Let's Talk X-Wing
Does anyone remember X-Wing? Or Tie Fighter? These were amazing games! They were the first ones that really made me feel like I was in the Star Wars universe; really, still the only ones (maybe excepting KOTOR). What made it so different from any other SW themed game?
I know more people remember Tie Figher, but since X-Wing came first I'll be using that as an example for the three elements that I feel made the game strong.
ELEMENT 1: The (lack of) Story
I remember watching Return of the Jedi when I was young and wishing I could be a rebel pilot in a space battle... and then came X-Wing, and I could! But unlike other games like Dark Forces or Rebel Assault, you weren't put in the shoes of a developed character with an epic storyline with a tragic past- you were YOU, roleplaying a rebel pilot saving the galaxy. True, you had to follow a campaign of missions, but you were always in a squad, and could imagine your own story. By combining imagination with the experience, it transcends the conventions of a game by allowing you to be yourself within the Star Wars universe- it was like a simulation!
...AND, to support this idea, there were not "upgrades" or Leveling-up XP. The game got harder, so you had to get better. It was all you, baby!
But a lot of games don't have a character story. What else was it? Obviously, it was...
ELEMENT 2: The Controls
Well, there was one thing that made X-Wing stand out from other games. It's something that's seen even less today than in the 90's. Assuming you're using a Joystick, there are roughly 54 individual actions to control your craft. If you're to survive, you need to adjust your speed, supply power to your blasters, angle the deflector shield and operate your targeting computer- all while avoiding fire from an enemy tie.
It was multitasking! You had to coordinate your left hand and right to do completely separate tasks, WITHOUT taking your eyes off the screen. Anyone who plays piano would appreciate this! And as mentioned above, it was HARD! Which leads me to...
ELEMENT 3: It was "NES Hard"!
The difficulty ramped up quick, and you either stepped up your game or you died. A lot. But it made me work for it, just like a real rebel pilot would- It made me feel like a member of the rebel alliance, and I couldn't have been happier with the game.
That's why, after two games, an expansion, then another sequel, I was confused to see X-Wing's first "spiritual successor" for the prequels to be such a snorefest! Star Wars: Starfighter had the visual elements of X-Wing, but stripped it of it's core mechanics that made it so great!! Gone, due partially to the PS2 controller-compatibility programming, was the intense multitasking that required total concentration! Gone was the open-ended play-your-own-character ambiguity, because this time you're playing as a specific character who must walk the hero's path, with the help of his merry band of misfits! And worst of all, gone was the crippling difficulty that only motivated you to spend hours in the simulation chamber to practice and perfect your art of flying. Gone, gone gone.
I've heard the argument that simplified controls are a positive thing, as they make the game more accessible to newcomers. But that's not a valid argument! The driving force behind X-Wing was testing the player's ability to memorize and multitask in stressful situations. It WAS complicated...by design! By making it accessible to a console controller, they stripped it of what was so great!
After "Starfighter" came "JEDI Starfighter", which was largely the same thing but with new "force power weapons". zzzz. Since then, the space shooter genre has kinda died. We saw the Rouge Leader games pop up on 64 and GameCube, which were good in their own rights, but they were different games. They were NOT X-WING! Not even close. It's a funny (but cruel) joke, then, that the intro sequence Episode 3 shows the starfighters flying and behaving like the crafts from the Rouge Leader games instead.
You may be windering whether I was into the Steel Battalion game for Xbox (the first)... YES! Well, the truth is, I could never afford the controller. But this was my dream game! It was big, had lots of swtiches and foot pedals and the works! And, given the opportunity, yes; I'm sure I would LOVE this game, even maybe as much X-Wing. But with the expense of the controller, I missed out. I still want to play this game, and am almost 100% sure I will fall in love with it.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that X-Wing didn't work because it was Star Wars-themed. It worked because it made me BELIEVE in Star Wars. It allowed me to be myself and become intimately familiar with a fictional spacecraft in a universe that didn't exist. I think the combination of the three elements mentioned above made for an experience no other game has really come close to providing yet.
If you can dust off an old PC with a floppy drive and joystick, give it another try! You might have a new appreciation for it in an age where controller-interface is spoon-fed to us in the form of level tutorials and diagrams during loading screens.
And that's why I love X-Wing.