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May The 4th Be With You: A Look Back At Star Wars Gaming

by on May 4, 2017
 

Happy May The 4th my fellow Star Wars super fans! As the saying goes this day each year: “May the 4th be with you.” From a personal perspective, Star Wars isn’t fondly admired on just this day alone. Truth be told, Star Wars is something that I think about practically everyday.

Star Wars

 I find myself immersed in something related to the franchise in a galaxy far, far away…. be it in the books I’m reading (currently wrapping up Aftermath: Life Debt), the many amazing scores by John Williams that I listen to on my way to work, and most undoubtedly: the video games.

The video games, like the Star Wars brand itself, has left its touch on many genres. First-person shooters, role playing, platforming, and even racing. Its effects have even been felt outside of the comfort of one’s home in the many arcade machines seen in local mini golf parks and pizza restaurants.

So in the spirit of the occasion, join me as we remember how the Force grew strong in gaming with some of my personal favorites.

 

All wings report in….

 

Star Wars: The Arcade Game

Star WarsDeveloped and published by Atari, this arcade cabinet is fondly remembered for its 3D color vector graphics that allowed players to assume the role of an X-Wing pilot to bring the Battle of Yavin to life like never before. Sure, when compared to the likes of EA’s Battlefront games, the simplicity of the arcade game seems severely outdated, but only just so in sight. The very spirit, or Living Force, of the game shines through.

For its time, the Star Wars Arcade Game was as a riveting experience as you could get in gaming. In fact, the digitized voices of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, and Harrison Ford as Han Solo were included to bring gamers the very forefront of A New Hope’s climactic battle.

Opening with a dogfight against Vader himself, players could take their X-Wings to destroy Imperial turbolasers, shoot down enemy TIE fighters, and attempt the perilous trench run. Should the player successfully destroy the Death Star without firing at anything except the battle station’s exhaust port, bonus points could be earned for “using the Force.”

The success of the arcade game lead to the development of sequels bearing the same titles as the movies with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Wars: TIE Fighter

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Releasing in 1993, X-Wing was one of the first games to feature 3D polygonal graphics for its ships. Like the arcade game before it, X-Wing had the player in the role of a Rebel pilot and is set before and during the Battle of Yavin. However, unlike the arcade game, X-Wing featured mission briefings and cutscenes that advanced the narrative. You weren’t just thrusted into the heat of battle, you had a reason to lock your S-foils to attack position.Star Wars

The following year saw a sequel in Star Wars: TIE Fighter. A vengeful Empire is victorious following the Battle of Hoth. As Maarek Stele, you brought destruction and ruin upon the traitorous Rebellion, prevented an assassination attempt on Emperor Palpatine, and assisted Grand Admiral Thrawn in apprehending a Rebel sympathizer within the Empire. TIE Fighter painted the Empire in a different light than was seen in other games. It was the Empire, not the Rebellion, that fought to preserve peace, justice, and order in the galaxy.

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and sequels

Star WarsGaming continued to evolve as the years passed. In the mid 90s it was all about who had the most bits and what you could do with them. Nintendo excelled in this. Star Wars: Rogue Squadron released exclusively to Nintendo 64, and was one of the first games to utilize the console’s Expansion Pak, granting it a higher resolution than games that had come before. This made it the most realistic game in its time to use X-Wing piloting and combat as its main draw. Rogue Squadron was made up several missions bridging the gap between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.

It spawned two amazing sequels exclusive to the Nintendo GameCube with Rogue Leader and Rebel Assault. The jump to next-generation hardware kept the series looking better; sounding better, too, now that John Williams’ memorable score, abridged as it may be, could be heard with great clarity. Rogue Leader encompassed the events of the original trilogy; all the major dogfights in space and within a planet’s atmosphere. Rebel Assault introduced on-foot combat for the first time in the series. Players could take on the roles of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

 

No match for a good blaster at your side….

 

Star Wars: Dark Forces

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Long before Jyn Erso and the company of Rogue One stole the Death Star plans, the original thief in the Legends continuity was Kyle Katarn. Perhaps best viewed as a combination of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, this scoundrel of a mercenary was duped into believing the Rebellion was responsible for the deaths of his parents and so enlisted in the Imperial Academy to exact vengeance. Jan Ors, a double agent within the Empire, opened Kyle’s eyes to the truth- the Empire was solely responsible for those tragic deaths. Together they escaped the reach of the Imperials and took on work for the Rebellion, the biggest blow being the acquisition of the Death Star plans.

 

Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

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It was soon revealed to gamers that Kyle was, in fact, Force sensitive. A Dark Jedi named Jerec, and his Dark Side acolytes, obsessed over finding a mythical location called the Valley of the Jedi, where a secret to a great power lay hidden. Jerec also had a hand in the death of Kyle’s father. Bequeathed with a lightsaber from his father, Kyle took up many more arms to put an end to the Dark Jedi’s evil schemes.

I have fond memories of Dark Forces II. Its full motion video cutscenes made me believe I was experiencing a brand new movie in the saga. John Williams’ score was also present for added immersion. When you got your hands on a lightsaber, you didn’t need anything else in your arsenal. You could grow your Force powers and align them with the abilities of the Light Side or the Dark Side.

Most impressively, about halfway through the game, you can fully immerse yourself within the Light Side or the Dark Side by choice. You then became locked into that fateful choice; the sequence of events, and the ending, could either end in justice or revenge.

Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

Kyle Katarn’s story kept going strong. Eight years after the Battle of Endor, Kyle strayed away from the path of a Jedi, out of fear that he skirted far too close to the abyss of the Dark Side. He went back to the only thing he was truly good at: the life of a mercenary. Jan Ors returned to his side, by this time a love connection brewed between the two. They accepted missions from Mon Mothma who had become Chief-of-State for the New Republic.

The great thing for players is that the call of the Force would not go unheard. Eventually Kyle would receive help and training from Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and took up the lightsaber once again to fight against the Dark Jedi, Desaan, a dissident of Luke’s New Jedi Order.

New spectacles were made of lightsaber combat and players could alternate between fast, medium, and strong-handed saber forms and techniques. Interestingly, this time players could assign powers from both the Light and Dark Side without affecting the game’s ending. This made Kyle a Gray Jedi in a way, a concept the saga is beginning to explore a little more of.

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

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You are Dash Rendar, a supply runner for the Rebellion. After talking with Han Solo at Echo Base, who gives Rendar clearance to fly alongside Rogue Squadron, things take a turn for the worst when the Empire overwhelms the Rebel base on Hoth. Shadows of the Empire showed a standalone story from new eyes during and after the events of The Empire Strikes Back.

When Rendar learns that Solo has been captured by Boba Fett, he makes the daring move to try and recover the famed smuggler by hunting down Fett himself. Prince Xizor, seeking to replace Vader as the Emperor’s new right hand, issues an order to Jabba the Hutt to kill Luke Skywalker. However, Rendar manages to track down and prevent Luke from being harmed as well. Even Leia needed help at some point after she was taken prisoner to Xizor’s palace on Coruscant. It was a fun experience playing as what is essentially a guardian angel for the saga’s main heroes.

Shadows of the Empire culminates in a mysterious ending. Playing on harder difficulties showed extended cutscenes that reveal the true fate of Rendar.

Star Wars: Republic Commando

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Holy poodoo, you got first-person shooter in my Star Wars. Republic Commando was unlike any other first-person shooter Star Wars game. Where the Dark Forces and Jedi Knight games allowed the player to shift into third-person, Republic Commando was a tactical shooter at its core.

Taking place between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, you join an elite squad of Clone commandos of the Galactic Republic to directly, and covertly, take the fight to the Confederacy of Independent Systems.

The player can issue orders to their fellow squadmates, made up of differing classes to accommodate the task of the mission – sniper, demolitions expert, and technician. The events leading up to the Battle of Kashyyyk are experienced through the visors of the commandos, and made for an unforgettable experience.

Star Wars: Battlefront and Battlefront II

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There’s a reason the Battlefront series is a household name. It was a very successful hybrid of large-scale sandbox warfare and vehicle combat. Showcasing notable battles from the prequel and original trilogy eras, gamers could play as one of five different classes. Notable heroes and villains like Mace Windu and Darth Vader could appear on the battlefield to lend aid.

Battlefront II changed things up by making heroes playable for the first time in the series, rather than relegate them to just support. To me, its main draw was engaging in outer space dogfights with the enemy and the seamless transition into landing on an enemy battle cruiser to continue the fight on foot. This is most certainly a feature I wish to see return in EA’s upcoming Battlefront II.

 

For once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny….

 

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Nearly 4,000 years before the formation of the Galactic Empire, Darth Malak, Dark Lord of the Sith, has unleashed a Sith army upon the Old Republic. The player suddenly awakens after a climactic battle on a Republic cruiser, with absolutely no memory of who they are, nor how they got to be on that cruiser. It turns out that the player character is Force sensitive and is capable of aligning with the Light or Dark Side as this memorable story from BioWare progresses.

True to BioWare’s RPG pedigree, Knights of the Old Republic enveloped players in the galaxy far, far away via a dialogue menu system. Players could interact with NPCs by way of several responses, and could differ depending on the gender and assigned class of the player.

Whispers of the mysterious Darth Revan also began to surface; rumors that he had been betrayed by his former apprentice, Darth Malak. The consequences of which the player and, by extension, characters of the game are caught in the middle of.

Knights of the Old Republic features, arguably, what is the most compelling, thought-provoking, and suspenseful Star Wars story put to the gaming format.

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Obsidian Entertainment inherited the sequel. Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords took place five years after the events of its predecessor. Again, a Force user awakens and begins a journey to grow more powerful in the Force. Known as the “Exile”, the player learns what prominent ties they have to the events of the original game.

The Jedi have nearly been destroyed by the Sith. Among them, Darth Traya, shrouded in darkness, Darth Sion, a practically undead Sith Lord, and Darth Nihilus, an incredibly powerful Sith Lord whose unyielding immersion into the Force lead to the destruction of his physical body.

Fans of the RPG genre need look no further than these incredible offerings. Will we ever see Knights of the Old Republic III? Hopefully the Force will provide. For now, “impossible to see the future is.”

 

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You’ve taken your first step into a larger world….

 

Star Wars Galaxies

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An RPG Star Wars experience didn’t just confine itself to standalone stories. The saga also lightspeeded into the massive multiplayer online role-playing genre with Star Wars Galaxies, the very first MMORPG of the franchise. Players could explore the galaxy’s many diverse planets as seen in the original and prequel trilogies.

Several professions could be chosen by the player, including Jedi, Bounty Hunter, Smuggler, and even an Entertainer. The character creator had many options for species such as Twi’lek, Wookiee, Zabrak, Mon Calamari, and Bothans.

Much of the game’s story took place after the Battle of Yavin, though subsequent DLC over the years opened up more possibilities to exploration. Several well hidden Easter eggs were peppered throughout the game’s planets. C-3PO and R2-D2’s escape pod could be found in the deserts of Tatooine. The remains of the vacated Rebel bases on Dantooine and on Yavin 4 could also be found. And wouldn’t you know it, references to the Star Wars Holiday Special were found in special events of the game on Kashyyyk where players could don the holiday’s traditional red robes in celebration of Life Day.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

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For many years, Star Wars Galaxies stayed the saga’s MMORPG home until it was succeeded by BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. This time the MMORPG scaled back the clock to about 3,600 years before the Battle of Yavin and revolved around an increasingly fragile time of peace between the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire.

No matter what faction the player chooses, a proclivity to the light or dark exists in the morale of any character. Players could continue to customize their own character’s appearance and attributes, and the return of BioWare’s signature conversation wheel could be used to flesh out story elements, strike bargains, and develop love interests.

The game saw a strong promotional campaign that continues to this day by way of superbly detailed videos known for their cinematic appeal. I still get chills from the “Deceived” trailer, where Darth Malgus leads the glorious return of the Sith after centuries of absence in a masterful invasion of Coruscant to lay waste to the Jedi Temple.

Through these campaigns we got to taste previews of The Old Republic’s expansions. The two that standout the most are Knights of the Fallen Empire and Knights of the Eternal Throne. Please give them a watch, and then immediately demand that Lucasfilm make an animated series of such caliber.

 

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age….

 

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

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My favorite weapon from Star Wars will always be the lightsaber. Its iconic sound effects as its ignited and twirled about, right down to its idle hum, gives me shivers every time. So my personal favorite games that made lightsaber combat the forefront of the game experience resides in The Force Unleashed and its sequel.

The Force Unleashed began with Vader’s obsession over hunting the last remaining Jedi who survived Order 66. His latest mission brought him to Kashyyyk where he destroyed every Wookiee that stood in his way. Upon overpowering the surviving Jedi hidden on the Wookiee homeworld, Vader learned that the Jedi fathered a son strong in the Force. When the young boy Force pulled Vader’s lightsaber from his grasp, the Imperial’s accompanying Vader took aim at the boy. Before they could act, Vader recovered his saber and slew the Imperials, seizing both the boy and an opportunity to overthrow Emperor Palpatine. A coup that no Imperial could be privy to.

Such is the way of the Sith. One of tragedy and betrayal. For the next few years Vader apprenticed the boy as he grew into a man named Starkiller. Testing his allegiance to the Dark Side, Vader would constantly deploy Starkiller to seek out any surviving Jedi and destroy them. Starkiller would do so with some of the most explosive displays of power seen in any Star Wars game, hence this game’s title.

The Force Unleashed presented us with a unique narrative. In the films, and several games, we saw stories about how one beginning as an inherently good person could resist the temptation of the Dark Side. What happens when darkness is instilled within you from the start? Is it still possible to feel the call to the light being weighed down by anger, fear, and aggression?  The Force Unleashed explored this concept and also offered a view into how the Rebellion got its start, in Legends of course. Even the Star Wars brand of lighthearted humor and romance was weaved in and settled perfectly in place.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II

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What’s better than one lightsaber? Two lightsabers, of course. Starkiller returned in a sequel, now knowing his true name of Galen Marek, before he came under the tutelage of Darth Vader. Vader continued to seek out the perfect and most loyal apprentice, turning to the cloning facilities of the Kaminoans who unknowingly assisted him in his quest for greater power. Vader sought the assistance of the infamous bounty hunter, Boba Fett to track down a renegade clone, who players take control of. When accepting the job, Fett uttered a spine-tingling request to Vader, “I’ll need a squadron of stormtroopers. They won’t be coming back.”

Starkiller would find more familiar faces from the saga on his personal journey to fight against, or even give in to, the Dark Side. In DLC we got to see some curious “what if” scenarios play out. For example, what if Starkiller was present at the Battle of Hoth to confront Luke Skywalker? What if Starkiller was on the forest moon of Endor when the Rebels arrived to deactivate the shield generator? And what if Leia had been trained in the Jedi arts and become skilled with a lightsaber?

This was one of the last entries from LucasArts before its liquidation when Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney. The Force Unleashed II ended on a cliffhanger, showcasing events that set up a third and possible last game to the series. Sadly, it doesn’t appear like we’ll get to see that play out, but we remember how strong the Force felt when we had these games in our console and a controller in our hands.

 

I have a bad feeling about this….

 

Kinect Star Wars

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Like any well established franchise, you’re bound to run into a few titles that make you ask: “Did that really just happen?” The most recent show of the ‘Farce’ was in Kinect Star Wars. Honestly, I didn’t think the game’s main campaign, Jedi Destiny, was all that bad. It controlled awkwardly, but it did do something I hoped the Xbox 360 peripheral would do: free form lightsaber combat.

I actually took a plastic lightsaber hilt and waved it around and, to my surprise, Kinect registered my movements just fine. The Podracer game played just fine, but you got the impression that skill wasn’t a factor at all. Rancor Rampage was a riot of a good time when you’re basically a loose rancor terrorizing the population of Mos Eisley. Duesl of Fate put you on a one-to-one combat ladder of lightsaber wielding opponents from General Grievous’ magna guards to Darth Vader himself.

But the most cringe inducing game in the compilation was Galactic Dance-off. Basically Dance Central at its core wearing the face of Star Wars. Here we had our heroes like Lando Calrissian, Princess Leia in her slave attire, and Han Solo himself getting down and jiggy with it. What in the flying gundark?

The music truthfully just parodies and makes puns out of already popular singles. Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” is parodied as “Hologram Girl”, and Village People’s hit “Y.M.C.A.” is parodied as “Empire Today.” Han Solo’s feature song of “I’m Han Solo” just has to be seen to be believed, though you’d sooner burn your eyes out with boiling-hot blue milk.

Although Angry Birds Star Wars was the last game published by LucasArts, Kinect Star Wars is truly more of a very strange note to go out on. Maybe LucasArts saw the end in sight and just decided to go for it? I don’t know. In any case, we haven’t forgot you, Kinect Star Wars.

Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing

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Because in retrospect, Star Wars Episode I: Racer on Nintendo 64 wasn’t all that bad. It was actually great. Remember the full scale beefed up arcade version? Or the sequel called Star Wars: Racer Revenge? Bigheaded Star Wars characters racing…. Yoda didn’t even use a pod. He used his hover chair. Why? How did this happen? Why did this happen?

Here’s some more dishonorable mentions:

Star Wars: Obi-Wan
Star Wars: Demolition
Star Wars: Jedi Arena
Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi
Star Wars: Yoda Stories
Star Wars: Rebel Assault
Star Wars: Flight of the Falcon
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

 

Always in motion the future is….

Star Wars

Star Wars games continue to come our way even in the wake of the beloved LucasArts. EA has brought us a reboot of the Battlefront IP with a sequel on the horizon. We could argue over their handling of the game’s DLC and whether it’s doing any good to the franchise or the industry, but that’s a conversation for another time. Disney Interactive Studios brought us a toys-to-life Star Wars experience with Disney Infinity 3.0 and, yes, I had to collect all the Star Wars characters before their eventual disappearance. We still don’t know what Visceral Games is working on, but the developer behind the Dead Space games certainly has my attention.

The galaxy of Star Wars is one of the biggest universes to draw many stories and experiences from. This article is only a miniscule representation of the saga’s impact on gaming alone. We haven’t even discussed the plethora of novels, comics, TV shows, and dozens upon dozens of other memorable games, for good or ill. For those that are good, “pass on what you have learned.” For those in the ill category, I think Director Krennic put it best: “That was only an inkling of its destructive potential.”

So long as there’s an enjoyable way to add to the rich legacy and, really, the fun that is Star Wars, I know I’ll be right there in the pilot’s seat itching for another adventure beyond the stars. You, too, can be transported to a galaxy far, far away with these amazing Star Wars game deals active now. Games across Xbox, PlayStation, Amazon, and Steam are included. Take a look and celebrate Star Wars gaming in your own way!

Be sure to also check out Mammoth Gamers’ David Bahle’s post on which Star Wars Fan Films deserve to be canon, and Laura Mazerall also recounts her memories from Star Wars Celebration.

Until the next gaming entry in Star Wars comes along – Remember, the Force will be with you, always.