Star Fire: The Weirdness of Pseudo-3D

Before I launch into reviewing Star Fire, I want to give a quick shout-out to the late H.R. Kaufmann, former president of Exidy and copyright holder of the game, who made the ROM images of this and 14 other Exidy games free for download in 2007 (this includes Circus, which I reviewed previously) .  Rather than holding out the vain hope of making a tiny profit from a 40-year-old collection of arcade games, he released them to the world to become a permanent part of our cultural legacy.  Hopefully, we will see other video game copyright holders follow his lead in the coming decades.  You can download the released Exidy games from the MAME website.

As for Star Fire, it's clear right from the title screen what its primary inspiration was:

Actually, "inspiration" is being generous here.  Aside from the title screen, the game is filled with spaceships that look exactly like TIE fighters and the configuration of the player's laser blasts are exactly what you would expect from an X-Wing.  And to show that they were equal opportunity infringers, Exidy also covered the arcade cabinet in artwork from Battlestar Galactica.  The game was never officially licensed, and it's hard to believe that such an obvious knock-off of Star Wars would pass legal muster if it were challenged.  Perhaps copyright holders in the late '70s were just slow to recognize the profitability and reach of the video game industry...

Regardless, the game takes place in one of the most romanticized settings in fantasy/sci-fi history, a dogfight against a swarm of TIE fighters.  Star Fire was the first in a long series of games that would feature such a reenactment, including Star Wars (1983), X-Wing (1993), and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998), just to name a few.  Unfortunately, a full 3-D simulation of a dogfight wasn't possible on arcade hardware in 1979, so the game had to take a lot of shortcuts.  For starters, the enemy ships were always depicted from the same perspective (see right), with the size of the sprite varying with its distance from your fighter.  This will be particularly disorienting to modern gamers, who are used to playing in true three-dimensional environments, because no matter how you turn, the fighters always face you.  It's a bit like battling a cave painting.

Another shortcut is the targeting system.  In order to avoid having to calculate whether the laser cannons cross the path and profile of the fighters, the game has a "lock" feature where your crosshairs automatically fix on any target that you center on.  There is actually some logic in this -- in the original Star Wars movie, they depict the targeting computers working in exactly this way.  Unfortunately, auto-targeting also removes the most entertaining challenge of dogfight simulators; that is, trying to hit your target as it moves across your sights. 

But the most confounding thing of all is the trajectory of the enemy laser blasts.  Maybe I'm just being thrown off by the odd perspective created by the sprites, but the lasers (or torpedos?) appear to be following curved trajectories.  The animation below shows an example of this, in slow motion.  It's possible to avoid the enemy fire, but determining the logic of how that works was beyond my patience.

Whatever its faults, there is one thing that this game delivers in spades: a show.  Even in 2019, when the graphical capabilities of arcade games are light years more advanced (pun intended), there is something spectacular about Star Fire.  Converging laser blasts, fiery explosions, flickering backgrounds that respond to the action, and mobs of TIE fighters converging on your viewfinder are going to make for a good show in any era.  No doubt the "full environment" experience of the arcade cabinet was even more spectacular (though I have not had the pleasure myself).  Also, there is something cathartic about blasting fighter after fighter into space dust, even if the auto-targeting feature makes it a rather pedestrian affair.

Overall, though, I don't recommend Star Fire to most gamers -- I think it is more valuable as a historical artifact than a playable game, at least in 2019.  There are several aspects of Star Fire that were "firsts" in the history of arcade games, most notably the inclusion of a high scores table, but I will leave that discussion to other authors.  For a detailed history of the game's development and release, I recommend checking out this article by The Golden Age Arcade Historian.