Review: Star Wars: X-Wing (PC)
For most right-thinking people, there is one moment above all others in the ridiculously extensive (and extended) universe of the Star Wars saga that truly cemented the venerable X-Wing starfighter’s place in our hearts, minds and (for some) groins. Yes, that iconic moment in the rebel base on Yavin IV when Jek Porkins (that was his name, look it up) not only managed to crowbar his fried wamp-rat-loving frame into the cramped cockpit, but got the struggling engines to lift off and take him into space. Any ship that could carry that man could be capable of anything – as the later destruction of the galactic deathball showed. (I guess that counts as a defining moment too.)
In 1993, the closest any of us got to living out our Porkins fantasies was to watch the Star Wars VHS tapes while scarfing down a bucket of KFC and bouncing on the sofa when he appeared to act as if we were being shot by evil lasers. Then LucasArts released the first DOS game to be set in the Star Wars universe, X-Wing, and suddenly it looked as if we’d all get a chance to utter his famous catchphrase “No, I’m all… aargh!”
X-Wing was a flight sim in space. Developed by the legendary Lawrence Holland and his team at Totally Games, it saw you flying the titular X-Wing, along with Y- and B-Wings, in a series of missions running alongside the events of A New Hope and culminating in the famous Death Star Run itself, although in the less impressive cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s Red 5 rather than everyone’s favourite lard-ass.
Perhaps the thing that most struck wannabe rebel pilots was the (then) impressive quality of the Hyperspace signals the start or end of a mission graphics, mostly down to the use of ‘proper’ 3D models, unlike the bitmap and sprite-based nature of its nearest rivals, the Wing Commander series, first released three years earlier. Having previously brought LucasArts’ WWII flight sim series to our screens, the team at Totally utilized the same engine which leant that ‘simulatory’ feel to the space-born action in a way that the ‘flatter’ arcade nature of Wing Commander et al struggled to escape from.
This feeling was further boosted by including such ‘exciting’ gameplay elements as power level management and shield balancing. Depending on your situation, you could divert energy between lasers, engines and shields, boosting one area at the expense of the others (more speed but slower recharge time on shields, for instance), as well as flip between forward-facing, rear-facing or a balanced shield positioning – useful when making runs on heavily-turreted Star Destroyers intent on turning your viewscreen into a sea of criss- crossing laser beams like a psychopathic Jean-Michel Jarre concert in all-out attack mode. That, perhaps more than anything, sums up why X-Wing was the success it was, the little details that did more to immerse you in the Force-filled universe than anything Lucas himself has been able to conjure up since Empire.
It’s hard to get across just how much such a little thing like being able to open and close the ‘s-foils’ (playing no practical purpose in-game) does for player immersion. When you diverted power to forward shields as you lined up the hulking sphere of the Death Star in your sights, you weren’t just flipping a switch, you really were telling R2-D2 to do it! In your head anyway. You’re not delusional.
And the music! Adding to the countless millions of column inches of praise written about the enduring quality of John Williams’ timeless score is perhaps more redundant than 30% of today’s global workforce (BOOM! Satire! Take that, global governments!), but it would not be wrong
to say that Totally’s pioneering use of score in an adaptive way paved the way for every piece of context-sensitive in-game music from that date forward. iMuse was the name of the system that made sure the Roland sound card-powered, sub- Bontempi organ music (let’s be honest) you heard in your ears matched the action on screen. Sure, it’s not going to hold a candle to today’s 100- piece orchestra coming in your ears in full 7.2 Surround Sound, but for the time, music that, *gasp*, changed based on things you 90 did was akin to sorcery.
Totally Games didn’t rest on its laurels after X-Wing. The game was followed by two expansions; Imperiul Pursuit, one that added B-Wing fighters to the roster, and a year later by the even more impressive TIE Fighter, based on an upgraded version of the X-Wing engine that allowed for better shading and (slightly) more realistic looking polygon models thanks to something called Gouraud shading.
We’ve come a long way since those heady, altruistic (some say communist) days. The space simulations of today make the simple polygons and crudely hand-drawn cutscenes of X-Wing look like the most indie of indie game fare. Elite certainly set the template for space sims from day one, but whenever you play a game that combines fast-paced action with more than just a nod towards space simulation seriousness, you’re likely looking at a game whose designers played X-Wing in their youth and tried to channel its spirit throughout their own development cycles. And as legacies go, that’s not a bad one to leave behind.
A classic worthy of the name. Influenced everything that came after and is still one of the better interpretations of Star Wars in gaming. Paul Presley
Released: February 1993 · Also: Mac · Developer: Totally Games · Publisher: LucasArts · Version: DOS via emulation · Site: lucasarts.com