Special: a long time ago in an arcade far, far away...
The Gaming Renaissance? (1996-2000)
By 1996 the Star Wars phenomenon was back in full swing. Hasbro had brought back the 3 ?? action figure line, Dark Horse had resurrected Star Wars comic books, and LucasArts had a full slate of Star Wars videogames on their release calendar. Some were continuations of the franchises born in the Silver Age, others were Star Wars takes of popular gaming genres, and yet others seemed to capitalize on the money making power of the Star Wars license.
With the Special Editions of the original films only a year away, the house that Lucas built was hard at work on the first Star Wars multimedia event, Shadows of the Empire. A videogame to accompany the novel, soundtrack, action figures, and comic books was underway for Nintendo's third console, the Nintendo 64. Released to mixed reviews, Shadows of the Empire did have it's moments including an incredible recreation of the assault on Hoth, a sequence that has since been recreated in each of the three Rogue Squadron games.
The PC saw sequels to two of its greatest Star Wars Franchises in 1997. X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II both saw release and commercial success. Jedi Knight was a huge leap forward for Star Wars fans as it finally allowed them to wield the power of the Force. Combining a retooled version of the Dark Forces engine with impressive FMV and rendered cutscenes, Jedi Knight continued to raise the bar of quality for licensed video games everywhere. Meanwhile, both Jedi Knight and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter took aspiring Rebels and Imperials somewhere that they hadn't gone before, head-to-head, filling the void that was left by the original Dark Forces title.
The Star Wars console gaming experience took a significant up-turn with the 1998 release of Rogue Squadron. Based on the exploits of the elite Rogue Squadron, the game could most simply be described as the best two levels of Shadows of the Empire stretched into a game of their own. The game was well met and sparked the same kind of excitement amongst console owners that the X-Wing series generated on the PC. Even crafting the title as more of an arcade combat title than a combat simulation did not hurt the game's performance.
Now, the X-Wing series was not going to take this new console challenge lying down and in 1999, the last chapter (to date) of the franchise was released. Perhaps the grandest title of the X-Wing series, Alliance put players into the role of a young member of a galactic trading family. Taking control of various Corellian transports you worked your way across the galaxy earning money for your family, eventually joining the Rebel Alliance and taking part in the assault on the second Death Star. While the game added few new conventions, it was friggin' huge, offering more missions than any X-Wing title to date.
Amidst all of the new innovations and continuing franchises, LucasArts was also looking to inject the Star Wars mythos into every major gaming genre, leaving us with many ambitious yet underwhelming game titles, starting with 1997's Masters of Teras Kasi. A take on the 3D fighting craze that was inspired by the likes of Tekken and Soul Blade, Masters of Teras Kasi pitted fighters head-to-head on Sony's Playstation. PC gamers saw Star Wars enter the real-time strategy genre with Rebellion and Force Commander, neither of which saw the success of their closest peers. Each of them seemed to break a little bit too far from the mold and never really seemed to catch on. Perhaps the oddest direction that Star Wars took during the so-called gaming renaissance was with Demolition, LucasArts' answer to games like Twisted Metal.
The end of the millennium sparked a lot of buzz in the sci-fi world as the first new Star Wars movie was making its way to theaters. Of course, it was inevitable that the new movie would spark new videogames and Episode I: The Phantom Menace did just that. The games ranged from takes on an existing formula (as the Battle for Naboo was to Rogue Squadron) to platform inspired action titles (Jedi Power Battles) to a modern recreation of the ?Super? line of SNES titles (The Phantom Menace). There was even the obligatory portable title culled from the experience (Obi-Wan's Adventure). The most unique of the Episode I titles was the first Star Wars racing title, Episode I Racer. Drawing on one of the most exciting sequences from the film, Episode I Racer put players into the driver's seat of the often-fatal racing pods as they raced their way across the galaxy.
Modern Age (2001 ? today)
With the new generation of hardware came a new generation of videogames. Some revisited past success. Some stepped where Star Wars had never been before. Some went where Star Wars didn't belong. Nonetheless, fans of the venerable space opera were inundated with a plethora of videogame choices. ?Where is my money best spent?? they cried. ?Where will I not feel cheated??
One place that gamers turned for their ?sure thing? Star Wars fix was to Nintendo's new GameCube and Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader. Rogue Leader continued the tradition that was started on the Nintendo 64 and refined the gameplay and graphics to a level only dreamt of. The game expanded the number of ships available to players and spanned the story of the entire original film trilogy, filling in the gaps between epic events. Tragically, the game was devoid of any multiplayer function but did maintain an incredible single-player experience.
Ever hear of too much of a good thing? Well, after playing Starfighter, Jedi Starfighter, and the multiplayer capable Clone Wars, all new trilogy takes on the arcade combat formula, gamers were starting to feel a little bit? apathetic? towards the genre. Maybe that is why Factor 5 and LucasArts looked to broaden the scope of 2003's Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike. With the addition of character-based missions, players hoped that new-life would be found in the franchise. Unfortunately, the on-foot missions didn't match the gameplay quality of the air-based missions. With that in mind, almost half of this game was a disappointment to the die-hard fans that turned to Rebel Strike in hopes of seeing space combat made new.
With the sheer number of Star Wars games available and coming out, it was inevitable that the license would eventually make its way to the kart racing genre. With that said, we take a look back at 2001's Super Bombad Racing on the PS2. With super-deformed versions of Darth Maul, Jar-Jar, and Yoda leading the way, people that actually picked up this game labored to keep a straight face while racing with three of their friends. It kept pace well with its peers, but as a kart racer it never really did much for the gaming community.
The modern age also gave Star Wars fans two new third-person action titles, the first since 1996's Shadows of the Empire. Obi-Wan, a 2001 Xbox title, and Bounty Hunter, a 2002 GameCube and PS2 game, both took players someplace they had never been. The former put players into the title role of the game while the latter finally gave people a chance to take control of a Fett, specifically Attack of the Clones' Jango. Each game offered a unique experience but neither of them was deep enough to light the gaming world on fire.
Rogue Squadron was not the only renaissance era franchise to see a modern sequel. Both Jedi Knight and Episode I racer saw sequels in 2002. While Racer Revenge was simply a next generation update to the N64 title, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast drew upon id Software's Quake III Arena engine to deliver a Lightsaber throwing, Force Pushing, Jedi badass of a good time. While Jedi Outcast was no Halo (then again, nothing is quite like Halo), the game was good, long, and seamlessly switched between first and third person perspectives to allow for some true Jedi swashbuckling. This template worked so well that it spawned yet another sequel, Jedi Academy, in 2003.
LucasArts also took another stab at merging real-time strategy games with the Star Wars license. In 2001, Galactic Battlegrounds eschewed the innovation that Rebellion and Force Commander attempted to inject into the genre in favor of a more straightforward RTS experience. Developed by the same team behind Microsoft's Age of Empires games, Galactic Battlegrounds and it's expansion pack, Clone Campaigns, the only flaw that the game had was that it felt a little bit out of date, especially once Warcraft 3 was released the next year.
Star Wars finally joined the online revolution in 2003 with the Release of Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided. A massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Galaxies finally gave fans a forum in which they could almost literally live in the Star Wars Universe. Lucas cooperated with Sony Online for Galaxies and Sony brought their experience with Everquest to the table. Galaxies represented several firsts for the Star Wars franchise. It was the first Star Wars role-playing videogame. It was the first Star Wars videogame with an online focus. It was the first Star Wars game that let you become a Wookie.
However, Galaxies required a healthy investment of time for players to get the most out of it. The first casual, small-dose, online Star Wars title showed up just this year. Battlefront, with simultaneous PS2, Xbox, and PC releases, combined classic and new trilogy characters and environments with Battlefield 1942 gameplay to thrust players into the middle of their own epic battles. Though slightly unbalanced and a single player experience that left us asking for a competent AI system, the game took advantage of Xbox Live capabilities to bring gamers from around the world together.
The best part of the modern era of Star Wars games is also the predecessor to the game that we are here to honor. Knights of the Old Republic, the first true Star Wars role-playing game, was nearly everything that we could have hoped it would be. Developed by RPG experts BioWare, KOTOR was set 4,000 years before the movies that everyone knows and thrust players right into the middle of an epic story. It was heralded as on of the best games of last year by nearly every game related media outlet and while KOTOR II is being handled by Obsidian Entertainment instead of BioWare fans have still been chomping at the bit for the sequel since the first one came out.
There it is in a nutshell. The history of videogames based on stories crafted a long time ago about a galaxy far, far away. From racing to role-playing, action to space combat, Star Wars has a rich videogame history that has been entertaining fans for more than 20 years. As we approach the release of the final Star Wars movie that George Lucas intends to craft, we can only hope that the next 20 years hold as much enjoyment as the last 20 years have.
Until next time, may the Force be with you.