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Pew-Pew Zoom: Star Commander Elite Wing

Forty-five years later, it's easy to take Star Wars (1977) for granted. Sure, as film scholars both armchair and professional love to point out, George Lucas wore his influences on his oversized Tattooine-robe sleeve: 1930s serials, Akira Kurosawa, spaghetti westerns (particularly ones also influenced by Akira Kurosawa), teenage hot rod racing films, WWII fighter pilot movies... but nothing had ever blended it all together like that. And while the joints between the various segments seem obvious now (thankfully, Marcia Lucas is finally getting credit for her part in turning her husband's unfinished mess of a movie into a cultural-defining juggernaut), at the time it was largely seen as a non-stop thrill ride of excitement and energy. Previously, we've talked about the influence (and very lucky timing) Star Wars would have on the nascent video game industry and how, within a year of its release, space games had become the dominant force in arcades as fans could experience some of that thrill for themselves. Today, though, we're going to talk about one type of game Star Wars inspired that arcades of the time couldn't pull off... but was perfectly suited for living rooms. So switch on those targeting computers and lock your S-foils into "attack" position because , in honor of Star Wars Day, we're going to dive into the universe of space combat sims.

Regardless of quibbles about pacing in the rest of the film, the final act of Star Wars is remarkably efficient: in the original theatrical cut, there are less than thirteen minutes between the Rebels' takeoff and the Death Star exploding. It would seem to be the most successful, too, seeing as it's the sequence most copied and repeated throughout the rest of the franchise. Like the rest of the film, it's incredibly tactile - we get to see the ships' cockpits and controls just as clearly as the pilots do, and frequently even from their viewpoint... and it's here where the arcade fell short. Sure, there had been first-person games since even before Star Wars's release - the previous post mentioned Atari's Starship 1, and Exidy's 1978 Star Fire lifts so openly from Star Wars, less discerning players could mistake for an officially licensed title in a dark and smoky arcade (which was very much the point). But both of these simply throw threats at the player in front of a moving background in a manner that would probably classify them as early "rail shooters," and, if anything, bear closest resemblance to pre-video shooting galleries as play time is linear, rather than determined by player skill. They portray firing a gun, not piloting a ship, and, befitting their faux 3-D nature, lack any significant depth, quickly becoming boring. However, a game offering a very different experience was under development, releasing in 1979 for Atari's brand-new home computer line: the venerable Star Raiders.

In this, at least, I was an incredibly lucky kid: my first exposure to the space combat simulation genre was the world's first example of it. And what a doozie it is - Star Raiders fits a lot of rich gameplay in its mere eight kilobytes. (Smaller than the contents of this post saved as a .TXT file!) Per the game's creator, Star Raiders is intended as an update to that very first single-player space combat title, the confusingly named (and quite unofficial) Star Trek first played on a university mainframe in 1971. But rather than the slow, deliberate wargame structure of its predecessor, Star Raiders aims for the intense dogfight action from the end of Star Wars. It's story, though, is identical, with only the names altered. The player pilots a ship named, in New York Public Schools fashion, Star Cruiser 7, even if the way it handles and moves in the game suggests a much smaller craft akin to the X- and Y-Wings in Star Wars or the Vipers in Battlestar Galactica, which had brought starfighter combat to the small screen in 1978, a year prior. The series is also referenced in the enemy's name ("Zylons," in place of Galactica's "Cylons," though the manual for the Atari 2600 refers to them as  "Krylons") and ship design: the three enemy vessels are patterned (albeit, somewhat abstractly) on the antagonists in the game's direct media influences: the Klingon D7-class warship from Star Trek (which arrived on the big screen the same month that Atari began shipping Star Raiders cartridges), the TIE fighter from Star Wars, and the Cylon Basestar from Galactica. This fleet is attacking a region of space and it's up to the player to eliminate them and defend the various starbases scattered throughout. As with Star Trek (the game) a session of Star Raiders only ends when the player has successfully destroyed all enemy craft, or are themselves wiped out, either from damage (caused by enemy weaponry or collisions with meteorites) or run out of energy. As basic as it is, though, Star Raiders introduces a number of elements that would remain consistent with the space combat sim genre from then on:

  • The player has to think in both large scale (the galactic map) and small (the area around their ship), and has freedom of movement in both (variable speed subspace engines to move around a sector, and hyperdrive to jump from sector to sector)
  • There are no "lives." Should the player's ship be destroyed, the game ends. Unlike those in arcade games, though, the ship is durable and can withstand some amount of enemy fire... as long as the shields are raised. However...
  • The ship has a finite amount of energy, which is consumed by various systems (that the player can the player can turn on and off)  or when the shields deflect enemy fire and meteorites. All these systems can be damaged or destroyed, and can only be repaired by docking at a starbase, which is also the only way to replenish lost energy. It's up to the player's judgement (and faith in their skill level) how to proceed when systems are damaged or energy supplies run low - should they limp away to get help, or fight on until the sector is cleared?
  • While there is no "score" in the same sense of arcade games, the player's performance is judged based on a number of factors: how long it took them to clear the map of enemies, how much energy they consumed, and how many starbases were they able to save. An assessment is provided in the form of a "rank," from "Rookie" to "Star Commander" when the player wins, and "Garbage Scow Captain" or "Galactic Cook" if their ship is destroyed or all starbases wiped out.

All these elements would be detrimental to an arcade game, as they're designed around the concepts of rapid play and quick player turnaround to keep the spice quarters flowing. But at home, where games can be longer, more complex, and even paused (!), the result is a far richer experience. And it works - Star Raiders remains fun and addictive even today (I'd rather not admit how much time I put into the game in preparation for this post.) At the time, the game was an instant success, helping to put the newly-launched Atari 8-bit computer line onto the (galactic) map, as well as launching an army of clones... all of varying quality, and none improving on the original in any way. (Although, as a kid, I was more forgiving of Activision's Starmaster, as it used the Atari 2600 physical switches to control various functions, bringing it a tiny bit closer to a real starfighter experience than a computer keyboard could.)

For all this, though, how much did Star Raiders and its many imitators recreate the feel of Star Wars? Sure, it was space combat and put the player in charge of managing a number of factors in the way the Rebel pilots did. But, like the warship Enterprise of Star Trek (again, the game), the Star Cruiser 7 was vastly overpowered in comparison to the enemy craft, all of which could be dispatched by a single shot, and whose main advantage was only in superior numbers. If the Star Trek game was went against the premise of its namesake in its sole focus on combat and war instead of exploration and adventure, Star Raiders is in opposition to the movie that inspired it by keeping the player alone and isolated against the backdrop of a dangerous, uncaring universe. Friendship and the importance of "found family" is central to the entire Star Wars franchise - even when it was just a single movie, the climax is not when Luke destroys the Death Star, it's when the Millennium Falcon swoops in to save the day after Han had turned his back on his new friends in the interest of self-preservation. To be fair, this almost certainly had more to do with the limitations of the era's technology than any kind of narrative philosophy, but this would remain the underlying approach to the entire genre for the next decade. (Elite, the next major milestone in the development of space combat sims, added true 3-D graphics and movement, along with a number of other improvements, but added a focus on commerce and trade, creating the subgenre of space combat trading sim, but keeping the player a lone mercenary, operating purely in self-interest.)

As its title suggests, though, 1990's Wing Commander changed all that by giving the player AI-controlled buddies to fight alongside and even issue orders to, as well as more complex missions (guard transports, map out and patrol dangerous regions of space, destroy well-guarded capital ships, and... variations on those, really) The plot of the first game in the series is mostly by-the-numbers, although the range of influences was expanded to include printed space opera - particularly Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, from which it directly lifted the Kzin to serve as the enemy species in the game and re-naming them the "Kilrathi." (At least they changed more than one letter, this time?) It did offer the player the opportunity to fly with a number of different AI buddies, though, each with their own personality and style, removing them from the game entirely if they were killed in combat. Generic, melodramatic space opera suited the genre perfectly, with in-game dialogue limited to commands and brief outburts, and motivations that mirrored the players own (survive, complete the mission, kill the enemy, get promoted) with minor individual motivations (avenge their father, develop their skills as a pilot, etc.) As with Star Raiders, the game was a massive hit, spawning its own line of imitators and knock-offs, including, finally, an official Star Wars one, with Star Wars: X-Wing releasing in 1993.

The OG (Original Galaxy) had tried putting players in the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter before, of course, with 1983's Star Wars (complain all you want about titles with colons, but they certainly make it easier to keep track of things!). While it featured impressive wireframe graphics and even audio samples pulled directly from the movies, the game itself was a rail shooter in the same way that Star Wars knockoff games like Star Fire had been five years prior. While ostensibly re-creating the attack on the Death Star, the player only got to control a single cross-hair and fire button to dispatch turrets, TIE Fighters, and the "fireballs" that represented enemy fire in place of the movies' clean blaster bolts - all the actual piloting was automated, with the player simply along for the ride. Impressive enough within the genre conventions of the time, but disappointing as the sole official recreation. (And, again, the player was alone without any backup, defeating the narrative purpose of the original sequence!)

X-Wing, however, showed what a difference ten years could make, not to mention a significant budget and development team that had already put out a trilogy of well-received WWII aerial combat games. A major Star Wars revival was in full swing by 1993, kickstarted by Timothy Zahn's 1991 novel Heir to the Empire (itself drawing largely from work done by West End Games for Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game), and, following some very bizarre platforming games for the NES and SNES, LucasArts was ready to try their first Star Wars games for PC. Two were released that year: Rebel Assault, which followed in the rail shooter tradition of the arcade game released a decade prior, and X-Wing, which, while borrowing quite a bit from Wing Commander (even most of the keyboard controls are identical), finally let players experience the Star Wars Universe in the cockpit of a starfighter they were piloting themselves, along with AI allies and compatriots. Naturally, the game was a massive, massive hit, spawning the sequel Star Wars: TIE Fighter, then X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance, which added multiplayer so you could even experience the series' sense of camaraderie with your real-life friends. And then.... it stopped.

The 1990s were a great period for the space combat sim genre, whether or not the games bore the Star Wars label. Dozens of different titles were released across every active game platform of the time. Some went for the larger capital ships, finally realizing the 1971 Star Trek in real time (and, eventually, in an official capacity, starting with Star Trek: Starfleet Academy). There were space combat trading games building on the legacy of Elite. There were games where you flew a giant mech instead of a spaceship. And there were many, many Wing Commander knock-offs. Wing Commander itself spun out into a number of different titles, a live-action film, and (the most 90s measures of success) both an animated series and collectible card game. And yet, the entire genre seemed to dry up with the start of the 2000s. Maybe they were too expensive to make, and publishers started to move towards more accessible genres. Maybe the got too repetitive - there are only so many types of mission you can do entirely with a single vehicle. Often, space combat sims were combined with other genres. To focus just on Star Wars, space combat moved back towards the rails with Star Wars: Starfighter and Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter, tie-in games for Episodes I and II respectively, intertwining their own plots with the events of the movie. There's more involved spaceflight in the  Star Wars: Battlefront games, but the ships are largely just an extension of the land-based vehicular combat, and take place alongside first- (or third-, depending on which version) person shooting.

Maybe the world had changed, with games featuring war and combat getting grittier and more jingoistic, pulling the action from the stars down to Earth to mirror real-world conflicts (and enforce the views of real-world governments in the process) - not that you ever got to negotiate with the Zylons, the Krylons, or even the Empire. And there's something to be said about way these games offer a "clean" version of violence, where you never see the faces of your enemy and rarely hear their side of the story. But, on the other hand, sometimes we need that broad catharsis where the enemy fighter can easily stand in for the guy who cut you off at the corner, rejected your application, or whatever other non-space frustration you've experienced. And, thankfully, these games are just as playable as they always were, and many are even available again through sites like Good Old Games. So, whenever you need to, you're all clear to blow this thing and go home.

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