What do you do as a follow-up to one of the best Star Wars games of all time, a game that finally, truly allowed players to let loose their inner Luke Skywalker or Wedge Antilles, scream down the Death Star trench in an X-Wing, and kill Imperial TIE Fighters in job lots?
If you were Larry Holland and the team behind X-Wing, you follow it by making one of the greatest games in history, one that’s perennially at or near the top of every “Greatest Games of All Time” list. You make incremental improvements to everything that bugged you in X-Wing, while keeping everything that works. Most importantly, you put players on the other side of the cockpit, and have them play out a story takes place from the end of Empire Strikes Back to the beginning of Return of the Jedi, as the bad guys!
Yes, if you ask me, the most brilliant thing about TIE Fighter is simply that it exists at all, and instead of simply making some improvements, writing some new missions and making X-Wing 2, the dev team put you on the side of the Empire.
One of the most impressive things, particularly when playing TIE Fighter almost immediately after X-Wing, is the sense of vulnerability you get. From your first training mission, you realize quickly that a single stray laser hit is all it takes to end your mission. Gone are the days of switching your shields double-front, going head to head with a trio of Eyeballs, coming out the other side with two kills, and looping around to take out the third while you rebalance your shields to compensate for the hits you took. No, now you’re the TIE pilot, and you frantically juke and weave to avoid the red death coming in from the enemy X-Wing, hoping that your wingmen will take the brunt of his attention long enough for you to get into a firing position and chew away at his shields and hull.
Oh, certainly later in the game you get fighters with shields. The TIE Advanced, Assault Gunboat, TIE Defender and Missile Boat all serve to turn you into a nigh-invulnerable lord of space by the final expansion campaigns, but your first few campaigns are almost all frantic dodging and weaving. There’s no hand holding, hour long tutorial campaign here!
In the pantheon of Star Wars games, TIE Fighter stands practically alone as a game focused solely on fighting for the Empire. Not until Star Wars – The Force Unleashed came along fifteen years later, would another game focus heavily on the Imperial side of battle. And even then, well, that’s a post for another day.