Like everyone else on the planet, I rewatched the Star Wars trilogy over the previous weekend in preparation for the release of The Force Awakens. It was a great trip down memory lane for the most part (even if Return of the Jedi got a little silly at times), but the moment that stood out for me was the iconic trench run - the climactic moment of the original film that saw Luke trying to line up to destroy the Death Star with Darth Vader hot on his tail.
As Luke, Biggs, and Wedge screamed down the trench with John Williams's soundtrack booming, I turned to my girlfriend and commented, "Wedge is the real MVP of the original trilogy." He was the one who took the shot for Luke in the trench and somehow survived. He was the one who managed to bring down an AT-AT in his little speeder. And in the end, he brought down the Death Star II alongside Lando in Return of the Jedi. In short, Wedge is awesome. If I could be anyone, it would be Wedge Antilles, the best starfighter pilot in the Rebellion.
Of course, I wasn't alone. Lots of people have wanted to experience firsthand what it was like to be Luke Skywalker in the Death Star trench since the original movie came out in 1977. In 1993, LucasArts finally gave them that experience with X-wing - a space combat simulator built on the foundation of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, appropriate given that the space battles in Star Wars were themselves based on footage from World War II. Though crude by today's standards, it told a rousing story that traced the Rebellion's journey from the capture of the Death Star plans to the establishment of Echo Base on Hoth, and it really did make you feel like you were flying an X-wing.
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In designing X-wing, Larry Holland took the rather interesting approach of making it more of a sim than an arcade game, the crux of which was the energy balancing system that gave you flexibility in assuming an offensive or defensive posture. It leaned away from the arcade-style setpieces that came to dominate later Star Wars games in favor of harder objectives like taking out capital ships and inspecting freighters - seemingly banal tasks that nevertheless leant the series a versimilitude that hasn't been replicated since. You were in essence an X-wing pilot, and that meant fighting battles big and small, which in turn had the effect of making the climactic battle over the Death Star that much more exciting.
In the end, X-wing ended up winning plenty of praise from gamers and critics, but it was not without its faults. For one thing, it was incredibly hard - so hard that one of its toughest missions made it into Michael Stackpole's X-wing novels as a near unwinnable scenario. For another, the missions could take a long time to complete, and it was sometimes possible to play for ages without knowing that you had failed. Finally, there was the nagging question, "When were we going to get to fly a TIE Fighter?
Enter TIE Fighter, which for my money is still the best pure Star Wars game ever made.
Right out of the gate it sets the scene perfectly. Star Destroyers gather over Coruscant, the foreboding Imperial capital world which at that point had not been seen on screen. We then see the Emperor, who announces that the Imperial Navy has been dispatched to destroy the rebels in the wake of the Battle of Hoth. Cut to Darth Vader intoning that the rebels are unprepared for the attack, and that Vice Admiral Thrawn should prepare to launch fighters. By the way, this was a big deal for Star Wars nerds at the time. Thrawn was a major antagonist in Timothy Zahn's popular Heir to the Empire book series, and it served to ground TIE Fighter in what would become the larger expanded universe. Finally, the money shot - an X-wing and an A-wing flee a burning platform with two TIE Interceptors in pursuit, with the camera cutting to the cockpit for a familiar shot of a TIE pilot right before he blows the rebels out of the sky. It doesn't get any better than that if you're a Star Wars fan.
The game itself brought with it many notable improvements over X-wing. It introduced the ability to speed up time, which made the sometimes interminable docking sequences feel much shorter. Its missions were generally more dynamic and better balanced, bringing with them a slew of new ships - Victory Star Destroyers, platforms, TIE Avengers, and of course, the infamous Missile Boat. And perhaps most importantly, it supported in-game messages, which made it much easier to tell an interesting story from within the missions themselves.
Many of these improvements are encapsulated in the fifth battle, in which Admiral Harkhov tries to defect to the rebels. In the first mission, you are on a seemingly routine training missions with a pair of TIE Interceptors when all hell breaks loose. Your wingmates turn their guns on you, the rebels show up, and a massive battle erupts as you just try to hang on and survive in your pitiful unshielded fighter. It's the sort of mission that would never have worked in X-wing, but is carried off beautifully in TIE Fighter.
Ultimately, where X-wing captured the spirit and adventure of the original trilogy, TIE Fighter broadened the universe beyond the movies and forged its own path. Among other things it let you pursue secondary mission objectives for the Emperor's Hand - a shadowy cabal of Force users working for the Emperor who fit in perfectly with the darker atmosphere of TIE Fighter. But it also had a heroic component to it. TIE Fighter was the first instance I can think of where we see matters from the perspective of the Galactic Empire, who are purportedly trying to restore order in a lawless galaxy by ending planetary civil wars and hunting down pirates, which serves to cast the Empire in a more interesting light than the black and white trilogy. It's still the most enjoyable portrayal of the Empire that I can think of in a Star Wars game.
TIE Fighter ultimately reached its zenith with TIE Fighter Collector's CD-ROM - a collection featuring the original game and its two expansions. In addition to wrapping up the story begun in the original game, it brought with it far superior graphics and voiced in-game messages, making it by far the most definitive version of the game. It ended up being immensely popular, helping to fuel a reawakening of popular interest in Star Wars after a brief hibernation in the late '80s and '90s. Today it's remembered as one of the great space combat simulators ever made, even upstaging the more complex and ambitious X-wing Alliance. It's a reputation that's well-deserved.
The legacy of TIE Fighter
TIE Fighter has retained many devoted fans through the years. I personally was making missions as a member of an online fan group as late as 2005 - a full decade after the release of the original game. As the years have passed and additional space combat sims have failed to appear, fans have grown increasingly nostalgic for games like TIE Fighter, which so neatly straddled the line between being a simulation and being an arcade game. No one would confuse it with a serious flight sim, but it was inarguably deeper than the likes of Rogue Leader, which was ultimately a very good arcade shoot 'em up.
Returning to the series upon its release on Steam and Good Old Games last year, I was impressed by how well it has held up (the original, not the one based on the X-wing vs. TIE Fighter engine). The flat gouraud-shaded graphics now look cool and stylized while avoiding the pitfalls of late '90s textures, and the dynamic iMuse-driven music is catchy without becoming repetitive. The missions also display a high degree of polish that sets it apart from other space combat games of that era, with some of the more ambitious ones featuring big plot twists and multi-part objectives.
From my own perspective, TIE Fighter has had a major impact on both my outlook on games and my understanding of game design. To this day it remains a very personal favorite of mine - one of a handful of reasons that I've never entirely been able to let go of my affection for Star Wars.
So if you haven't tried it, go on Steam or Good Old Games and give it a shot. It'll not only put you in the mood for the new movie, I promise it'll be an entirely unique Star Wars gaming experience.