Exidy 1979 (KLOV entry)
Reviewed by Nathan Strum
Star Wars was a great film. It came out at the perfect time, too. I was 12 years old when I first went down to the UA 150 theater in downtown Seattle to see it in 1977. It completely blew me away. Up until that time, I'd seen only a handful of Disney films, and seeing Star Trek in syndication on TV could hardly prepare me for that Star Destroyer flying right over my head. I must have seen that movie a dozen times over the course of the next year. I would have liked nothing more than to have been right in the middle of it. Swinging lightsabers, flying X-Wings, and shooting the Millennium Falcon's turret guns.
Of course, that was just a fantasy. About the closest I could get at the time were video games. The UA 150 had the wisdom to have Atari's Starship 1 in the lobby. As soon as the movie let out, I'd be right over to the machine, blowing away ships that looked like Star Trek rejects. It was primitive to be sure, but it was the first video game I ever got addicted to, and it was the only game in town that put you inside a space ship.
The idea of cashing in on Star Wars certainly seemed obvious to at least a few video game manufacturers. TIE Fighters and the Death Star showed up in both Space Encounters and Starhawk. You piloted a suspiciously X-shaped ship in Phoenix, and even a Y-Wing Fighter made an appearance as the player's ship in Galaxian.
But no game said "Star Wars" quite like Star Fire did. They didn't even attempt to hide it. From the on-screen logo, to the cabinet logo, you could tell what they were trying to do before even playing the game.
Your mission is simple: blow up TIE Fighters and the occasional Star Destroyer-shaped bonus ship. (While they don't go so far as to actually refer to them as TIE fighters in the game, it's clear that's what they are. In fact, if you dig up the schematics for Star Fire, there's a reference to TIE Fighters on the sound circuitry diagrams.) Your controls are also simple: a yoke to steer your ship, a forward/reverse speed control, and a fire button.
So Star Fire is basically a Star Wars rip-off. But until Atari got around to putting out the real Star Wars in 1983, this was the closest thing you were going to get. The question then is, how was it?
Well, for 1979 (or 1978 according to an Exidy flyer) it was a pretty incredible game. There weren't too many color games yet, only a handful of first-person games, and few good space games. Star Fire was also the first game to use an environmental cabinet. That's not something to be taken lightly - environmental cabinets greatly enhanced the effect of playing a first-person game. It was as if you were climbing into the cockpit of a real space ship. The sound was excellent for its time, too. The cabinet emitted a deep rumble for your ship's engines, which made the experience seem even more real. Sadly, as is the case with many older games in MAME, the sound for Star Fire has been neglected, so you will hear only silence when you play it in an emulator.
Star Fire is a timed game (shown as "Fuel"), as was still common at the time. By starting a game with more credits, you could buy more fuel and therefore more time to play. In fact the high score table doesn't show the top 20 scores overall, but rather the top player per number of credits used. I don't know how good of an idea this was, since I doubt anyone would really have shoved five bucks worth of quarters into the game just to take over that coveted 20th spot.
As for gameplay itself, Star Fire is pretty simple on the surface, but Exidy made sure to add enough elements to it to keep it interesting.
There are three levels in the game, indicated by the color of the ships -- blue, green or orange. If you can stay alive long enough without getting hit, you'll advance to a higher level. The enemies will get faster and more plentiful, but will also be worth more points. That's the key to scoring high on this game. If you get shot, you regress back to the blue ships and won't score as many points until you can work your way back up again.
There's a small radar screen that shows you where the enemies are coming from -- one of the earliest I can recall seeing on an arcade game.
Once a TIE Fighter is near the center of the screen, a targeting grid will appear. If you can maneuver so the enemy is in the middle of it, the game will lock onto it, so you can blow it away. What makes this particularly fiendish, is that when you're locked on, you can't move until you blow up that ship. This forces you to be a little more careful about what you lock onto, and when. If someone is shooting at you, and you lock onto a ship at the wrong time, you may not be able to dodge the oncoming shot.
You also can't fire another shot until the previous one has disappeared or hit something, and if you keep the fire button down, you'll overheat your lasers in no time. The lasers don't move very fast either, so by the time you lock onto a target, fire, and actually hit it, someone else may have already zeroed in on you. Your best bet is to get an enemy near the middle of the screen without locking onto it, fire, and then lock onto the target while the lasers are still converging. The lasers will track with you, allowing you to destroy the target. All of this may seem like an added nuisance, but it adds to the gameplay by giving you some extra strategies to work out, in what otherwise would have been too simple of a game.
Star Fire was also unique in that when you shot a target, and didn't hit it square on, you would only wing it. Few classic video games did this. You'll only get a few points for just damaging an enemy, and you'll still have to finish him off.
Periodically, a Star Destroyer-shaped ship with "Exidy" on the side will fly by. Your lock won't work on it, so you'll have to track it while shooting. They aren't hard to hit though, and are worth some nice bonus points.
For a game of its vintage, Star Fire had a lot going for it. It certainly had its drawbacks though. The game has always felt sluggish - even back when I was a kid, I wanted it to shoot faster. It was also a bit monotonous after awhile. A wider variety of ships to shoot at would have been nice (even Starship 1 had more), or perhaps extra weapons like missiles that would track and destroy enemy ships.
Problems aside, there was some solid gameplay to be had here. The number of enemy ships Star Fire would throw on the screen was pretty amazing at the time, the environmental cockpit immersed you fully into the game, and it was the closest thing to a Star Wars game in the arcades for four years.
Even today, Star Fire is an enjoyable diversion, which is what most of the games of that era were. There's still the challenge of being able to beat a high score within a given time limit, and sometimes all you want out of a video game is something simple and fun to play for a few minutes. Star Fire offers that, and maybe a little bit more.