Culture, Gaming

Destroying the Death Star: the Star Wars games of our generation – part one

Star Wars X-Wing Alliance cover art (1280x720)Star Wars games. If you’re reading this I’m guessing you too will have some affection for interactive lightsaber swinging, X-Wing piloting, blocky 32-bit confrontations with Jabba the Hutt and other fantasies from George Lucas’ sci-fi saga that games have enabled us to live out.

With the seventh film hitting cinema screens next month, now is a fitting time to run through the Star Wars games of our generation – or, to put it another way, the last 25 years.

To date, there have been over 165 Star Wars games released since the 1977 film that started the phenomenon. Those include PC and console games, handheld and mobiles games, arcade games, MMOGs, educational software, browser games, pinball machines, interactive TV games and a toys-to-life series. That doesn’t include expansion packs, cancelled titles, the various official cameos Star Wars characters have made in other games, trading card games or board games.

I’m not going to run-down all, or even half, of them. Not even 900-year-old Yoda has that kind of time. Instead I’m going to take you on a tour of the Star Wars games I’ve played and some of the significant games in the series’ history over the last 20-odd years, in chronological order of their release.

There’ll be more than a few cases of hammy VO delivered by reserved soundalikes, infuriating AI and dodgy puzzles. But, as you’ll soon see, there’ll be standout moments too, often to the tune of John Williams’ score. So strap yourself in as we make the jump to hyperspace (or at least your local retro game store/charity shop) and set a course for reminiscence.

Part one (1993-1999)
Part two (1999-2001)
Part three (2002-2003)
Part four (2004-2015)

Star Wars X-Wing
LucasArts  Developer: Totally Games  Format: Mac, PC  Release: 1993
The first in Totally Games’ beloved series of space simulators, X-Wing holds a special place for players and Star Wars followers alike whose first taste of space combat and 3D polygonal graphics was from the cockpit of its colourfully-designed craft. But the game wasn’t only a technical achievement in its day, but an impressive progression of space sim gameplay. While piloting one of three Rebel craft from the first-person cockpit view, players had to keep tabs on their laser readiness, warhead count, deflector shields and engines, in a micro-level game of power management. On a purely visceral level, its dogfights could be tense 3D-sharpshooting engagements where efficiency ruled.

Star Wars TIE Fighter
LucasArts  Developer: Totally Games  Format: Mac, PC  Release: 1994
A year after its genre-changing debut, Totally Games returned with a follow-up space sim, this time placing you in the service of the Galactic Empire. While it wasn’t a radical overhaul, TIE Fighter placed new emphasis on character and gameplay, through additional vocal dialogue and new gameplay elements, such as tweaks to the power management options and a now-standard targeting system. The game is still highly regarded by PC players, and it’s fair to say that without it, later space sims, such as NovaLogic’s underrated Tachyon: The Fringe – which took the genre even further, incorporating elements of Elite’s space trading, career-spanning RPG systems and an exhaustive amount of dialogue and sound to make its world feel that much more alive – may not have come along in the volume that they did.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II
LucasArts  Developer: LucasArts  Format: PC  Release: 1997
FMV gold. Those of us old enough to know the meaning of that three-letter acronym will rejoice at the memory of Jedi Knight. Protagonist, Kyle Katarn (portrayed by Jason Court and his neat-looking facial hair), is a charismatic rogue out to avenge his father. Han’s rebelliousness, but with a touch of Obi-Wan to his mannerisms, his story of discovery and danger was among the best SW tale to be committed to the interactive medium. Played from the first-person perspective, this action adventure allowed players to use Force powers, as well as wield a lightsaber, as they fought their way through desert spaceports and Imperial cruisers to stop the Dark Jedi, Jerec, and his lackeys, reaching the fabled Valley of the Jedi.

Star Wars Masters of Teräs Käsi
LucasArts  Developer: LucasArts  Format: PS1  Release: 1997
By the late 90s, Virtua Fighter, Tekken and Soul Blade had popularised 3D fighting games on home consoles, and everybody wanted a slice of the action – even the Wu-Tang Clan got involved. So, of course, LucasArts produced a fighting game of its own so players could at last settle who’d win in a fight between Chewie vs Vader, Bobo Fett vs Leia, or Luke vs Hoar… Sorry, who? Anyway, this notoriously bad 3D fighter, with its baffling fighting system and even more baffling roster, could be quite the laugh with friends. Teräs Käsi has achieved that rare accolade of being so bad it’s good.

Star Wars Trilogy Arcade
Sega  Developer: Sega  Format: Arcade  Release: 1998
Those fortunate enough to have had a real arcade in their town* with one of these cabinets should count themselves extra lucky. Easing into the black-padded chair of Sega’s deluxe sit-down machine, players were treated to bombastic rail-shooting action from all three films in the original trilogy. From the Death Star trench run, to the AT-AT walker assault on Hoth, to the Battle of Endor, to Luke’s face-off against Darth Vadar, SWTA put players at the heart of many iconic film moments in a spectacular manner that plenty of the PC and console games of its day missed.

* My own experience of this arcade machine was at London’s Trocadero, which has since closed. Namco Funscape is probably the largest commercial arcade left now. I sure miss ’em. All the more reason for the arcade faithful to keep the culture alive.

Star Wars Rogue Squadron
LucasArts  Developer: Factor 5  Format: N64, PC  Release: 1998
Rogue Squadron was a profound step change for vehicular SW games and flight-based action games in general. Up until this point, the latter had been chiefly 3D simulators with nebulous play spaces or on-rails shooters. Setting events in the airspace of terrestrial environments and switching the perspective from a cockpit view to a chase camera (behind the spacecraft), Factor 5 created a game that was inherently about skilful piloting and spatial awareness, rather than power management or simply a swift trigger finger. With medals awarded for accuracy, enemies downed, completion time, and so on, once RS got its tow cable into you, you wouldn’t rest until you’d bagged every last gold, and earned the keys to the Millennium Falcon.

Star Wars X-Wing Alliance
LucasArts  Developer: Totally Games  Format: PC  Release: 1999
X-Wing Alliance was the culmination of Totally Games’ extensive space sim experience. A Star Wars game that’s a mechanical and technical evolution and also happens to contain an emotionally gripping story? I know, right. In XWA, players are cast as the youngest child of the Azzameen family, whose family business of space freight (and, later, smuggling) brings them into disrepute with the Galactic Empire. Over the course of this mini-space epic’s 50-plus missions, you pilot Corellian starships; develop a rapport with family robot, Emkay, and your sister, Aeron; compete with a rival family who’s out to do you in; join the Rebel Alliance; issue orders to your AI co-pilot or gunner; manually make jumps to hyperspace; dock your ship to repair and rearm; engage in climatic space battles and navigate the superstructure of the Death Star II, as seen in Return of the Jedi. Best of all, your character’s journey feels like it matters, like it’s a significant, previously untold part of the saga. Even with its late-game difficulty spikes, XWA is one of the finest SW games ever released.

Star Wars Episode I: Racer
LucasArts  Developer: LucasArts  Format: Arcade, Dreamcast, GBC, Mac, N64, PC  Release: 1999
The trick to good racing scenes in films is distilling the emotional highs without burning the audience out. That’s something that Lucas and his team achieved with Episode I’s pod race. Yet, equally impressive was LucasArts’ achievement: turning this fantasy sport into an edge-of-your-seat action racer, which took you on a tour through 25 devilishly-designed courses across eight planets. Learning the twisted racecourses of Tatooine, Malastare and Ando Prime took a sharp mind and even sharper reflexes. Slalom-like canyons, volcanic craters that caused your engines to overheat, flatlands where you jostled for position with your opponents, and keyhole fissures that could only be safely passed with a swift jab of the tilt button to balance your pod on its side. Alongside a lengthy, absorbing tournament mode, you purchased upgrades and items between races (complete with banter from the film’s Toydarian scrap dealer, Watto) to ease the challenge of winning, instead of simply surviving. A sequel was later released for the PS2, but it didn’t live up to the energy and heart of this original effort.

Click to navigate to another post from this series: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Or see the entire series here.

Image: LucasArts