Happy 20th anniversary to X-Wing Alliance, the final entry in the Star Wars themed series of space combat simulators by LucasArts. X-Wing Alliance was released on February 28, 1999, and by most measures it was the most ambitious game in the series. We haven't seen anything like it since.
X-Wing Alliance was released during the height of prequel fever, just a few months before The Phantom Menace introduced us to Jar-Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker squeaking, "Are you an angel?" It was the culmination of a decade's worth of Star Wars flight sims, bringing with it the ability to enter hyperspace, fly the Millennium Falcon, and fight in the Battle of Endor. Its stages were able to support far more ships than X-Wing or TIE Fighter, greatly enhancing its sense of scope.
Like its predecessors, X-Wing Alliance effectively mixed arcade and simulation elements, making it akin to a more ambitious Ace Combat. Flight was intuitive and very forgiving, based as it was on Lawrence Holland's World War II flight sim engine, but it included complicated elements like shield rebalancing, turn rates being affected by thrust, and electronic countermeasures. The sheer number of keyboard commands made it feel far different from Factor 5's Rogue Squadron, which had been released just a couple months before on PC and console.
X-Wing Alliance tends to be overlooked in favor of TIE Fighter, which had the superior mission design and story, and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, which introduced multiplayer, but it had strengths of its own. Some of the cooler elements included trophies that would fill your quarters as you completed missions; 3D hangar bays, and a beautifully realized run to the Death Star's main reactor. It took the setpieces introduced in TIE Fighter and pushed them further than ever before, utilizing frantic comm messages to convey its story.
Unfortunately, while it was well-received by critics, earning solid reviews and a handful of accolades, space combat simulators were firmly on the decline by 1999. Freespace 2 would launch the same year as X-Wing Alliance and flop hard. Just a couple years later, Wing Commander Prophecy did the same. You could blame any number of reasons for this decline: joysticks falling out of fashion, their inability to translate easily to console, the fact that they were somewhat difficult to get into. But the fact of the matter was that while X-Wing Alliance made money, it recorded a substantial drop in sales in comparison to X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and TIE Fighter. That was the end of the X-Wing series. X-Wing Alliance never even got a chance to resolve the cliffhanger involving the betrayal of a family member.
In the 20 years since, there have been numerous rumors of updates, remakes, and sequels. Some of the original developers have been working on a game called Starfighters Inc. that's "in the spirit of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter," though news about its development has been sporadic since its initial reveal. There's an impressive fan-developed enhanced mod of the original X-Wing. Chris Roberts is of course working on Star Citizen, which may well be finished within our lifetimes.
But while games like Elite Dangerous have given the space combat simulator genre a shot in the arm over the past few years, few if any of them have felt anything like X-Wing Alliance did. They're either super dense simulators where you spend 20 minutes at a time navigating from planet to planet, or in the vein of Star Wars Battlefront 2's starfighter battles—arcade shooters more in the mold of Rogue Squadron than X-Wing. With the possible exception of the House of the Dying Sun, a commendable indie effort on Steam, none have matched the perfect balance of arcade and simulation gameplay in X-Wing Alliance.
Sadly, with EA firmly in control of the Star Wars license, the odds of an X-Wing revival feel more remote than ever. But X-Wing Alliance is still fun, and with the help of various mods, it still looks pretty good too. Just remember to get it on GOG so you can install the X-Wing Alliance Upgrade and everything else you need to enjoy this delightful game in 2019.