The Star Wars Dissection – Video Games

Hello all, it’s time for another issue of The Star Wars Dissection. I’ve been playing a lot of Star Wars: The Old Republic lately, and it’s started me thinking about some of the other great Star Wars video games that I’ve played over the years. A few months ago I was able to get the game TIE Fighter (my favorite game as a kid) working on my Windows Vista PC (the game was originally formatted for DOS; my CD was for Windows 95), and it was so fun playing it again. And while I have not yet tried to put it on my newer Windows 7 machine, I don’t imagine it would be much harder. While the graphics on these old games are certainly dated, each of them has its own unique charm that makes them wonderful and fun.

As a result of all this reminiscence about old video games, I’d like to have a look at all Star Wars video games, going back to the beginning. I will include screenshots of some of them, and group them together by topic, where possible. Any references to years of release refers to the North American release date, unless it is a Japan-exclusive game.

STATISTICS:

Since 1982, there have been no less than 120 Star Wars video games released for home or arcade use. This number includes expansion packs (PC game developers used to release new content via expansion packs, which were additional levels, campaigns, factions, etc. featured on its own disc; this format has been mostly replaced with Downloadable Content), as well as unique cases where a game’s re-release includes new, exclusive material (such as The Force Unleashed: Ultimate Sith Edition, which collected numerous downloadable levels, and LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, which redesigned several levels and offered new bonuses than the previous two LEGO games). It does not include simple collections or re-releases of games (such as the Collector’s CD-ROM editions of X-Wing, the LucasArts collections, the re-releases of Star Wars Galaxies, or the Best of PC collection.)

Figure 1: Number of video games released per system, organized by year of the system's release. This does not include systems for which no games were ever released. Games released for multiple systems are listed under each system. (Click for larger image)

Looking at this chart, it is clear that Star Wars games were made for the most popular video game systems of the day, and rarely for those systems that had only small market shares. This makes sense; there is no need to waste money manufacturing games for the Nintendo Virtual Boy or the Atari Jaguar when significantly fewer people own those systems, and so fewer people can even consider buying the game. Fortunately for all, there are significantly fewer competitors in console gaming these days, with only three console manufacturers having the vast majority of the market share. As a result, Lucasfilm can afford to put games out for all consoles, handheld devices, and computers at little risk. Digital downloads make the process easier, and allow older games to become available to newer consumers. Nintendo’s Virtual Shop allows gamers to download the Super Star Wars series and play it on the Wii, and the Steam platform allows older PC games to be re-played on more modern computers. One interesting note is that there are some mainstream systems for which no Star Wars games were ever released. The Sega Genesis never got a Star Wars game, although games were ported to the Sega CD and 32X, which were hardware add-ons for the Genesis. There were also several non-mainstream systems, such as the Panasonic 3DO and the Nokia N-Gage, which got games as well (though never exclusive titles).


Figure 2: A: Number of games released per year. B: Is a given Star Wars game canon? C: In which Era does the game take place? D: Game genre (Click each graph for larger image)

Looking at Figure 2A, you can see that there are certain points where the number of Star Wars games released in a given year increase sharply. These spikes can usually be associated with real-world events. Spikes can be detected in the years 1983, 1999, 2002, and 2005, coinciding with the release of the Star Wars movies. Another spike can be seen in 1993, when public interest in Star Wars was renewed following the conclusion of the Thrawn Trilogy and Dark Empire, as well as 2000, with interest further increased with the release of Episode I and its tie-in material. Some of the 2005 spike can also be explained by the increased prevalence of cellphones, provoking the release of several Star Wars mobile games by THQ. Last, we see a final jump in 2008/2009, coinciding with the release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

The canonicity of video games is often in dispute. The general rule for video game canon is that the storyline is part of continuity, but neither the game mechanics nor specific routes taken by players are canon. Taking the game Dark Forces as an example: Kyle Katarn did infiltrate the Arc Hammer and destroy it from the inside, but he did not single-handedly kill every stormtrooper aboard the vessel, whilst carrying 9 large weapons on his back, and equipped with a personal shield that allows him to take dozens of blaster hits before dying. Regarding the storyline: in most cases, the story of a game is canon, at least in broad strokes. But there are cases where the game is not canon at all. There are other cases where some elements of the story are canon, but the game itself contradicts some aspects of the films. For example, in Rebel Assault, most of the game plot is canon, but RookieOne did not fly the trench run, nor did he fire the torpedo that blew up the Death Star. In Figure 2B, I have categorized all games in three broad categories: Yes (story is canon), No (story is not canon), or Semi (some story elements are canon, others are not). The games are fairly evenly divided. Most Semi games feature events or battles from the films that contradict the movie in some way. Note that there are two games classified Not Available (N.A.) These are 1983′s Jedi Arena, which had no story to speak of and therefore cannot properly be classified, and Kinect Star Wars, whose storyline may be canon, or may not.

As with previous Star Wars Dissection articles, I like seeing how many games take place in each Star Wars era. So, in Figure 2C, I’ve shown the breakdown of all video games by era. No games take place in the newly-created Before the Republic era (before 25,000 BBY), nor do any take place in the New Jedi Order (25-40 ABY) or Legacy eras (40 ABY or later). The vast majority of games are in the Rebellion era (0-4 ABY, tying directly into the Original Trilogy) or the Rise of the Empire era (1,000 BBY to 0 ABY, tying into the Prequel trilogy). This makes sense; average consumers buying a Star Wars video game want it to be in some way recognizable. Only three games were released in the Old Republic era (25,000-1,000 BBY): Knights of the Old Republic, its sequel, and The Old Republic. Four games were released in the New Republic era (5-25 ABY), and are all tied directly to the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series: Jedi KnightMysteries of the SithJedi Outcast, and Jedi Academy.

In Figure 2D, I look at how many games were released per genre of game. The two most common video game genres are the fighter simulator (flying starfighters, either from within the cockpit or behind the ship) and the adventure game (playing a character, usually seeing him/her from behind, going on adventures.) The adventure category sometimes crosses with roleplaying games (adventure games with character development aspects, based on stats and dice rolls) and first-person shooters (playing a character, seeing from his/her eyes, using their weapons), both of which also feature prominently. Arcade is a bit of a random category that fits a distinct style of gameplay, where the game mechanic is all about scoring as high as possible, getting from one level to the next. The Rebel Assault games count here as arcade, as it’s all about shooting stormtroopers and TIE Fighters, running along a fixed path at a fixed rate, until you finish the level. Educational games are also common, especially in 1999 and 2000, following the release of Episode I.  Platform games are usually two-dimensional, where your character jumps across platforms and defeats enemies for the purposes of getting to the end of a given course. Mario games are typical platforming games. Old Star Wars games, such as the Super Star Wars line and some old Game Boy Advance titles, were platform games. Three-dimensional platform games exist, but they can be difficult to distinguish from Adventure games. There are five Star Wars Racing games, where the goal is simply to beat other characters in a race. Most of these games were centered around podracing, but there was also Super Bombad Racing, which resembles Mario Kart. There are also five Real-Time Strategy games, in which you control an entire army, built up or deployed in some way, and controlled with the keyboard and mouse. These include Force CommanderGalactic Battlegrounds (and its expansion), and Empire at War (and its expansion). Fighting games are not common in Star Wars, but several were made, where a pair of characters fights in an arena. One single trivia game was released for the mobile phone. Last, one 4X strategy game was released: Rebellion, where you control the entire civilization over the course of years, governing exploration, development, discovery, and war (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate).

HISTORY:

1980s:

Star Wars gaming began in the early 1980s. The first such game was The Empire Strikes Back, for the Atari 2600 (later also released for the Intellivision). The object was to fly a Rebel Snowspeeder and destroy AT-AT walkers before they could reach Echo Base. The Empire Strikes Back was a side-scrolling action game, and so you controlled the Snowspeeder along two dimensions: up/down and left/right.  AT-ATs took several hits before being destroyed. The Empire Strikes Back was quickly followed up in 1983 with Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle for the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari XE, and ZX Spectrum. With a similar perspective as The Empire Strikes Back, in this game you control the Millennium Falcon during the Battle of Endor. You must fight off TIE Interceptors until a gap in the shields allows you to attack the Death Star directly (by shooting at it until it falls apart, as opposed to destroying the main reactor). 1983 also gave us Jedi Arena, a two-player game exclusively for the Atari 2600, where two Jedi would deflect blaster bolts from a training remote back at each other. What is interesting is that it was the first time Jedi were explored in any way in those early years.

Figure 3: Screenshot of the very first Star Wars game: The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600 (Parker Brothers, 1982)

One of the most popular Star Wars games of those early years also came out in 1983: Star Wars: The Arcade Game. Using 3D vector graphics, the game featured the player flying Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing against TIE Fighters and turbolasers over the Death Star, and then performing the Death Star Trench run. It was also the first time a Star Wars game featured voices, in this case digitized versions of the film cast. Star Wars: The Arcade Game was released first as an arcade title, but was then ported to several home platforms including the Atari 2600, 5200 and XE, the ColecoVision, and the Commodore 64.

Following the release of Return of the Jedi in theatres, the popularity of Star Wars waned, and the rate at which new games was reduced.  In 1985, The Empire Strikes Back was released as an arcade cabinet. Different from the 1982 game, the arcade game featured two levels where you flew a Snowspeeder (against Probe Droids and Walkers) and two levels as the Millennium Falcon (against TIE Fighters and asteroids). In 1987, fans in Asia were exclusively given Star Wars for the Famicom (the Japanese counterpart of the Nintendo Entertainment System, NES). This non-canon adaptation of Episode IV features Luke Skywalker flying the Millennium Falcon to different planets to rescue the other characters. Most levels ended with a boss battle where you fought Darth Vader, who often transformed into a giant scorpion, shark, etc. It was a strange game.

Figure 4: Screenshot from Star Wars for the Famicom. That Scorpion is Darth Vader. Seriously. (Namco, 1987)

Closing out the 1980s is Droids: Escape from Aaron for various personal computers of the era: the Amstrad CPC, the ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and the Atari ST. Released in 1988, the game ties in to the Droids cartoon from a few years earlier. R2-D2 and C-3PO must escape the Fromm Gang on the planet Aaron.

1990s:

The first Star Wars game released in the 1990s was Star Wars for the NES (Beam Software, 1991). I remember this game fondly, though in all honesty I was never able to beat it.  A non-canon re-telling of Episode IV, Luke must use his landspeeder to travel around Tatooine, find C-3PO, R2-D2, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, before finding Han Solo and fighting his way to the Millennium Falcon. They must avoid the debris of Alderaan, board the Death Star, rescue Princess Leia, destroy the tractor beam and the Dianoga, escape the Death Star, and then fly the Battle of Yavin. Later in 1991, The Empire Strikes Back was released for the NES (and later ported to the Game Boy) following the same structure.

Another Japan-exclusive game came out in 1991, entitled Attack on the Death Star. A unique 3D-vector game for the NEC PC-5801 and the Sharp X68000 (two systems I had never heard of), you fly an X-Wing against Imperial fighters.

From 1992 to 1994, Sculptured Software released three Super Star Wars games for the Super Nintendo (SNES). These games followed the plots of the three movies, but allowed for variations in the plot for proper gaming. They were, in a sense, upgraded versions of the NES games (although the gameplay was completely different). The Super Star Wars games are available for download from the Ninendo Virtual Console on the Wii.

A second game called Star Wars Arcade was released in 1993. Developed by Sega and released as an arcade cabinet and ported to the Sega 32X, it was a flight simulator taking place during the Battle of Endor. A follow-up to this game, the Star Wars Trilogy Arcade, was released in 1998. It was a rail-shooter where you flew various vehicles from the original trilogy during key battles (Yavin, Hoth, Endor), with bonus fights against Boba Fett and Darth Vader.

In 1993, Totally Games released the first in what would be a very successful and enjoyable series: X-Wing, released via floppy disk for the PC and Macintosh. A starfighter simulator, X-Wing allowed you to pilot spacecraft for the Rebel Alliance, including the X-Wing, Y-Wing, and A-Wing. You flew missions set shortly before Episode IV, including most notably a mission to retrieve the Death Star Plans, a mission to rescue Admiral Ackbar, and ended with the Death Star Trench Run. The game had two expansion packs, also released in 1993, called Imperial Pursuit (covering the evacuation of Yavin 4) and B-Wing (giving pilots the ability to fly those new craft).  In 1994, the game and both expansion packs were released together in the Collector’s Edition CD-ROM. X-Wing was followed up with a sequel, called TIE Fighter. In TIE Fighter, released for the PC and Macintosh in 1994, you flew Imperial starfighters as an elite pilot for the Empire, putting down pirate groups, stopping civil wars, and hunting Rebels. The game was set immediately after the events of Episode V. It had one expansion pack, Defender of the Empire, which added several more missions. In 1995, the Collector’s Edition CD-ROM was released, including the original game, Defender of the Empire, and several new missions under the title “Enemies of the Empire“.

Figure 5: Screenshot from Star Wars: TIE Fighter (Totally Games, 1994; Windows version shown).

Multiplayer dimensions were added to the X-Wing series with X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, released for the PC in 1997. X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter allowed gamers to fly their favorite starfighters in missions against each other over networks. However, the game lacked campaigns, and so an expansion pack, Balance of Power, was released later that year, adding two campaigns to the game for single-player enjoyment, as well as many new levels for multiplayer gamers. A heavily cut down version of the game, called Flight School, was included in the X-Wing Collector’s CD-ROM (not counted as a new game). The X-Wing series concluded in 1999 withX-Wing Alliance.  Set shortly before Episode VI, the player flies missions for a private shipping company, and then joins the Rebel Alliance, flying starfighters in support of their cause.

The Rebel Assault series also started in the early 1990s. The first game, Rebel Assault, was released at the end of 1993 for the PC, Macintosh, Sega CD, and Panasonic 3DO. You played as RookieOne, a character of unspecified gender (you could pick) who trains at the Rebel bases on Tatooine and Kolaador before flying X-Wings for the Rebel Alliance. Following the capture of the Tantive IV, you fight off Imperials laying siege to Mos Eisley, destroy a Star Destroyer orbiting Tatooine, and help the Rebels evacuate a base on Hoth (Gamma Base, different from Echo Base).  You then participate in the attack against the Death Star. The story in Rebel Assault is mostly canon, but RookieOne takes the place of Luke Skywalker during the Trench Run. The game’s sequel, Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire, was released in late 1995 for the PC, Mac, and Playstation 1. In this game, RookieOne (now canonically male) must engage in a campaign against the Empire’s new stealth starfighters. The story in Rebel Assault II is fully canon, and live-action cutscenes helped tell a really interesting tale.

The first half of the Dark Forces series began in 1995. Dark Forces was a first-person shooter (the first true FPS in Star Wars) for the PC, Macintosh, and Playstation. You play as Kyle Katarn, a Rebel mercenary who must first steal the Death Star Plans from the Imperial outpost on Danuta, and then engages in a campaign against the Empire’s new weapon, the Arc Hammer, a mobile factory that builds and deploys Dark Troopers (massive droid stormtroopers). In the sequel, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, released in 1997 for the PC exclusively, Kyle Katarn realizes that his father was a Jedi, and that he can wield the Force. He finds his father’s lightsaber and fights a team of Dark Jedi led by Jerec, one of the Emperor’s Inquisitors. Like Rebel Assault II, Jedi Knight had live-action cutscenes to further the story. Jedi Knight was also the first game where you could make a choice between a Light Side or Dark Side ending (although it was not a clear-cut decision; it depended on your actions through the game). An expansion pack was released a few months later in early 1998, called Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith. You start this game as Kyle Katarn, who travels to Dromund Kaas, a world important to the Empire. He falls to the Dark Side and is lost there. The game resumes where you play as Mara Jade, Kyle’s apprentice, who must find and redeem him. There were more games in the series, but I will talk about them later.

In 1996, Lucasfilm had its first major Multimedia Project, where slight variations of the same story were released in various media. Shadows of the Empire was near-simultaneously released as a novel, a comic miniseries, and a video game for the Nintendo 64 and PC. The video game had some starfighter combat and some third-person adventure levels. You play as smuggler Dash Rendar, who flies a Snowspeeder at the Battle of Hoth, and later helps track down the bounty hunters who took Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt, and then assists Luke Skywalker and others infiltrate and destroy the Black Sun crime syndicate.

Masters of Teräs Käsi was a fighting game for the Playstation, not unlike games like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. The game revolved around one-on-one fights between Rebel and Imperial fighters. The story, such as it is, involves Arden Lyn, an ancient Dark Jedi from the First Great Schism (Dark Side users following Xendor in 24,500 BBY), who was suspended in time for millennia, and became an Imperial agent, whose goal it is to defeat Rebel leaders using Teräs Käsi martial arts. The game was released in 1997 and not well received.

Yoda Stories was an adventure/arcade game released for the PC in 1997, and then ported to the Game Boy Color in 1999. You play as Luke Skywalker, who is instructed by Yoda to fly to other planets and complete missions as part of his Jedi training.  Each mission was short, and would be generated randomly. The story is non-canon, as Luke did not leave Dagobah during his training, but it was a very fun game.

Figure 6: Yoda has been taken prisoner by Darth Vader! Only Luke can save him. From Yoda Stories (LucasArts, 1997).

In 1998, Coolhand Industries and LucasArts released Star Wars: Rebellion (called Supremacy in the United Kingdom). It was Star Wars’s first attempt at a 4X turn-based strategy game not unlike Civilization. As either the Rebel Alliance of the Empire, you managed the diplomacy, trade, military, construction, etc. of the civilization and waged war against the other one. It had no story, but rather allowed for you to build your civilization as you saw fit. Rebellion was released exclusively for the PC. 1998 was also the year that Lucas Learning released its first educational Star Wars game: Droidworks. In this title, kids could build droids with different components so that they could infiltrate and destroy an Imperial assassin droid factory on Tatooine. The 87 different components offered allow for millions of different droids to be produced, in theory allowing for almost infinite gameplay.

Rogue Squadron was a very popular video game released for the Nintendo 64 and PC in 1998. As a member of the Rogue Squadron starfighter group, the player can fly X-Wings, Y-Wings, B-Wings, A-Wings, or V-Wing airspeeders in various missions against the Empire. The story is not deep; the game tells of how Rogue Squadron was first put together, and described the early missions of the group. Sequels to Rogue Squadron were released the following decade. One fun piece of trivia is that, through cheat codes, the player could fly a Naboo N-1 starfighter, making it the first appearance of that ship.

The 90s ended with a massive release of Episode I tie-in games. The official game adaptation of the film was released in 1999 (as did the rest of these games). It was a third-person action/adventure game, where the player controlled Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padmé Amidala, or Captain Panaka. There were some variations between the game and the film, including the addition of several plot points, such as the Jedi rescuing Jar Jar Binks from prison in Otoh Gunga. The first big tie-in game was Episode I Racer for the Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, Game Boy Color, PC, and Mac. It allowed the player to take control of podracers and race in different tracks across the Galaxy. While the only truly canon level is the first one (the Boonta Eve Classic), it is not impossible that the other racetracks and leagues exist (just that the winner is non-canon). Lucas Learning also began releasing PC educational games related to Episode I, including The Gungan Frontier (learning about ecosystems while building a Gungan colony on Ohma-D’un), Yoda’s Challenge Activity Center (puzzle solving), Pit Droids (puzzle solving, not unlike Lemmings), and Jar Jar’s Journey (learning to read with Jar Jar Binks).

Continued on next page. 

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About the Author

Andrew Halliday contributes to EUCantina as a writer. He writes our column "The Star Wars Dissection," published every second Monday, and also reviews episodes of The Clone Wars television show. He began writing in 2010, sending letters to the SoloSound.net podcast The EU Review, using mathematics to look at certain trends in Star Wars content. These monthly analyses were expanded into his column in 2011. He has a degree in biology and a love for all things science and math.