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Joysticks and Lightsabers: A Personal History with Star Wars Games

Cinematic cutscene from Star Wars: X-Wing. Image courtesy Internet Game Database

When the The Last Jedi was announced at the end of 2016, I thought I was pretty much done with Star Wars. I liked The Force Awakens well enough, but after seeing Rogue One, and knowing it would lead to what sounds like yearly film spin-offs, I was left feeling cold on the now Disney-owned franchise. It didn’t help hearing EA’s Battlefront II was riddled with microtransactions and loot boxes.

Imagine my surprise when The Last Jedi, this angrily debated second film in the new trilogy, actually got me back into Star Wars. Without going into spoilers, The Force Awakens reminds me of how great Star Wars was. But The Last Jedi shows me how great Star Wars could be.

It’s similar to my long history playing Star Wars video games. For close to 30 years, Star Wars was a huge part of the gaming scene for me. Looking back, I think the quality of past titles serve as a barometer to tell us where the games industry was both creatively and commercially.

From the arcades to consoles, and from genre to genre, Star Wars has been, for the most part, a progressive journey. Each game represents a step forward in giving audiences that true experience of being in a galaxy far, far away.

“The First Steps to a Larger World…”

Star Wars: The Arcade Game Death Star trench run. Image courtesy of IGDB

I’m about to show my age in a big way, but one of my first childhood memories was back in 1985 when I was about 4, and living off of Pulaski on the south side of Chicago. My parents took me to the then popular kids arcade, Showbiz Pizza (now Chuck E. Cheese), where I got to play Star Wars: The Arcade Game. It used vector-graphics to put you in the cockpit of an X-Wing and dogfight TIE Fighters. Each level culminated in the famous Death Star run from A New Hope. It was bright, flashy, had a chiptune version of famous theme song, and featured real voice clips from Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, if you could hear it through the digital garble.

So my first video game experience was also my first Star Wars experience.

Now in retrospect, Star Wars was made for video games. You had obvious good guys versus obvious bad guys, spaceship battles, strange planets, stranger aliens, laser guns, laser swords, and even space magic all wrapped around a connect-the-dots hero’s journey. Add in iconic visual aesthetics, instantly identifiable sound effects, and a musical score that encapsulates the entire series, and the games almost design themselves.

But in the 80s, while there were home console Star Wars games, a healthy imagination was almost required to buy into the crude, blocky spectacle. Even with the sleeker, simpler, coin-operated arcade games, the best experience I had at the time was sitting in a wooden cockpit zapping the bow tie looking things with a flight stick. It wouldn’t be until the 1990s, with the 16 bit/PC era when the franchise would work out of its growing pains and come into its own.

“We’ve Picked Up Some New Signals…”

As we phased into the 1990s, five years after Return of the Jedi, game adaptations began to break out of their limited confines and allowed a new generation of games to get more experimental both graphically and in gameplay.

Keep in mind this was during a twenty-year span where to the best of everyone’s knowledge, the story of Star Wars was complete. In its absence, fans were still treated to the Extended Universe (EU) found in books and comics. Titles like the Heir to the Empire book series by acclaimed author Timothy Zahn, continued the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie, and introduced characters like Thrawn and Mara Jade. But as far as the main series was concerned, the circle was, in a word, complete.

But players still demanded their Star Wars, and luckily for them, they got it right from the source. LucasArts, the game development and publishing arm of George Lucas’ media empire, would release not only some of the most best Star Wars game adaptations, but some true classics.

If you had a PC back in the 90s (my house had an IBM 2600 with Windows 3.1, fancy!) there was a chance you were treated to a renaissance of groundbreaking PC games which adapted the Star Wars license into new, emerging game genres.

Star Wars: X-Wing. Image courtesy IGDB

Easily one of the crown jewels of my 90s gaming landscape was the X-Wing series. Developed by Totally Games, X-Wing was released in 1993, at a time when space combat simulators like Wing Commander were the toast of the PC gaming world. X-Wing and its far superior sequel TIE Fighter took the concept of space dogfights with deeply intricate controls, and applied them to piloting the classic starships from the original trilogy.

It was a perfect match. Don’t let the graphics fool you; conducting a bombing run on an Imperial Star Destroyer with a Y-Wing, or ambushing an X-Wing squadron with a TIE Interceptor was intense and often relied more on your knowledge of the controls than how well you could fly. I’m not kidding when I say nearly every key on your keyboard did something with your ship. So in a typical mission, you’d hit a button to enter hyperspace, switch shields to double front, lock S-Foils into attack position, and accelerate to attack speed. Sound familiar? If felt like you were actually flying a starship and doing the same button pushing and dial turning the pilots in the movies did. It was a big change up from the more familiar arcade action titles.

Speaking of action-centric fare, even LucasArts games joined in on the Doom-style FPS with titles such as Dark Forces. It was another chance to participate in a popular aspect of Star Wars. In this case, blasting Stormtroopers. But way before Rogue One would cement its official canon in the mythos, no one really knew how the Rebel Alliance actually got the Death Star Plans. Well, Dark Forces decided to answer that question with the character of Kyle Katarn, a mercenary who, in the first level, blasts through an Imperial base to steal the plans for the rebellion.

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.  Image courtesy IGDB

This trend to play around in the EU continued with the arrival of the Nintendo 64. In 1996, LucasArts released Shadows of the Empire, maybe the one system debut title that I was more excited about than Mario 64. In a more action-heavy adaptation of the Shadows of the Empire book, written by Steve Perry, we took on the role of Dash Rendar, another mercenary who helped out Skywalker and company between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. For the first time, we got a fully 3D polygon adventure with a mix of third-person and vehicle combat. For many, myself included, it was the first time in a Star Wars game where we got to do the harpoon and tow cable trick to bring down an AT-AT Walker.

As far as their quality of titles were concerned, LucasArts was spoiling us. Even during the very weird period of the prequels, we still received two games that were, for their time, masterpieces.

“Once The Learner, Now The Master…”

In 2003, two years before the prequels would conclude with Revenge of the Sith, LucasArts was still cranking out its Star Wars games. While we had the likes of Jedi Starfighter, Republic Commando, and one of the original MMORPGs Star Wars: Galaxies, none of them would compare, at least to me, to the release of both Knights of the Old Republic and Jedi Academy.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  Image courtesy IGDB

Developed by then pre-Mass Effect BioWare, Knights of the Old Republic was big and ambitious, perfect for a Star Wars title. Set thousands of years before the original trilogy, the game was a unique opportunity to flesh out part of the Star Wars mythology only hinted at in both comics and novels. The game itself mixed turn-based combat with dialogue trees and a light side/dark side morality system. In breaking new ground, it felt like I was taking part in my own original Star Wars story. It had an iconic ship in the Ebon Hawk, fun side characters who joined you on your quest, a compelling villain, and a legitimate twist that might be the “I am your father,” for games.

Star Wars: Jedi Academy. Image courtesy IGDB

On the action side, Jedi Academy built off its predecessor, Dark Forces 2: Jedi Outcast, which had easily some of the best lightsaber combat in a game to date. Borrowing from abilities used in all six movies, lightsaber combat was treated as almost a dance, as you jumped, flipped, force pushed, choked and lightninged everyone from Stormtroopers to Sith Lords. But it really came into its own with dedicated multiplayer, where one-on-one lightsaber fights generated an almost organic set of rules on fair play. The game also boasts a vibrant modding audience. It’s ten years old and there are still new player skins, new multiplayer levels, and even entire single player campaigns released month by month.

With all of the genuinely good games being released at the time, it almost seemed like there was no stopping the flood of high-quality Star Wars games. But much like the Jedi Order at the height of its power, I didn’t notice the darkness until it was too late.

“Before the Dark Times…”

For some, myself included, Star Wars games would lose their magic after the shut-down of Lucasarts’ game development branch in 2013, a year after the announced sale of the Star Wars IP to Disney in 2012. The studios’ very last Star Wars-related title would be The Force Unleashed II, a sequel to the franchise’s take on God of War’s hack-and-slash, combo combat titles.

Angry Birds Star Wars. Image courtesy IGDB

Since then, even though we’re in the middle of this latest trilogy and separate spin-off movies, the amount of video game tie-ins have been shockingly paltry compared to years prior. The majority of recently related games have been mobile free-to-play fare, like Angry Birds: Star Wars and Star Wars: Uprising. The only major releases by a AAA-publisher, have not only been lackluster but are now also subject to possible legislative action.

Star Wars Battlefront 2. Image courtesy EA

In November of 2017, a legislator from the state of Hawaii proposed the prohibition of selling games with loot boxes or microtransactions to minors. Star Wars: Battlefront II, and its “star cards,” system to purchase in-game weapons and items, was used as their exhibit A. At a time where major game developers are seriously considering how much customers are willing to continue to spend on an existing title, the game which may change the nature of that discussion is a Star Wars title.

Star Wars video games have a long, vaunted, and bizarre history – nearly every facet of the gaming experience has been touched some way by the franchise. But now, where we once had titles released by dozens of third-party developers, we see one publisher in possession of the sole rights to all titles developed and released with the Star Wars name.

In a sense, we’ve circled back on ourselves. It seems like, at least from my perspective, we’re once again trying to figure how to adapt the Star Wars license to modern video game aesthetics and sensibilities.

Excuse me for getting a touch nostalgic, but while these are, yes, games from a multi-billion dollar film franchise, they were also incredibly fun and added a ton of personality and color to an already great film series. I honestly think that the next great game in this already great library is just over the horizon. And while the state of Star Wars games seem, at least from my point of view, stagnant and bleak, there may be, somewhere down the line, a new hope.

2 replies »

  1. This was a really great article, David. I didn’t play most of the Star Wars games myself, but I was a band geek who people knew for playing the Cantina band theme and having my nose buried in the EU books, and I share a love of Star Wars with you. I really, really enjoyed your take and timeline of these games.

  2. X-Wing was one of the games that got me using PC as my primary gaming platform as well as Lucasarts’ SCUMM games. (I was a PC elitist before it was “cool” – but I’m more platform agnostic now). I was such a huge fan of the first two Dark Forces games that I still name ships in games after a variation of Kyle Katarn’s Moldy Crow. This is a great article that really resonated with me, as I share a lot of this history.

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