Would you like another reminder of Lucasarts’ greatness? How about X-Wing?
Flight and space sims were huge on PCs in the late eighties and during the nineties owing largely to its power at the time as well as the options that it gave players through a large stable of peripherals ranging from joysticks to flight pedals. Some of the “joysticks” weren’t even traditional ‘sticks but were more along the lines of “flight sticks” with hat controls, throttle management, and tons of mappable buttons.
All of these options allowed developers to stretch their creative legs in creating some truly innovative sims either as close to the real thing as possible or as action packed as their favorite Star Wars film.
I also ate up space combat sims like they wouldn’t end. Wing Commander I and II had already hit shelves and were huge successes especially in breaking ground in terms of story and action. I couldn’t get enough of either one and neither did many other players, so it was only a matter of time before someone put two and two together to bring Star Wars to life in the same way.
That’s what Lucasarts did in making armchair pilots (and a few professional ones) members of the Rebel Alliance with X-Wing. Now everyone could pretend to be Luke Skywalker or Wedge Antilles. Or at least fly alongside them as a raw recruit trying not to get blown out of the stars in their first sortie.
Lucasarts didn’t skimp on the extras with X-Wing’s packaging. In addition to a manual that went through the basics, your standard control card listing the hotkeys, and the actual 3.5″ disks for the games, it came with a small novelette that set the tone for how a pilot might join the Rebel Alliance.
Titled “The Farlander Papers” after its rookie protagonist, it was amazing stuff that went beyond the sometimes all too brief story that set the tone in so many other manuals. This was a thick sheaf of paper that not only told a story of why you should join the Rebels, but also gave fans an inside look at how their recruiting efforts went with bits of propaganda worked into the fiction along with a Rebel’s eye view of the galaxy.
The back end of the booklet was filled with a breakdown of ships and fighters seen in the game from an “Imperial” perspective as part of a seized batch of top secret documents. A lot of it was interesting reading, especially for Star Wars fans at the time before the advent of things like Wookieepedia. Outside of West End Games’ tabletop version of Star Wars’ world, the ships used in the game were brand new to everyone else and were almost as detailed.
The game itself featured detailed cockpits and 3D polygons flying around your sights as you cruised in space in everything from a speedy A-Wing to the vaunted X-Wing. TIE fighters also came in more than one shape and size ranging from the typical, unshielded types seen in the movies to the much thicker-armored TIE bombers. Even a few other ships with shielding were thrown at you on occasion such as the TIE Advanced (Vader’s ship class) or even the mighty Star Destroyers.
The cockpit details weren’t all there for show. They displayed plenty of information for players such as shield strength allotment for the front and back of your ship, cannon configuration (whether you shot each laser off one by one, all at once, or in grouped sequences), and even power levels showing your allocations to lasers, engines, or shields. Adding more energy to shields, for example, sped up their regeneration.
But that power has to come from somewhere, too, forcing you to manage your resources as best you can. Do you sacrifice laser recharging for more shields? Or do you dump lasers into engines to squeeze more speed out from them for a quick escape? It’s all up to you.
X-Wing also outdid Wing Commander I and II in how it approached its graphics as polygons instead of 2D bitmaps. Fighters exploded into nice 2D chunks onscreen, but those Star Destroyers, Corellian Cruisers, and TIE fighters were all in 3D. And if it wasn’t a fighter, if it were something like a troop transport or a larger ship like a cruiser, it would even go through its own “death throes” as it went critical from the beat down.
If you had ever wanted to skim down along the surface of a Star Destroyer, X-Wing was as close as you would get until TIE fighter came out. 2D cut scenes helped to tell the story from the mission briefings and in between the three major tours with each tour broken down into a series of individual missions. There were also “historical” missions which were treated as challenging extras that you could take part in between assignments.
In addition to the cut scenes, quite a bit of art was also spent to flesh out the command area of the ship you’re assigned to with huge hangar doors, rebels standing around, and mission briefs that went into plenty of detail. The game’s many missions roughly covered events prior to the Battle of Yavin against the Death Star and eventually led right up to the hair raising trench run.
X-Wing also tracked your career depending on how well you did in each mission with a scoring system. Whenever you started up the game, you picked the profile you used as your pilot which carried all of their progress and accomplishments from mission to mission. Soon, you could end up with a coat emblazoned with enough brass and ribbons to become the greatest unknown hero of the Rebel Alliance. But it didn’t just hand that stuff over to you even if you think you did okay.
That was because X-Wing could be incredibly tough. More than a few missions felt like cakewalks, but quite a few others were as harsh as the vacuum waiting just outside that cockpit. And there was no way to lower the difficulty until it came out as a Collector’s CD-ROM version later with fixes patched in. Yet even before that arrived, X-Wing was seen as a serious contender for the space sim crown putting Lucasarts on the map right across from Origin Systems’ Wing Commander.
Joining the Rebel Alliance was as easy as reading the ad, gazing over the screenshots, and then running to your nearest retailer for a big, boxed copy. That is, if you had a PC that ran DOS. Mac, Amiga, or any other platform at the time were out of luck. When the Collector’s CD-ROM came out, Mac users would finally get a chance to play this in ’96 three years after its disk-based debut. It would continue to be a refrain defining Mac gaming for years to come. Even today, it still is something of a stigma that it hasn’t shaken.
The art below was also used on the cover of the game and back in those days, much like Indiana Jones and the Fate Atlantis and many other titles from Lucasarts, came in a large box festooned with plenty of color and screenshots as if the ones below weren’t enough.
And though the ad was pretty straightforward stuff, it sold the idea without even having to try very hard. This was Star Wars. For more than a few fans, even for those that were simply hungry for another space sim like me, that was all that needed to be said.