The Average Gamer

Star Wars Games: Can The Empire Strike Back?

It’s almost impossible to talk about developing a title based on Star Wars without courting controversy, and opinion is always bound to mixed when it comes to a new game. Upcoming titles from Bioware and Microsoft are out to vie for the fans’ attention once more, but what makes these new entries interesting is that although they’re based in the same universe, they couldn’t really be more different. Star Wars Kinect is aimed squarely at the newcomers (younglings are clearly the target for this game’s particular brand of Force-hypnotism, as anyone who has witnessed people flailing around in front of it will attest to), whereas Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic has its feet firmly under the desk of the die-hard nerd-quester.

Distorted pic of Lucas, hands raised in a gesture of innocence

What? You guys didn't know about Midichlorians?

It’s been a common theme for many, many years that Star Wars games have never quite managed to find the magic formula that made the movies so popular. What began with simple wireframe trench runs in the arcade has since spiraled into everything from clunky fighting games and dodgy platformers, to RTS, FPS, MMO and FML.

Simply put, Star Wars is tricky to get right. A little bit like mastering the Force, you could say. If The Phantom Menace taught us anything, however, it’s that come on, even a child can master the Force. The fact that that particular kid grew up to become the most evil man in the Universe hardly even counts.

Almost 30 years ago, a young man was born unto a world ruled by the daring exploits of the Rebel Alliance, and their long struggle against the evil Empire. More importantly, he was also born in a world that sold their likenesses as action figures and video game characters. Yes, it’s true; I am a Star Wars fan.

Actually, I say fan, but really the overwhelming nerdiness with which I approach this subject often means I step outside the paddock of flag-waving support for the well-loved franchise, and instead sit in the field of jerks that hate children for GETTING STAR WARS ALL WRONG, or worse still JUST NOT GETTING IT AT ALL. However, after three bowel-evacuating prequels, not to mention the recent uproar over Mr. Lucas’ ‘revisions’ of the long-awaited Blu-ray versions, I’ve learned that Star Wars isn’t really worth all of the time I spent pouting over it, because even when I was a kid there was a whole heap of turds floating around in its Trash Compactor.

You're welcome!

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away (otherwise known as Norfolk: Earth’s somewhat inbred answer to Tatooine), I collected Star Wars video games. The problem with Star Wars video games is that they are bought and played by Star Wars Fans. I know from first-hand experience that I will almost definitely hate your Star Wars game for some reason.

Even if you got to be Han Solo in a virtual reality cantina and shoot Greedo first, I guarantee there would be an alien included in the scene that shouldn’t be there. I’m the first person to admit that no matter how long I may have spent longing for the perfect Star Wars game, it’s often my own stranglehold over the love I have for the franchise that spoils my enjoyment of many worthy titles. That’s not to say there’s not been games out there to enjoy; The Force Unleashed was a great game for Star Wars geeks, as were the Battlefront and X-Wing games, but where’s the fun in giving a round of applause to the games that got it right? Like George Lucas needs another pat on the back. His stupid, fat back. So with that in mind, anyone for Chess?

Not even Lando gambled on this game.

Released via The Software Toolworks in 1993, Star Wars Chess hit the video game world like greased lightning. Only joking, it was of course a massive failure. Depicting the epic, galaxy-wide war between the forces of good and evil as an interstellar battle of wit and cunning isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but when the chosen platform is a game favored by Jeff Goldblum’s dad and Magneto after he has his balls effectively kicked into oblivion, it begins to lose some steam. Still, at least each time you took an opposing piece you were treated to a shonky – and completely baffling – animation, like… Yoda forcing a Stormtrooper into committing suicide:

HEAD-ing for trouble was he. Make funny, have I!

Or Darth Vader (who, in a hilarious design choice, plays Queen to the Emperor’s King), showing Rebel Queen Leia where he keeps his pink lightsaber:

Don't tell your father!

Did I mention that the King of the Rebel pieces was Luke? So Luke and Leia apparently rule as Rebel King and Queen, while their father stalks the world of intergalactic chess as the wife of the Emperor. To say this game missed the point is perhaps the biggest understatement since the Captain of the Hindenburg said “I smell gas”. But it’s just a chess game, right? It’s not the fault of the rules of chess that it sucks as a Star Wars game. I guess it was just a severe lack of judgment on behalf of the marketing team when they decided to roll with that whole “let’s just make a Star Wars game out of the next word one of us says” idea. What is truly unforgiveable, however, is that they seemed to make that mistake twice.

I loved that part in the movie!

Apparently confusing the epic, action packed nature of some of the most beloved motion pictures of all time with a mind-numbing discussion about your room-mates greatest RISK campaigns, Star Wars Rebellion (1998) attempted to marry the Star Wars Universe with RTS.

For a franchise built almost solely around swashbuckling and special effects, it was surely only logical to create a game based around hard-thought tactical maneuvering throughout the galaxy, requiring careful use of resources, manufacturing of facilities, troops and starships, resources, fleet deployment, and mission assignments of units and characters.

The game came in for some heavy criticism, with virtually every aspect making it a strong contender for the Worst Star Wars Game Of All Time (more on that later), which is unsurprising when you are greeted with the screen to your left every few minutes.

Hey, Rebellion! You're doing it wrong!

Considering that this game came out in 1998, you’d think game developers would have had time to use some of the hip new advances in, y’know, things like GRAPHICS in order to make this a must-have Star Wars title. I can only assume that the guys making this piece of crap were too busy thinking about all of the female Twi’lek poontang they’d be getting in their dreams rather than bothering to actually make it interesting, or heaven forbid – fun to play.

Okay so maybe RTS wasn’t so well suited to the Star Wars formula (even though it totally would be later in the awesome Empire at War), but what about fighting games? There’s heaps of cool fights in the movies, and when you include the expanded universe, there’s even more heaps of cool characters to have cool fights with! Everyone wants to cut dudes up with lightsabers, because lightsabers are rad! How could this idea possibly go horribly, horribly wrong? It can’t, that’s how!

Oh, wait. Masters of Teras Kasi. I’m so in awe of how bad this video game is that I find it hard to even make cruel jokes at its expense. The idea was pretty solid: Bounty Hunters are attempting to track down key Rebel figures (Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca), and fighting ensues, but almost everything else about the game completely stunk.

The lightsabers were brightly colored foam bats, and proved to be about as awesome to wield as a 30-inch dildo, but they still managed to dump all over the gun-based characters who had to charge their weapon before they could even use it. Watching my Boba Fett slowly succumbing to a pathetic lightsaber bludgeoning, while screaming for the gauge on my gun charger to “JUST F***ING FILL UP ALREADY!” pretty much ranks up there with the worst experiences of my life. And I’ve seen Armageddon twice.

Considering this festering Bantha-ass of a game came out around the same time as Star Wars Rebellion, it does have one or two things going for it. For a start, the sound design is pretty decent and the developers have done an admirable job in recreating various locations from the original movies, but perhaps the best part of this entire game (sadly) is this guy on the right:

Luke: “So, what exactly do 400 credits get me?” Hoar: “Uhhh…”

The fact that the best thing about playing Masters of Teras Kasi is the potential for jokes about a Tusken Raider’s profession pretty much says it all. I’m beginning to wonder whether the developers gave him a stupid name on purpose so they could ease the pain of their own names being associated with this crap. They named another character Thok, like you needed any more reasons to hate this game.

The trophy is in the shape of a fist, which you can shove up your ass!

Star Wars Galaxies: Trials of Obi Wan (2005) was another master class in criminal use of the license, with the rather aptly titled ‘Trials’ being attributed to your character’s journey towards becoming a Jedi. Apparently what The Empire Strikes Back, or even any of the prequels singularly failed to address over the course of their numerous references to Jedi training was that the path towards the Light side of the Force actually involved a monotonous, temper-shredding grind against a never ending torrent on generic creatures, across a bland, featureless and uninspired backdrop of crappy brown landscapes.

As if the player’s path toward Jedi status wasn’t arduous enough, helpfully there were also severe penalties for completely unacceptable behavior, like y’know, dying. The game operated on a ruthless “Three Strikes: You’re Out” credo, meaning that should any Jedi character (which you’d already spent months to unlock) die 3 times in-game, they were gone for good. No wonder they’re extinct.

Within a couple weeks of this release the entire character development process was changed. Players began demanding their money back for the expansion and many player towns became ghost towns due to the reaction of long term players who decided to depart en masse.

Could the same fate possibly be awaiting The Old Republic? Bioware are sure as hell hoping not, and to be fair to them, looking at what they have to follow can surely only buoy their confidence.

Breaking games on to new platforms is always a delicate balance of unbridled optimism coupled with a wary respect for the fact that this new console could bomb at any given moment. Luckily for SEGA, they had neither of these things in mind when they released the SEGA Mega-CD in 1993 (’91 in Japan, ’92 in the US).

One of the first titles to showcase the miserable abilities of the less-than-mega add-on was of course a Star Wars game, and if this article has taught us nothing else, it’s that this game was a hilarious failure. Utilizing STATE OF THE ART pre-rendered 3D backdrops, Rebel Assault left literally nobody gasping in awe at its incredible visual flair.

It's like the horrible mess of pixels is IN THE ROOM!

Because the levels were all pre-rendered, the player had an excruciatingly limited amount of maneuverability. So limited in fact, that you basically just moved the crosshairs around the screen while your vehicle cantered along a predetermined route. Before this game came out, I was so excited about it. Seriously, I devoured every scrap of information about it in every magazine going, firmly committed to the fact that a Mega-CD and a copy of Rebel Assault would mean I could absolutely die happy.

Hey, what's that dog doing here?

When I finally got to play it, I thought it was some kind of sick joke, played on young gaming fans like myself to tease us about how long we had been awaiting the perfect Star Wars game. A T-16 Sky Hopper on the first level? Uh, ok… I’ll just pretend it’s a nod to all of the die-hard fans that actually give a hoot about the fact that blasting Womp rats in his T-16 was how Luke Skywalker sharpened up his pilot skills in the years before the Rebellion. It’s not like it was a horrific, week-long grind towards the end of the canyon, just to earn the right to be wiped out by a STAR DESTROYER on the second level.

But wait! Terribly digitized, juddery flying-space-missions aside, this game totally deserved to get an equally awful sequel, and Lucas Arts happily obliged in 1995 with – you guessed it – Rebel Assault 2, and the whole world face-palmed once more. While featuring a handful of spacecraft that weren’t present in the original, the biggest difference between the Rebel Assault games was that the second part included sections where you controlled your character on foot, primarily in various bases throughout the game. Of course, when I say “you controlled your character”, what I actually mean was you controlled your character’s crosshairs, because otherwise that would just be ridiculous.

Who needs to move when I've got this ORANGE Camouflage?!

So it seems like the ’90s were kind of a black hole for Star Wars games in general, right? Well, not entirely, because the Super Star Wars games came out on the SNES and they were awesome, but oh wait, 1997 also saw the release of quite possibly The Worst Star Wars Game of All Time.

End your will to live, will I

Star Wars: Yoda Stories was released on PC in ’97 and Game Boy Color in ’99, and in both of those years it’s interesting to note that Star Wars Merchandise bonfires also spiked dramatically. Let’s not beat around the bush with this one: it’s bad. Really, really bad.

Seeing as it’s supposed to be based during Luke’s Jedi training on Dagobah, Yoda Stories somehow manages to exist without a plot. I’m not trying to exaggerate for the sake of it when I write that statement, it’s the truth; there is no storyline in this game, something which you’d have thought would have been pretty fundamental for a title called Yoda Stories. 

Essentially, a bunch of programmers with limited imagination, and quite possibly little to no knowledge of Star Wars’ existence in mainstream culture, sat together in a room with their brief, ignored it, and came up with ideas for random quests instead.

Keep swinging, kid, that blue stick is your only friend now.

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Programmer 1: “Hey, how about a guy asks another guy to go do stuff for him, and the player is the guy that goes to do the thing for the other guy. He should have to do that like, a bunch of times.”

Programmer 2: “I like it.”

Programmer 3: “What’s Star Wars?”

It almost seems a shame to hate this game so much, but when the characters and canon are treated with such little regard for the source material, it’s difficult to find reasons to defend it.

Here’s a good example; R2-D2 speaks to you in this pixelated pap, which would be fine if he communicated to you through a digital translator like in the actual films, but no. He just sits there with a speech bubble above his head, convincing Luke that he’s somehow learnt how to speak robot in his sleep.

Quite why the developers made such poor decisions is a question that we may never discover the answer to, but it extends to every aspect of the game play. It’s slow, it’s awkward, the dialogue is bad and completely disregards the character’s role within the films, it’s repetitive, bland and utterly humorless.

Hey let's make the X-wing talk, too!

I could almost forgive Yoda Stories if it made me raise a smile once in a while, but no. Instead it’s a relentless grind through a series of quests that – have I already mentioned this? SERVE NO PURPOSE WHATSOEVER. It also doesn’t help that the missions are almost all exactly the same, and every single screen looks like the image to the right.

Imagine that, 100 times over the course of just one mission. And that’s the PC version. Needless to say the Game Boy Color port was so bad it’s hardly even worth mentioning here.

Of course, these examples are but a taste of the whole Star Wars video game pie; a pie which is largely made up of leftovers from the Rancor pit and Tauntaun guts, but a pie nonetheless. If you’re really in the market for some Force-based self-flagellation, you could always turn your attention to the likes of The Force Unleashed 2, The Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels, Star Wars: Bounty Hunter (you too, can BECOME Jango Fett!) or Star Wars: Flight of the Falcon, to name but a few.

Believe me, there’s more, but what about the decent games? Well, there’s actually quite a few of those around too, thankfully: The Force Unleashed, the Battlefront and LEGO Star Wars games, the Super Star Wars Trilogy and Knights of the Old Republic are all fantastic, and capture all of the feeling that made the movies so important to kids like me in the first place. Looking to the future (and the original catalyst for this article), we have the prospect of the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Star Wars Kinect – a game which promises the opportunity to look like this:

While performing this:

Whether these games eventually turn out to be killer or just plain terrible is up to the public to decide, but judging by the hit-rate over the last 30-odd years, I think it’ll be a long time before Lucas Arts is prepared to throw in the towel. That being said, there’s always hope for a new breed of developers to take up the mantle, and restore the Star Wars name to its former glories. There’s just one thing standing in their way…

Mission Accomplished