This article originally ran in July 2014. In honor of May 4th, we're bringing it back to highlight the best Star Wars game ever made. Enjoy!
In the summer of 1995, I sped home on my bike with a handful of 3.5 inch disks rattling in a box tucked under my arm.
The box contained TIE Fighter, which I'd discovered a few weeks before. I looked to it simply as one more game to keep me busy during the muggy Minnesota summer, never suspecting that I would still be playing it well into adulthood.
On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, I find myself reflecting on TIE Fighter a great deal. For me, the ultimately represented an escape from the drab days of middle school, but it also served as an education. It was the game that really introduced me to the Star Wars universe; at the same time, it taught me a good deal about good game design. Many people talk about games that influenced their childhood. TIE Fighter didn't merely influence my adolescence, it helped shape my tastes as an adult.
It came into my life at the perfect time. In 1995, I was a shy and mousey-looking 12-year-old with huge glasses. As I stood on the verge of entering middle school, I found my gaming tastes were in the process of shifting as well. I still liked my NES, but it seemed woefully out-of-date; and without a Super Nintendo or a Sega Genesis to replace it, I inevitably gravitated toward the PC.
TIE Fighter presented an experience that I couldn't get on a 16-bit console, nor even on one of the newer 32-bit consoles like the Sega Saturn. Oh sure, there were a few inferior console ports of Wing Commander here and there, but TIE Fighter was more complex than any of those games. The key command screen alone — loaded as it was with wingmate commands and targeting instructions — made it clear that TIE Fighter could never work on a simple gamepad. This was well and truly a PC game.
I played hours of TIE Fighter that summer, working my way through the Defender of the Empire expansion and looping back to the beginning again. Eventually I bought a PlayStation, went to college, and moved to Japan. Nevertheless, TIE Fighter has remained an indelible part of my experience as a gamer in a way that few other games have. Even now, nearly 20 years later, little has changed.
In the Cockpit
TIE Fighter hooked me right away. Its splendid opening cutscene still ranks as one of the best I've ever seen.
Like most Star Wars openings, it begins with the familiar "A long time ago..." and an opening crawl. Yet here instead of the usual soaring Star Wars theme, it uses a variant of the Imperial March rendered in LucasArts' iMuse engine. The piece starts off menacing and bombastic like the one from the movies, then changes into more of a heroic-sounding naval fanfare. After the text fades away, the scene shifts to a handful of Star Destroyers taking up orbit around the planet Coruscant, where the Emperor delivers his assurances that the rebels will soon be destroyed. We then see Darth Vader and Admiral Thrawn launch an attack on a rebel platform, the battle culminating in a pair of TIE Interceptors chasing down and destroying and X-wing and A-wing as the music swells.
As cutscenes go, it's distinctive, succinct, and masterfully executed. Watching it, you immediately want to hop into a TIE Interceptor and start blasting X-wings, regardless of how much you might have liked Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. As a cutscene, it does exactly what it needs to: It puts you on the side of the Empire while retaining the novelty of flying with the bad guys, thus setting the stage for what's to follow. It's easy to envision playing as the Empire now with reams of source material, movies, and books to draw from; but back in 1994, when TIE Fighter first came out, the Empire was still relatively faceless. TIE Fighter's opening cutscene gives them a cause: To maintain law and order throughout the galaxy.
The idea of taking the role of the Empire really crystallizes the first time you see an X-wing as an enemy. The first time I saw Red Squadron pop in, I was overcome with an almost immediate desire to fly over and start shooting at them, despite the fact that I had my hands full with Y-wings. It felt wonderfully cathartic to be the bad guy; doubly so when those beautiful X-shaped wings snapped off like pieces on a plastic model and flew off into the void.
One of TIE Fighter's chief strengths came from the distinctive natures of its ships. X-wings are the Marios of the Star Wars universe, solid multi-role fighters capable of both dogfighting and bombing missions. A-wings are the pesky gnats, tiny, difficult to hit, and exceedingly dangerous in a dogfight. Y-wings and B-wings play the bullet sponges, while fragile Z-95s comparatively appear to be made of tissue paper. On the Imperial side, the TIE Advance and TIE Interceptor are by far the most fun to fly, while the pig slow and unshielded TIE Bomber inevitably elicits groans.
The flight mechanics can best be described as deliberate. Especially compared to more frenetic games like Rogue Squadron and Freespace, the battles feel like they have a rhyme and a reason to them. Every single shot counts; and when your attacks hit home, the punchy sound effects make for a satisfying reward. The reality, of course, is that for all of its pretensions toward energy management and the like, TIE Fighter is basically an arcade shooter. In any given mission, you can collect a dozen or more kills; if you're really dedicated, you can eventually wear down and destroy an enemy capital ship all by yourself. But as they say, it's realistic enough for a Star Wars game. It doesn't exactly need to be Falcon 4.0 in space.
I find myself surprised by how well the game holds up even now. TIE Fighter's ships may be constructed from smooth, textureless shapes, with only a few details interspersed here and there to help differentiate them, but this gives it a uniquely minimalist look. Even for the time, the ship models looked quite simple, especially when compared to the likes of Wing Commander; but the relatively spartan graphics also ensured that TIE Fighter could run on a wide variety of machines (including my old 486). Looking at them now, something about TIE Fighter's flat gouraud-shaded ships manages to be charming. They're almost artistic in a way.
Much like the movies upon which its based, TIE Fighter gets the majority of its punch from its sound effects and its music. The audio cues, of course, all come directly from the films. Many, like the whoosh of the X-wing's engines as its sweeps by, sound as if they've been lifted directly from the films. Others are unique to TIE Fighter, like the rich (and rather terrifying) blast of a rebel turbolaser if you get too close to one of their capital ships.
The music, like the graphics, proves to be simple yet effective. Rendered entirely in the iMuse engine, it's really only a half step above the MIDI tunes you would have heard on a MySpace page back in the day, but its subtle derivations of the Imperial March nevertheless manage to be quite catchy. It finds its real strength in its dynamism, as every meaningful event is accompanied by some sort of musical sting, which lends the action a good deal of energy. When TIE Fighter was remade with Redbook Audio a few years later, the quality of the tunes substantially improved, yet I dearly missed the original dynamic music.
Taken together, TIE Fighter comprises an elegant package that worked well within the limitations of its time period. It lacked the bombast and the FMV video cutscenes of Wing Commander, but it looked very good in its own way. More importantly, it remained faithful to its source material, thus helping to pave the way for a resurgence of interest in Star Wars and the rise of a new generation of fans.
The First Step into a Larger World
I completely missed the cloaked Secret Order member sitting behind briefing officer the first time he appeared in TIE Fighter. Focused as I was on the next mission, I just plowed right through to the hangar and completely failed to notice the shadowy figure hanging around in the background. But in so doing, I inadvertently missed out on one of TIE Fighter's more interesting elements.
The Secret Order, as I later discovered, served to offer a glimpse of the bigger picture. In the very first campaign, they have you inspect fleeing shuttles and cargo transports, darkly hinting that something may be amiss. And as it turns out, they're right. At the conclusion of the first battle, an Imperial Admiral is shown offering up his fleet to the rebellion ("For a price," he growls), and the stage is set for the traitor arc that dominates the latter half of the game.
The Secret Order perfectly embodies TIE Fighter's storytelling, which (like much of the rest of the game) has a decidedly minimalistic quality. In an era in which PC game developers experimented heavily with FMV cutscenes, TIE Fighter opted to use in-game messages, briefings, and the odd cutscene to get its message across. At no point does it feature the sort of sprawling cinematic sequences that came to characterize Wing Commander, and most of the background information is compartmentalized in the source material that comes with the game — this being when games still had manuals. For the most part, TIE Fighter prefers to let its actual missions do the talking.
Nevertheless, the story looms heavy with a sense of intrigue, which is largely down to the Secret Order. Their missions represent a totally optional element to the game, but if you happen to complete them, you get to hear a tiny bit more about what's actually going on. As an added bonus, they induct you into the order, giving you a nifty arm tattoo in the process. This aspect of the game does a fantastic job of evoking the Dark Side of the Force without actually making the pilot a Jedi — an approach that might have tempted lesser developers. It left me without a shadow of a doubt that I was flying for the Empire.
As a side effect of TIE Fighter's economic approach to storytelling, I found myself drawn further into the Star Wars universe as a whole. I began braving the humidity and biking down to the local Book Mobile so I could check out Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy of novels, a series that introduced many elements that eventually made their way into TIE Fighter, including the planet Coruscant and Admiral Thrawn. I also devoured the Stele Chronicles, which came packed in with every copy of TIE Fighter. Ostensibly the story of TIE Fighter's anonymous pilot, its ulterior motive was to tease the official strategy guide, where the story continued. I'll admit, it worked. I ended up reading the guide to the point that the binding came off.
In retrospect, I suppose this was LucasArts' way of reacquainting people with the Star Wars universe, which had been on something of a hiatus up to that point. At that point, there was no Wookiepedia to reference, nor even much of an Expanded Universe. The Empire was a blank slate, and the world of Star Wars offered an exciting tabula rasa on which to tell a story. TIE Fighter did its part to feed that excitement, even if it did waste far too much time on its various traitor plots*. Protagonist Maarek Stele even made it into the Expanded Universe proper at one point, as did other LucasArts heroes like Keyan Farlander and Kyle Katarn. Back when they were at the top of their game, LucasArts could spin a yarn in the Star Wars universe as well as anyone.
My own dalliance with the Expanded Universe was comparatively short-lived. I stopped reading around the time that the Yuuzhan Vong showed up, which in retrospect was probably about the right time to get out. My interest did manage to push me into the mission-building community though, which profoundly impacted my understanding of TIE Fighter — and gaming— as a whole.
I first came into TIE Fighter's mission building community via the Emperor's Hammer — a then-burgeoning online gaming club in which players roleplayed as Imperial Officers (it's actually still around... sort of). Playing custom missions for high scores was a key component of the EH, which boasted a compendium that ran more than a hundred missions deep. The prospect of designing my own missions piqued my sense of creativity, so I decided to give it a try.
Upon downloading the TIE Fighter Editor, I decided that I would try and make the mission that every novice editor attempts to create before they eventually wise up: The Battle of Endor. Having never really appeared in a Star Wars game up until that point (unless you count the thoroughly average Return of the Jedi arcade game), it seemed an enticing subject for a mission. But without a Death Star — or even a Super Star Destroyer — to serve as a centerpiece, it was unfortunately a bit of a non-starter.
My aborted attempt to build the full Battle of Endor gave me an appreciation for the limitations that the developers worked under. As I soon discovered, TIE Fighter can only support a handful of flight groups at any one time. Suffice it to say, my take on the Battle of Endor looked quite puny in comparison to the real thing.
As time went on, I became better about cycling in and out flight groups and generally keeping the battle dynamic enough that no one would notice how few ships were on the screen at any given time. I eventually learned that I had my greatest successes when I split missions into multiple parts comprising an introduction, rising action, and a climax. My favorite missions were the ones that started as one thing before morphing into something else entirely. The constantly shifting battle made it that much easier to keep the scope as large as possible.
I eventually made some pretty good missions, my favorites being the ones in which I could create the sense that the player was a solitary pilot just trying to survive. I was still an amateur though, and my desire for control over the story tended to get the better of me. In one battle in particular, I tried to create a squadron of rival aces; but no matter how hard I tried, the setpiece duels just never quite came off. In TIE Fighter, the only ace is Darth Vader. Everyone else is cannon fodder.
In the years that followed, I also experimented with X-wing vs. TIE Fighter and X-wing Alliance, but my familiarity with TIE Fighter usually brought me back. Ultimately, though, I suspect I tried too hard to make something truly epic. Lawrence Holland and his team had scarcely more tools at their disposal than I did, but by comparison their missions are far more elegant than mine. One of my recent favorites is the sixth mission of the first campaign, which pits you against the CRL Lusla. Having been largely stripped of its fighter screen, its only defense is a handful of fighters and a minefield. Nevertheless, between clearing out mines, covering transports on their bombing runs, and disabling fleeing rebel shuttles, the battle becomes sheer chaos. TIE Fighter features plenty of missions like that, actually: Battles in which situational awareness becomes every bit as important as raw skill, because you never know when a group of Y-wings will jump in to kill your mission objective while you're not looking.
Regarding the Collector's Editions
TIE Fighter through the years.
Though TIE Fighter was first released on July 17, 1994, the Collector's CD-ROM released a year later is more fondly remembered among fans. Sporting higher-resolution graphics, fully-voiced mission messages, and a complete expansion that concluded the original story, "TIE95" was quickly embraced as the game's definitive edition. The Collector's Series release, which replaced the trademark iMuse engine with Redbook Audio, wasn't remembered nearly as fondly. Unfortunately, it was also the only version that reliably ran on later versions of Windows until DOSBox came around.
What's more impressive is how effectively the designers balanced most of those missions. Rarely have I ever said, "Oh, c'mon, that's BS," in TIE Fighter. I know that more than a few people have said that about my own missions, like the one in which I required them to destroy four jamming transmitters solo while under the guns of multiple enemy starfighters and a capital ship. Let's just say that mission wasn't too popular.
It's been a long time now since I last made any missions; and sadly, most of them have long since been scrubbed clean from the Internet (probably for the best). I'm glad I had the experience, though. I took awat a lot of lessons that I still find valuable eve now. Over the weekend, I found myself admiring the open-ended nature of Destiny's encounters, which generally put an obstacle (like a bad guy) in your way and leave you to figure out how to get past it. I know how hard it can be to pull off even without terrain to worry about, so I admire the ease with which Bungie is able to craft their encounters.
Building missions in TIE Fighter didn't exactly make me a pro-level designer overnight, but it did have a pretty big impact on the way that I came to view A.I., objective design, and verticality. More importantly, it gave me a new perspective on the truly thoughtful design lurking beneath TIE Fighter's minimalist exterior.
I ended up playing TIE Fighter for the better part of a decade, installing it across multiple computers as I fell in and out of the Emperor's Hammer. I've modded it, built custom missions, and generally played it into the ground. My current run, which started with my recent stream, is actually the first time I've played the proper campaign in quite a long while.
If anything, I've found TIE Fighter to be better than I'd remembered. Over the past week, I've been periodically jumping in to play a few missions, shoot down some X-wings, and just soak it all in again. On more than one occasion, I've found myself thinking, "Yikes, this is a lot harder than I remembered." But by and large, it's been a pleasant stroll down memory lane.
Sadly, nostalgia is all I really have now. Though the original TIE Fighter holds up better than you might think, it's still 20 years old; and as of right now, there are no new Star Wars flight sims in the offing. Totally Games — the outfit that developed the X-wing series under the LucasArts umbrella — appears to be long gone. In putting together this article, I've attempted to contact Larry Holland and his team; but inquiries over email, Facebook, and LinkedIn, as well as multiple phone calls, went unanswered. As best as I can tell, Totally Games is now a one-person outfit based out of a condo in Santa Cruz. Any sequel would almost certainly have to be developed at EA; and barring a sudden space combat renaissance (c'mon, Star Citizen!), I don't see that happening.
Twenty years ago though, TIE Fighter gave me a lasting appreciation for both Star Wars and good game design. Sequel or not, they represent memories that will last a lifetime.
* As a sidenote, how in the world did Admiral Zaarin manage to kidnap the Emperor? The guy could fly and shoot lightning bolts. I maintain that it was all part of the Emperor's plan to unmask Zaarin as a traitor.