwise it is a catastrophe. Every few machine code instructions you have to jump to a different code block.

The equivalent of indirect threading in C would look like this.

uint16_t instruction_pointer = start_of_program_pointer;
void Call(uint16_t word_adress)
    // the first two byte of the word's address contain 
    // the address of the corresponding code, which must be executed for this word
    uint16_t code_address = Read16(word_address);

        case 0x0f74: // word '+'
            Push16(Pop16() + Pop16());

void Run()
        uint16_t word_address = Read16(instruction_pointer);
        instruction_pointer += 2;

The code executed for a specific word has access to 5 major variables (16-Bit)

  • instruction pointer (register si): This points inside of a more complex function ("word") in Forth. It points to the address of the Forth "word" in memory which must be executed next. The instruction pointer can be altered by the word's code for branch and loop control.
  • stack pointer (register sp): This is a stack machine and therefore needs a stack pointer. Push will put an item on the stack. Pop retrieves an item from the top of the stack.
  • call stack pointer (register bp): contains the return addresses of the functions. Also used to temporarily store items.
  • word address (register bx): The first 2 byte contain the address to the x86 machine code of this word. Afterwards, there can be optional data such as constants, variables and arrays. In the above example for '+' it contains the machine code itself.
  • code address (register ip): The x86-machine code which must be executed


The disassember transpiles the FORTH code into C-style code.. Most of the transpiled code compiles. To understand what the program does take a look at the following table. It takes the "bytecode" (which are mainly 16-Bit pointers) as input and transforms it into C.

Forth code:

: .C ( -- )
\ Display context stack contents.
               DO I 1.5@ .DRJ -3 +LOOP
            ELSE ." MT STK"
            THEN CR ;


16-Bit Pointers FORTH C
: .C ( -- ) void DrawC() {
unsigned short int i, imax;
0x0642 CR Exec("CR");
0x15fa 0x0020 IF if (Pop() != 0) {
0x54ae CXSP Push(Read16(pp_CXSP) + 3);
0xbae @
0x3b73 3
0x0f72 +
0x4ffd END-CX Push(Read16(cc_END_dash_CX));
0x15b8 DO i = Pop();
imax = Pop();
do {
0x50e0 I Push(i);
0x4995 1.5@ _1_dot_5_at_();
0x81d5 .DRJ DrawDRJ();
0x175d 0xfffd -3 Push(-3);
0x155c 0xffff +LOOP int step = Pop();
i += step;
if (((step>=0) && (i>=imax)) || ((step<0) && (i<=imax))) break;
} while(1);
0x1660 0x000b ELSE } else {
0x1bdc " MT STK" PRINT("MT STK", 6);
0x4d 'M'
0x54 'T'
0x20 ' '
0x53 'S'
0x54 'T'
0x4b 'K'
0x0642 CR Exec("CR");
0x1690 EXIT }


The game comes in 3 Files

  • STARA.COM and STARB.COM: Both contain the game data and the game executable stored in a its own directory structure.
  • STARFLT.COM: This file is a DOS executable and contains the initialitzation routines, general Forth routines and routines to read and write of the on-disk data structures in STARA.COM and STARB.COM.

Directory in STARA.COM and STARB.COM

Content of

entry size description
DIRECTORY 4096 contains directory of STARA and STARB
SPLASH 16384 Picture
MED-PIC 2048 Picture
HUM-PIC 480 Picture
VEL-PIC 432 Picture
THR-PIC 272 Picture
ELO-PIC 608 Picture
AND-PIC 640 Picture
SAVE 124000
MUSIC 4960 Code Overlay
EARTH 1152 Map of the planet earth
CREDITS 16384 picture
CGA 3600 Machine Code routines for the CGA graphics card
EGA 3600 Machine Code routines for the EGA graphics card

Content of STARB.COM

entry size description
DIRECTORY 4096 contains directory of STARA and STARB
INSTANCE 150528 Tree structure with most of the content of the game
BOX 1024 Table
BANK-TRANS 144 Table
VESSEL 1936 Table
ELEMENT 544 Table
ARTIFACT 1584 Table
PLANET 1360 Table
SPECIMEN 448 Table
BIO-DATA 448 Table
TPORT-PIC 2416 Picture
BPORT-PIC 3984 Picture
BUTTONS 944 Table
ICON1:1 912
ICON1:2 912
ICON1:4 912
DPART-OV 1552 Code Overlay
REGIONS 176 Table
CREATURE 17024 Table
CHKFLIGHT-OV 960 Code Overlay
FRACT-OV 4640 Code Overlay
ICONP-OV 832 Code Overlay
SITE-OV 1888 Code Overlay
HYPERMSG-OV 4112 Code Overlay
BLT-OV 864 Code Overlay
MISC-OV 1440 Code Overlay
BANK-OV 1520 Code Overlay
ASSCREW-OV 2800 Code Overlay
PERSONNEL-OV 4192 Code Overlay
SHIPGRPH-OV 2112 Code Overlay
CONFIG-OV 3072 Code Overlay
TDEPOT-OV 4800 Code Overlay
PORTMENU-OV 3120 Code Overlay
VITA-OV 3552 Code Overlay
HP-OV 4832 Code Overlay
LP-OV 5280 Code Overlay
SENT-OV 4784 Code Overlay
TV-OV 3472 Code Overlay
COMM-OV 7232 Code Overlay
COMMSPEC-OV 2864 Code Overlay
SEED-OV 2400 Code Overlay
LISTICONS 720 Code Overlay
MOVE-OV 3808 Code Overlay
ENGINEER 2320 Code Overlay
DOCTOR 1280 Code Overlay
ORBIT-OV 6640 Code Overlay
CAPTAIN 5952 Code Overlay
SCIENCE 3952 Code Overlay
NAVIGATR 880 Code Overlay
MAP-OV 4160 Code Overlay
HYPER-OV 7168 Code Overlay
ANALYZE-OV 2560 Code Overlay
LAUNCH-OV 1360 Code Overlay
OP-OV 4400 Code Overlay
ITEMS-OV 6016 Code Overlay
CMAP 1008
HEAL-OV 1232 Code Overlay
REPAIR-OV 1696 Code Overlay
GAME-OV 5920 Code Overlay
PLSET-OV 2400 Code Overlay
MAPS-OV 2240 Code Overlay
VES-BLT 4528
STORM-OV 1232 Code Overlay
IT-OV 1936 Code Overlay
COMBAT-OV 6192 Code Overlay
DAMAGE-OV 2752 Code Overlay
LAND-OV 1088 Code Overlay
PSTATS 64 Table
STP-OV 1440 Code Overlay


Put the files of the original Starflight game into the folders starflt1-in and starflt2-in and run make. You should get two executables (disasOV1 and disasOV2), which produces the content in the folders starflt1-out and starflt2-out. The generated output is part of this repository.


Reversed engineered game Starflight (1986)







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