Special: a long time ago in an arcade far, far away...
December 6th saw the latest release in a long line of Star Wars related video games. As a sequel to one of 2003's top role playing games, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is poised to make a lot of Xbox owners very happy come Christmas morning. Today, in honor of KOTOR II's release and in anticipation of May's Revenge of the Sith movie event, we take a look at the long history of interactive Star Wars entertainment, complete with all of it's highs and lows.
The Golden Age (a long time ago ? 1990)
Ever since that fateful day in May of 1977, Star Wars has been on the mind of people worldwide. It didn't take long for this phenomenon to translate to the fledgling videogame industry. Parker Brothers were the first to capitalize on the license with a trio of titles developed for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision systems in 1982 and 1983. The Empire Strikes Back, the first Star Wars release ever, set things off with a side-scrolling defense of the Rebel base on Hoth. The game was a breakthrough in licensed entertainment, providing science fiction fans with an extension of one of their favorite films. The gameplay was indicative of the era but it made a decent attempt to bring the epic snow battle of ESB into living rooms everywhere.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Parker Brothers lineup didn't manage to recreate the same kind of experience that The Empire Strikes Back treated fans with. The Return of the Jedi: Death Star Attack did make a decent effort at following up the ESB title by putting players in control of the ship that made the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs, the Millenium Falcon. This was the right track to start on, but the gameplay just didn't go anywhere. After destroying several tie fighters, dodging the space station's superweapon, and flying through a random hole in the Death Star's shield, you used the Falcon to destroy the facilty. Basically it was another, ?wash, rise, repeat,? type of idea.
Of course, both of these titles gave fans more of what they were looking for than the third 2600 offering. Nineteen Eighty-Three's Jedi Arena was a Star Wars game in name alone as the game didn't even attempt to recreate a scene from the film. This Atari 2600 title pitted two Jedi against each other, each one stationary on opposite sides of an arena. Armed with a ?Lightsaber,? you had to defend yourself from a laser bolt firing seeker drone that traveled around the arena while trying to manipulate the seeker into destroying your opponent's shield. A disappointing game for most fans, this was the last title developed specifically for home console use for the next for the next eight years.
The early 1980's were a time when the US arcade industry was really starting to boom and Star Wars found a new success with Atari's 1983 coin-op endeavor. A recreation of the epic battle over the first Death Star, this flight sim (of sorts) was later ported to just about every system under the sun, most recently as a bonus feature on the GameCube's Rebel Strike. Sampling voice clips from the original film and employing cutting edge vector graphics, the game broke boundaries and raised the bar for licensed video games.
Riding on the success of the Star Wars coin-op, Atari struck again with a Return of the Jedi upright in 1984. Departing from the first-person perspective of the original arcade game in favor of an isometric viewpoint, the game allowed players to drive speeder bikes through hollow logs and switch between piloting the Millennium Falcon through the second Death Star while gunning down TIE fighters and driving an AT-ST across the surface of Endor. The graphics shifted to a colorful sprite based system and gameplay was very fast paced. In general, this was a great game but it was never as widespread as the original Star Wars arcade game, going largely unremembered until it was added as another bonus feature on Rebel Strike.
Chronologically out of place amongst the arcade game releases, The Empire Strikes Back hit arcades in late 1984. Released as an upgrade to the year-old Star Wars arcade cabinet, ESB was built on the same technology as the original release. This time around, players used the now familiar XY yolk to pilot a Snowspeeder across the landscape of Hoth and the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid belt. The game was even scarcer than Return of the Jedi ,was Atari's last Star Wars release, and marked the end of the Golden Age of Star Wars videogames.
The Silver Age (1991-1996)
Not too long after the release of Return of the Jedi, the Star Wars franchise seemed to fade off of most people's radar. Kenner's action figure line was discontinued, Marvel's comic book line was cancelled, and Star Wars videogames were nowhere to be seen. It was a veritable nightmare for the Force faithful.
Fortunately, Ubi Soft and JVC Musical Entertainment teamed up to recreate the trilogy on Nintendo's NES and SNES home consoles and the portable Game Boy system. They kicked off with 1991's Star Wars, a pair of games that closely matched the story of the original film. At their heart, Star Wars and 1992's Empire Strikes Back were side-scrolling platform titles that seemed to spark memories of a galaxy far, far away. However, these titles paled in comparison to their Super iterations that showed up on the Super Nintendo.
Super Star Wars, Super Empire Strikes Back, and Super Return of the Jedi showed off the graphical prowess of Nintendo's second-generation console while expanding on the formula that Ubi Soft and JVC started on the NES and GB. These titles, released annually starting in 1992, marked the 15th anniversary of the already classic film series. Each title took events from their respective film and added platforming sensibility, impressive boss battles, and some very memorable gameplay sequences like piloting the Millennium Falcon in the attack on the second Death Star.
Of course, the Silver Age of Star Wars gaming corresponds with the birth of modern PC gaming. LucasArts played their part in this new birth with the release of Star Wars: X-Wing. X-Wing and its expansion packs, B-Wing and Imperial Pursuit, put players back into the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter during the Rebellion's struggle against the Empire. Unlike the original arcade title, X-Wing gave players complete control over their fighter craft and actual mission based gameplay. In addition to the X-Wing, players also got their first chance to fly the Y-Wing and A-Wing fighters, which yielded a wider variety of mission profiles. Between the two expansion packs the game almost doubled in length with B-Wing adding a fourth starcraft to the Rebel's arsenal. This expansion formula is one that is still followed with almost every PC game that is released.
As a follow-up to X-Wing, LucasArts turned the tables and put players on the other side of the galactic civil war. In 1994, TIE Fighter continued on the success that X-Wing built by improving the game in almost every conceivable way. More fighters, more missions, and more space combat equaled a winning formula for the series and the Star Wars license in general.
Of course, not every game from the Silver Age sparks fond memories for gamers. In this case, new technology did not equal a great gaming experience. Rebel Assault I & II, released amongst the classic X-Wing and TIE Fighter titles, presented an arcade style action game set over photo backgrounds. If you don't remember these PC releases, you aren't missing much except for a novelty release that, while it was a reasonable game, got stale before you actually finished it.
This generation's highlight was the beginning of a franchise that is still going strong today. Dark Forces made its debut in 1995, a year before id Software released their first person extravaganza, Quake. The game took first person shooting to a new galaxy and introduced us to Kyle Katarn. The game made several advances over Doom and it's clones including the ability to jump and look up and down. Dark Forces also spawned a slew of fan created content, leaving it only a multiplayer mode away from fully embracing the age of network usage.