With games like Knights of the Old Republic II, Lego Star Wars and Republic Commando all ranking highly in the gaming charts it looks like there’s no stopping the Star Wars franchise. And now, in anticipation of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith being released in May, we take a look at the long history of interactive Star Wars game titles - complete with all of its highs and lows.
Pixelated Beginnings - from the 70s to 80s
May of 1977 - Star Wars first appeared in movie cinemas around the world and all anyone could talk about was the epic chronicles of Luke, Han, Leia, Darth Vader and a really big guy in a hairy suit. It didn’t take long for this phenomenon to make its way into the gaming market with developers the Parker Brothers being the first to capitalize on the license with Atari 2600 and Intellivision system titles in 1982.
The Empire Strikes Back (the first Star Wars game release ever), was a side-scrolling formula game where players had to defend the Rebel base on Hoth. The game was the first of its kind to take a franchise through to a game and provided fans the ability to take-part in their favourite film. The basic game-play was familiar with those in its era but it brought the saga of the snow battle in the second movie into living rooms all around the world. The Parker Brother’s however - failed to replicate this success with their later efforts.
The early 1980’s saw the US arcade industry start to boom and Atari took on the Star Wars franchise in 1983 with a coin-op game. Based around the epic battle in and around the original Death Star, this flight simulator (of sorts) was later recreated on just about every gaming platform going and most recently as an extra “mini-game” in Rebel Strike for the GameCube. Featuring sampled voice clips from the classic film and employing a fairly recent technology of vector graphics, the game broke boundaries and raised the bar for licensed video games - earning Atari an impressive foothold in the arcade industry.
The Merchandising Madness - through the 90’s
After the release of the “final” film (the Return of the Jedi) the Star Wars franchise slowly disappeared with the hype dying away once people knew the story’s ending. It appeared that the Force was fading fast as the low market presence killed the Kenner Action Figure line, the Marvel comic book series and Star Wars videogames were no longer being made.
But then - in a sudden surge of Yoda power we saw Super Star Wars, Super Empire Strikes Back, and Super Return of the Jedi that all showed off the graphical power of Nintendo’s second-generation console. These “Super” games were released annually starting from 1992 and marked the 15th Anniversary of the films. Each game featured appropriate events from their respective films, and took the form of well-used platform formula. It also featured memorable boss battles and some highlights like piloting the Millennium Falcon.
As a follow-up to the successful X-Wing title, LucasArts turned the tables to put players on the other side of the Force. In 1994, TIE Fighter (the Imperial star-fighters) continued on the success that X-Wing built by improving the game in a multitude of ways ranging from gameplay to graphics. It featured extra ships, more missions, and extended space combat - as well as making the fantasy’s of sci-fi fans everywhere a reality. However - not every game from the 90s sparks fond memories. The emerging improvements in technology didn’t always result in an excellent game and titles like Rebel Assault I & II failed to deliver. Released around the same time as the X-Wing and TIE Fighter titles, they were arcade action games that were set over photo backgrounds taken from the film’s scenes. Those who don’t remember these PC releases haven’t missed out on anything, and even though the graphics were reasonable - the actual game play made them novelty games
The 90s also saw a sudden surge in first-person shooting games and the very successful Dark Forces series made its debut in 1995 (a year before id Software released their first person extravaganza, Quake). The game took this genre to a galaxy that everyone was familiar with, but introduced new characters to us - like the lead figure, Kyle Katarn. Dark Forces had evolved from the original FPS games like Doom and included the ability to jump and look up and down. The game also created a network fan base of player created content and had it featured multiplayer options, would’ve been the first to path the way of classic games like Half-Life.
The Re-release and Episode I - the dawn of the Millenium
The Star Wars craze was back in full-swing after the release of the Special Editions of the original films - each featuring digital re-mastering and added extras to captivate a new generation in theatres everywhere. Meanwhile, LucasArts was also busy on the first Star Wars multimedia event entitled Shadows of the Empire - a videogame that was to accompany a novel, soundtrack, action figures, and comic books. It was to appear on Nintendo’s highly successful Nintendo 64 but the game was released to mixed reviews. The PC development team of LucasArts however, created sequels to two of its greatest Star Wars franchises in 1997 with X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II being released to be best sellers. Jedi Knight continued to push the genius behind the Star Wars stories and allowed young Jedi-wannabes to wield the power of the Force, with a majorly revamped Dark Forces engine
Following this success, the 1998 release of the PC game, Rogue Squadron 3D showed that the Star Wars franchise most definitely had a place in gaming. Based around the adventures of a legendary Rogue Squadron in a battle against the ever growing Empire - the game featured some of the best flight sim scenes recreated from the movie with detailed graphics of worlds and vehicles and fluid controls.
The dawn of a new millennium saw the hype of the first new Star Wars prequel and it was inevitable that the new movie would spark a new era of the saga. Episode I: The Phantom Menace was, despite the movie disappointing some loyal fans - a huge merchandising hit and spawned a whole new generation of younger fans. The games that came from it ranged from takes on an existing formula to platform inspired action titles - including the first ever Star Wars racing title, Episode I Racer. Taking one of the most memorable sequences from the film, Episode I Racer put players in the seat of the ridiculously fragile racing pods as they sped their way across the galaxy. It offered a necessary feeling of speed, graphics to suit, perfect sound, multiplayer support and a good mix of tracks and vehicles - Episode I Racer became an instant hit for all ages.
The End of the Prequels - Current Day
To accompany the new generation of hardware - there was a new generation of games. Some recycled old formulas, some grew in genres that had recently evolved like massively multiplayer titles and others aren’t worth mentioning. But either way - there was a bucket load of spending to be had by Star Wars fans.
After the success of Episode 1 Racer, it was inevitable that they would give it another go. Unfortunately it was in the form of 2001’s Super Bombad Racing for the PS2. With super-deformed versions of Darth Maul, Jar-Jar, and Yoda bobbing their over-sized heads - people that actually picked up this game laboured to keep from either laughing or from falling asleep. Despite its cutesy, comical nature - this game failed to offer gamers what a Star Wars title should have - a relevant excuse for a game.
Shortly after this, two new third-person action titles took to centre stage. The first since 1996’s Shadows of the Empire, Obi-Wan (Xbox - 2001), and Bounty Hunter (PS2, GC - 2002), both took players someplace they had never been. The former put players into the boots of the legendary character, the latter finally gave people a chance to take control of Jango Fett - complete with jet pack and dual blasters. These games sold well and made excellent console gaming titles - however they lacked the depth and storyline to keep them selling for more than a couple of months.
LucasArts have also tried to merge real-time strategy games with the Star Wars license. In 2001, Galactic Battlegrounds - developed by the same team behind Microsoft’s Age of Empires games sold fairly well and even saw an expansion pack, Clone Campaigns. Unfortunately, due to bad timing - this game was quickly dismissed after the release of WarCraft III shortly after.
Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided, released in 2003 was the first massively multiplayer online role-playing games to appear in a now respected genre. Galaxies finally gave fans a forum in which they could almost literally live in the Star Wars Universe and the fans loved it. LucasArts cooperated with Sony Online for Galaxies and together worked with the knowledge earned with the popular, EverQuest title to try to produce the best online game ever. Galaxies was the first Star Wars online role-playing videogame, but perhaps more importantly - the first game that let you become a Wookiee. Galaxies is still undergoing updates, add-ons and an ever-growing community of players.
This role-playing feature, after proving so successful - spawned Knights of the Old Republic, the first true Star Wars role-playing game, which set the Xbox community alight with impressive graphics, gripping storyline and brilliant depth of free-play. Developed by RPG experts BioWare, KOTOR was set 4,000 years before the films and placed players right into the middle of an epic story with a new lead character and the ability to control your own destiny. It was heralded as one of the best games on the Xbox (or any platform) and the recently developed sequel, KOTOR II (by Obsidian Entertainment instead of BioWare), has continued to impress whilst maintaining the basics of the original.
And there we have it... sadly that’s only some of the games to come from the franchise based on the adventures in a galaxy far, far away. From racing to role-playing, action to flight simulators, Star Wars has inspired and amazed both gamers and game developers for over the last 20 years. The release of the final prequel in May, Revenge of the Sith this year sees a game of the same name - however the mind boggles as to what other titles we can expect over the next two decades!