This review pertains to the initial GOG release of TIE Fighter. For a response to more recent updates, head here.
Twenty years after its original release, the legendary TIE Fighter is once again available to play on PC via a release by GOG.com. The game proved itself to be more than an entertaining flight simulation by creating a well-plotted and engaging story arc that allowed players to serve as a pilot in the Imperial Navy without undermining the themes of the Star Wars Trilogy. Players were able to understand how Imperial loyalists viewed the Rebellion, but the game also avoided whitewashing the evils of the Empire; players who read between the lines of their mission briefings realized with mounting horror that not everything was as heroic as it seemed. The combination of glorious heroics and dark undertones made it a surprisingly compelling game, and one that set the bar high for its successors in what is now called the X-Wing series of flight simulators.
October’s release is not the first time the game has become available on the market again. There were three distinct releases – and versions – of TIE Fighter. There was the original 1994 release of TIE Fighter and its expansion on floppy disks, a 1995 Collector’s CD ROM which enhanced the game while including yet another expansion, and then a 1998 3D remaster for Windows. The GOG release bundles together the 1994 floppy version and the 1998 3D remaster, and GOG has also released several other LucasArts games (including X-Wing, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and games currently available on other platforms including Knights of the Old Republic, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Monkey Island: Special Edition). Overall, the release is very welcome and will allow people to experience the wonder that is TIE Fighter for the first time, or perhaps the first time in forever. GOG’s decision not to include the Collector’s CD – what many consider to be the definitive version of the game – is a bit of a disappointment, however.
The 1994 version
The original release of TIE Fighter is old school in every sense: it runs on DOS, the cockpits are painted 2D screens with 3D polygons rendered behind them to represent spaceships, and there is no voiced dialogue outside of cutscenes. This is the original version that many fell in love with, and it’s by no means a bad game. There’s no reason people can’t appreciate a game just because it’s old. The GOG release comes with the DOSBox emulator bundled with it, and though it’s possible the configuration settings aren’t entirely ideal (we noticed some graphical corruption not present on our own configuration of DOSBox) it does competently emulate the game in its old DOS glory.
The thing is – there’s a more definitive version of the DOS version of TIE Fighter: the 1995 CD-ROM release. What this “Collector’s CD” did was not just upgrade the graphics (they’re noticeably better, though they’re honestly still just polygons), but also add a fully voiced dialogue to the game’s missions and briefings (the Imperial officer – voiced by Guy Siner – is wonderfully aristocratic in his elocution, while the representative of the Emperor’s Secret Order speaks with a dark growl). It updates some of the cutscenes, and adds support for more sophisticated sound drivers.
Pause for a soundbyte
It’s worth a moment talking about the soundtrack of TIE Fighter, because we’re so used to games that provide a fairly static soundtrack. Video game soundtracks these days aren’t all that similar to movie soundtracks: there are pre-recorded tracks that are meant to be played at certain times, and they generally sound the same with differences coming down to the fidelity and quality of your audio speakers. In the heyday of TIE Fighter, things were a little different: video game soundtracks were synthesized MIDI files. Instead of a pre-recorded track, a video game’s individual sound files were essentially sheet music containing the music composed for the game. MIDI wavetables and cards did more than just act as speaker systems, but they essentially consisted of the orchestra that would actually play the sheet music the game designers provided. Thus, whether you had a SoundBlaster or other Adlib card versus an MT-32 or a Gravis Ultrasound mattered greatly, just as the quality of an orchestra’s instruments and musicians does. Youtube abounds in comparisons between SoundBlaster and MT-32, or between Gravis Ultrasound and adlib. Many early LucasArts games were composed for the MT-32, and they sound incredible when played on such a device (e.g., watch these videos using Space Quest 3 or Monkey Island 2 on different sound devices and you’ll hear it for yourself!). TIE Fighter was composed for General MIDI, and thankfully the GOG release seems to be configured to use that as the sound provider instead of the default Adlib/Sound Blaster – but it’s worth pointing out that the Collector’s CD adds support for Gravis Ultrasound, which makes the TIE Fighter soundtrack sound resonant and almost gothic. It’s wonderful. (Just compare the intro music from this video using the generic SoundBlaster MIDI and this video using the Gravis Ultrasound — the Imperial March sounds so much better on the second video.)
Another feature of TIE Fighter’s soundtrack is the iMUSE system, which stands for interactive Music Streaming Engine (despite its name, it has nothing at all to do with Apple: it’s a LucasArts innovation). First debuting with Monkey Island 2, iMUSE allows the soundtrack of the game to dynamically adjust to the action in a way that cannot be easily replicated simply by switching up recorded tracks (though X-Wing Alliance and the remake of Monkey Island 2 both admirably attempt to replicate iMUSE). The best examples of iMUSE are from Monkey Island 2. The main introduction city of Woodtick has an overall musical theme, which varies slightly when the player enters each of the different buildings in the city. What makes it really pop is that iMUSE seamlessly transitions between these alternative themes while still keeping the same position in the song: instruments and variations are added and subtracted in real time, on the fly, thanks to the flexibility of the MIDI system. Another example is a scene where the player has to row into a swamp to approach the lair of a voodoo witch: as the player gets closer and closer to the swamp, more instruments with their own set of notes are added to the track (a drum here and a whistle there), and instruments are removed as the player goes the other direction. It’s all completely seemless, as if there were a little conductor inside the game telling different musicians to start and stop playing all without disrupting the overall flow of the orchestra.
TIE Fighter’s use of iMUSE was more action-oriented. A mission might start off with a very quiet, peaceful piano medley. Then, Rebel ships might jump out of hyperspace: Rebel capital ships and fighters had their own separate leitmotifs, the latter peppy and short while the former was complex and rhythmic but in both cases the player quickly learned to feel a sense of threat from these themes inspired by the Rebellion cues from Return of the Jedi. The tempo would speed up and a series of battle mixes would start playing, with different chimes and congratulatory tunes interspersed as the player achieved goals and destroyed enemies. Losses of allied fighters or capital ships produced their own musical tones, and the accomplishment of mission goals had an extended theme. All of these various cues would mix in seamlessly with the battle music and the tempo would adjust accordingly based on what was going on around the player. If the action had stalled for a while, the tempo would slow and then it would transition back up if more action occurred. When all mission goals were completed and the action had ceased, a triumphant and almost proud tune would begin to play and there is no understating the sense of accomplishment that it imbued. But the instant a mission was failed, this calamitous medley would issue forth – accompanied by the briefing officer’s ridiculously melodramatic explanation about how your failure has doomed the entire universe and how the Emperor would use your guts to floss his teeth. The soundtrack was more than just atmosphere — it provided valuable mission clues, and let you know whether goals were being completed or whether enemy/friendly ships were arriving to complicate or simplify matters.
I wish I could provide a representative example, but every mission in TIE Fighter was different and few were short. I can offer one random example of a mission where the Empire is fighting a non-Rebel adversary. You can see as the mission starts that different audio cues are played for the arrival of enemy ships and that they are distinct for the audio cues played for Imperial ships (and Rebels are different still), and that these cues vary based on whether it’s a small or large ship arriving. You can hear my favorite theme at about 2:05, the arrival of an Imperial capital ship, followed by the similar but less grand theme of Imperial fighters arriving at 2:28, non-aligned fighters at 2:44 and more complex sounds of a non-aligned capital ship arriving immediately after. Without even looking at your information log, you had immediate situational awareness.
It was just so atmospheric and wonderful.
The Windows 98 release – passable, we suppose
If GOG got one part of this release correct, it was the 3D enhanced edition. In 1998, LucasArts released a remastered version of what was then called the X-Wing Trilogy: X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and the new X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. The first two games had their graphics engines overhauled to meet the standards of XvT: grey polygons with occasional shading were replaced with geometric models with actual texturing. The bitmapped game menus and briefing screens were replaced with modern looking artwork. The voice acting of the Collector’s CD was retained.
Where the remaster let everyone down was the sound. The cutscenes and menu areas of the game used pre-recorded versions of the old MIDI tracks, but they didn’t sound nearly as nice as the MIDIs would have on a good MIDI card. But the real omission was the in-flight music: iMUSE was gone, replaced by a few generic tracks from the films played via CD Audio (and if you remember, audio CDs could carry like what, 12 songs?). It was a devastating loss, and one that killed all sense of atmosphere in the game.
There was hope that perhaps GOG could reverse engineer the 3D remastered version: after all, all the original files were still there and perhaps somehow the game code could be adjusted to make use of iMUSE MIDI tracks instead of CD audio… but alas not. GOG has managed to get the sound working even though its release isn’t on a compact disc, but their engineering of the sound stops there. This is unfortunate, because you lose any sense of atmosphere and direction from the audio — it’s sort of just there, as if you left your CD player on while you went on your mission. In my view, the absence of the iMUSE soundtrack detracts significantly from the experience.
That said, they did release a pretty flawless release of the remastered version. Programs like DOSBox had long allowed people to play the 1994 and 1995 DOS releases on modern computers, but the remaster of TIE Fighter had difficulties on 64-bit systems because the game just wouldn’t install (though workarounds existed for that too). GOG has made it straight forward and easy.
Players who don’t care about exceptionally atmospheric music arrangement or who really can’t stand DOS polygonal graphics will have a great time with this release. Players who just want to play the game and don’t care about anything else will have a great time with this release. Players who already own the DOS versions and just want to try the remakes will enjoy this release.
But anybody who wants to enjoy the game in its definitive version will be disappointed. The graphics of the 1994 release aren’t too much worse than its “high resolution” Collector’s CD sister, but the lack of voiced audio is a big problem. There are fancier sound options available in the Collector’s CD, but the bottom line is the voiced audio. Players currently have a choice between amazing iMUSE in the 1994 edition or voiced audio in the 1998 edition, and it’s a dilemma that didn’t have to exist: the Collector’s CD is a perfect happy medium.
GOG’s community is fairly well informed about these things, and there are folks there who are far more knowledgeable about MIDI and the like than we are. CD Projekt, who runs GOG, has proven receptive to its community in the past: here’s hoping that GOG can release the Collector’s CD version at the very least — and if we’re lucky, provide settings and soundfonts for even better MIDI emulation or figure out how to engineer the 1998 release to use iMUSE.