Star Wars: X-Wing

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. […] On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow.

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. This is the first time gamers had the ability to freely pilot the iconic starfighters we all know and love without the “on-rails” limitations of arcade cabinets. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re blasting TIEs left and right and waging war against the bad guys! On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow. Those missing elements accumulate in your mind over long play sessions to create an experience that is ultimately one of frustration with moments of bliss scattered about.

In terms of gameplay, X-Wing is something of a “lite” simulator. It’s not as daunting as the fully fledged flight simulators of the late 90s, but it’s decidedly more complex than the Star Wars arcade shooters from the 1980s. Simulation aspects are present in the function of your starship as well as the mission design. Your fighter has a limited amount of energy which must be used to run three vital components: engines, shields, and lasers. A certain amount of skill and tactical awareness is required in order to make sure your ship can do everything it needs to do in the heat of battle. For example, increasing your laser recharge rate and leaving your shields at the default maintenance level will reduce your speed by about 12%. This means you have to make some tactical decisions when approaching a dogfight. It’s somewhat safe to sacrifice some speed to charge your lasers while piloting the nimble A-Wing or the X-wing, but this slowness can be a death sentence in the Y-Wing. These limitations placed upon your starfighter always make sense in the world of X-Wing and never feel like a frustrating game handicap.

Ludicrous Speed! Er, wait...
The “E L S” indicators near the center-right of your cockpit show your energy settings.

The missions also introduce some variety that goes beyond just blowing up every Imperial in sight. You might be tasked with assisting in the capture of an Imperial transport, but before you can do that you need to fly close and inspect multiple starships to figure out which one holds the quarry you’re after. Other missions have goals that are tailored to the ship you’re piloting. A number of capture missions see you pilot the Y-Wing so you can use the ion cannons to disable the appropriate craft. One of my favorites requires you to pilot the nimble A-Wing through an Imperial convoy to identify all the enemy ships present. Sure, you could try to be a hotshot and blow up some of the TIEs that launch and pursue you, but that means slowing down enough so as to be vulnerable to turbolaser fire from capital ships. It’s a risk that’s demonstrably not worth taking. Missions where you’re allowed to play a specific part in a battle, and not perform every action on your own, are the ones that are most fun (and memorable).

Unfortunately for you, the game consistently requires you to fly missions and complete objectives almost singlehandedly. You do have wingmates and other friendly allies, but most of them lack any discernible sign of intelligence and are about as useful in combat as a pet rock. Perhaps the scripting language of 1993 wasn’t detailed enough to write complex AI routines, or maybe this was an intentional design decision to reinforce the feeling of the Rebel Alliance fighting as the underdog against the Galactic Empire. Whatever the reason, the effect is still the same: your allies rarely do more than the design of the mission requires them to do. If your mission as a Y-Wing pilot is to disable a shuttle, you may have X-Wings to cover you while that happens. But the moment the shuttle is disabled and the mission scripting moves on to the next event those X-Wings will be gone, leaving you to deal with squadrons of TIE Interceptors and Assault Gunboats all by your lonesome. Occurrences like this would be fine if they could rationally be explained within the context of the game, but as things are your continual abandonment makes no sense. Why wouldn’t faster, sturdier fighters; X-Wings; stick around to escort the entire capture operation instead of leaving a sluggish bomber; Y-Wings; to singlehandedly protect a target of interest?

Abandonment
Red Leader leaves you hanging again. How typical. Be prepared to see this message. A lot. 

The other major frustration is that since you have to complete most of the objectives yourself, many missions will feel more like puzzles than combat simulations. Frequently, you’ll be assigned with flying a long way downrange of your starting position to take out a squadron of bombers, then be required to hightail it back past your start position to protect some other helpless craft. Everything seems to be going well except… Oh wait, there was another squadron of bombers you missed in your first engagement and they destroyed a mission critical craft. Time to start the mission over and play through 12 minutes to do it again in a different sequence. The missions in the original campaigns aren’t totally horrible; it’s a fair mix of puzzle missions and straightforward assignments. However, the difficulty is significantly ramped up in the B-Wing expansion. So much so that hints for each mission are available during the briefing before the mission starts, should you choose to see them.

The most frustrating puzzle for me was the final mission of the original game: the Death Star trench run. What was supposed to be the crowning moment of the game turned into repeated frustration. Starting above the surface of the Death Star, your first goal is to make it to the trench. Once you get there R2-D2 does his job and increases the power output to your engines, almost tripling your speed.  This helps you evade enemy fire and lessens your time in the trench, but it’s not enough. No matter what I tried; shooting turbolaser batteries, charging everything on full, hiding behind pillars to preserve my shields; I got blown up every time. I’m ashamed to admit that I had to look up what turned out to be, to me, a completely counterintuitive solution: Once you’re in the trench you need to set shields and laser recharge to zero and put all energy to the engines. That’s right, run the Death Star trench with no lasers and no shields. If you furrow your brow and look at it from an angle it might make sense from a story perspective: How else could Vader pick off Rebel fighters with two laser blasts in A New Hope? Because they had no shields! But from a gameplay perspective, it’s totally counterintuitive. After playing three dozen missions where managing your fighter to have sufficient shields and laser power at all times is essential to your survival, having the final and most dangerous mission force you to abandon them completely is mind boggling.

And that’s the thing about X-Wing: For every moment of sheer joy, there’s an equal moment of raw frustration.

Successful trench run
Darn it Jim! I’m a spaceship pilot, not a puzzle-solver! Also: Look, no shields! At all!

Note: There are officially three versions of the game, all of which can be found and played today: 

  1. 1993 – Original release – 320 x 240 native resolution, iMuse soundtrack, limited voiceovers
  2. 1994 – Rerelease – 320 x 240 native resolution, runs in upgraded TIE Fighter engine, iMuse soundtrack, many voice parts
  3. 1998 – Collector’s CD-ROM – 640 x 480 native resolution, certain menus and cutscenes redone in higher resolution, polygons (ships and other objects) have textures instead of plain shading, music taken from the soundtrack of the movies plus quality audio

The 1994 version of the game might be worth a quick install just for an understanding of how the iMuse score works; it’s a system that dynamically matches the background music to match the action happening within the game. Not much going on? Slow, relaxing themes abound. Sudden appearance by an Imperial Start Destroyer? The score seamlessly shifts to the Imperial March. It’s quite effective at evoking the feel of Star Wars. However, the super-low resolution visuals and detailess models make for a somewhat painful playing experience. It’s just too “chunky” and jagged to flow right. When flying the Death Star trench run to grab some screenshots I crashed into the surface more than once because I couldn’t tell how close I was to the single shade of solid gray beneath me. Unless you have a nostalgic urge to experience the ’93 or ’94 versions, stay away from them. This retrospective was written about the 1998 version of the game, and is the one I recommend playing.

Regardless of what version you play the game’s menus, cutscenes, and transitions are beautifully rendered in a style that’s barely aged over 23 years. Yes they are a bit “chunky” and you can tell they were done a long time ago, but that doesn’t diminish their appeal. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of these even after the game ages another two decades. .

Transition cutscene
Pixelated, yes; but still beautiful!

The Final Raving – Qualified Endorsement OR Don’t Bother

If you like Wing Commander, TIE Fighter or Descent: Freespace, then this might be worth your time. However, be prepared for some experiences that can’t help but feel primitive. X-Wing might be best left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

This one is a tough call. If you love Star Wars or space combat games in general, you have to play X-Wing if for no other reason than to experience a slice of gaming history. However, if you’ve only ever played the later games in the series or other more modern space games it’s going to be very hard to enjoy X-Wing for what it is. If you’ve never played any Star Wars space sims and wanted to get started with one, I’d have to suggest you skip ahead to TIE Fighter.

Good:

  • Nails the desperation of fighting for the underdog
  • Distinct gameplay differences between the available ships
  • Moments of theatricality hint at the greatness later games will achieve

Bad:

  • You’re not fighting for the Rebel Alliance, you are the only Rebel alive
  • Mission design gets repetitive about 2/3 through the game
  • The game doesn’t give you enough feedback during missions to let you know exactly what you need to be doing

Ugly:

  • Visuals of ’93 and ’94 versions are just too difficult to adjust to today

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • I own these through GOG.com, and they work flawlessly in Windows 10. You can play the ’93 and ’94 versions using a mouse, but a joystick is required for the ’98 edition. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend playing any edition of the game without a joystick.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Your shields will recharge at an impossibly slow rate, so it’s not usually worth it to increase the power to them. Instead, give your lasers maximum power and shunt energy from them to your shields. It’s always faster to do it this way.
  2. You will be required to blow up a Star Destroyer on more than one occasion. The shield generator towers really do supply deflector shields. Take them out with three torpedoes each and your job becomes much easier
    BwingShields
  3. Once a ship’s shields are down, disable it! This buys you some time to deal with the other interference that will undoubtedly be surrounding you.
  4. Disable what you can, and then leave it there. A lot of missions are scripted to send new waves of ships into battle after one wave is destroyed. In the case of Assault Gunboats in particular, disabling one wave may prevent a new wave from joining the battle.

Details

Release Date:

  • Original Game: 1993
  • Expansion #1 – Imperial Pursuit: 1994
  • Expansion #2 – B-Wing: 1994

Developer: Totally Games

Publisher: Lucasarts

Where to buy: Steam & GOG.com – $9.99

Screenshot Gallery

Doom

But how is it that the various aspects of Doom managed to be cutting-edge in 1993 and yet not distractingly obsolete in 2016? In short, the game’s many components are finely designed with an elegant simplicity that manages to capture an essence of timelessness. What matters here is not so much the obvious age of the technology or gameplay mechanics that may seem basic when compared to modern titles; what matters is that Doom fully utilized the best tools of its time to create a cohesive whole that was complete in and of itself. Great visual design serves the whole rather than detracts from it, and that statement holds true no matter how old the design is.

Navigating down the curved hallway of brown stone deep within Deimos Lab, I notice an irregularity in the angle of the wall. Upon closer inspection there’s a small hole in the floor: a passage down. At the bottom of the passage there’s a hidden room containing only a plasma rifle and a teleporter. I pause for a moment to steel myself for whatever comes next. Doom never gives you anything for free. I step on the blood-red teleport pad to be whisked away to destination unknown. As the green energy burst fades I check my map and confirm that this is a room I haven’t discovered before. Directly in front of me stand two large demons within arm’s reach: A Pinky and a Cacodemon. They don’t know I’m there yet so I weigh my options against my meager supply of ammo. The room is too small for rockets, my shotgun will be too slow, and I have barely any bullets. Guess there was a reason I just got a plasma rifle. Taking them both of them out used about a fifth of my cell ammo and I can still hear more demons somewhere nearby. After checking the small room for and failing to find any hidden features, I slowly walk down a curved hallway and reach an intersection with another corridor. The chorus of grunting is louder now. There are more than a few enemies nearby. My health is 44 percent and I have fewer bullets than I’d like, but how bad could it be? I dash out, gun blazing, mowing down a pair of imps with ease. They weren’t alone. Three more imps send fireballs my way and a burst of pink plasma heralds the arrival of a trio of Cacodemons floating down from the ceiling. Running away to gain some maneuvering room brings me face to face with not one but two Barons of Hell! As their green energy projectiles sail towards me I run back towards my entry point, making the unfortunate realization that this narrow corridor I’m trapped in is nothing but a circle. With nowhere to hide I start firing off everything except my rockets, not stopping to be meticulous. After what feels like an extended engagement both my guns and the demon horde is silent. Narrowly avoiding death, I claim victory – for now. My health is down to 23 percent, my supply of ammo is lower than it’s ever been; only 4 rockets and 39 shotgun shells; and once again my only means of progress is to step on a teleporter to destination unknown. When it seems like I don’t have any options left, I realize I have the same option that I always had: kill more demons.

Doomsday 2016-02-26 21-19-59-18

I still remember my first exposure to Doom. Sometime in the summer of 1994 Jon, a friend of my oldest brother, brought a “legitimate” copy of the game over to our house. He installed it on our family computer and introduced us to the plight of that single green-clad marine waging a hopeless war against the spawn of hell. Many moments from that fleeting demo are permanently etched into my gaming memory. The nervous sideways glances of the Doom guy. Exploding barrels of green goo. A pulse rifle with a sound I can only describe as an “electric rebound”. Floors a shade of blue not seen in real life. The anguished moans from zombies after you graze them with a shotgun. The frighteningly weird hiss of the floating red Cacodemon. My brothers and I loved it. My parents hated it. After the evening’s dinner was finished and Jon went home my parents broke their polite silence, “Get rid of it”. The battles of the Doom guy would have to be waged in someone else’s home, at least for a little while. Over the years Doom and I had an on again, off again relationship. Sometimes it was upstaged by shinier and more fancy games. Sometimes I was just too busy to bother with it. Sometimes I thought it was too simple for me now; compared to new games old Doom was just kid stuff. And yet, Doom has always been there. Somehow, id’s pioneering shooter from the early 1990s has proven its staying power time and time again. After paying attention to the little details on my last playthrough I can confirm one thing for you: Doom is just as good now as its ever been.

Doomsday 2016-02-24 17-01-32-03

Given that video games are pieces of media that all too frequently tend not to age well, it takes a special combination of factors for one to provide an enjoyable experience both at the time of release as well as two decades later. But how is it that the various aspects of Doom managed to be cutting-edge in 1993 and yet not distractingly obsolete in 2016? In short, the game’s many components are finely designed with an elegant simplicity that manages to capture an essence of timelessness. What matters here is not so much the obvious age of the technology or gameplay mechanics that may seem basic when compared to modern titles; what matters is that Doom fully utilized the best tools of its time to create a cohesive whole that was complete in and of itself. Great visual design serves the whole rather than detracts from it, and that statement holds true no matter how old the design is.

Doom’s visual design definitely evokes a feeling of art, abstract art in particular. Most of the game’s designs and specifically the level layouts are open to subjective interpretation. It’s something you examine for a moment and while it doesn’t necessarily bear an immediate resemblance to anything in particular, the intention of the artist is unmistakable. Sure, there are levels and areas that definitely try to look like something, but either through the lack of graphical fidelity or intentional design decisions you’re never looking at something and think to yourself, “Man, they screwed that up.” It’s a large part of why Doom is still tolerable today. You can play through level after level without being constantly reminded of how poorly older gaming technology was able to replicate the vision of the artist. Your imagination can make these locations into whatever you think they need to be. For a prime example look to the opening level of the game: E1M1: Hangar. Though this is arguably the most famous level in the history of first-person shooters, I’ve yet to see any explanation for why the level has the name it does. There’s nothing here that even remotely resembles a hangar. Nowhere is there a space large enough to contain a ship, an airplane, or any other spacefaring vessel. The only open space is filled with green toxic goo. And just why is there so much radioactive green goo around in the first place? Why in the heck are there golden candelabras near the exit? These and other questions will pop in the back of your mind frequently as you explore such locations as “Central Processing”, “Military Base”, “Spawning Vats”, “House of Pain”, Slough of Despair”, and “Tower of Babel”. Clearly, the level design was intended to evoke a feeling rather than to serve as an accurate emulation of any particular locale.

The major difference between the levels of Doom and works of abstract art is that works of abstract art don’t try to kill you when you admire them. The opening levels of the game start with fairly straightforward and uncomplicated layouts; all that is required is for the player to navigate from the starting point to the finish and press a button or step on a pad to end the level. Additional hazards are gradually added into the mix. Some parts of a level may be sealed off and require you to find a keycard to gain access. Other levels are laid out like a maze, either by their physical layout or through the use of teleportation pads. Very frequently the level design embraces the game aspect of Doom and will throw you in the midst of all manner of traps, chokepoints, or other puzzles. The only resources at your disposal to help you navigate the often deadly labyrinths are your wits and a handy automap. There are secret areas containing weapons and powerups hidden in nearly every level. Some are marked by intentionally misaligned textures or offer other visual hints as to their existence, and others are implied only by a switch with no obvious purpose. If you wish, you can spend as long as you like exploring each area searching for hidden goodies. The only thing standing between you and passage to the next level is you.

Doomsday 2016-02-26 17-20-15-74
Here sits a lightly defended red keycard surrounded by a plethora of exploding barrels. Be wary. Be very wary.

Artistic interpretation notwithstanding, it’s hard to deny that some of the later levels of the game are just plain weird, if not disturbingThe cold metal of military bases gradually gives way to nightmarish interpretations of hell, replete with walls of flesh, corpses impaled on spikes, scrolling walls of tortured faces, demonic and satanic symbols, and other oddities. It’s been said that some of the game’s artists often used videos and images of surgical procedures to find inspiration for their designs, and it’s quite obvious a lot of those ideas were implemented. This all plays well with the idea of Doom as a form of abstract art though it’s safe to say that many people will find the game’s content objectionable. I can appreciate a good imagination as much as the next guy, but I still look at certain visual elements and can’t help but wonder, “What were they thinking?”

But I guess it takes a certain kind of imagination to dream up, or have nightmares about, what an army of hellspawn might be like. Doom paved the way in its design of enemies, creating the archetypes that are still followed today. Soldiers and Sargents are your nominal cannon fodder that can be surprisingly dangerous when you’re low on health. The brown, leather-skinned imp is the slightly tougher humanoid that hurls fireballs instead of instant hit bullets. Pinkies are your obligatory melee-damage-only enemies that can take a beating. Cacodemons are an aerial threat with a ranged attack in addition to being bullet sponges. Lost Souls are the original annoying enemy that combines small size, flying, and a shrieking rush attack that’s never fun to deal with. Barons of Hell are giant, lumbering brutes that hurl green plasma that explodes on impact for splash damage. There are bosses, too, but those are more fun to discover on your own. Prepare to do a lot of running.

Doomsday 2016-02-27 08-53-56-72

Photos don’t do justice to the enemy design in Doom. There’s just enough of a convincing menace in the animation of your foes that you will feel threatened by them, sooner or later. If visuals alone don’t do it for you, the aural experience will. While the sound effect library is small by today’s standards, the engineering is perfect for conveying the tortured nature of the beings you’re dealing with. This is due in large part to the use of animal sounds where one might expect to hear sounds recorded by humans. From the anguished moans of the shotgun-toting Sergeant to the hiss of the Cacodemon to the bizarre trumpeting call of the Baron of Hell, the sounds of Doom effectively convey that you do indeed battle against an army that is not of this world.

Sometimes, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Your foes in Doom can and will become embroiled in fights between the ranks, and it’s always a good idea to do what you can to encourage those fights. Before long you’ll learn to use your speed to try and catch different types of enemies in their own crossfire. Once one enemy retaliates against another all you need to do is stand clear and watch the survival of the fittest. Doing this is usually just a bonus, but there are a few maps where causing this infighting is absolutely essential to your own survival.

FightFightFight!
Notice that I haven’t fired a single shot here.

Also essential to your survival is learning to master Doom’s arsenal, though it really is pretty intuitive. At your disposal are your fists, a pistol, shotgun, chaingun, rocket launcher, plasma rifle, BFG 9000, and a chainsaw. Each weapon has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, that lend themselves to particular situations. The pistol, while seemingly useless, is a good choice for long-distance engagements when you want to conserve ammo. Your pump-action shotgun, now a mainstay in first-person shooters, is a good all-around weapon that just can’t fire fast enough when the hordes are thick. While each bullet of the chaingun doesn’t do a lot of damage, the continuous-fire nature of it serves to “interrupt” the attacks of your foes, and can buy you some much needed time to maneuver. Rocket launchers are not good to use in confined spaces. Ever. Doom’s rockets also move with a conspicuous slowness which can mean it’s not the best for long-range engagements. The plasma rifle is a versatile weapon that’s good in any situation, provided you can find the ammunition for it. It works best when fired continuously, as letting up on the trigger leads to a substantial reset time before you can fire again. When something or a small group of somethings needs to die right now, bring out the BFG 9000. It’s slow rate of fire and slow projectile movement gradually unleash a green firestorm of devastation, but it really works best in relatively small environments. And then there’s the chainsaw. For a long time I thought it was only a weapon of desperation, but there is actually a strategic use for it. When dealing with melee enemies, Pinkies or Lost Souls, work your back into a corner and let them come at you. The chainsaw will do the work for you.

BarrelBlast
Doom’s shotgun is the best ever. Period.

There’s certainly more that could be written about Doom: the movement mechanics and how the Doom Guy is able to run at a constant 30 miles per hour, how throughout the campaign you never really notice the technical limitation that prevents vertically crossing layers (there can’t be one story of a building directly over another), the story set-up present only in the game’s paper manual, the implied narrative and geographical narrative movement in the level design and loading screens, and more. To try and do all that would require a whole series of posts, and while I’m open to exploring those topics more in depth to do so here would distract from my main point. And my main point is: Doom is still around for a reason. One of the first games of its kind, it’s still one of the best of its kind. It’s just as fun in 2016 as it was in 1993; and that’s saying something.

The Final Raving – Full Endorsement

Anyone who plays video games should give this a try, even if this is a genre you’ve never been interested before. 

Granted, it’s not for everyone, but anyone who considers themselves a gamer owes it to themselves to play at least the shareware episode of Doom.

Good:

  • While not the first first-person shooter ever made, it’s the most influential
  • Tight gunplay and fast action in spades
  • Two decades of user-created mods ensure near limitless options for a new spin on an old classic

Bad:

  • Disturbing themes may be too much for some people to handle

Ugly:

  • The visuals of the vanilla, unmodded game are a bit hard to take

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • The original game works flawlessly on modern computers, but it’s just a bit too ugly for my tastes. Thankfully the Doom community has been able to make a lot of improvement to the game engine, allowing for higher resolutions and better visual effects. The two most popular upgrades are GZDoom and Doomsday Engine. GZDoom will give you an experience that’s a bit closer to the original game, but I slightly prefer Doomsday Engine since it allows for unrestricted mouselook. Both are worth a look.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Play it on a difficulty that’s hard for you. It makes the game more interesting and will help you write your own stories within the world of Doom. I played it through on Ultra-Violence and enjoyed a good challenge. Be forewarned that the difficulty jumps by a noticeable amount when you get to the fourth episode: Thy Flesh Consumed.
  2. Circle-strafe. Move sideways and keep your enemy in the crosshairs to literally run circles around them. It’s an essential skill to learn if you want to survive.
  3. Everything is a trap. See a keycard? Trap! Is there a button nearby? Trap! Has it been more than thirty seconds since you last encountered an enemy? Trap! Always be ready to move and shoot.

The Details:

Release Date:

  • Original Game: December 10th, 1993
  • Final Doom (Thy Flesh Consumed): June 17th, 1996

Developer: id Software

Publisher: GT Interactive

Where to buy:

Steam – $14.99 – Bundle includes Doom, Doom II, and a bunch of expansion levels

GOG.com – $9.99 – Bundle includes Final Doom and Doom II