Its that day of the year again, when Star Wars fans irritate everyone around them with cries of “May the fourth be with you.” In commemoration of this date I’ll be looking back over some of the best video games which have been released off the back of this classic SF property, for a full list you can see here.
It all started in the arcades with Atari’s wireframe X-wing ‘simulator’ released in 1983, I remember it being one of the first arcade games that you could sit in, it was certainly the first one that I played that had anything resembling a yoke. The graphics were simplistic, though cutting edge for their time. The game took the final battle of the film, where the X-wings of the rebellion go up against the first Death Star and succeeded in bringing the atmosphere of that battle to life in green, red and yellow lines. The game would end up being ported to all the home computers of the time, I remember owning it for my Amstrad CPC, and it was certainly available on the Commodore and Spectrum series of computers. In the early ’80’s the arcade was still king when it came to releasing games and follow ups, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, would also make their way from the arcade to the home as home computing started to take off.
According to Wikipedia, Star Wars didn’t appear again in video game form until the NES platform title in 1988 (Japanese release, it would take another 3 years to reach the rest of the world). The publishers , Namco, took some liberties with the plot of the film, allowing luke the use of the force and a lightsaber, travelling around to different planets in the Millenium Falcon, and having to rescue each of the other characters from Darth Vader (who on some levels inexplicably turned into a giant scorpion). I remember playing this at the time and was impressed with the graphics, which were quite good for an 8 bit machine, and the sound effects.
For the next four years the World of Star Wars games was dominated by the X-Wing/Tie Fighter series of games. first released in 1993 X-wing was purely a space combat simulator, allowing you to pilot the various rebellion ships in their battle against the Empire. It was followed a year later by Tie Fighter, in which you switched sides to fight against the rebellion. While not strictly following the plots of the films you could take part in some of the pivotal engagements from the movies, the trench run from Episode IV being the most memorable.
The series continued in 1997 with X-Wing Vs Tie Fighter, which added multiplayer and allowed players to go up against each other for the first time. Finally, the series concluded with X-Wing: Alliance in 1999, which brought all the features from the previous games together and was set over the period of Episode V and VI. Some missions in Aliance had the player taking part in events pertinent to the plots of the films but without being features of the films themselves, the most memorable of these was the mission to steal the imperial shuttle used by the heroes to bypass security at the Death Star construction site at Endor.
Star Wars Goes FPS
In 1995, after the success of ID’s Doom and before the rise of Quake, the first star wars FPS was born. In Dark Forces you took on the role of Kyle Katarn, a former imperial agent tunred mercenary, hired by the rebellion to undertake various missions. Dark Forces differed from contemporary FPS titles in that it introduced many innovative gameplay tweaks, the enemies you were up against were still simple 2D sprites but you could Jump, look up and down, and had a flashlight for the first time in any FPS. The other way in which the Star Wars FPS differed from Doom was the use of cutscenes and an actual plot, it was also one of the first FPS games to introduce altrenate fire modes for your weapons, practically doubling your options when it came to fragging stormtroopers.
The second FPS set in the Star Wars universe was Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, the original title being demoted to a subtitle and dropped completely from subsequent sequels. This game, released in 1997, follows Kyle Katarn once more as he gains knowledge of the force and progresses to the rank of Jedi Knight. Technically the game was a very definite step up from the first Dark Forces title, featureing 3d character models and more detailed environments. This was also the first title in the Star Wars range to offer two different outcomes depending upon which path of the force you chose to take (Light or Dark). Personally I only ever saw the Dark Side ending as the evil force powers were far more fun, it was also the first title to let you fight with lightsabers from a first person viewpoint (though the option to view the action from third person was available). In a time when most FPS action games were focussed fast paced action and big explosions in their multiplayer aspects, Jedi Knight seemed to evolve a greater emphasis on out-thinking your opponent, some battles extending over an hour of frantic lightsaber and force power action.
It took almost 5 years for the series to continue with the confusingly titled Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, a lot of people were unaware on its release that it was in fact the third game in the Dark Forces series. As you might expect, with such a large gap between Jedi Knight and Jedi Knight II, technically the game surpasses its predecessor by a great degree, though being a multi-format release (PC, XBox, and GameCube) may have meant that some control options weren’t available in the PC version which could have improved the playing experience. Again, the game follows Kyle, though he has lost his force abilities in the time between the last game and this one (it is adequately explained though, there are no inconsistencies.), as he once more goes up against the forces of the sith. This is the first game to be set completely after Return of the Jedi, as part of what is known as The Expanded Star Wars Universe, and as such the enemy is no longer The Galactic Empire but a resurgent Sith group called The Reborn. Lightsabers and blasters abound once more though the lightsaber duelling system has been refined and honed and is much more fluid than its predecessor. The series finally drew to a close in 2003 with Jedi Academy: Jedi Knight III and was the last Star Wars game to feature real-time lightsaber duelling.
In 200, some say as a response to the popularity of a mod for Battlefield 1942 featuring Star Wars IP, Star Wars Battlefront was released. A tactical squad based FPS in the same vein as Battlefield with classes and vehicles, its main focus was multiplayer and it made use of Microsoft’s XBox live system (the PC version was multiplayer as well but had its own server browser.) it was mildly successful and spawned a sequel with a second rumoured to be in development.
Visiting the Past
In 2003 veteran RPG developers Bioware were given permission to take the Star Wars franchise in an entirely new direction. Not wanting to be restricted by the huge amount of writing, movies, and games revolving around the films and their immediate aftermath, they asked Lucasarts if they could set a Star Wars RPG in the far past, so that they had more creative freedom. Lucasarts said yes and Knights of the Old Republic was born. Famous for their adaptation of the D&D rules in Neverwinter Nights, Bioware set to work using the D20 roleplaying system used in the pen and paper Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. The game was a commercial and critical success, taking the franchise 4000 years into its own past and yet keeping the Star Wars atmosphere and character. The game was especially praised for its almost transparent alignment system, how far you went towards the Dark and Light sides of the force was not determined solely by the powers you used but how you interacted with other characters in the game, right down to what you said to them. This system was refined and improved in the sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Both games serve to weave their own history and give some background to the ongoing struggle between Jedi and Sith. Rumours have recently surfaced of a third installment in the series which may be an MMOG, these are as yet unsubstantiated though a KOTOR III is highly likely given the success of the first two.
Massively Multiplayer Star Wars.
Also in 2003 Star Wars entered the realm of the MMORPG with Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divide. The development, a joint effort between Sony Online Entertainment and Verant Interactive Inc., was fraught with delays. Started in 2001 and initially given a release date in the same year, Verant didn’t start accepting applications for the closed beta until 2002. The game was also originally slated to have a version released for the XBox and PS2, these were later cancelled however. The setting of the game was between Episode IV and Episode V, just after the emipre’s defeat at Yavin and while the Rebellion is still on the run. Many of the standard features of MMOG’s are present in SWG including a player run economy, guilds, and a choice between PvE and PvP combat. Controversy dogged the game after its release as well as during its extended development time, many players were irritated by the fact that to become a Jedi you had to fulfil a series of undisclosed criteria which unlocked a special character slot. Your existing character could not become a Jedi. Also various ‘improvements’ to the game have been roundly condemned by long term players many of whom left when World of Warcraft was released. SWG is now a shadow of its former self unable to compete with the likes of WoW and Guild War, just recently SOE started an initiative whereby existing players were rewarded for demolishing houses and other buildings left behind by former players in the migration to WoW.
With the movie saga finished, and George Lucas adamant that he’s not going to make any more, Lucas arts seems to be moving on to other things. They’ve just announced Fracture a post-apocalyptic FPS where you can deform the landscape and structures. There is another Star Wars game confirmed for release next year, The Force Unleashed features groundbreaking physics and amazing looking force powers. What I’d like to see is a lightsaber fighting game on the Wii, making full use of the unique control system of the console, and the idea of a KOTOR MMOG is certainly appealing though I would hate to see it go the same way as SWG. No doubt Star Wars will be around for a long time to come, and the expanded universe is full of material which could be used in future video games.
May the fourth be with you, always.
(Images from Wikipedia, historical source: my memory and Wikipedia for dates.)