Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: TIE Fighter video game (1994)

Some folks just really wanted to pretend to fly for the Imperial navy in the 90s, and this old-school, lo-fi PC video game let us have a blast while doing it. 

"Enter your name, pilot!" is the first thing you hear when the log-in screen pop up in the Star Wars: TIE Fighter video game. That's right, you're a new pilot recruit in Palpatine's space navy. 

First, though, let's set the scene.

POV: 13-year-old me, obsessed with flying (for years I wanted to grow up to be a naval aviator, and I so much spent time playing Jane's US Navy Fighters video game, another fun romp) and finally getting to pilot a space fighter! (I sometimes jokingly say that the great tragedy of my life is that I'll never be able to join a spacy navy. Thank god for Battlestar Galactica Reruns). 

How was I playing this game? In my bedroom, on a huge clunky Compaq desktop. It ran through MS-DOS (ancient technology). The graphics? A few steps above 8-bit. The sound? Oh the sound card was MIDI, most definitely. 

But it was fun

More Than Just a Space Shooter

Galaga was just a button masher. The Rogue Squadron N64 game? Just a console button masher. You flew and pressed shoot, sometimes launched a missile. 

TIE Fighter, on the other hand, actually made you a pilot. You used an actual joystick. You know, like a pilot. 

But the fun and strategy of this particular game lies in how much control you have over the tools in your cockpit—and you have a lot of it. 

In the top corners, you have scanner screens that tell you who's in front and behind you, so you can juke at opportune times to evade laser fire. 

You have shield and engine gauges, and if you want to go faster, say, you can shunt power from the shields to the engines for an extra boost — and vice versa. Granted, not every ship in the game even has shields, but there are some fun advanced ships that do. 

In the center of your screen is a display that lets you toggle through nearby ships, both friendly and enemy. You can see how much damage they've taken, how far away they are, and their name and cargo, if you get close enough to scan it. 

When you're in the pilot's chair, you have to make a ton of small adjustments and decisions to gain that competitive edge, and you actually feel like you're keeping the wheels on the damn thing just to make it to the end.

You're Just a Hardworking Pilot Trying to Make Their Way in the Galaxy

Before this game came out, there was an X-Wing game, told from the POV of the good guys. It's not as fun! I can't explain it, but becoming a cog in the Imperial navy is so, so much more entertaining. 

You're not just fighting rebels, either. This game surprisingly introduces a more nuanced approach to "the bad guys." As a pilot, you help planets having a civil war, battle space pirates, and root out traitors. Just every day military stuff. 

After each battle, if you're good enough, you obtain decorative ribbons and awards. You can also follow subplots that place you into the Emperor's secret circle — you even get rewarded with special tattoos. 

Did I take pride in my Imperial navy decoration book? 100%. Was I a weird kid? Duh.

A Glimpse into the EU

TIE Fighter also played into the Expanded Universe of Star Wars content (thin though it was in 1994). You see a blotchy, digital Thrawn (and Pellaeon!) throughout the game, fresh off his appearance in the Zahn book trilogy just a few years before. 

Not only do we get Thrawn, we also get our first-ever view of Coruscant! At least, I think it is — would love to know if someone else can find an earlier visual depiction of our favorite capital city-planet. 

Later Iterations

It's amazing how quickly graphic technology progressed in the 90s. Just a few short years later, X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter was released, and the screens were so much clearer and more impressive. The score was instrumental, not MIDI keyboard blops. There was also a multiplayer capacity, but I didn't have good fast internet until I got to college in 2001. 

Then, 2 years ago, I heard they were releasing a modern version for PlayStation called Squadrons. I purchased the game, and then a VR headset, and then also a throttle and joystick. 

It was incredible. You look down wearing the headset and see a body clad in an orange jumpsuit, flying an X-wing through space in full surround-sound and view. 

I only played it for a few months, but it was worth every penny to be able to relive my love of space dogfighting with modern, mind-blowing technology. God bless adult money! High-five, 13-year-old Haley.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, Vidalia onions, and growing corn and giving them pun names like Anacorn Skywalker.