It’s been ten years since the theatrical release of “Revenge of the Sith”, and once again the Star Wars machine is making the jump to light speed. The license has been around pretty much since the dawn of the home console. MobyGames pegs the total number of games based on the property at 165 as of this writing, starting with The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600 all the way back in 1982. Dozens of these titles have gone on to achieve critical acclaim, paving the way for new story lines, heroes, and villains that have today become staples of the Expanded Universe, or changing the way we think about that universe in general: Lawrence Holland’s popular X-Wing delivered flight simulator space combat to the masses, Bioware brought the full role-playing experience home with Knights of the Old Republic, Pandemic put gamers in the boots of the rank-and-file troopers of both the Clone Wars and the Rebellion with Battlefront, and Traveller’s Tales gave fans of all ages something to enjoy with their Lego treatment of the saga. Star Wars has provided some of the most enjoyable screen time of any licensed property, but not without cost. For every memorable, genre-defining, outstandingly playable game set in that galaxy far, far away, there are dozens which couldn’t break the mold of ‘average’, and some which failed so spectacularly you could argue they were designed to draw players to the Dark Side. We’re hopeful “The Force Awakens” can re-ignite the positive in Star Wars, but for years we’ve turned to our computers and consoles to remind us why we all fell in love with the franchise to begin with. That said, if you’re looking to spend some quality retro time in the Star Wars universe prior to hitting the theater in a couple of weeks, do yourself a favor and avoid every last game on this list.
Star Wars: Jedi Arena (Atari 2600)
Parker Brothers’ first home conversion of a Star Wars license was their iconic and soul-crushing rendition of the Hoth invasion as showcased in their Empire Strikes Back game. A masterstroke of design and playability combined with a relentless challenge guaranteed to result in the player’s defeat, Empire Strikes Back was a perfect addition to the 2600’s library. They followed it up with Jedi Arena.
Jedi Arena, rather than being based on an action sequence from the films, instead draws inspiration from the scene in A New Hope where Obi-Wan trains Luke in the use of the Force by using a floating sphere to shoot him in the butt.
The game’s title makes it sound like it might try to replicate the famous lightsaber duels from the movies: Vader and Obi-Wan from A New Hope or maybe Luke and Vader from Return of the Jedi. But no, this is instead about two stationary, nameless Jedi who wave laser-schlongs at one another from behind protective force fields. They use the power of the Force to tell the randomly-flying remote to fire a laser which can chip away at the protective field and use their lightsabers to block the shots directed at them by their opponent. At random times, the remote builds up an excess amount of energy and flies around willy-nilly, firing uncontrollably at both Jedi, until it calms itself down and the game resumes as normal. The first Jedi to score a direct hit on their opponent by whittling down their shields wins a point, the shields recharge, and a new round begins.
Jedi Arena is not an awful game, it’s just not a very good use of the Star Wars license. Unlike Empire Strikes Back before it which gave players the feeling of re-creating the Battle of Hoth, Jedi Arena doesn’t really do anything to make you feel like you’re fighting a dynamic lightsaber duel. It’s a fun idea, but if your idea is a two-player minor variation on the vastly superior Warlords, then what’s the point? Yoda advises that Jedi crave neither adventure nor excitement, so if that was in the design document, great work Parker Brothers! You created one of the least exciting Star Wars games possible and let kids exchange real money for the opportunity to play it.
Star Wars Demolition (PS1/Dreamcast)
Developer Luxoflux struck gold with its release of Vigilante 8 in 1998, mostly due to the downward spiral taken by the Twisted Metal franchise, their chief car combat competition. With the third and fourth entries in the TM catalog making the sort of unwanted impacts normally associated with loud, wet farts, Luxoflux went from second-tier to the better option almost overnight. It was no surprise they were tapped to remix Vigilante 8 with a patina of Star Wars characters, vehicles, and music. License to print money: secured.
Unfortunately Star Wars Demolition left an awful lot to be desired. It’s one of those “interesting in theory, not so hot in practice” games that results from trying to shoehorn a license into a genre where it makes very little sense. Twisted Metal worked because it was set in a universe with no backstory to draw upon, and while it was ostensibly based in the real world, it also featured a flame-headed clown, a ghost who can drive a car anyway, a demon-controlled eighteen wheeler, and a guy who grants wishes with the snap of his fingers. Realism is to Twisted Metal as pig snouts are to hot dogs: we know it’s there, and we’re better off seeing as little as possible.
Demolition on the other hand is based on a previously-existing universe where ground rules have already been established. Proton Torpedoes blow up moon-sized space stations, Boba Fett is a jetpack-backed guy in a suit of armor, and AT-STs can be defeated by log-rolling teddy bears. Changing these basics means re-wiring the Star Wars license into something it isn’t, and while the results can be fun for a while, they leave players with the niggling feeling something isn’t right. When Aurra Sing survives a direct concussion missile strike to her unarmored legs only to later kill a Rancor by shooting it in the back with her blaster rifle, it’s difficult for any serious Star Wars fan to write that off as just par for the course. Demolition is far from the worst game to wear the logo, but there’s nothing to really set it above other vehicle combat games in the genre. After a while you’ll forget you own it and it won’t even cross your mind when you’re in the mood to play something with Star Wars in the title.
Super Star Wars (SNES)
Wait a minute, wait a minute, hear me out! I’m not saying Super Star Wars is a bad game–hell, I’ve dumped many hours into playing, enough to know it’s got sufficient balls-to-the-wall action to fill a star cruiser–I’m saying Super Star Wars is a bad Star Wars game. There’s a difference.
Super Star Wars purports to be based on Star Wars: A New Hope and while the cinematic cut scenes between levels have the look and sound of this promise, the actual levels themselves (with a few notable exceptions) play nothing at all like the movie. I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall Luke Skywalker having to fight a Sarlaac monster, navigate the interior of a Jawa sandcrawler, or dodge TIE Fighters screaming through one of the Death Star’s docking bays. Please note: if you’re reading this in 2115 and scenes like these have been added into a re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-release of the film in 4D Holographic Memo-Plug format, don’t comment with spoilers.
Also: Super Star Wars is hard. I don’t mean “hard” in the sense that it will probably take you a few tries before you finish it, I’m talking “hard” in the sense that Tecmo cribbed notes from it when they were rebooting Ninja Gaiden. Between endlessly-spawning enemies, levels which redefine the idea of ‘sprawling’, and all manner of bottomless pits, pools of lava, and other instant-death traps, finishing Super Star Wars even on its easiest setting is impossible for 95% of players, while any respectable Sith Lord could use the ‘Jedi’ difficulty as a recruiting tool given how much anger, fear, and hatred it generates. Fair warning, these games have all been re-released on the PS Vita and PS4.
Play Super Star Wars (and its sequels, Super Empire Strikes Back and Super Return of the Jedi) if you must, but be aware of the enormous task you’re setting before yourself. The production values are top-notch, the action never lets up, and the Mode 7 sequences where you’re skimming the surface of the Death Star’s trench or navigating an asteroid field are some of the defining moments in this series. Just don’t be surprised if you sport several new ulcers and broken controllers by the time you throw your hands up in surrender.
Star Wars: Rebel Assault (Sega CD)
No other game on this list so clearly earns the label “a product of its time” like Rebel Assault. Released in 1993, it was the first time LucasArts dipped its foot into the CD-ROM pool and as every self-respecting retro gamer knows, the only thing developers were using CDs for at that point was forcing audiences to suffer through low-resolution, poorly-acted FMV sequences. Designer Vincent Lee felt this was exactly what the Star Wars universe needed. George Lucas agreed so enthusiastically he emulated this philosophy for the next three Star Wars films.
Look, I can forgive grainy graphics–I started playing video games at a time when you were lucky if your race car looked like a giant ‘X’ zipping back and forth along the bottom of the screen. And I can forgive this game for being an on-rails shooter, because an on-rails shooter based in the Star Wars universe could be awesome. That’s not why this is a bad Star Wars game.
Rebel Assault is a bad Star Wars game because it either ignores or flat-out rewrites huge portions of the cinematic canon for no good reason. Rebel Assault‘s story line reads like one of those self-insert fanfics you promised your mom you stopped writing back in high school. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Rookie One is a farm boy (or girl–the game lets you pick your gender) from Tatooine who gains flying experience by traversing the dangerous twists and turns of Beggar’s Canyon. Rookie One then joins up with the rebel alliance where he/she engages TIE Fighters in ship-to-ship combat, defends Gamma Base from AT-AT walkers and probe droids on the surface of Hoth using a snowspeeder, blasts through platoons of Stormtroopers, flies a raging pursuit mission while successfully navigating an asteroid field, and joins in the assault on the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin where he/she, with the help of another hot-shot pilot, fires the fatal proton torpedoes which destroy the moon-sized space station. Damn kid, it’s a good thing you came along when you did, otherwise the Alliance would have been toast! Also, has anybody seen Luke Skywalker or Han Solo around anywhere? What a pair of slackers, letting you do all the heavy lifting.
The Super Star Wars series played fast and loose with the facts, but great slavering Sarlaacs even they had sense enough to keep the main characters. Vincent Lee went on to design a sequel, Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire, for PC and PlayStation which isn’t as cringe-worthy as the first, but as far as I’m concerned he should still have a price on his head so high he’s unable to go near a civilized system.
Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided (PC)
As an MMO with limitless growth potential based in a fictional universe loved by 99% of everyone who ever lived, Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided should have been the most successful entertainment venture since the discovery of wanking. The formula was simple: LucasArts teamed with Verant Interactive to re-skin Everquest with Wookiees, blasters, and lightsabers. Launching with ten playable races, roughly a dozen character class options, and a huge list of planets from Tatoonie and Hoth to Endor and Dathomir, SWG should have offered enough to be everything to everybody.
Unfortunately Galaxies was plagued with problems from day one. Originally announced in 2000, it didn’t arrive in playable format until 2003. Despite having the words ‘star’, ‘wars’ and ‘galaxies’ in the title, it wasn’t until the first expansion pack more than a year later that players could actually fly ships of their own and engage in space-based combat. Leveling characters was an exercise in boredom-inducing grindfests: characters could only spend points to level up skills they had actually used. Logically this makes sense; practically this meant your Entertainer was going to spend hours doing nothing but standing in a pub dancing for tips.
Worst of all was Galaxies‘ handling of Jedi. In theory, every character had the chance to become Force Sensitive and this was one of the game’s selling points: Jedi were supposed to be rare, one-in-a-million types that required months if not years of dedicated training and grinding. In exchange they received impressive bonuses and power boosts which made a lone Jedi the equal of four or five other characters, enabling them to individually take quests that would be suicide for all but the most well-equipped parties. Unfortunately everybody who fantasizes about Star Wars thinks about how cool it would be to wave a lightsaber around and throw assholes out windows using the power of thought. Players complained there was no easy way to become a Jedi (sort of the point, considering everything Yoda tells Luke), and the developers caved, eventually introducing a system which led players step-by-step down the path needed so they too could unlock the power inside them.
Between these problems, the irregularity of new content releases, and two major overhauls to the basic gameplay system which irked players to no end, Star Wars Galaxies finally folded under the weight of its own bloated Hutt-levels of mismanagement and a never-ending exodus of players to World of Warcraft, giving up the (Force) ghost on December 11th, 2011.
Star Wars (NES)
The NES version of Star Wars suffers from the same problems as its big SNES brother: it attempts to tell the story of the film by resorting to mindless filler where Luke roams through caves on Tatooine, slaughters Jawas in a sandcrawler, and deactivates the tractor beam instead of Obi-Wan because shut up, that’s why!
I get it. Video games are exercises in helping the player feel like a more active participant in a fantasy. But is it too much to ask game developers to stop feeling like they have to throw in quirky driving mechanics and endless platforming exercises where iconic scenes like Han’s showdown with Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina are stretched to absurd lengths? In the film Han fires one shot to make his point, tosses a tip to the barkeep and drops the mic. In the game, he mows down dozens of Greedo enemies, each one requiring multiple hits from his blaster. On what planet is this a good use of a game license? Dagobah?
Add in wonky controls which take their cue from Super Mario Bros. like holding B to run, mix in some shooter segments (the run through the Death Star’s trench at the end is really fun), and toss in a first-person flying sequence at the controls of the Millennium Falcon because at this point why not, and you wind up with a fine example of an 8-bit title suffering from schizophrenia. Sorry, Beam Software…you did well with Gex, but this is about as enjoyable as a thermal detonator lodged up your own exhaust port.
Star Wars Episode I: Obi-Wan’s Adventures (GBC)
The handheld Star Wars games are universally bad, with Attack of the Clones and Flight of the Falcon generally recognized as some of the worst titles ever released under the Star Wars license, but you never see HotGen’s Y2K production of Obi-Wan’s Adventures on a list like this, so it falls to me to drag this one out into the scorching light of Tatooine’s twin suns. The best thing to be said about this game is it gets half the title right. Sadly, it’s the wrong half.
Obi-Wan’s Adventures stars (surprise, surprise) Obi-Wan Kenobi in his days as a padawan under the tutelage of Qui-Gon Jinn and follows him through his escapades and exploits as chronicled in The Phantom Menace. Yes, from crawling around vent shafts and driving a Bongo through the oceans of Naboo, to fighting Battle Droids that take two hits from your lightsaber to kill and running around the Catacombs under Theed because the devs needed some way to pad the level count, you too can experience the strange and wonderful world of the Jedi.
How bad is this game? Let’s put it this way: Obi-Wan starts it armed with a blaster. Yes, that’s right, the guy who referred to such weapons as ‘clumsy’ and ‘random’, the man who feels disgust at being reduced to dispatching General Grievous with one in ‘Revenge of the Sith’, has no problem gunning down his foes. My editor’s going to be pissed when he sees the noggin-sized hole I made in the wall–sometimes a face-palm just doesn’t convey everything.
If you’re looking for the true Phantom Menace of this game though, look no further than the control scheme where ‘A’ attacks and ‘B’ jumps. Yes, swapping the standard mechanic ingrained in every gamer’s head since the days of Mario makes perfect sense. Also, let’s make it an isometric, top-down platformer instead of a simple side-scrolling action game, because making your character walk diagonally whenever necessary using the D-pad isn’t frustrating in the slightest! There are plenty of handheld Star Wars games that get crapped upon regularly, but for my money I’d take even Yoda Stories over this Dianoga-infested trash heap. Could be worse…
Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi (PS1)
…It’s worse. I’ve spent the better part of twenty years looking for a more obnoxious and disgusting misuse of the Star Wars license and still come up empty-handed. My vendetta against this game is only magnified by the amount of glowing praise it received in the gaming press of the late 90s. This dingleberry clinging to an Ewok’s furry backside single-handedly wrecked any need to read GamePro again after reviewer Scary Larry (excuse me, ‘Scary Skywalker’) awarded it a damn near perfect score in the January 1998 issue despite noting flaws like ‘Slowdown during heated matches hampers the controls.’
I’m sorry, did you say slowdown? Hampered controls? In a fighting game where missing an input due to a timing problem can turn your 360-degree lightsaber spin jump into a basic punch? ‘Slowdown’ was responsible for the first casualty in the Battle of Yavin. It resulted in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn while Obi-Wan watched from behind a force field. Anything that kills off characters in a Star Wars movie should send a video game back to the drawing board faster than Palpatine can wrist-flick that lightsaber, but Masters of Teräs Käsi somehow gets a free pass? Not this time, sister.
Speed issues are just the main complaint. What about enemy AI so stupid it will dash behind your player only to fall off the stage and hand you the win? Characters so unbalanced Leia can corner Chewbacca and beat him to death while he’s struggling to fire his bowcaster? Ending sequences for tournament winners measured in seconds instead of minutes (when they even exist at all)? The screwed up chronology which places the game between the events of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, but features a black-gloved Luke Skywalker, a bikini-clad Princess Leia, and stages set on Cloud City, Endor, Hoth, and Dagobah?
Claiming it’s OK to overlook these faults because the graphics and sound are really good is like the Mos Eisley Cantina advertising its drinks aren’t likely to kill you and they openly discriminate against droids. Good sound when you have the ability to pull from John Williams’ score and Ben Burtt’s effects library is a given. Graphic quality is debatable, but this is a ’97 PS1 title so I’m willing to go easy on it for the sake of argument. Teräs Käsi just fails the test of a good Star Wars game no matter how you approach it, and if someone ever manages to make a game set in this universe that comes out worse, we’ll know it’s time to start running because the Death Star has cleared the planet, and the Rebel base is in range.