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X-Wing Is Video Gaming’s Greek Fire

30 years of space games have been unable to recapture the magic

5:28 PM EST on January 24, 2024

Video game genres come and go like the tides. What's popular one decade might not be the next, then a decade later be right back at the top again. The history of the medium is full of roundabout stories like this, from real-time strategy games to Metroidvanias to CRPGs.

When it happens, the games (usually) get better. RTS games like Dune II and Command & Conquer were good, but when Dawn of War and Company of Heroes landed 15 years later they were on a whole other level, not just technically but in terms of their design as well. Same goes for CRPGs: Nobody in their right mind is going to say the crusty ol' Baldur's Gate II is better than the theatrical extravaganza that is Baldur's Gate III. People iterate, genres mature, that's just how it goes.

There's one type of game, however, that has never managed to build on its past success, and that's space combat. From Wing Commander to Freespace, there was a span of around a decade back in the 90s (bleeding into the very early 2000s) where, as absurd as this sounds now, space combat simulation games--which required a decent PC and a joystick--were some of the biggest releases on the calendar.

Not anymore! I'm not saying the genre is dead; new games have popped up over the years, some more successful than others. And one of the most expensive video games ever made--and still being made!--just happens to involve flying around in space shooting at stuff. But for all their efforts, none of these newer games have ever quite recaptured the magic that Totally Games managed all the way back in 1993.

Having cut their teeth on a number of excellent WW2 flight sims, from 1988's Battlehawks 1942 to 1991's Secret Weapons Of The Luftwaffe, in 1993 Lucasarts handed the keys to their Star Wars universe to Larry Holland and his team, who over the next six years would release a string of some of the finest PC games ever developed.

Their first one set the tone, and is the basis for this blog: 1993's X-Wing. Tough as nails and with a commitment to telling a truly cinematic Star Wars story, there were a ton of reasons this game has gone down in history, but the single most important is the way it felt. Its flight felt...perfect.

There was a balance to X-Wing's marriage of viewpoint, speed, joystick sensitivity and acceleration that, more than any of its Star Wars trappings, cemented its position as a classic. To fly a starfighter in X-Wing--or any of its sequels, since the setup remained largely unchanged--was to take part in an experience that can best be described as lubricated.

It let you aim your guns with absolute precision. It let you move around really quickly. You were always going where you wanted to go exactly the way you wanted, in ways that we all took for granted at the time, because no space combat game, regardless of its budget, has managed to recreate the feeling since.

Was it realistic? Of course not. Was it fun? Hell yeah. There was even a lovely symmetry to it; Totally Games cut their teeth on WW2 sims before moving onto Star Wars, whose own dogfight sequences were basically lifted wholesale from WW2 movies.

For example of what I'm talking about, how smooth everything was, just look at this!

I realise this is a potentially subjective thing, since we're talking about intangibles, but I feel like modern space combat games--even Star Wars ones, like Squadrons!--have lost sight of what made X-Wing so good. They tend to be slower, floatier, more concerned with realism, more aware of little flourishes like physics and head-mounted viewpoints that bob along with your throttle.

Here's Star Citizen, for example:

Then there's Elite: Dangerous:

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw:

And Starfield:

I'm not saying those are bad decisions; every developer wants to make their own game their own way. But in going that way--and you can see the same lines being drawn through each of the above games--something has been lost that nobody, not even the supposed X-Wing homages you see pop up on Steam every few years, has managed to recapture.

Which seems extremely weird to me! So much of gaming is about preserving or re-releasing historical moments of perfection. Mario's jump has always been just right. Jet Set Radio was so good that someone just...went and essentially remade it. You can capture the horror of the original Resident Evil on an itch.io game. These feelings, however they're coded and expressed, can be carried through the generations!

Yet nobody has been able to reproduce the magic of X-Wing. Maybe some day, somewhere, a studio will play X-Wing, take some notes, rediscover what made it one of the greatest PC games of all time and introduce a whole new generation to the wonders of fast, fluid space combat. If they can't, then there's a chance its secrets will be lost forever. Which is cool in an Indiana Jones, opening-a-crypt-2000-years-later-and-finding-a-PC-game kinda way, but a bit disappointing for anyone today who wants to keep playing new games like this!

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