REVENGE OF THE PC
Last month we followed the ups and downs of Star Wars gaming as it grew out of the 8-bit home computer market and rode the wave of console gaming into the mid-90s.
In this final chapter, Dan Whitehead picks up the story as the home PC went from being a fancy-pants calculator and started to make its mark as a games machine, right up to the release of the Star Wars prequel movies...
While the Star Wars platform games had been making waves on the NES and SNES, the software division of George Lucas’ empire, LucasArts, had been making something of a name for itself on the PC with games outside of the realms of Jedi and droids.
The late 80s and early 90s saw such classic adventures as Maniac Mansion, Zak McKraken and, of course, the start of the Monkey Island franchise. The other Lucas cashcow, Indiana Jones, had also been successfully translated into the old point-and-click genre, with an adventure based on The Last Crusade and also a whole new Indy escapade entitled The Fate of Atlantis, so it was only a matter of time before the company treated the rapidly growing audience of PC gamers to some Star Wars action.
X marks the spot
Despite being known for its adventure games on the platform, LucasArts’ first PC offering was, in many ways, a throwback to Atari’s original 1983 arcade machine, only now boasting polygon graphics and beefed up from a simple shooter into a fully-fledged flight simulation. X-Wing was the self-explanatory title, and it hit the shelves in 1993 to much excitement. With the console concentration on platform leaping and baddie blasting, the bygone thrill of piloting Star Wars vessels had gone unexplored for several years. With the advance in PC graphics, hopping into the cockpit of that iconic fighter was a tantalising proposition.
No mere 3D shoot-em-up, X-Wing’s joystick and keyboard combo required plenty of practice to master, while the ELS system (Engines, Lasers, Shields) allowed gamers to share their ship’s power between those three vital areas. In retrospect, the game was a fairly linear affair and the flat polygons from the original release are pretty ugly. Later rereleases would spruce up the looks with some great gourad shading effects. The PC hard drive also allowed LucasArts to build on the original game with expansion packs, and within a year X-Wing addicts could pick up two such add-ons, B-Wing and Imperial Pursuit, helping to extend the rather limited core game and build a somewhat rabid fanbase.
Flushed by the speedy success of this foray into PC gaming, a sequel followed in 1994. TIE Fighter flipped the whole thing on its head and, for the first time, allowed players to fight on the side of Darth Vader and the Empire. Gameplay was much the same as X-Wing, the quick turnaround not really allowing room for massive overhaul of the game engine.
Even so, there were some improvements that addressed problems with the dogfighting in the previous title. A quick-key shortcut allowed you to automatically match the speed of an enemy, so you could concentrate on actually fighting them rather than chasing them, while a tractor beam weapon could be used to stop craft flying away. As with X-Wing, two expansion packs - Defender of the Empire and Enemies of the Empire - followed in the same year. Between the two games, and the brace of add-on missions, Star Wars had hit the PC in fine form.
A certain point of view
Of course, 1994 also saw the release of a PC game the effects of which we’re still feeling in 2005 - a charming little tale of demons and space marines called Doom. Though the first-person shooter genre had been around in various forms for many years, and truly came into its own with Wolfenstein 3D, few would argue that Doom didn’t cement the FPS genre into the dominant force we know today. Naturally, LucasArts was quick to realise the sales potential of this hot new genre, and just how excited Star Wars fans would be to blast Stormtroopers in glorious first-person perspective.
Dark Forces debuted on the PC in 1995, and quite apart from being a great shooter, it remains notable for many reasons. From a technical standpoint, Dark Forces managed to take the Doom blueprint and make some improvements which helped to evolve the FPS genre. For one thing, the blasting action was tempered with a sense of strategy and even outright puzzle sections. The environments were more immersive, with fog effects and revolving holograms in the background, and the level design was complex. Players could also look up and down, opening up the gameplay from the forward-facing maze chases of Doom.
But within LucasArts, Dark Forces represented an even greater shift in direction - it was the first game to tell a new Star Wars story outside of the official movie chronology. Previous titles had always followed the events of the classic trilogy, stretching certain events and taking some artistic liberties, but always within the guidelines of what George Lucas had put on-screen. With the inclusion of a new Imperial threat - the Dark Troopers - and an all-new story that slotted in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes back, this was the first time gamers had been allowed to explore outside the mainstream Star Wars narrative.
Photo: The first X-Wing title blasted onto the PC in 1993, and add-on packs and sequels quickly followed
The Expanded Universe, as it came to be known, was the name given to all the comics, novels and other spin-offs that contributed stories to the Star Wars saga once the movies left the cinema. Though their relationship to the official movie continuity has always been dubious, there’s no denying that it was this steady stream of new Star Wars content that kept the fanbase alert and interested during the early-to-mid 90s.
In 1996, LucasArts decided to experiment with the Expanded Universe a little to see if they could engineer an event with which to drum up publicity for the forthcoming Special Edition re-releases of the original movie trilogy. What they came up with was Shadows of the Empire. Not only would this be a videogame, there were Shadows of the Empire action figures, a comic book, a novel - even a soundtrack CD!
The story followed a new Star Wars hero, mercenary Dash Rendar, whose story intersected with those of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Despite being technically neutral in the war against the Empire, Rendar found himself siding with the Rebellion and was involved in the battle on Hoth. Helping in the search for Han Solo after the events of Empire Strikes Back, he was then asked by Princess Leia to investigate a conspiracy to murder Luke by the sinister Prince Xizor of the Black Sun crime syndicate. Of course, all this took place in between the movies and was never mentioned on-screen.
The Shadows of the Empire game continued the Lucas bias towards Nintendo, appearing as an N64 exclusive - though a PC version was also released. While titles like X-Wing and Dark Forces had taken a genre and dressed it up in Star Wars clothing, Shadows was a patchwork of different gamestyles designed to appeal to as many people as possible, quite fitting given the marketing driven genesis of the concept.
It opened with, predictably' enough, the battle on Hoth against the AT-ATs. This snowy skirmish was clearly a fan favourite when it came to gaming, and its inclusion in Shadows as the first level can be seen as a rather cynical attempt to get the fans hooked with an easy hit from the start. The game then shifted to third-person view for sections in which Rendar tracked the bounty hunters IG-88 and Boba Fett on the trail of Han Solo, before leading him into conflict against the villainous Prince Xizor. As Star Wars stories go, it was passable enough -though the events sat awkwardly in the middle of two movies that didn’t mention them at all -but the game itself was of dubious value.
By trying to cover so many game genres - flying, exploring, shooting, racing - the game fell short and never really came together as a cohesive whole. Plagued by clumsy camera angles, the on-foot sections could be played in third or first person perspective, but it was no Dark Forces. Equally, the flying sections weren’t up to the standard of X-Wing. The addition of pointless features such as an overhead camera, or a ‘movie’ camera that cut to different viewpoints during play suggests that LucasArts was more interested in something that could act as a surrogate movie than in creating a game that was worth playing.
The Shadows of the Empire ‘multimedia project’ certainly attracted a lot of interest, both from fans and the media, but Dash Rendar didnt really make much of an impact on the franchise in the long term.
Where the experiment did have an impact was in showing LucasArts that there was a market for Star Wars games that extrapolated unseen events from the movies, and from this point on almost every new game would ignore the movie storylines in favour of playing in the Expanded Universe.
In 1995 the Star Wars template was applied to another popular game style, this time the FMV-driven space shooting of Wing Commander. Rebel Assault was the game - released on PC, Mega-CD and the doomed 3DO console - and it boasted actual footage from the movies! Gasp! Of course, this meant the game was CD-ROM only (and thus very posh) and had to stream all the gameplay straight from the CD. Despite the digitised movie scenes, the game itself was cripplingly linear and little more than a shooting gallery. A sequel appeared the following year, with more varied gameplay and a unique selling point - the first new and official Star Wars footage to be shot since Return of the Jedi. The game still wasn't up to much though, as between Dark Forces and X-Wing fans could already get the same thrills from far better games.
Return of the Dark Forces
The criticism levelled at Shadows of the Empire seemed to find its mark, as 1997 found LucasArts returning to familiar, but fruitful, territory with sequels to its two biggest successes.
Jedi Knight was the follow-up to Dark Forces, and it took the technical advances in PC technology over the intervening two years and turned in yet another superb shooter with yet more innovations in the genre.
For the first time, you could use a lightsaber in a first-person game, putting gamers up close and personal in a series of startling duels. This game saw another new character added to the Star Wars canon, Kyle Katarn, the first in what would be a long line of hitherto unmentioned Jedi lurking in the background of the movies. The FPS was now a firmly established genre, with Quake moving things into the realms of full 3D and building on Doom’s tentative online and network play.
Since the release of the original, Dark Forces has gone from strength to strength, with the excellent fourth game, Jedi Academy, appearing on PC and Xbox last year with a dedicated multiplayer system. Jedi Knight was no different, and multiplayer lightsaber action across the Internet was at last a reality.
Photo: (Jedi Knight) Finally - the chance to introduce your lightsaber to those pesky Imperial droids.
The other big Star Wars release of 1997 also used the Internet to distinguish itself from the pack - though the result wasn’t quite as popular as Jedi Knight’s winning formula. X-Wing vs TIE Fighter was the game, and by combining its two hugely successful space combat sims with the lure of online dogfighting, LucaAarts should’ve been onto a winner. Neither X-Wing nor TIE Fighter had included any sort of multiplayer options, so there was a readymade audience of die hard fans who had honed their skills against computer controlled enemies and were champing at the bit to test themselves against their peers. Sadly, the game was not well received by these fans who had waited several years for the chance to blast their friends. For one, the single player missions were disappointingly short, had no narrative and seemed to have been bolted on as an afterthought. With Internet access still not widespread, this made those uninterested in - or incapable of - online play less than happy. Unfortunately even for those who did have the required kit, the online play was far from great. The difference in power and ability between various craft meant that fights could be painfully one-sided if matches weren’t handicapped to give every player a fighting chance.
The lack of 3D card support, and somewhat choppy online play that required the visuals to be stripped bare for maximum speed, also added to the general air of dissatisfaction that surrounded the launch. Most fans were able to make the best of it, and with lowered expectations the basic melee battles could be fun.
Thankfully, 1998 saw the now-obligatory expansion pack, Balance of Power, and this addressed almost all of the problems that players had suffered in the original release. Despite the sour taste from having to make another purchase in order to get the game they wanted, the fan community soon accepted that blowing your friend’s TIE Fighter to atoms with a proton torpedo was worth the wait.
Photo: X-Wing vs TIE Fighter lured players with the promise of massive online multiplayer battles
A New Beginning
By now, Star Wars fans had witnessed the Special Editions of the original trilogy, thrilled at the chance to see them again on the big screen - and screamed bloody murder at the changes wrought on their childhood classics.
It was also common knowledge that a whole new trilogy was in the works, and that we would finally get to see how Obi Wan muffed everything up and let Anakin Skywalker turn into the galaxy’s most lethal asthmatic. Naturally, the LucasArts games nozzle was juiced up and ready to start pumping out Star Wars product into our faces at every possible turn.
Returning to the console market, 1998 saw the release of one of the best Star Wars games and also one of the worst.
Rogue Squadron for the N64 was yet another title that took peripheral characters and events from the movies and followed them off into all-new stories. Based around an elite group of Rebellion pilots led by Wedge Antilles, one of Luke’s X-Wing pilot buddies (played in the movies by Ewan McGregor’s uncle, Dennis Lawson), the Rogue Squadron concept had already been established in spin-off novels and comics. The game once again found LucasArts going back to the Hoth battle for easy thrills, but with a focus on arcade aerial combat you won’t have heard fans complaining too much. Outside of the PC sim titles, Rogue Squadron is still the best of the Star Wars vehicle games and the franchise is still going strong today on the GameCube.
But with every silver lining there must come a dirty great cloud, and in this case it came in the grey oblong shape of the PlayStation. With the N64 struggling to make an impression, Star Wars games began to appear on other formats, with Sony’s hip games machine top of the list. First came PlayStation ports of Dark Forces and Rebel Assault 2, then came the first exclusive Star Wars PlayStation entry. And it was bad. Really bad.
By now, the Star Wars brand had been applied to pretty much every popular genre possible. Every genre except one. The beat-em-up. The advent of the 32-bit consoles had seen the fighting game go through a seismic shift not unlike the one that rippled through the PC shooter genre with Doom.
Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Toshinden - polygon pugilism was all the rage. And so the world was made to suffer Masters of Teras Kasi.
Based around a jedi martial art invented for the occasion, this rushed fighter tossed a grab bag of Star Wars characters into one-on-one combat with little thought or care for remaining faithful to the films. Thus Han Solo and Chewie fought to the death, Darth Vader duelled with a Tusken Raider and fans wept silent tears of horror at the stiff animation, uninspired fight mechanics and the unpleasant smell of a franchise being milked. It was a smell they would soon grow tired of.
photo: The final few Star Wars games of the 1990s. From left to right: the good, the bad and the damn right ugly
The beginning of the end
The Phantom Menace was now hurtling towards Star Wars fandom like a rancor monster with piles, and feverish excitement was the order of the day. LucasArts produced two more PC titles based on the classic trilogy before clearing the decks for the prequel onslaught. Star Wars: Supremacy was yet another successful genre dressed up in Jedi robes - this time the resource-harvesting strategy of Command & Conquer Playing as either Empire or Rebellion, and set just after the destruction of the first Death Star, players had to muster their forces to control planets while driving the enemy back into deep space. The first game to take a step back from visceral action, Supremacy (released as Rebellion outside the UK) once again found a game that tried to ape a popular existing franchise, but came up woefully short in comparison. Poor pacing meant that gamers needed superhuman reflexes to cope with the deluge of information windows cluttering the screen, and the ugly graphics didn’t do much to entice strategy fans to stick around. LucasArts would attempt strategy again in 2000 with Force Commander, which swapped spaceships for ground troops, but was, if anything, even worse to play.
photo: The X-Wing series ended on the high, with the mostly excellent Alliance
Far better was X-Wing Alliance, a welcome return to serious simulator territory and a game that dared to expand on previous games without stumbling along the way.
Bolstered by one of the best stories to grace a Star Wars game, you starred as a young pilot with no allegiance to either Rebellion or Empire. Indeed, your main priority was to keep the family business afloat. Of course, destiny soon comes calling and you find yourself drawn into the war against the Imperial forces, culminating in an impressive final set of missions during the attack on the second Death Star above Endor. With a compelling story, genuine drama, 50 single player missions and a solid multiplayer skirmish mode, Alliance provided a fitting end to the beloved X-Wing series.
The year 1999 was, as we all know, when Star Wars both exploded and imploded all at once. Episode I hit cinemas, and left legions of fans struggling to cope with the conflicting highs and lows of finally getting a new Star Wars movie and realising that the magic had dimmed over the years. [Also see: What if Episode I and II were good?] The Star Wars gaming scene was similarly confused.
Lucas, remembering all too well the delay in getting merchandise on the shelves back in 1977, swamped the shelves with an endless array of Star Wars tat, much of it aimed at pre-schoolers. This also led to such strange sights as the educational Star Wars CD-ROM package, Pit Droids on the PC and Macintosh, and other quirky & niche offerings, such as the Zelda-esque Yoda Stories ‘desktop adventure’ for the PC.
The official game version of the long-awaited movie formed a suitably frustrating companion piece to the film. The Phantom Menace, released on PC and PlayStation, was little more than a top-down maze game which followed the plot of the film with a seemingly endless number of battle droids to hack through with your lightsaber. As you could simply stand still and automatically deflect their blaster ire back at them without touching a single button, the greatest challenge was to your patience - the vast featureless levels and poorly designed jumping sections proving more deadly than any Sith conspiracy.
And this, sadly, is where our story must end. 1999 brings us neatly to the start of the new Star Wars trilogy and, in a wonderful piece of temporal kismet, the beginning of the current generation of gaming with the launch of the PlayStation 2 in 2000.
That’s almost 20 years of Star Wars related gaming we’ve sped through in just three issues, two decades that left fans both ecstatic and agonising at the way their beloved galaxy was treated. It’s not changed much, has it? Maybe we’ll be back in 2025, older and wiser, for a look back at how Revenge of the Sith fared in the land of games. Until then, live long and prosper.
No, wait. May the Force be with you! That’s the one.
The best retro Star Wars games
Star Wars (Arcade)
Because it’s the daddy of them all. Because it’s retro arcade greatness personified. But mostly because it’s just an awesome game.
Super Empire Strikes Back (SNES)
The Star Wars platform game perfected, with a fine blend of Mode 7 graphics, fast-paced exploration and frantic blasting.
Dark Forces (PC)
Technically, Jedi Knight is superior, but that’s also too similar to today’s FPS games to scratch that retro itch.
X-Wing vs TIE Fighter (PC)
But only with the Balance of Power expansion pack. Deep space dogfighting? On that new-fangled Internet? Yes please!
Rogue Squadron (N64)
As good as vehicular action gets for console gamers. Plus, the best version of the obligatory Hoth battle. Ever.
The worst retro Star Wars games
Return of the Jedi (Arcade)
A sloppy Zaxxon clone marred by shonky controls and a horrible camera angle. And Ewoks. Not even Virtual Billy Dee can save it.
Star Wars Jedi Arena (Atari 2600)
Pointless deflection game with only passing relevance to the Star Wars saga. A shameful cash-in from Parker Brothers.
Super Return of the Jedi (SNES)
Not entirely awful, but the weakest of the SNES series and a cluttered mess of brainless twitch-gaming nonsense.
Masters of Teras Kasi (PlayStation)
A truly grim beat-em-up in which Darth Vader minces like a pixie, while Han and Chewie punch each other. Rock bottom.
The Phantom Menace (PlayStation)
As deflated as the movie, the only challenge in this bland and characterless maze game was making pixel-perfect leaps.
Photo: The future of Star Wars videogames? Revenge of the Sith is due out in May, on just about every platform you can swing a lightsaber at
[Source: Retro Gamer Issue 15, April 2005, P42-47]