Culture, Gaming

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

Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles, screenshot 01 (625x352)Part one of my round-up was dominated by space sims. In the next wave, the variety opens up with a fair few oddball titles in between a flock of games for the prequel trilogy, starting with Episode I.

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

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
LucasArts  Developer: Big Ape Productions
Format: Mac, PC, PS1  Release: 1999
The Phantom Menace is not a game I’d readily recommend – even to those that have a soft spot for the 1999 film that divided opinion. The combat is spongy to the point of derision. Puzzles lack the signposting to lead the player to a logical answer. And the graphics are unflattering even by PS1 standards. And yet, for a contingent of 90s PS1 owners on a budget, TPM was capable of a bizarre absorption through its extended rifts on the film’s narrative, the introduction of a dialogue system that made basic bartering a thing, and some varied, if angular, locales to explore. Still, it paled in comparison to our next game.

Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles
LucasArts  Developer: LucasArts
Format: Dreamcast, GBA, PS1  Release: 2000
In many ways, JPB was the game TPM should have been. A straight action beat-’em-up with a move set built around satisfying combos and finishers, and co-op play to boot, it was the sort of game you could spend multiple sessions playing in a weekend, and then recount your tales of victory/failure to school friends (or work mates) the following week – just as people do with the Souls series now. More often than not, you would see your play sessions cut short by falling to your death. The game’s cumbersome platforming sections were made twice as hard by its fixed camera angles, which lifted your heart into your mouth whenever you faced a gap that could force you to have to replay the entire game. Still, the excitement it generated, as you and your buddy gesticulated at grapple droids and frantically mashed the buttons to cut your way through the endless hordes of robo-fodder, was matched by no other SW game of its era.

Star Wars DroidWorks
Lucas Learning  Developer: Lucas Learning
Format: Mac, PC Release: 2000
Trust Lucas Learning to make a game that required copious amounts of lateral thinking and a fairly moderate understanding of basic physics. DroidWorks was a third-person puzzle adventure with added emphasis on the puzzle-solving portion. Guided by series stalwarts, C-3PO and R2-D2, players designed their own droid and used it to accomplish a number of challenges in order to thwart the Empire’s plans for a new droid army. These included designing a bot to lift a heavy payload, push objects onto pressure pads, redirect light or harness magnetism. Unfortunately, the presence of aggressive sentry droids (not unlike IG-88) made simply reaching each area of operations a burden. Still, you could build your own R2 unit. Golden rims, anyone?

Star Wars Demolition
LucasArts  Developer: Luxoflux  Format: Dreamcast, PS1  Release: 2000
Demolition is cut from similarly worn, creative cloth as Masters of Teräs Käsi. That is to say, it borrows heavily from an established genre that was, at the time, very much in vogue. But, unlike fighting, whoever thought that car combat would be a good premise for a Star Wars game clearly hadn’t thought things through. Much like Twisted Metal, players picked up power-ups to use against opponents in arena combat. But, frankly, you only have to consider the absurd fantasy match-ups – Boba Fett vs Sith speeder-riding Darth Maul, AT-ST vs Rancor beast, Desert Skiff vs Podracer, to name but a few – to know that Demolition is best left to the scrapheap.

Star Wars Starfighter
LucasArts  Developer: LucasArts  Format: PC, PS2, Xbox  Release: 2001
The chrome-plated, tapered-tailed N-1 starfighter is a beautiful machine. Designed by Episode I design director, Doug Chiang, its elegance set it right apart from the dirty, industrial look of the original trilogy’s spacecraft. Such a thing was also true of LucasArts’ space combat shooter, Starfighter. Taking cues from Rogue Squadron (in fact, Factor 5 also produced a spiritual sequel, Battle for Naboo, featuring various Episode I craft), it was fast and finely detailed. There were some unusual quirks to its mission objectives, too – from disabling a freighter in orbit to plunder its supplies, to chasing down a mercenary inside the main hanger of a Droid Control Ship – that stemmed from its soap opera of three wayward space pilots who are forced to form an unlikely alliance.

Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader
LucasArts  Developer: Factor 5  Format: NGC  Release: 2001
Rogue Squadron II was bigger, bolder, and it made its host platform look head and shoulders above the competition – at least so far as space combat went. Factor 5’s second tour of duty to realise the adventures of the titular band of Rebel pilots saw it produce its finest work. Played from the perspectives of Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles, players participated in all the major space battles from episodes IV to VI, as well as new ones, which filled out the story of the Alliance. The opportunity to pilot Rebel fighters with profound speed and manoeuvrability was augmented with new options to command teammates and upgrade weapon and targeting systems. Not to mention its handsome visuals, which made the whole experience a feast for all onlookers. (LucasArts should absolutely remaster this game, and its predecessor, for newer consoles.)

Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds
LucasArts  Developer: Ensemble Studios  Format: Mac, PC  Release: 2001
Galactic Battlegrounds is part of a handful of rather impressive SW strategy games, which also include Force Commander and Empire at War. Built on Ensemble Studios’ Genie engine, Battlegrounds is a close cousin of first two Age of Empires games, sharing many mechanical and structural similarities. Cramming so much SW lore onto its isometric maps, Battlegrounds could be somewhat rough around the edges at times. Yet, that never prevented this RTS from consuming days, or weeks if you weren’t careful, of your life. The six factions (eight if you bought the Clone Campaigns add-on) all had equivalent tech trees and units in this classic test of resource gathering and strategic battles. The campaigns were fun, but the skirmish and multiplayer modes were where it was at. After all, who didn’t want to see a battalion of Jedi knights battling Sith warriors on a scale that put the films to shame?

Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast
LucasArts  Developer: Raven Software
Format: Mac, NGC, PC, Xbox  Release: 2002
The sequel to 1997’s Jedi Knight was made by Wisconsin-based Raven Software. It saw the return of hero Kyle Katarn in a plot that had been weaved more closely to the aftermath of the original film trilogy. Having renounced the ways of the Force since his last adventure, JK II featured a more complex Katarn, whose personality became more pronounced as you witnessed him interact with allies and love interests, as well as his enemies. Working off of the template LucasArts has set, Raven refined the gameplay, and the lightsaber combat especially. One-on-one duals against human players, or the computer, exuded an intensity like few games before it.

Click to navigate to another post from this series: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4. Or see the entire series here.

Image: LucasArts