Retro gamers could easily be perceived as a kind of digital hipster. It may have even been true once. Just as today’s beloved hipster enjoys listening to their vinyls while tentatively tugging at their prized moustaches before hunting down the nicest deconstructed coffee in town, retro gamers would have had ancient machines powered by passion, hooked up to god-awful TV’s in small reclusive hovels, windows covered by that Rush 2112 poster. The illusion of exclusivity is the name of this game. It leads to that odd elitism. It leads to the people who only drink coffee that was pooped out of an animal on some African slope. It leads to the retro gamer boasting about their immaculate Atari 2600.
There’s hope though, at least for the retro gamers anyway. Exclusivity is, too state the obvious, driven by limited accessibility; but sites like GOG.com are helping to lift the lid and expose these old gems to regular gamers. The other day, I picked up Star Wars X-Wing (1994 edition) for 10 euro from GOG.com. As I write this, it’s actually down to 5. I’m not running it on an old beige Intel 286. It’s a modern computer with modern parts and Windows 10 and it played this old game quite painlessly. So what of X-Wing?
1993 was a vintage year in gaming. To name a few ‘93 releases: Doom, Syndicate, Master of Orion, Myst, and Star Fox. But two space sim games also came out that year, Frontier Elite 2 and Star Wars X-Wing. It’s pretty clear as to why Frontier Elite 2 overshadowed our beloved X-Wing when it came out later in that year, but baby shouldn’t be left in a corner because X-Wing had some nifty little features that made it stand out in its own right.
Looking back, we often see how far we have come along in terms of gaming in nearly every way; but sometimes, you also see what we left behind. When I look back at older games, I tend to figure out what I loved about them. I wanted to know what drew me back there and it’s not strictly nostalgia, because I’m simply just not that sentimental.
Right out of the gates, firing up X-Wing will cast you face first into the star wars universe, a familiar star wars intro and movie with our musical magician, John Williams. The intro concludes with you aboard the rebel Flagship Independence. The menu system is intertwined with the game itself. This is the magic that draws me back to this game. Your ‘menu’ is really an interactive experience. You find yourself exploring a menu system, just for the fun of it because as your mouse passes over a door, it’ll open… magic. When did you last enjoy a menu system? You select training, and you leave the Independence and hyperspace to another starship, just to go to another menu. How frickin’ cool is that?
Now, all retro games will suffer when we criticise older graphics, but I was surprised with how playable it all still is. The menu and embedded videos are all enjoyable and plenty of voiced dialogue. Mind you, by today’s standards, it does sound like it was recorded in a garage using a fisher-price microphone. In-game graphics may be difficult for some people to swallow, don’t expect fancy shading, or any for that matter. But… it’s functional. You are flying your X-Wing around in 3D space which was pretty awesome in ‘93. You know what else still works out oddly well… it’s those sound effects.
The squirty x-wing lasers, the scream of twin ion engines, your R2 unit behind you beeping contently, oblivious to your inability to survive in space. Sound effects, nice. Music… not so great. You might like John William’s orchestra being compressed into MIDI format, It’s nice for a moment, but that’s all I can take. It’s hard to listen to a looping MIDI for a few hours. You can turn it down thankfully.
There’s another aspect to this game that is rare to find these days. That’s a near total lack of hand holding. In X-Wing, you’re told what you need to do in Mission Briefing, then you’re on your own out there. No fancy GUI indicators to direct your focus. No Microsoft paper clip style tutorial chap popping up to help you because the game deemed you stupid. Figure it out! The task of learning how to play a game has been lost; replaced with gamers learning how to exploit the game. Today, in general, you’re ridiculed online for not knowing about some basic feature or mechanic. Aside from that, there are still some mechanics that are going strong today. For example, when flying your shiny x-wing, you have to manage your power distribution. Pull power from engines over to lasers or shields to recharge them. It’s a feature that is well exercised in today’s Elite Dangerous to name just one.
It’s not all sunshine and pixelated lollipops though; game content, similar to today’s grinding culture, is extended through quantity over quality. For example, today’s tutorials are pretty minimal, which we like. For X-Wing, you have 10 minutes(ish) to fly through 110 gates… 110… gates… madness. You’ll go insane, especially when after about 50 gates you wonder if you can turn down the music. The missions are long too. Not because there’s lots to do, but because nothing seems to happen quickly. The game design just doesn’t live up to today’s ADHD-like need to be constantly and urgently entertained.
Is it worth ten euro? Definitely, the tutorial alone will last longer than two pints. For the people that don’t value their pints as I do, there’s something special about a game that still draws you in after all this time and there’s something even more special when you play it and you think… How come they don’t do that anymore? Sure, it’s not robotically efficient, but it’s fun.