I was chasing a winged TIE fighter around the bulk of a disabled Imperial freighter, desperately trying to line it up in my sights, when inspiration struck. I let my grip on the joystick loosen a little, and manoeuvred underneath the fighter, switching to my upward view to keep it in sight. As it continued to evade me, I pulled back on the stick, right toward its belly. The TIE Fighter pulled up, and slammed into the body of the freighter above it, exploding into chunks. I was still grinning by the end of the mission.
Sometimes, we play retro games not just for nostalgia, but because they weren’t afraid to push big, complex ideas, and refused to dumb themselves down to the lowest common denominator.
X-wing was one of those games. One of the first proper polygonal space sims, it was arguably the game that turned LucasArts from the king of point-and-click adventures into the undisputed champion of Star Wars games. With the ability to pilot three rebel craft in a huge variety of missions, with the B-Wing added in a later expansion, X-wing put gamers into the world of Star Wars more vividly than any game had managed in the past.
It wasn’t just the quality of the game’s engine that shone through, it was the presentation. From the gloriously MIDI-fied John Williams score to the howl of passing TIE Fighters, every aspect of the Star Wars universe is captured perfectly. The cutscenes are reminiscent of Monkey Island with their rich bitmap graphics, though the voice-acting can be a little dodgy at times, but they do a great job of laying on the theme thick and fast. I won’t lie, the first time I beat the last TIE Fighter in a training mission and that familiar, triumphant music blared out of the speakers, I actually punched the air in victory. A game hasn’t made me look that dorky in quite a while.
The gameplay was big on features, and punishingly difficult. Your control over the craft was staggering, letting you adjust your engine power to reinforce shields or recharge lasers, or shift your shields forwards or aft with a single button press. You could match the speed of enemy fighters, shoot down incoming torpedoes, and order a squadron of wingmen to defend you or take out your targets. Elite had set the bar for space titles nearly ten years before, and Wing Commander was little more than two years old, but X-wing rejected the trade-and-explore motif of these popular titles in favour of pure, raw dogfighting.
Missions were complex, and hard. Losing in some missions meant the permanent loss of your pilot, forcing you start your campaign over again. Happily, with expansions, there were five separate campaigns on offer, so you didn’t always have to crawl back through the missions you’d just beaten, but the game was still extremely tough. Get a TIE fighter in your sights, and it’ll weave and pitch like crazy, making it a hell of a challenge to land even the two shots needed to swat it out of the sky. Come up against a group of tougher TIE interceptors, and you’d better hope you’re a good shot. Try to take on a Corellian Corvette without taking advantage of its blind spots, and you’ll be slag in seconds. It’s rock-solid, but it’s awesome fun.
TIE fighter took the successes of its prequel and ran with them. Pilots could be backed up to prevent permadeath, the number of ships on offer was now huge, encompassing pretty much everything from the movies, and the god-awful 2D map of X-Wing had been replaced with a full 3D map so awesomely good I’m surprised more modern space sims don’t copy it. Mission briefings were bulked up considerably, helping to keep your goal clear and meaningful. The voice acting was of a notably higher quality than X-Wing had offered, and there was now plenty of it during missions, rather than simply between them.
X-Wing and TIE Fighter have more than just retro appeal, although they have that in spades. The gameplay here is still some of the best space combat out there, even after two decades. With titles like EVE Valkyrie, ELITE: Dangerous and Star Citizen seeking to reignite the gaming world’s love of space sims (Let’s not forget that the original ELITE was one of the first titles ever to make it onto British news broadcasts for its success), anyone who considers themselves a fan of Star Wars or the space sim genre in general should definitely pick up the remasters of these classic titles. If I had to pick one or the other, I’d probably say TIE Fighter is more worth your money, but you’d be missing out on a hell of an opportunity if you never got to lock your s-foils in attack position and pray that the Force guides your proton torpedoes into that pesky enemy corvette.
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