Retro Game Review: X-Wing

August 26, 2011 at 11:48 am | Posted in Reviews, Video Games | 4 Comments
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Oh the hours of my life I lost playing you

Growing up, I collected those wonderful Micro Machines Action Fleet Star Wars toys. I had just about every model ship they put out, from the countless TIE Fighter permutations to the entire lineup of Rebellion starfighters. I even had Wedge Antilles’ battle damaged X-Wing, because at the age of eight, I didn’t want to be Luke Skywalker the Jedi Knight. I wanted to be Captain Antilles, starfighter jockey. It was the minor characters that fleshed out the Star Wars universe and created a feeling of adventuring grandeur in my mind. I used to spend hours every day with my Red Two X-Wing and Imperial TIE Fighter playing out the continuing adventures of Wedge Antilles in my head*.

*As you can imagine, the day I discovered the X-Wing novels by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston was a watershed day in my fandom life.

In my imagination, I was an orange-clad starfighter pilot. I burned a hole through my VHS copy of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi because I would watch, rewind, and re-watch the dogfight scenes.  The first legitimate fanfiction I ever wrote in any fandom were about the military pilots of the New Republic (ed. note: neeeeeeeeeerd).  Thankfully for eight-year-old me, my parents chose to foster my love of these minor characters and non-Jedi stories. Let me tell you about the best birthday ever. Okay, so I won’t actually bore you with the details. In brief, it was the one where I unwrapped a copy of Lucasarts’ X-WING.

Trust me, these graphics were mind-blowing in the 90s.

Time to drift back in time a bit. In the golden days of PC gaming, you had two options if you wanted to play a flight simulator game. One was the arcade style games like Wing Commander. While these games provided the instant bang-bang gratification, they didn’t offer much in the way of deep gameplay value. Move mouse/joystick over target, press fire, next. The other option was the mind-boggling “true simulator” games. Two of the big names back then were Microsoft’s Flight Simulator franchise and the Jane’s F-16 combat simulator. For those games, you would need to read through a 300-page manual before even daring to play. Well, game is a bit of a generous term. It was more like an interactive exam on the aforementioned 300 page manual.

For quite some time, there was a stark divide between these games. Then LucasArts showed up, told Lawrence Holland to make a game, and the wall came crashing down.

X-WING was a game changer (ed. note: *facepalm*), both for the fandom and for the video game world. Never before had fans of Star Wars been given a something that was so immersive. Never before had video gamers been given a combat flight simulator that was accessible, but at the same time feature-rich. Now the biggest thing for me? This game let me play the part of one of the Rebellion’s unsung heroes, a pilot by the name of Keyan Farlander.

Getting to virtually live out my dreams of being a starfighter pilot is all well and good, but gameplay is what will make or break X-WING for me. The game starts by immediately playing to my inner geek by starting with the

Growing up, I wanted to be Wedge. Okay. I still want to be Wedge.

familiar fanfare and text scroll to introduce the opening cinematic where the player is greeted by a pre-rendered cutscene that throws a dozen Star Destroyers onto the screen that quickly gives way to a sprawling dogfight between X-Wings and TIE starfighters. Congratulations, LucasArts, you have my attention.

At this point the game gives you the option to play one of several tours of duties that cover different Rebel campaigns against the Empire. Each mission within the campaign features a unique set of objectives and will  require the player to fly one of four possible ships. The rugged but slow Y-Wing bomber, the sleek and nimble A-Wing interceptor, the powerful B-Wing bomber, and of course, the versatile and iconic X-Wing.

Lawrence Holland and his creative team with LucasArts and Totally Games deserve a tremendous amount of credit for designing such a brilliant game engine way back in 1993. X-WING blends the best of the true simulators and the arcade games, creating an environment where a player can jump in and play, but still requires a bit of strategy in order to succeed. Often when I review games, I complain about broken difficulty curves. Games that start off way too hard and stay at that difficulty, or games that are simply too easy and offer little in the way of rewarding challenges.

The player doesn’t need to micromanage dozens of systems, they just need to keep tabs on three primary components. Laser cannon batteries, shield batteries, and engine speed. The brilliant design here comes from the fact that these three components draw from the same power source. If you increase power to your lasers, your engines slow down. You can compensate for that by decreasing power to your deflector shield batteries, but that puts you at an obvious defensive disadvantage. As the player learns the game, they begin to grasp how to best align those power settings based on the situation they find themselves in.

Do I still daydream about flying X-Wings? Maybe.

Best part about this game? Far and away the one-on-one dogfights against the best of the Imperial Navy. I remember X-Wing being one of the first truly engaging games I had ever played. I would get tense as I tried to keep that enemy TIE Fighter in front of my targeting brackets. My stomach would sink every time I’d lose it, because I knew that it would only be a matter of seconds before it snuck behind me and began peppering my shields with laser fire. Nothing, however, matched the elation I felt when I finally managed to square up my target just right and deliver a finishing blow.

X-WING was a fun and engrossing game, one that is still spoken in reverent tones by both Star Wars and video game fans nearly two decades later. The true shame is that LucasArts only made four games in the franchise, the last one being released in 1999. There hasn’t been much since that has let the player assume the role of one of the Rebellion’s quiet, unsung heroes. That’s where this game truly succeeded. Not only was it a groundbreaking piece of software, it did a great deal to give the expanded universe outside of the films so much more grandeur. X-WING would go on to become the inspiration for some of the EU’s most beloved novels. For many, it was the gateway into the non-film elements of the fandom.

For me? It let me live out my dream of being a brave starfighter jockey in that galaxy far, far away.

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4 Comments »

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  1. Excellent review! Very engaging and informative. I never could quite get the hang of flight simulator games, especially space battles. They were all so badly lit it seemed. I’ll have to give this one a second look.

  2. You have made me wish I had played this game back in the day. It’s so sad that I missed out. Sounds like it was one of those experiences you’ll always remember. Great article, Lane.

  3. @Rev Yeah, I could never get the hang of these games either. I was more cannon fodder than anything. Great review, LaneWinree!

  4. One of my favorite games of all time! I was bad at it, but enjoyed the heck out of it. Wish there were modern versions of this game. – @jimb0connolly


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