Throwback Thursday: Reaching for the Stars
The thing I wish for me to experience in this lifetime is to be able to reach outer space: to finally get to experience a zero-g environment or even to do a space walk in that dark, but star-filled vacuum. A man can only dream and wish that someone would make space travel viable already! But thankfully, I can look to games to scratch that “space-itch”. And as a young boy, space sims have captured my imagination and enabled me to live out my space cowboy fantasies.
My initial foray to the wonderful world of space sims was with one of the most iconic space fighters in the Star Wars universe: the X-Wing. Conveniently, I was accompanying my mom in the mall at that time and I somehow convinced her I needed a new game. After a few nags here and there, she finally agreed and we head on over to my favorite gaming outlet right after we did some errands. I stepped into the store and browsed through a list and the word “X-Wing” caught my attention. After copying the game into a bunch of floppy disks (yes folks I was a young pirate), I thought I was ready to go home. But the clerk told me I needed to photocopy the manual for me to play the game, so I told her to give me a copy of that too, thinking that it was for the lame copy protection also found in other games during that time. Well, it turned out that it really was for the copy protection, and instructions with pages as thick as our school textbooks, on how to fly the ships. I was way over my head with this game, but it was too late to back out then since my mother was handing over the cash to the clerk.
When I got home, I promptly installed the game into my computer and went through the manual as the progress bar steadily increased and with occasional prompts for me to change disks to be able to continue the installation. You see, I wasn’t the brightest kid back in the day, so my patience for reading anything that resembles a wall of text and without pictures immediately became boring to me. After the installation, I ran the game and tossed the manual aside after the obligatory copy-protection question. The game told me I was going into my tour of duty for the Rebellion and I needed to fly missions. Again not paying attention, I clicked my way through until I got into the cockpit of the spaceship.
Once inside the ship, I was overwhelmed but also fascinated with all those lights, screens and sensors around the ship. Then it was time to move to a waypoint. “Uh-oh” I said. I had no clue on what to do or press. I picked up the tossed-away manual gently and tried to absorb everything written on it, looking for that overview of keys and functions of the ship so I can at least get it to move. Once I found the right keys, I jabbed a finger in the keyboard and suddenly my X-Wing fighter had those iconic light streaks all around. I was going into lightspeed and heading to the waypoint. At last some progress! Then the game alerted me that enemy TIE fighters were coming in and I was free to engage them. Engage them? You mean fight them? Oh jeez! What do I do now? Again referencing the manual, it told me I can cycle through targets, fire some lasers and even shoot proton torpedoes. So I memorized the keys and now I was dog-fighting with those pesky TIE fighters, just like in the movie!
After a few sorties with the Empire, my ship finally succumbed to damage and I was forced to eject from the X-Wing and try the mission again. I read through the manual some more and tried to learn about power management for this ship and then realized that I could either distribute my power to the engines, shields or the laser cannons. This really opened up the game for me and got me to think more strategically on how to fly better. I flew more missions and really got into the game to the point that I memorized and knew the characteristic of all the ships found in the game. This actually led me to wanting to watch Star Wars again and again so I can see all those ships come to life.
After going through X-Wing, I picked up and enjoyed more space-sim titles like Wing Commander (1-4), Tie Fighter and of course X-Wing vs TIE fighter. I enjoyed getting into cockpits of different ships, figuring out their intricacies and knowing how to exploit their advantages during a dogfight. And of course, I also enjoyed the “scenery” of space, seeing the stars and nebulas as you jump from one waypoint to the other. Oh and don’t get me started on the ship designs, especially capital ships! It was exhilarating to fly by big hunks of metal, steadily coasting through space. Having to fly with a fleet and then suddenly break out into an epic battle always has that special place in my heart.
Sadly, after the mid 90s, I’ve never had the chance to experience a proper space sim unlike the glory days. Luckily, Kerbal Space Program tries to scratch that itch of exploration and bewilderment with outer space. And of course, you can’t talk about space sims without Star Citizen, which sadly we all need to wait for until 2014, when we’ll finally be able to experience the masterpiece of Chris Roberts. I look forward to next year, and be that kid again who loved to go to outer space and just fly his damn spaceship!