Fortunately there are a ton of worthy space sims that we can use to while away the next couple of years. Or the next couple of months, because dogfighting alpha!
(1990, Good Old Games)
We might as well start with the granddaddy, no? OK, maybe Elite and Trade Wars are the real granddaddies, but Wing Commander put space sims on the map and led to a slew of imitators during the 1990s. It also put Chris Roberts on the map, which of course led to grander things, including the reason we're all here reading this column.
As you might expect, the visuals are dated, but I played the WC campaign in its entirety shortly after Star Citizen was announced in late 2012 and found that the gameplay holds up incredibly well.
(1993, Good Old Games)
We'll eventually branch out beyond Roberts' games, I promise, but omitting Privateer would make any space sim list pretty worthless. While it's part of the Wing Commander universe and powered by a fun story and similar cockpit-based combat, Privateer adds commodity trading and departs from Wing Commander's mission-based structure in favor of free-form sandbox play.
(1993, DOSbox, physical media)
While we're talking ancient entertainment software, we should talk about one or more entries from LucasArts' famed X-Wing series. Yeah, yeah, everyone says TIE Fighter and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter were superior, and maybe they were. But the original X-Wing, just like the original Star Wars film, will always be the one that I love the most. X-Wing Alliance was great fun too, especially if you've any inclination to pilot freighters like the Millennium Falcon instead of snubfighters.
Unfortunately, X-Wing isn't available on GoG, so you'll have to make do with DOSbox and physical media.
(1998, Good Old Games)
Here's another genre classic, and one that's a bit better-looking than the titles we've seen thus far. Freespace follows the familiar pilot-caught-in-the-middle-of-an-epic-war formula, but it does so with some nifty Newtonian physics and a nice balance between arcade action and flight sim control options.
1999's Freespace 2 is also worth your time, and thanks to Volition's decision to release the game's source code in 2002, there are now several pro-quality total conversion mods available. The best of these is probably Beyond the Red Line, which puts you in the middle of a campaign from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica television series.
(2003, physical media)
Would you look at that? We're back to Chris Roberts games. It's almost as if this guy is the father of the genre or something. If you're reading this column or following Star Citizen, Freelancer is required playing, in my humble opinion. Roberts has famously said that he wasn't happy with the finished product, and he's also said that Star Citizen is his attempt to make the game he envisioned while making Freelancer.
Even so, Freelancer is an absolute blast. Unlike most of the games on this list, it eschews typical joystick controls for a mouse-based system. The single-player campaign casts you as Edison Trent, a freelance freighter/fighter jockey with a nose for exploration, trading, and combat. Multiplayer is where this game really shines, though, and despite the fact that the title was released over a decade ago, there remains a sizable mod and private server community to this day.
(2006, Good Old Games)
Darkstar One released to mixed reviews, but it's on my favorites list because of its visuals and its interesting ship upgrade system. Players can pimp their Darkstar using various alien artifacts scattered throughout the game's huge galaxy, and choices must be made as to whether the hull, wings, power plant, or plasma cannons will get a boost. There's nothing really revolutionary here, but I found the game's progression pretty satisfying. Plus, it's hard to beat the combination of unique aesthetics and dirt-cheap price.
Evochron Mercenary is the newest iteration of Star Wraith's long-running space sim franchise. And when I say Star Wraith, I mean indie dev Shawn Bower, who has handcrafted this impressive series basically by himself.
Mercenary features a vast and gorgeous universe that supports single- or multiplayer sandbox gameplay including mining, trading, racing, and combat. There are no jump points or traditional zone-loading doors here, and the result is a stunning game world where you can seamlessly transition from solar system to solar system or from space flight to planetary atmosphere.
The game also boasts an advanced physics system and a complicated control scheme that should satisfy even the most discriminating space sim junkie.
(1999 - 2013, Steam)
If you're looking for a space trading and combat experience that will literally suck months of your life into a ginormous black hole of fun, look no further than Egosoft's X series. I'm embarrassed to tell you how much time I've spent on X: Beyond the Frontier, X2: The Threat, and X3: Reunion, so I won't.
The best way to describe X is as a sort of single-player mashup featuring parts of EVE Online and parts of the original Elite. There's so much to do and see in these games that trying to sum it all up in a couple of paragraphs is patently ridiculous. Suffice it to say that one of them will keep you busy until Star Citizen launches and probably even after that. Oh, and X: Rebirth, the series' latest installment, releases in November!
I just bought Strike Suit Zero on impulse while writing this column, so take what I have to say about it with a grain of salt. I love what I've seen through the tutorial and the first couple of missions, though, from the gorgeous visuals to the soundtrack to the ballsy declaration that this is the "space sim reborn" in the trailer.
Gameplay proper is both story-based and free-form from what I can gather thus far, and there's even an accompanying toolset available on Steam for all you modders out there! It feels rather arcadey for a space sim, but that could be a positive for time-challenged players looking for a quick fix. And aside from X: Rebirth it's easily the best-looking game on this list.
(1984, physical media, emulator)
This last one will probably generate a few WTFs, but hey, this is my list! Sundog is the title that made me a gamer, and I spent a healthy portion of 1985 neglecting grade-school homework and immersed in the Matrix-green glow of an Apple II monitor that served as my gateway to the world of sims and RPGs.
If you're curious, you can actually play Sundog on modern equipment thanks to VirtualApple.org and its browser-based emulator plugin.
So that's it for my initial space sim compilation. Keep in mind that these are my faves and this is far from an exhaustive list. That said, there's more than enough here to keep you pew pewing contentedly while you wait on Star Citizen.