We know better now. Simple physics tells us that any space-based combat would be very still, and not at all like the dogfighting George Lucas emulated. Materials scarcity and the cube/square law keeps us from being able to construct spacecraft of a certain size, to say nothing of the energy costs of escape velocity. And new mathematics is starting to indicate that faster-than-light travel is further out of our reach than we ever thought. But like legends of the American western plains or the medieval European knight, this implausible fiction is now the standard and not the exception. Our expectations of what it would be like to be a hotshot space pilot are embodied perfectly in the Colony Wars series for the original Playstation.
That image is shamelessly stolen from Moby Games.
Have a look in the lower center of the screen there. That radar is the thing that won me over, that makes me consider Colony Wars the best of its genre. With a few simple wireframes, the X, Y, and Z axis positions of each of your allies and enemies is clearly and elegantly displayed. This one tiny detail, executed so well, makes the war-torn 31st century world of Colony Wars much more believable and full of life than any other space combat game before or since. Other games may have more convincing realism in their graphics or their premise, but all of them (from Elite all the way through to Project Sylpheed) feel empty and barren. And certainly real space travel is going to be full of long stretches of silence, but there's no reason to simulate that in a game. And so many others address the issue by constraining you to rails, or otherwise guiding you by the nose to a specific place. Colony Wars and its two sequels always give you friend and foe right around the corner, without withholding the full expanse of space to fly through. It's a nearly perfect balance.
Those of you who owned an Atari 2600 may be reminded fondly of Star Raiders, with its complex targeting and compelling mix of tactics and strategy. You not only had to shoot straight, but you had to plan ahead and conserve your fuel. I loved that game to death, and news that a PSN and XBLA version is in development is cause for impatient optimism. Until I get to see what that's like, Colony Wars is the closest thing I have to a modern Star Raiders.