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The Star Wars Trilogy

A Digital Star Wars Scrapbook.

16. September 2013 06:42
by jedi1
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The history of Star Wars video games (Episode II)

16. September 2013 06:42 by jedi1 | 0 Comments

Today we explore the Star Wars videogames available for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super Nintendo. Back in the day, I had an NES and both the JVC Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back games. Both are extremely challenging, but Star Wars is the better of the two. I never completed either game, though I did get to the final Death Star Trench run on Star Wars, but only once, burning through my few remaining lives so quickly I never made the effort to get back there again.

The game had some extremely challenging levels and offered very few clues on how best to complete them. For example, if you don't pick up any shields for the Millenium Falcon while you blunder around on Tatooine, then getting through the debris from Alderaan is almost impossible, but this is something have to figure out on your own (No internet back then, no quick cheat codes!). By the time you get to the Death Star, there are some insanely pixel perfect blind jumps you have to learn, particularly after those express up drafts from which you often have to time your exit just right to avoid hitting all the spikes. You can burn through a ton of your limited lives and continues very quickly as you reach every new level, until you learn the way through, and the further you get in the game, the less you want to go back and start again at the beginning when you run out of lives.

TV Ad for Star Wars on the NES.

The September 1991 issue of Nintendo Power featured a guide to the new JVC Star Wars game for the NES:

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[Copyright © 1991 by Nintendo of America Inc. All rights reserved.]

Unless profanity really bothers you, I highly recommend you watch Nintendo Hard - Star Wars NES on Youtube. Not only does it clearly illustrate just how hard the game really is, but it is also very entertaining.

Empire for the NES is more of the same, but if anything the levels are even more difficult. As I recall, I only made it as far as Dagobah once, and never had the patience to try it again. For me, the game was more frustrating than fun - it's just too damn hard!:

Here is the Nintendo Power article on The Empire Strikes Back for NES, published in March 1992:

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[Copyright © 1992 by Nintendo of America Inc. All rights reserved.]

Super Star Wars was slightly better, but the bad guys regenerate almost instantly - you can't stand still and catch your breath because right from the start the scorpions and bird like creatures just keep coming at you inflicting damage, and while killing them seems like a waste of time - since they just come right back - you need to kill them to collect the little hearts and replenish your life enough to keep moving forward.

Fancy giving these games a try? You can play them all for free online at any time at NESbox.com, or offline on your own computer using an emulator and ROM.

Here is what Retro Gamer magazine has to say about these games:

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Retro Gamer Issue 14 March 2005_Page_1   Retro Gamer Issue 14 March 2005_Page_2   Retro Gamer Issue 14 March 2005_Page_3   Retro Gamer Issue 14 March 2005_Page_4  

Lucasarts Strikes Back

Last issue we looked at the period we’ll call the Old Republic, back when 8-bit Jedi Knights kept the gaming world safe from scum and villainy. That brought us up to 1987, when Domark ported Atari’s wire-frame arcade classics to every home computer in the known galaxy. As Dan Whitehead discovers, 1987 also marked the beginning of a new era in Star Wars gaming. Although we didn’t know it at the time...

While we were prodding away at rubber keys and trying to find the optimum cassette volume at which to load Sabre Wulf, over in Japan they were getting very excited about a new console from popular Game & Watch makers Nintendo - the Famicom.

It was on this fledgling system that arcade stalwart Namco released its own take on George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. As the game was never released outside Japan, it’s one of the few commercially available Star Wars games to have gone largely unseen by fans. Even today, the original cartridge is something of a rarity.

The game itself is a mixed bag. As far as gameplay goes, it’s pretty cool and serves up side-scrolling platform action, the first ever use of this in a Star Wars game. Up until this point, the games always focussed on vehicular combat, so just being able to see and control recognisable characters like Luke Skywalker was something of a novelty.

Very much in the Mario vein, you proceed from left to right, jumping over conveniently step-shaped rocky obstacles and using your lightsaber to kill the various baddies along the way. Each enemy only takes one hit to kill, but as the same is true of Luke you can’t really complain that it isn’t hard enough. In fact, as the game progresses it’s easy to run out of your meagre allocation of lives when confronted with a tricky jump or an awkwardly placed Tusken Raider.

Graphically, it was certainly the most faithful adaptation of the time. Stormtroopers, R2-D2, and even Darth Vader himself are all instantly recognisable. The game also avoids the Japanese tendency towards the cute ‘super-deformed’ big head look, making its non-appearance on Western shores all the more mysterious.

Where the game does stumble slightly is in its adherence (or lack thereof) to the Star Wars storyline. The action starts on Tatooine, understandably enough. You see some Jawas swipe R2 and Luke set off in pursuit. OK, so that’s not strictly true to the movie (and Luke’s wispy, blonde 70s barnet has been dyed black) but we’re still in the realms of artistic licence. Things start to go a bit bandy when you enter the Jawa Sandcrawler to find an unarmed Imperial stormtrooper marching up and down. When you climb into the attic of the craft and find Darth Vader waiting for you, alarm bells start to ring. And when he transforms into a huge scorpion with a human face. well, it’s safe to say that we’re through the looking glass.

Despite its weirdness, the Japanese game was something of a template for the Star Wars games released well into the nineties. Up until Namco’s game, it had been all X-wings and snowspeeders, but for the next eight years the platformer was where it was at.

Photo: Namco’s original Star Wars game for the NES - surprisingly good and highly sought after by fans
Photo: Star Wars was a strong platformer for the NES, complete with basic RPG elements

Easy as JVC

Of course, Western gamers wouldn’t be aware of this change until several years later. In 1991, JVC finally published a Star Wars game for the US version of the Famicom, now rebranded with the less effeminate title of NES, or Nintendo Entertainment System.

Superficially similar to the Namco release, the Western version of this game was developed by LucasArts (then Lucasfilm Games) and blends the predictable side-on jumping action with some role-playing adventure elements and a little bit of top-down exploration. Zipping around the sands of Tatooine in a landspeeder, you must explore various caves in order to find R2 and get the whole adventure rolling. So far, so familiar, but Luke isn’t the only playable character in this version. As the story goes on, you are able to control Han, Leia and Obi-Wan, while C-3PO and R2 can be used for hints and assistance. In fact, if you don’t rescue R2, you can’t get Obi-Wan to join your party. This sort of RPG element really helps the game feel true to the movie and the simplistic platform appearance conceals a rather clever little game.

Of course, it’s not all good news. For one thing, Darth Vader doesn’t appear in the game at all. Nor does Chewbacca, but then he was a mere sidekick. Producing a game without a lead villain - one of the most iconic villains in movie history, no less - was a much bolder decision. The game is also skewed towards the tougher end of the play scale, with some annoying pixel-perfect jumps unfairly diminishing your stock of lives.

Star Wars was a strong seller and was also rolled out across three other formats, including a version for the Sega Master System, which was almost identical to the NES original, to later handheld editions for both the GameBoy and GameGear.

System Wars

By the early 90s, Star Wars and the SNES had quite a cosy little alliance going in the Great Console War, but 1993 saw US Gold cross the battle lines to release a port of the NES Star Wars game on the Sega Master System. Only released in Europe, the adaptation (handled by Tiertex) actually improved on the original in several ways - it featured improved visuals, as the Master System offered a subtler colour palette and better digitised images of the characters in the films. With the SNES and Megadrive dragging gaming into the warm glow of 16-bit heaven though, the Master System was already a dying format - hence the Europe-only release for the title.

Back to basics

So successful was the Star Wars game that The Empire Strikes Back swiftly followed the next year. This all but ditches the RPG elements of the previous game, slight though they were, and concentrates on delivering a stronger platform game with some nifty vehicle sections to boot. Opening on Hoth, the game follows the movie almost scene for scene (if you pretend that Mark Hamill does a lot of jumping up and down) - you ride your tauntaun, see Obi-Wan’s spirit, battle the wampa monster (several of them, actually) and make your way back to the rebel base. You don’t get to snooze in tauntaun guts, but hey, you can’t have everything.

The game engine is much the same as the one used for Star Wars, but the levels are better designed and there’s a feeling of progress that isn’t as noticeable in the first game.

Things switch to vehicle action for - you guessed it - the AT-AT attack. There are various ways to bring down these metal monsters (blast them from behind or fire your harpoons at their feet) and this was a logical improvement on the old Atari coin-op rendition of the same scene. As the NES graphics chip was being squeezed for all it was worth, the end result looks pretty spectacular too.

The game then takes you to Dagobah (and even features the encounter with the phantom Vader) via a quick space battle with TIE Fighters. Then it’s on to Darth Vader’s ship (rather than Bespin), where you battle Boba Fett, enjoy a quick cameo from Lando and endure an epic fight with the real Darth Vader that traverses many screens and ends - in a franchise-destroying sort of way - with Vader being impaled on spikes.

While there’s no denying that the game is fun and looks great for a NES title, it does suffer from the switch of focus to just Luke. The rest of the characters are reduced to little more than bit parts, and after the ensemble effort of the first JVC title, that’s a shame.

You’d be forgiven for expecting Return of the Jedi to put in an appearance as well, but the 16-bit era was dawning and the decision was made to simply start afresh on the new technology. Once again, the final chapter of the story was dealt a bum hand as far as games were concerned.

Photo: Empire was the last Star Wars game for the NES, as LucasArts turned its attention toward the new Super Nintendo

Super powered

In 1991, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System debuted in America, and it was clear that continuing the Star Wars saga on the clunky old NES while the Sega Genesis mopped up the 16-bit market was out of the question.

As a result, Super Star Wars -once again developed by Lucasfilm and published by JVC -was one of the first SNES games to be released, debuting in early 1992. It was also one of the first to really show off the potential of Nintendo’s new wonder beast.

As the name suggests, Super Star Wars was a remake of the NES original, but was substantially beefed up in every respect. From the stereo renditions of John Williams’ iconic themes (finally sounding like they are being played on actual instruments rather than digital watches) to the large colourful sprites, which leap and roll around parallax-scrolling levels with lifelike animation, this is about as glamorous as Star Wars games ever got.

As in the NES version, the game starts out with Luke on Tatooine beating up Jawas and assorted desert beasts. As the game progresses you meet up with characters like Han and Chewie and can choose which character to use in each level as you plot your course to the Death Star. Apart from a slight increase in resilience for those opting to go Wookiee, the decision is purely cosmetic. The game also features an attempt at a 3D space section, which includes the final trench run -this made early use of the SNES Mode 7 chip to shift the graphics around.

The game also inherits its ancestors’ fussy difficulty levels and it’s likely that most gamers never find the other characters or get to try the vehicle sections. One particular part of the game, in which Luke tries to scale the side of a sandcrawler by leaping from moving platforms, deserves to go down in history as one of the most joypad-smashing feats of programming.

The game also hurls wave upon wave of respawning enemies at the player, making it more of a side-scrolling shooter than a pure platformer, so standing still for any length of time is suicidal. Apparently the developer realised that it may have tipped things a little too far towards ‘rock hard’ on the difficulty scale, as practically every enemy drops a health power-up when killed. The result is a game in which your health bar yo-yos up and down as you march relentlessly from left to right, finger firmly pressed on the fire button.

Photo: While ambitious, Super Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the SNES Star Wars trilogy

In 1993, the second instalment of JVC’s new trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, was released, which leapt towards full-on ‘Super’ mode. Perhaps wisely, this game didn't mess with the winning formula established by Super Star Wars -big colourful sprites and non-stop action are the key ingredients here. Deviating from the NES Empire game, this edition drops the Luke-centric gameplay, giving Han a look in on the action as well.

If the game has one failing (apart from yet another ridiculously steep difficulty curve) it’s that the locations are dragged out over lengthy levels - Hoth alone takes you up to level 12. After that, you get to enjoy the good ol’AT-AT battle in glorious Mode 7, but you need to be a pretty stubborn gamer (or a cheater) to get that far. One important addition to Super Empire Strikes Back is the password system that lets you return to where you were up to. Considering the length and difficulty of the games, this is more than welcome.

Third time unlucky

The LucasArts/JVC trilogy was finally completed in 1995, with the release of the slightly disappointing Super Return of the Jedi. It wasn’t in the same lowly league as Atari’s clumsy isometric 1984 arcade machine, but even so, a sense of formula was creeping in and some unusual gameplay choices had been made that compounded the ‘been there, done that’ feeling.

For one thing, the game starts with a scrolling Mode 7 vehicle level that doesn’t seem to bear any reference to the movie. Presumably meant to illustrate Luke’s journey to Jabba’s palace, this fussy race sequence in what looks like an upside-down satellite sees you leaping over mysterious black voids, collecting tokens and being bounced around by irritating little pillars of rock. Pointless and aggravating, the fact that it has no relevance to Star Wars means you start the game feeling peeved rather than excited or challenged.

Once you’ve got past that irritation, the game’s technically a steady improvement on the previous two. Faster paced and with much smoother control, it’s an eyeball-searing experience. You can also choose from three characters to play as (Luke, Chewie and Leia in her bounty hunter disguise), as you make your way to Jabba’s palace. However, the hectic gameplay is also combined with sprawling level design in which missing a platform means you fall down to more platforms beneath. As you sprint from left to right, collecting tokens (another new addition), it’s hard to avoid the sensation that you’re playing Sonic the Jedi or something similar.

Even the presence of some giant boss encounters - such as with the Rancor monster - and a Mode 7 speederbike chase on Endor can’t hide the fact that this is a pretty dumb game. Few of the enemies are taken from the films and generic creatures jump, roll and run into you constantly. Like the much-maligned movie, it feels like it’s pandering to an easily distracted audience at the expense of franchise continuity. As if to prove this thesis correct, Super Return of the Jedi allows you to play as an Ewok.

A bloody Ewok.

The game climaxes in a rather bizarre boss battle with the Emperor, who flies around the screen like the demon from Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins and blasts the walkway out from underneath you. If you defeat him - which is practically impossible, since your health’s dwindling and you’re running out of surfaces to stand on -you move on to one of the most ill-conceived final levels in a game. Ever.

In one of the worst uses of Mode 7 in SNES history, the game attempts to recreate the Millenium Falcon’s journey into the heart of the second Death Star from a first-person perspective. In reality, this is just a series of blocky geometric shapes jerking towards you, while the occasional TIE fighter floats past. Hitting the sides damages your shields, but as you can’t really tell where the sides are, it’s a confusing challenge to say the least. Aiming for the black bit in the middle of the screen seems to work, but that gets smaller and smaller (presumably because the tunnel is getting narrower, though you’d be hard pushed to tell from the graphics) until you reach the reactor. Blow that up and you’ve finished one of the hardest and most annoying Star Wars games.

Super Return of the Jedi’s flaws are made all the more noticeable because the ‘Super’ trilogy is still the most complete and graphically impressive rendition of the saga, even today. It also marks the last time companies used the classic movie trilogy as a basis for our videogame entertainment. From that point on, games makers would step outside the confines of what George Lucas had put on screen and explore the galaxy on their own.

Star Wars Arcade

Although the Star Wars gaming franchise had radically evolved after spreading to home consoles, Sega realised that Atari’s wire-frame arcade titles were still extremely popular with fans of the movie. So, taking the licence right back to its X-wing-flying roots, Sega released Star Wars Arcade. Featuring fantastic 3D visuals and a huge sit-down cabinet, Star Wars Arcade put you in the seat of an X-wing (and a Y-wing) and featured missions taken from the original movie trilogy - most of these were simple ‘destroy all enemies’ affairs, while others took place on and around the Death Star, reproducing Luke’s epic trench run.

On the home console front, the Megadrive wasn’t equipped to handle the power of Star Wars Arcade, so the game eventually arrived on the ill-advised Megadrive addon, the 32X. Along with only a couple of other 3D titles, like Virtua Racing and Doom, Star Wars Arcade was one of the few reasons to own a 32X.

[source: Retro Gamer Volume 2, Issue 2, P.44-47 Copyright © 2005 Live Publishing Int Ltd.]

Next Time: We still have some more Nintendo related material to share with you over the next few days, before we move on to Retro Gamer's "The History of Star Wars Videogames Episode III" which will explore X-Wing, Rebel Assault and Dark Forces games on the PC.

For a quick look at all the games we've explored so far, check out Star Wars Games by the Angry Video Game Nerd on Youtube, though again, if profanity offends you, you might want to skip this one too...

[NINTENDO IS A REGISTERED TRADEMARK OF NINTENDO OF AMERICA INC. TM & © for games and characters are owned by the companies who market or license those products.]

 
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The Star Wars Trilogy | The history of Star Wars video games (Episode I)

The Star Wars Trilogy

A Digital Star Wars Scrapbook.

12. September 2013 09:08
by jedi1
0 Comments

The history of Star Wars video games (Episode I)

12. September 2013 09:08 by jedi1 | 0 Comments

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Retro Gamer Issue 13 2005 _Page_1   Retro Gamer Issue 13 2005 _Page_2   Retro Gamer Issue 13 2005 _Page_3   Retro Gamer Issue 13 2005 _Page_4   Retro Gamer Issue 13 2005 _Page_5   Retro Gamer Issue 13 2005 _Page_6  

Episode I - The Atarian Assault

The two Star Wars prequels may have dipped below our expectations, but the upcoming prospect of Episode III has us stupidly excited... so excited that we asked Star Wars uber-geek Dan Whitehead to chart the history of games based on the sci-fi saga. In the first of a three part series leading up to the release of the new movie, Dan looks at Atari’s original arcade trilogy and the early computer and console licenses.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away...

Well, OK, technically it was 28 years ago at Mann's Chinese Theater, Los Angeles. That was where, on May 25th 1977, a little sci-fi flick simply called Star Wars first revealed itself to mankind. Fledgling director George Lucas was so convinced that his “space opera” - which had cost the princely sum of ten million dollars - would be such a disaster that he went on holiday with pal Steven Spielberg to talk about making a movie about an adventurous archaeologist rather than face the inevitable bad news from the box office.

When he heard that people were queuing round the block to see Luke Skywalker take on Darth Vader over and over again, he flew back and watched in amazement from a burger bar across the street as movie history was made.

The arse end of the 70s and the early 80s were bookended by the further chapters in George's saga, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with plain old Star Wars now rechristened as the more franchise-friendly Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, sparking speculation that one day we might see a whole new trilogy explaining just who Obi Wan was, what that fleeting reference to the “clone wars” was all about, and where all the Jedi vanished to.

On May 25th this year, that story will be completed, as Episode III: Revenge of the Sith brings the saga to a close, and we'll finally get to see perpetual whiner Anakin Skywalker burnt to a crisp, encased in black armour and given the vocal chords of James Earl Jones. But before all that could happen, there was the giddy and innocent golden age of Star Wars to enjoy. Back in 1977, unprepared for the modest film's extraordinary success, toy maker Kenner was caught off guard and was unable to get enough stock into shops for Christmas. Fans had to buy an empty box, with the promise that a cut-out voucher could be swapped for the first set of figures - which eventually arrived the following March. With their rigid legs, squashed faces and lightsabers that slid up into their hollow arms, they were hardly the most impressive playthings ever. But to young boys and girls around the world, imaginations fired up by repeat cinema visits, they were plastic passports to another world. Anything with that iconic logo was snapped up.

You were there. We don't need to remind you. There were comics and sticker albums. Pillow cases and lunchboxes.

And, of course, there were video games.

Red Five standing by

The late 70s rise of Star Wars overlapped neatly with the rise of ‘electronics' as the new wonder-science of the future. With this brave new world came the coinop arcade machine, though the technology was still very much in its infancy when Star Wars mania first struck and it would be several years before the simplistic world of Space Invaders was ready to do justice to Lucas' galaxy far, far away.

Indeed, the humble local arcade wouldn't see any Skywalker action until 1983 - the year that saw the end of the Star Wars trilogy with the release of Return of the jedi in cinemas. Despite the six year gap, the first Star Wars arcade cabinet harked back to the first movie for its inspiration and delivered a game that still raises the neck hair of most thirty-something sci-fi fans. Already primed for the experience by years of pelting around playgrounds, making ‘pee-yow' laser noises, Atari's adaptation cannily realised that it was the climactic Death Star attack that kids most wanted to relive, especially Luke's hair-raising race down the trench to deliver an explosive payload right up Peter Cushing’s exhaust port.

Drawing heavily on Atari's 1980 hit Battlezone for both inspiration and design, the game used the then-amazing technique of 3D vector graphics to recreate the big screen spectacle in the arcade in a first-person view. Hurtling down the trench with John William's bombastic soundtrack crackling through the speakers, and a library of sampled lines from the movie playing at opportune times, it's easy to see why many young fans happily shovelled their entire pocket money for the week into this beast. Unlike the movie, when you finally blew up the Death Star you simply looped back round and did it all over again - the scramble for high scores and a stream of 10p pieces outweighing the need to be too faithful to the story.

Even now, it's still a great game - though the inverted aiming and wandering crosshair are charmingly clunky by modern standards. If you want anything even remotely approaching a challenge, you need to play it on Hard mode as well. In Easy mode it's perfectly possible to destroy the Death Star five times or more in the time it takes to watch a movie trailer. Still, it's a classic for all the right reasons and remains one of the few film-based games to capture the magic of the movie that inspired it.

Star Wars fans expecting more of the same were in for a surprise though.

Out of order

As the final film in the original trilogy was still fresh in peoples' minds, the next Star Wars arcade machine to see the light of day was based not on The Empire Strikes Back, but Return of the jedi. This came along in 1984, and abandoned the 3D vector graphics of its forebear for a scrolling isometric third-person chase game not unlike Sega's Zaxxon. A multi-level blaster, it once again leapt to the end of the movie for all the action.

TV ad for the Return of the Jedi Atari home videogame.

Starting out as Princess Leia racing through the forest of Endor on a speeder bike, the first level set the tone for the rest of the game - dodging left to right, while occasionally blasting Imperial troops who stray in front of you. Leading them into Ewok traps adds a fun twist, but some wonky collision detection didn't help matters, as the isometric view made it hard to tell if you were heading for an obstacle.

The next level saw Atari trying to mimic the climax of the film by cutting between Lando Calrissian's assault on the second Death Star in the Millenium Falcon, and Han Solo's attempt to shut down the shield on Endor. Switching between the two different challenges at annoyingly regular intervals, the end result was one of confusion and irritation for gamers as the flow of the gameplay was interrupted time and again. Finally, you had to guide the Millenium Falcon inside the Death Star and destroy the power generator. Watching the Death Star ripped apart by a typically rubbish 8-bit explosion , was fun, but by losing the first-person perspective the visceral thrill of the movie sequences was lost. Not helping matters was the fact that all the levels played in exactly the same way, with only the scenery and vehicles changing.

With its claustrophobically narrow play area and twitchy controls, this wasn't a game that did justice to the final chapter of the legendary trilogy. just as older fans found Return of the jedi, the movie, to be a somewhat over-simplified addition to the cinematic trilogy, so this dumbed-down arcade machine failed to live up to its predecessor. Luckily, the games still had one more chance to get it right.

Empire divided

Given the less-than-enthusiastic response to the jedi arcade machine, you can hardly blame Atari for sticking with what worked for its next effort - the middle chapter of the trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, in 1985. Another vector graphics blaster, it was essentially a re-jigged version of the chipset from the first Star Wars game with different scenes. Lazy? Well, yes, but a welcome return to form after the limp Ewok outing.

Of course, the movie was unique in the trilogy in that it had all the exciting vehicle combat near the start of the film, with the ending relying on a whole ton of shocking revelations and plot twists that would be rather tricky to capture in game form (Luke, am I your father? Press the right button now!).

This meant that the first level, still rendered in those timeless wireframe graphics, saw you trying to blast those pesky Probots in the snowy wastes of Hoth. Nothing too taxing or exciting, but it was just a taster for the debut appearance of what would become a Star Wars gaming tradition: the AT-AT battle.

Still the coolest moment in any of the Star Wars movies, it's an iconic action sequence with good reason - which probably explains why it's appeared in pretty much every Rogue Squadron game ever since. Zipping along mere feet above the ground, and flying between the legs of the gigantic walking machines for bonus points, this was an experience that matched - and even topped - the trench battle from the first Star Wars game. Trouble was, this was only level two, and the Empire Strikes Back game suffered from peaking too early. Once the AT-ATs were despatched, you switched to the Millenium Falcon for an outer space battle with TIE fighters, followed by a diversion into the asteroid field. There's nothing wrong with these levels - indeed, as the game is essentially a reworked version of the first game, it's every bit as fun and playable. But there's no real climax to the game, no big ending to aim for that could compete with destroying the Death Star. This is largely due to the structure of the film, of course, but there was always a nagging voice in your ten-year-old mind that just wanted to go back and play the AT-AT level over and over.

Ironically, you could actually do that...if you had an Atari 2600 at home. [And you can do it right now at Virtualatari.org]

Photo: Many arcade operators chose to upgrade their Star Wars machines to Empire, hence the current rarity of the original

Home advantage?

As detailed in our feature on the peculiar history of 20th Century Fox's entry into the Atari 2600 market back in issue 11, the rights to turn the blockbusting movies into home videogames went to Monopoly creators Parker Brothers. just as the coin-op releases monkeyed around with the order of the movies, so did the home versions. The first game release - in fact, the first official movie-to-game adaptation ever released - was The Empire Strikes Back which arrived on the console in 1982, two years after the film, but a whole year before Atari got its first Star Wars game into the arcades.

Based entirely around the AT-AT scene, it was a side-scrolling shooter that managed a remarkably solid job of recreating the Star Wars vehicles using the 2600's limited resources. Controlling a snowspeeder, you had to bring down the lumbering Imperial behemoths - no small task, as each one could take up to 48 hits before being destroyed! All the time, you had to dodge incoming laser blasts and the occasional homing missile. Take too many hits, and your craft turned red. You could land for repairs twice, but after that you were on your own. On the other hand, if you could avoid enemy fire for two whole minutes (which was nigh impossible) then you could “use the Force” and become invincible for a short time. Surprisingly involved for such a primitive game, and a damn fine shoot-em-up in its own right, Empire Strikes Back was a predictably huge hit for Parker Brothers and set a high benchmark for both future Star Wars games and movie-based games in general.

Vintage TV Ad for The Empire Strikes Back Atari 2600 videogame

1983 rolled around, bringing with it a fresh wave of Star Wars mania as Return of the Jedi opened in cinemas and Atari's Star Wars game hit arcades. Eager to capitalise on this, but with no time to try and tackle the task of recreating the coin-op, Parker Brothers instead rushed out a couple of Star Wars games based on scenes from the trilogy.

photo: Atari’s 2600 console was home to four variable Star Wars games released between 1982 and 1984

Star Wars Jedi Arena took its inspiration from the scene in the first movie where Luke begins to learn to use his lightsaber against automated drones. The game has you, as Luke, standing in the middle of the play area, deflecting blasts by moving your lightsaber around. Realistically, it's entirely possible that this simplistic variation on the bouncing-ball game was simply an existing prototype that was tagged with the Star Wars brand to quickly cash-in. Apart from some token references on the front-end there's little in the game to connect it with Star Wars and, with or without the movie branding, it's hardly a great game.

Download this file (Right click the link and choose 'Save Target As...')

Vintage Ad for the Atari 2600 Video game, Star Wars Jedi Arena.

Star Wars Death Star Battle was certainly tied to the movies, though the quality wasn't much better. Loosely based on the climax of Return of the jedi, you controlled the Millenium Falcon and had to blast incoming fighters while the Death Star hovered above, protected by a big thick shield. Slipping through the randomised hole in the shield granted you access to the next stage, in which you had to batter down the outside of the Death Star to expose the vulnerable core inside. Destroy that, dodge the debris and loop back to the start. A version of the game also appeared on the 5200, but besides a few new graphical effects, it was exactly the same game.

[Play Atari Star Wars Death Star Battle online now]

Parker Brothers returned to form in 1984 with - finally - a home conversion of Atari's original Star Wars arcade machine. Shifting all those vector graphics around on an arcade chipset was tricky enough, but attempting to replicate the effect on the minimalist 2600 was a mighty undertaking.

Amazingly, Parker Bros pulled it off. Sure, the vector lines are a bit chunkier and the game doesn't move quite as fast, but for a generation of kids who had played the game to death, this was truly like having an arcade in your home. The game even attempted a lo-fi version of the famous theme tune, and tossed in some early voice samples for good measure - even if they did sound like Alec Guiness was whispering through a sock on a badly-tuned radio. The game was also converted to the Atari 5200 and Colecovision consoles, with both versions offering better graphics and clearer sound.

[play the Atari Star Wars arcade game online for free]

Micro power

Despite the variable quality of the console versions, it was inevitable that the success of the games would attract the attention of the nascent home computer industry. Sinclair Research snapped up the rights to Death Star Battle for the Spectrum in 1984, while the Commodore 64 received a version of the original arcade game which famously used sprites instead of vector graphics.

However, it wouldn't be until 1987/8 that Domark clinched the rights to bring Atari's coin-op trilogy to the home computer scene. All three games landed on the (deep, Vader-style breath) Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, Amiga, Atari ST and PC. Return of the jedi was still a rather limp side-scroller, but the two vector graphics games (adapted, of course, by Vektor Grafix) still retained their charm even though titles like Elite and Starglider had already shown that home computers could do more with wireframe spaceships than simple blasting. The new version of Star Wars for the C64 did attempt to use vector graphics, but at the expense of the frame rate which was slow and choppy. Star Wars on the Speccy, meanwhile, was completely silent with no in-game music or sound effects. Domark's decision not to include a 128Kb version with sound was bizarre. Lessons were obviously learnt though, and The Empire Strikes Back did feature an enhanced 128Kb version with some stirring AY renditions of the original arcade music.

Photo: Domark bundled together its conversions and released them as The Star Wars Trilogy

And so the Star Wars movies left cinemas, and the first wave of Star Wars gaming came to an end. While fans would have to wait many years for the films to return to the big screen, keen gamers didn't have long to wait for the next wave of Jedi gaming. As the 90s dawned, Nintendo slowly began to take control and its range of home consoles would offer developers exciting new ways to bring Star Wars to life.

Star Wars secrets

Within weeks of the original Star Wars taking residence in arcades, rumours were whispered in school corridors regarding tricks and secrets that only the hardcore knew.

Shooting Darth Vader’s TIE fighter more than 30 times would give you an abundance of extra shields. The faint yellow vector lines on the Death Star sometimes spelled out “May the Force be with you” as you approached. And for those who heeded the wisdom of Obi Wan, you could earn up to a whopping 100,000 bonus points for “using the Force” and not shooting anything in the trench apart from the exhaust port.

Battle for Endor

Controlling an Ewok in a glider you swooped over the multi-screen forest, throwing rocks at well rendered AT-ST Scout Walkers, speederbikes and Stormtroopers. By flying into an imperial vehicle at the right height, you could gain control of it and use it to attack the shield generator. Destroy the shield generator and you started over, on a higher difficulty. Ewok Adventure was true to the movie, had better-than-average graphics and gameplay that was both varied and challenging. Nobody really knows why it didn't deserve a commercial release, but it can now be found online in ROM format so all is not lost.

Attack of the Clones

The lack of Star Wars games for home computer systems led, inevitably, to the void being filled by a slew of unofficial titles that ripped off Star Wars with an audacity that, today, would lead to the Lucasfilm lawyers hauling you into court faster than Mark Hamill’s career went down the toilet. However, some of these clones were better than the official Star Wars games. Others, meanwhile, were like a punch in the Jawas. Here are some of the most notable rip-offs in all their galactic glory...

Return of the Jedy, M.K. Circuits, 1983

A frankly bizarre game in which you control a rotating laser gun in the middle of the “Jedy games arena”. There are eight targets and either “D.Vader” or “R2” will appear at random. Pressing 0 rotates you (clockwise only) and pressing 1 fires the laser. Destroy 30 Vaders and. you get to do it again, only faster. George Lucas would not be amused.

Battle on Hoth, Duncan Kinnaird, 1983

OK, it’s not really fair to call this a rip-off, as it was a type-in program from Your Computer magazine, sent in by 16-year-old Duncan. A side-scrolling shooter not a million miles from Parker Brother’s Empire Strikes Back game, it contains possibly the worst rendition of the Star Wars theme, but also the best AT-AT graphics of the 8-bit era.

3D Starwars, Elfin Software, 1983

After an interminable amount of guff about Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, plus such grammatical gems as “the Jedi mission unsuccessfull” and “metiorites harmless”, this game finally lets you get into action, and plonks you in a baffling space shooter where the enemy are star-shaped blobs or freakish bird things. In other words, it’s got sod all to do with Star Wars.

3D Death Chase, Micromega, 1983

Obviously ‘inspired’ by the speederbike chase from Return of the Jedi, this is a bona-fide Spectrum classic regardless of its roots. With a simple 3D game engine, and basic controls (left, right, fire) it manages to capture the exhilaration of the movie sequence far better than the subpar official arcade machine.

Death Star, Rabbit Software, 1983

In a twist that would have most Star Wars fans scratching their heads, you control a miniature Imperial Star Destroyer as it chugs down the Death Star trench, blasting things that look a bit like TIE Fighters and other sundry rotating shapes. Sluggish, to say the least, it’s also worth noting that all the sound effects are lifted wholesale from the underground motorbike classic, Wheelie.

Empire Fights Back, Mastertronic, 1985

Is fighting back better or worse than striking back? You’ll never know, especially if you play this incomprehensible game - which does contain stars, but otherwise has no connection to Star Wars at all. Written by Clive Brooker, who would also bring us One Man and his Droid, this is strangeness incarnate.

[Source: Retro Gamer Volume 2, Issue 1, P.42-47  Copyright © 2005 Live Publishing Int Ltd.]

Next Week: The History of Star Wars Videogames Episode II: LucasArts Strikes Back. Skywalker, Solo and Co assault GameBoy, NES and SNES.

 
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