I've always been more of a Traveller man myself -- I got my start with the Little Black Books, thanks to my friend's older brother, from whom we also learned D&D -- but we did play Star Frontiers. It was pretty much inevitable, as we were unabashed TSR fanboys and picked up just about every game the company cranked out, including this one.
In the gaming circles in which I moved, Star Frontiers was always compared unfavorably to Traveller, an opinion echoed even in the pages of Dragon, where reviewer Tony Watson noted:
The STAR FRONTIERS game certainly has a different feel from that evoked by TRAVELLER. Some of the weaker aspects of the TSR game, such as background and starships, are strengths of the TRAVELLER system. GDW's game seems a bit more solid and serious in its approach. Comparing the two is like comparing the movies Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey: both very good, but very different, facets of science fictionThat's pretty much how I viewed the game too: bubblegum space opera rather than "solid and serious." Make no mistake: I loved Star Wars as a kid, but I'd been exposed to enough sci-fi to know that its style and content weren't the only ones for the genre. And given that Traveller was largely conceived and written before Star Wars, the game retained its own distinctive feel, more reminiscent of classic SF writers like Anderson, Asimov, and Piper rather than Lucas.
But, as I said, we still played and enjoyed Star Frontiers for when we were interested in some over-the-top science fictional derring-do. With its simple, fast-moving rules, broad-brush setting, and well-made components, Star Frontiers was almost always fun. Unlike Traveller, about which I agonized a great deal more to get it "right," I could whip up Star Frontiers adventures on the fly -- and usually did. Plus, the modules produced for the game were, with a few exceptions, a blast. The three-part Volturnus series, in which Tom Moldvay played a large role, were a loving homage to pulp science fiction from the 30s and 40s, while UK-produced modules were a nice change of pace, approaching Traveller-esque levels of depth and sophistication.
If the original release of the game had a flaw, it was the lack of starship rules, as noted in the quote above. This was eventually rectified by the release of a second boxed set, called Knight Hawks, which contained an excellent -- and scalable -- set of rules for adjudicating everything from one-on-one dogfights to massive fleet engagements. Like the RPG rules, the starship rules were easy to use and quick; they also integrated characters into the action quite well. Coupled with all the counters and maps the boxed set included, I actually preferred Knight Hawks to Traveller's various starship rules for many years. I still consider that set to be one of the best things TSR produced in that time period.
Star Frontiers eventually suffered an ignominious end, another victim of TSR's schizophrenia about any game that wasn't Dungeons & Dragons. Color-coded chart mania overtook the company's design department and, in 1985, the game was halfheartedly overhauled to an entirely new game system, at the same time expanding its setting in intriguing ways. Not long thereafter, the game was dropped, while Traveller, even in its dotage, continued to chug along as king of the science fiction RPG castle.
Looking back, Star Frontiers definitely had a lot going for it. The game wasn't a good vehicle for detailed explorations among the stars or meditations on what it means to be human, but it nicely scratched a pulp SF itch that, to my mind, has never really been attempted since. Every now and again, I am reminded of the fun I had playing Star Frontiers and considering digging out my old boxed sets and giving it a whirl again. It's no Traveller, but that's hardly a crime and sometimes you just want to strap on your blaster and fight space pirates, something at which Star Frontiers excels.