Today, July 17, marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: Tie Fighter (well, to be honest, that depends where you look as Steam has a different date). If you've never heard of it before, Tie Fighter was a tactical space sim from Totally Games and LucasArts and it holds a special place in the hearts of many a seasoned PC-owning Star Wars fan. Armed with that context and a disdain for rebel scum, we decided to revisit this seminal space shooter and remind ourselves of its very particular charms.
And boy did our return to the game remind us of our time spent gaming back in the mid-90s. For starters, we spent more time messing around with the settings trying to get the Special Edition to work than we did playing. Even after all these years, the emulation isn't perfect, and while we noted a slightly more stable experience when looking at the original and CD-ROM versions of the game, the updated Special Edition had better features and so we persevered. It made us work for it too and regularly crashed to desktop, and so unless you're prepared to tinker like it's 1994 then we'd recommend leaving this one as a pleasant memory. However, if you're brave enough to venture into the menus and start adjusting the settings, then you might just be able to remind yourself exactly why Tie Fighter was such a brilliant game in the first place.
Building on the foundations laid down in Star Wars: X-Wing (another great game, but one that offered a more punishing challenge, if memory serves), the Imperial-inclined sequel added a few gameplay features that smoothed out the experience immeasurably and cemented the series in the hearts of PC gamers the world over, to the extent that GOG.com resurrected the title back in 2014.
Despite the fact that this title cast the player as an Imperial Tie Fighter pilot, one of the reasons it was so easy to become enthralled in the events it portrayed was because you weren't cast as a pantomime villain. Instead, you were tasked with doing your part to help bring peace and stability to the empire from that honest-looking soul Emperor Palpatine, and what's not to like about that?
A number of training exercises and combat scenarios were included to help bring players up to speed with the game's many systems, but it was the campaign that really engaged us, with the action picking up after the Battle of Hoth (The Empire Strikes Back). Like Rogue One, it neatly intersected the events that we all know and love from the original cinematic trilogy, and that alone was enough to invest us in the story and have us push on to find out what was next.
Like many similar games of the decade, there was a steep learning curve and a distinct lack of handholding. Just poking around the menus is a stark reminder of just how far we've come in terms of UI design and the user experience. And that's not even mentioning the gameplay.
Totally Games offered up a tutorial, sure, but the combat itself was punishing and there were so many things to take into account that mastering its nuances took real dedication. Returning to Tie Fighter now and then comparing it Criterion's excellent work in Star Wars Battlefront II reveals just how spoilt we are in 2019 with silky smooth and intuitive gameplay that you can pretty much pick up and play - yet we've got to that stage because of the formative steps taken by games like Tie Fighter, with all the bells and whistles that one had to adjust during combat.
The campaign - which as we mentioned runs loosely in parallel with the cinematic story - gives players all sorts of different mission types to deal with, from scenario-driven encounters that take place on the fringes of the mainline Star Wars story arc through to battles created for the game that stand alone within the wider setting. A couple of years after the launch of the base game it was expanded with Defender of the Empire, although our first trip aboard the good ship Tie Fighter came after that when we were treated to the CD-ROM version of the base game complete with its at-the-time stunning SVGA graphics. Can you imagine those sweet, sweet 640x480p visuals!
While we're not so enamoured with the version of the game currently sitting in our Steam library that we're going to keep on pushing through the crashes, we did enjoy revisiting the game for a bit of nostalgia. Thanks to the Imperial storyline, the slightly hammy cutscenes, some clever design decisions, and some engrossing space-based battles, Star Wars: Tie Fighter stands as one of the most important milestones in the whole space shooter genre - although getting the game to run on Windows is still, after all these years, a total pain in the R2D2.