Welcome back to Cross-Contaminated Media, a series in which I explore successful franchises that have made the transition to video games from other media, and vice versa. I know that in my previous article I promised that I would look at Blizzard’s franchises, but I felt that it would be appropriate, given the recent release of the Ultimate Sith Edition of The Force Unleashed, to take a look at George Lucas’ eminent sci-fi empire.
When the original Star Wars movie was released back in 1977, few predicted that it would become the massive entertainment juggernaut that it is today. For good or ill, George Lucas had the foresight to retain international merchandising rights, and once video games were beginning to enter prominence as an accepted form of entertainment media, LucasArts was founded to capitalize upon this new venture.
LucasArts didn’t find its early success with Star Wars titles, though; in its beginning days it was well known for its clever and inventive adventure games ranging from Maniac Mansion to Monkey Island. The first Star Wars title produced in house was X-Wing in 1993, a fairly deep space-combat simulator made for the DOS operating systems. Though the graphics and game-play appear dated now, the game is still highly regarded in fan circles with the TIE Fighter game being declared the favorite of the series.
Far from being a flash in the pan cash in, X-Wing had the player take control of several iconic Star Wars fighters and fly for the Rebellion on increasingly difficult missions against the Empire. The controls of the game necessitated the fluctuation of the various systems of the snubfighter, divided into Lasers, Engines and Shields. The three functions had to be balanced effectively or the player would suffer a serious decrease in performance from the given parts. When the series ended with X-Wing Verses TIE Fighter in 1997, the highly praised space combat left fans clamoring for a sequel, but so far they have been denied. Rumors continue to persist that a remake is in the works, but this remains to be seen.
Perhaps the most famous of the company’s early works was Rebel Assault, a CD-Rom only game published in 1993. A strictly linear game that had more in common with a corridor shooter than a flight sim, the title had the player take control of Rookie One, a new recruit to the Rebel Alliance. The game was considered a “must have”, and helped launch LucasArts into greater prominence.
LucasArts wouldn’t stop at flight sim games, however. With id Software’s Doom proving that the first person shooter could be a viable genre, LucasArts made the decision to branch into this territory with Dark Forces, the first in the Jedi Knight series of games. The original Dark Forces proved to be a huge success with a multitude to other media being developed around the title.
By now, the parent company of LucasArts, LucasFilm, was ramping up for the re-release of the original trilogy with the first film of the prequel trilogy, The Phantom Menace, coming down the line. Plans were developed to have a huge multimedia project tied into the re-release, which lead to Shadows of the Empire, a brand that spanned from comics to books to games. The corresponding video game was released for the Nintendo 64, and tied the gap between the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Players took control of Dash Rendar and guided him through a twisting labyrinth of missions that ranged from attempting to retrieve Han Solo from Boba Fett to invading Prince Xizor’s palace on Coruscant. Shadows of the Empire was a financial success, something that prompted Lucas Licensing (the company in charge of brand usage) to try and tie large projects into future movie releases.
The Nintendo 64 would actually see a deluge of excellent Star Wars games like Rogue Squadron and Episode 1: Racer. Though the system had chunky graphics and a wonky controller, I still have my fondest memories of playing EP1: Racer on a four-day binge.
However, as gamers moved into the next generation, quality Star Wars games seemed to be few and far between. For every Rogue Squadron 2 and Knights of the Old Republic, there were equally awful games such as Bounty Hunter and Super Bombad Racing. As perception of the movies began to turn to the negative, so did the reception to the games.
As the current generation of consoles began to near its close, LucasArts made a couple last attempts to capitalize on the prequel trilogy. The first attempt was Republic Commando, a first person shooter that placed the gamer in the boots of “Boss”, one of the specially trained clone troopers who carried out the “black ops” missions for the Republic. It took a darker look at the Star Wars universe, one where Jedi were not the heroes, but they were also completely absent. As the first FPS attempted by LucasArts in years, it wasn’t perfect, but it was serviceable enough to rank as one of the better Star Wars efforts of that generation. A series of books were made to spin off of the foundation the game provided, and they’re excellent reads, so check them out if you’re so inclined.
LucasArts also released Battlefront one and two alongside the latter two movies of the trilogy; the games were sourced out to Pandemic, makers of Mercenaries: World in Flames and Full Spectrum Warrior. The games were fun, basic copies of the DICE EA Battlefield series but with a Star Wars flair, and were the top selling LucasArts games of all time.
A simple brawler was released alongside Revenge of the Sith and followed the tried and true God of War method where one would beat up enemies to gain orbs and level up abilities. The game had impressive saber dueling, but little else to commend it.
With that wave of consoles over, Star Wars fans were waiting tepidly for whatever Star Wars game LucasArts deigned to release next. However, it would be three years before another big budget Star Wars title hit gaming consoles.
In-between, though, gamers on the PC would get to try their hand at Empire at War, a real time strategy title set in the Star Wars universe. While the ground combat wasn’t all that fun, the space battles were a roaring good time, especially if one used the mods that would remove the limit cap on capital ships.
The next Star Wars game, The Force Unleashed , was built from the ground up to make use of several advanced physical and behavioral engines, all of which would combine into the ultimate Jedi experience. Wood would shatter and metal beams would bend to your will while the computer controlled enemies panicked all around. The final product came close to succeeding, but even excellent physics can’t make up for flawed and buggy game-play.
While there have been more poor Star Wars titles as of late than as not, the fact remains that the series has had a long and profitable history which rewards its supporters time and again. Whether it is excellent classics like X-Wing or newer Role Playing games like Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars remains a rich tapestry on which to paint complex and unique narratives and experiences.
But what makes it so? One thing you could point out is that a variety of genres are available to developers to build upon. You can have brawlers, flight simulators, shooters of the first and third person perspectives and even real time strategy games. Because Star Wars has been around for more than thirty years, there’s a huge amount of history within that universe if you care to look. Knights of the Old Republic was set in a time almost 3,000 years before Luke, Han and Leia, but it managed to pull of that Star Wars feel, the classic good versus evil with plenty of exciting battles.
That’s another reason Star Wars makes for some good games. The space opera of George Lucas’s conception is fantasy writ large where the villains are black-clad monstrosities and the heroes are everyday folk who find themselves in the midst of an interstellar war.
Star Wars is one of the defining franchises of our time, and it’s one that resonates with nearly every person, young or old. While video games are played by relatively few, I don’t doubt that you could show a Star Wars game to a non-gamer and they would get the basic gist of it.
What about you guys? What do you feel about Star Wars games, and what are some of your favorites? Which ones do you feel have made the most impact on not only you, but gaming as a whole? Note that I didn’t exaclty name all the Star Wars games, so go nuts. I look forward to your answers, and may the Force be with you.