People used to talk a lot about so-called ‘interactive movies’ – the 1990s Holy Grail of video games.
Back then, many games developers seemed to think we all dreamed of being in control of the latest cinematic blockbuster. Perhaps we did, but more often than not, what we actually got was grainy FMV of the older brother from The Wonder Years, failing to act his way out of a paper bag.
In 1993, when I was (just!) a teenager, I finally saw a REAL interactive movie. It’s not often that you get to experience real magic, but in possibly the first-ever PC World store in Croydon, I did.
Star Wars: X-Wing by LucasArts was a space-combat flight simulator and the first instalment of the best series of Star Wars games of all time. Taking on the role of a rebel pilot during the year leading up to the destruction of the Death Star, you fought the Empire in a series of story-connected missions.
When I first saw it in action, it was the moment I realised the future had arrived.
When my dad bought our first PC in 1990, purely for business, I was still in primary school. I was disappointed because my friend had an Atari ST and tons of cool games. But despite our own machine being larger than our car and dumber than a rock, I very quickly became obsessed with it, editing its start-up files and building Lotus 123 spreadsheets to maintain my Christmas list.
Star Wars: X-Wing
I was a strange kitten, it’s true! I scoured PC magazines and would conspire to develop more elaborate ways for my dad to part with his money. I kept a notebook of my dream computer fantasies, complete with heart-adorned drawings of the monolithic, blinking grey boxes with accompanying lists of specifications to drool over. A trip to a computer shop felt like a treat.
I don’t remember why my dad took me to PC World on that cold day in 1993; I might have wanted a new mouse or something like that. I’d spent the morning lying on the carpet in front of the TV, and as the end credits of BBC1’s Live and Kicking filled the room, and host Andi Peters waved us goodbye, I was soon skipping down our steps to my dad’s car.
In the days before internet shopping reduced its relevance, PC World was like the Toys R Us of computers. Row upon row of PCs greeted us, with confused shoppers gazing at labels and pretending to understand their new, digital overlords. Each PC would have Windows 3.1 on its screen. With its crisp lines and geometry, they looked like members of a corporate, robotic clone army.
Scanning the shelves for what we needed, my eyes passed over boxes of mice and keyboards. But between them and beyond, I spotted something immediately: a small group of people were clustered around one table in particular. They moved away, leaving it all to me as I approached. A 486 with a large cathode ray tube monitor was alive with light and sound. My eyes danced in its reflection, sparkling at the scene in front of me. Star Wars was instantly recognisable, and to me it looked just as good as the movie.
The X-Wing intro was enough to set my heart racing. It ended and then repeated and I must’ve stood on that 90s carpet and watched it three or four times more, taking it all in.
Imperials conspired aboard their Star Destroyer and watched as their turbo lasers battered the rebel fleet. Meanwhile, an orange fish-faced weirdo (Admiral Ackbar) blurted out his orders to launch the X-Wing fighters which then criss-crossed the screen, barking instructions at each other, hunting TIE Fighters. And then, with one final explosion and starfighter fly-by, the triumphant Star Wars logo and story crawled up the screen. It was something to behold!
Recruited for the Rebellion
It would be a while until I got my hands on X-Wing for myself. But in the mean-time, my nerdy school friend Gavin was acting as smug as a casino magician. He always had the best computers and computer games, so when I’d been raving about what I’d seen in PC World, of course my friend had already been bought the game.
He was excited to get me involved and I was keen to play too. What I hadn’t been expecting was to essentially be recruited as wingman, and given a sheet of the game’s keyboard commands to learn, as if we didn’t get enough homework already! I was tested on it, too; my friend would literally quiz me at lunch, or approach me in computer club (which I usually spent drawing in Deluxe Paint II on the school’s Amiga 500s), and would interrogate me about random keys.
“What does this one do? Assign next target or order wingman to attack?” Then, “…No! Go away and relearn it!” he would shout, backhanding my mouse across the desk. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little. But essentially, the boy was stark-raving mad.
As weird as it was, this was all good preparation for my visit to Gavin’s house that weekend. I loved doing this, because he practically lived in a mansion and had so much cool stuff in his room: a Warhammer 40,000 table, an epic PC, a huge TV. His mum was really nice too, although amusingly she would often walk in unannounced to check up on us without having any good reason to be there (in hindsight, I suspect is was to make sure we weren’t up to any ‘shenanigans’… ew).
It was at my friend’s PC in these opulent surroundings that I leant back in my seat to watch X-Wing being played for the first time.
Amongst the stars at last
Your career as Imperial target practice began on the deck of the Mon Calamari Star Cruiser, Independence, which featured a series of doors and flight decks that acted as an atmospheric menu screen. Relaxing music played, cute little droids and pilots stood chatting and calls for staff echoed across the hall on the tannoy.
Click on the shuttle bay doors and they open, allowing you to head to the training ground or flight school. Choose another door and it meant you started your tour of duty properly. Of course, as nostalgic as it was to passively surround yourself in the sounds of Star Wars, blowing up its ships was far more exciting.
The true beauty of the game was its fully realised 3D engine, and it pushed the capabilities of the PC to the limit. This was not a game which the SNES, Atari ST or Amiga 500 could have dreamt of; this was epic space adventure at its finest.
Lawrence Holland was a flight simulator veteran of games such as Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe and had been asked by LucasArts to apply his skills to create a Star Wars flight sim. The result was as perfect as you could have hoped for.
Completely physics driven, X-Wing’s flight engine modelled every object within the space battle in real time. Each laser you fired had its course in space and each part of a ship was a mathematically modelled 3D object to be potentially collided with. Even destroying a ship could result in spinning debris that could take out a passing craft if you weren’t looking where you were going. Nothing that darted about in space was simply cosmetic.
While you weaved in and out of a teeming danger zone, Capital ships slugged it out above or below you and needed to be either defended or destroyed, depending on what your objectives were. Other fighters would be engaging in dogfights in the distance – duels to the death that splayed green and orange laser fire around them like a Catherine wheel. Rockets would cross your vision and be headed towards your primary target. Meanwhile, other AI-controlled ships had their own individual objectives, such as bombing runs or air supremacy and would be scattered by the entrance of an enemy capital ship from lightspeed.
Each mission was connected by a running plot within each tour of duty, featuring twists and turns, rescue missions, not-so-routine patrols and surprise Imperial raids; all with the plot of the movie was used as a backdrop and explained by your commander in the mission briefing to provide context.
Of course, I began my career as co-pilot, which meant sitting at my friend’s side eating Twiglets and watching him play. Occasionally I would press the shield recharge key, find a new target and/or resist the urge to hit Ctrl-E and eject him into the void out of jealousy. On one occasion I didn’t have to.
Leaning back in my friend’s leather office chair, I saw that Gavin was engaging a Star Destroyer head on, dodging the incoming barrage of turbo-laser fire and physically leaning left and right on his stool. At 14 I was almost as tall as I am now (5’10”) and much taller than he was, so to me he looked like a Hobbit wrestling a snake while looking up at his monitor. Suddenly, with a crack, the X-Wing’s control panel splintered as a laser penetrated the ship’s protections.
“Shields!” he yelled at me and I was probably, no definitely, a little too slow to react. I unfolded my legs and set down my Coke. I leant forward to do as instructed, conscious that time was of the essence but feeling frustrated and eager for my friend’s death and the turn that I’d been promised an hour ago. I took my time and eventually pressed the shield recharge button to divert energy to the shields, but it was too late. Another crunching sound and the ship’s controls were frozen. My friend screamed as he pulled on the flight stick in vain, with his X-Wing impacting on the Star Destroyer’s bridge.
He got up, looking dejected. For a long time, he just seemed to stare at the screen.
“Ooooooh… oh dear,” I said, hand to mouth with mock shock. Gavin looked like he wanted to call his mum and have me ejected from his house.
John Williams would be proud
As great as the game was, it would be nothing without the right sounds and music.
Early PC games looked at the Amiga with envy, but that changed rapidly with the invention of the Adlib and Sound Blaster cards which brought sweet, sweet digitised sound and FM synth to our great, grey and mostly silent boxes.
Star Wars (and other movie tie-in) games needed the sound and music to hit the right notes in the brain, perhaps even more so than regular games. After all, the Star Wars music and sound effects are part of what makes the movie franchise so iconic.
Luckily, X-Wing, like many games developed by LucasArts, boasted a unique music system to help bring the action from a galaxy far, far away directly to you: the iMUSE music system, which also featured in soundtracks like the Monkey Island series. Rather than the game ordering your sound card to play a set series of notes like a recording, the game instructed the computer to play notes in a timing and rhythm that adapted to the action, creating atmospheric anticipation during slow periods, which slowly became peppered with drum beats and sped up as an enemy approached. Under fire, the music then exploded into full orchestra and the familiar themes we all know, dynamically interweaving them together.
The atmosphere was highly immersive and, of course, the story followed suit.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away
Of course, there was no use blowing TIE Fighters apart for no good reason. What every young person wanted to do when they first saw Star Wars was to leap into the cockpit of the nearest X-Wing or grab a lightsaber and lop the hand off their father. Well, assuming they were old enough to appreciate it – when I first saw the Return of the Jedi in the cinema, I was a toddler. All I remember was seeing the Rancor’s mouth and immediately having a breakdown. My dad had to carry me out of the theatre in floods of anguished tears and take me home.
But anyway, once you start the game properly, you quickly realise that the X-Wing experience is not just shooty space battles with a cool soundtrack; you became a part of the rebellion against the Empire in as real a way as I think has ever been digitised in game form.
Over the course of three tours of duty (five, including the excellent expansion packs that followed), you helped exact revenge against the Empire and began to feel like an integral part of the story. Perform some heroic deed in a mission and medals and other awards started to adorn your uniform and you felt a real sense of pride at the silver or gold rewards for your achievements.
Cleverly, the game interweaved the events of the movies and created backstory and battles to go alongside it. For example, in one mission, you might have been helping a rescue mission for a transport of Wookie slaves, while in another, you were providing support to transports carrying the Death Star plans, which were on their way to a rendezvous with a certain diplomatic ship heading to Alderaan.
You don’t know how hard I found it
If there’s a criticism you could level at X-Wing, it was that it was rock hard – I mean, properly difficult. The game’s AI was good, but let’s be honest, you were the star of the show, and if you weren’t at the top of your game, the rest of your scummy rebel friends wouldn’t turn the tide to victory by themselves. This meant you needed to be aware of all the mission objectives at all times.
There were some missions where this was almost impossible. Admiral Ackbar might croak “Red Two, your mission is to protect two grain transports bound for Dantooine,” and that might sound reasonable – except that you’d often find you were separated from them by a good 30 seconds of space flight, during which you and the transports were under constant attack. When it only took one or two missiles to turn the grain shipments into intergalactic popcorn, you essentially needed to be in two places at once.
For these reasons, it’s with a sense of personal pride that I completed the game before the CD versions were released, because in the re-release the game shipped with an option to turn off the ‘classic’ missions and instead play the new, easier versions.
Tales of close calls and daring bravery were sometimes swapped long into the evening. One night, with the stars speckling the night sky and a campfire enticing our shadows into dancing on the trees around us, my friend and I sat in the forest at the back of his house roasting marshmallows on sticks like extras in a cheesy episode of Gentle Ben.
We sat shaking, from either the cold or PTSD, I wasn’t sure. Either way, our eyes bore into the fire as we relived each crushing X-Wing defeat after another. I remember two guys, both older than either of us, approaching. These woods were communal and the younger people in the area would come to hang out.
In the distance a thumping beat was pounding. I was very quiet, but it was clear they wanted us to come with them to the party that was going on a few doors down. They became fairly insistent, albeit in a good-natured way. By coincidence, the shorter one noticed the X-Wing keyboard layout card I’d brought with me. Suddenly, the nature of the conversation changed.
“Oh hey! I’ve got that game! Do you play it?”
“I just watch him,” I smiled, keen to avoid a grilling. But it wasn’t long before the pair of them were swapping tales of daring. After a few minutes, the boy’s friend pulled him towards the music.
Back at the house, having narrowly avoided social interaction with humans, we loaded X-Wing up again to try out some of the moves we’d just been hearing about. We made sure to turn the volume up just that bit higher than usual, to compete with the thumping that we were now aware of coming from down the road.
Masters of the universe
It wasn’t just the music and sound which worked so well. There was a definite strategy to the game that you needed to master. Every ship had its own power system which was, with a key press, divided between engines, lasers and shields. This simple system was easy to learn, but it completely opened up how you played the game.
Hit a key and you could divert power to shields and increase your protection, but this would be at the expense of your laser power and available speed. Alternatively, you could set your lasers to supercharge, but at the expense of speed and your defensive capability. On the other hand, if you diverted power to the engines, you were super nippy and could potentially escape a tricky situation, but your shields and lasers would drain quickly.
A lot of your other systems could operate independently too and become disabled at precisely the wrong moment. Your sensors could be broken and refuse to show you where the enemy was, or your targeting computer could short circuit and leave you unable to launch missiles. Worst of all, your ejector seat function could malfunction if that was hit. This meant that if you were destroyed you weren’t just dumped back at the mission debriefing screen with a ‘retry’ button. Instead, you were presented with a CGI funeral and the word ‘dead’ next to your pilot’s name.
Just like in a flight sim, if you were blown up and failed a mission that way, there was a chance your character could be killed outright and it basically meant game over. A dead character was permanent, and so you quickly learned to find and back up your pilot file every day just in case!
X-Wing was also the game that inspired one of my favourite moments of all time. At university in either 2001 or 2002, a couple of my friends and I were visiting another friend at her house. Being a computer nerd, and almost exclusively knowing other computer nerds, it was no surprise to me that we arrived at the house to find my friend’s male housemates, most of whom I had never met, all engaged in a network multiplayer PC game.
Walking into one guy’s bedroom and sitting next to him at his computer, I seemed to distract this poor boy into detonating his craft pretty swiftly, but I instantly knew what I was looking at. This was X-Wing Alliance, the fourth game in the series and something I’d longed to get my hands on after I’d left my copy installed on my dad’s PC at home. It played exactly like the original, only with graphics worthy of 1998, when it was released.
After watching for a bit, the host of the game appeared and asked if I wanted to have a go. He was being polite, but I could tell that he immediately assumed I’d never played the game before, which was strange because moments earlier I had told him that I had. Nevertheless, I was warned not to worry about complicated matters, like the shield recharge rate settings, using missiles or the targeting computer.
Presumably, despite being an Astrophysics student, he thought my female mind would explode if I tried to memorise too many keyboard commands. I’d met this guy before and didn’t like him. He was arrogant and outspoken and exactly the sort of person who usually intimidated me.
His friend stood up and I sat in the chair and took the controls. The host went back to his room to take command of his own ship. The other players were all in different parts of the house, each with a PC in their bedrooms. In the next round, we all flew TIE Fighters, except for the host who was allowed the superior TIE Interceptor.
Weaving in and out of the laser fire, I approached him head on, fainting left, before spinning right and then doubling back left to find myself on his tail. I blew him out of the sky, and hear a thump from the floor above. Picking him off from range with some lucky shots elicited a similar noise. Creeping up to the top of the scoreboard, I could hear the host getting more and more frustrated as his superior craft hadn’t translated into superior results.
With the final kill, my victory was rewarded with a faint “F**K OFF!” from somewhere in the house. He came stomping down the stairs and walked straight to the fridge for a beer. There was dead silence as my friend and I looked at each other. Inside, I was laughing my head off.
- Fully 3D intergalactic dogfighting
- Perfect flight controls
- Absorbing tours of duty and integrated story
- Spot-on Star Wars atmosphere
- Very difficult, with some unfair missions
- Not as good as its sequel, TIE Fighter
X-Wing is an almost-perfect Star Wars game. Despite a steep learning curve, it successfully gave me the memories of a Rebel fighter pilot. Take to the stars and dogfight with the Empire to save the Galaxy, in exciting story-based ship-to-ship combat.