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Imperial: Revisiting X-Wing And TIE Fighter

Playing both sides

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To commemorate the digital release of classic Lucasarts games X-Wing and TIE Fighter [Steam or GOG for the best versions here and here], we commissioned Rob Zacny to take a trip down memory lane and into the laser-singed spaces between the stars. He came back with extensive thoughts as to the quality of the games, and their place in Star Wars lore and legend.

Before X-Wing came out in 1993, the Star Wars universe wasn’t really something you could experience firsthand. It existed in the background of a trilogy that was tantalizing in its vagueness toward its own setting and backstory. Every frame showed you something amazing and a little bit perplexing, and then it was gone as the action moved on.

For a generation of kids who grew up watching and re-watching the movies on worn-out VHS tapes, those painted backdrops, strange puppet-aliens, and model spaceships raised a thousand questions and desires. “Wait, tell me more about that!”

But nobody had been able to make a game that felt like it was set in the Star Wars universe. On the Super Nintendo, Star Wars games meant re-telling the familiar stories via the medium of an action platformer. Luke needs to meet-up with C-3PO and R2-D2? Well, of course that means including the scene where Luke spends three hours killing Jawas and shredding their sandcrawler.

It certainly changes that scene in A New Hope where Luke and Ben Kenobi encounter the burned-out husk of the Jawa crawler. “Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise,” Kenobi declares, while Luke’s feigned farm-boy innocence masks the heart of a remorseless, indefatigable killing machine. God only knows what sort of Cronenbergian violence would have unfolded had he actually made it to Tosche Station.

X-Wing changed all of that. It purported to actually simulate the things we saw in the movies, telling fans what they’d desperately wanted to hear: “It’s all real.” It took the two major space battles of the series, the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Endor, and extrapolated a world of military sci-fi. Ship models that had played scarcely any meaningful role in the films (the only thing we see an A-wing do in the movies is accidentally kamikaze the bridge of the Executor) turned into special-purpose military spacecraft. That impractical-looking medical ship in the Rebel fleet? Why, that’s a Nebulon-B Frigate, the primary workhorse of the Rebellion!

It was a milestone when it came out, but the swift arrival of TIE Fighter a year later pushed X-Wing dangerously close to obsolescence, and I have to admit I find the game almost unbearable now. It’s clearly the first game in a series, before Lawrence Holland’s team at Totally Games had perfected the formula. It’s also a game that is at once circumscribed by too much knowledge from the films, and not enough.

Because what, really, do we know about the Rebel Alliance from the films? We know they generally prefer hiding, and that they’re always ready for quick getaways: Moff Tarkin is disappointed but not surprised to find that the Rebels have evacuated the Dantooine installation that Princess Leia reveals under interrogation. We know that the Rebel fleet, even at its strongest, could not long-survive a stand-up fight with Imperial warships. We know that the Rebels will give absolutely anyone the rank of general, provided that person is a smuggler who seems cool about the whole thing.

It’s not much to go on, so X-Wing hits those same beats again and again and again. You protect a Rebel convoy during yet another inglorious retreat. You raid an Imperial convoy carrying especially valuable cargo. There isn’t much variety in the kinds of ships and battles you encounter, either. You never get the feeling of taking part in anything like the Battle of Endor. Rebel and Imperial capital ships tend to stand-off across the map from one another, dueling via small waves of fighters. And it’s the same ships again and again: a frigate here, a Star Destroyer there, and now and then a freighter Mon Calamari Cruiser.

But playing it today, I think what really kills X-Wing is the fact that you’re playing as the plucky underdog. It’s a recipe for frustrating mission design: time and again, you are sent in alone or almost alone, and given an impossible laundry list of objectives. There’s a mission halfway through the first campaign where they stick you in a Y-wing (the hand-me-down minivan of the Rebel Alliance) and tell you to inspect a herd of Imperial transports, disable the ones carrying Rebel prisoners, destroy all the rest, all while dogfighting waves of Imperial fighters who are trying to attack the Rebel rescue teams. Fail any of these goals and you have to start over.

Of course, in this sense X-Wing is much more of an old-fashioned videogame. Death and failure are frequent and punishing, and only through repetition and memorization can you succeed in each mission. X-Wing is a game you are supposed to “beat” rather than experience. Playing it today, I have no idea how I slogged through it all those years ago. Every other mission is an invitation to ragequit.

TIE Fighter is something very different.

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