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Star Wars – from Movie to Arcade to Atari ST

Star Wars arcade game title screen

Today being May the 4th (aka Star Wars Day), I thought I’d mark the occasion by looking back at one of the first Star Wars video games which brought simulated science fiction movie action down off the silver screen and into arcades and homes.

In these days of mind-blowing digital graphics and sound, when sci-fi has become mainstream and we are surrounded by high definition video games in our own homes, and even in our pockets, it can sometimes seem like there has always been a Star Wars game around for us to play. But it’s easy to forget that such games were impossible at the time the original Star Wars movie was released (1977), which was indeed a long time ago, and seemingly in a galaxy far, far away. In fact, it was to be quite some time after the first film was released before the rise of digital technology was even able to provide a crude, sketchy attempt at portraying the atmosphere and action contained in what is probably the most popular space opera movie franchise ever.

Star Wars - A New Hope (1977) US movie poster

Star Wars – A New Hope (1977) US movie poster

Ironically, the computers which were actually used to make the first and best Star Wars trilogy, while revolutionary, were only designed for the precise and repeatable motion control of cameras filming highly-detailed physical models, and were incapable of generating either images or sound themselves. Today’s almost obligatory use of CGI (computer-generated imagery) to create movie and TV models digitally instead of physically was only a pipe-dream back then, decades away. But still, analogue as it was, Star Wars was amazing, as those of us who were privileged to see it on the big screen for the very first time will testify.

Movie memories
Queue for Star Wars outside the Birmingham Gaumont, 29th January 1978 (Birmingham Post & Mail)

Queue for Star Wars outside the Birmingham Gaumont, 29th January 1978 (Birmingham Post & Mail)

I well remember waiting outside the huge Gaumont cinema in Birmingham, England, on January 29, 1978 to get in to the local premiere of the movie which would later become known as ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’. I was 18 years old, and I’d won tickets, John Williams’ epic Star Wars soundtrack double vinyl album, and a t-shirt, in a TV magazine competition. There I was, shivering on an icy English winters day, watching the manager of the cinema walk by waving an illuminated toy lightsaber, as gleeful as the rest of us. As well he might be – the queue ran right round the block, as you can still see in the photo here (yes, I’m in it, somewhere) and in an album on the website of the Birmingham Post & Mail newspaper! Little did I know it then, but just a few days earlier, stars of the movie Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had been at the Holiday Inn in the city to promote its release. I’d been a science fiction fan since the first days of Doctor Who, Star Trek and the Apollo 11 Moon landings, and I was hooked. I still am, all these years later. But it was to be a few years more until technology caught up enough for me to be able to play at being an X-Wing fighter pilot, just like Luke Skywalker, in our local amusement arcade.

Down the arcade with Darth Vader
Opening story, Star Wars arcade machine

Opening story, Star Wars arcade machine

Oddly enough, if I’d owned an Atari 2600 or Intellivision games console to plug into our ‘state-of-the art’ push-button Hitachi 21” colour TV, I could have been annoying my parents by playing a Star Wars game in 1982. Which is strange, because that first Star Wars game conversion for home consoles was actually based on the second (or fifth, depending on how you look at it) episode in the trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was set three years after the first movie, which had been released in the USA in 1977. Stranger still, the actual Star Wars arcade machine itself, produced by Atari, Inc, and far superior, wasn’t released until 1983!

But what a game it was, by the standards of the time – and it’s still a lot of fun today if you can find it, or one of the home computer/console versions. Offering a first-person space combat scenario, the game simulated the attack on the Death Star from the 1977 movie, and unlike its out-of-sequence and rather crude console predecessor, it was designed using 3D colour vector graphics. Developed during what is considered the Golden Age of arcade games, Star Wars, which was designed by Mark Hally and built in both stand-up and seated cockpit versions, with appropriate controls, was rated the fourth most popular game of all time by readers of Killer List of Videogames.

Star Wars (arcade version) dogfight with TIE fighters

Star Wars (arcade version) dogfight with TIE fighters

In game, the player takes on the role of Luke Skywalker (call sign Red Five), in the famous movie sequence where he has the task of saving the Rebel Alliance from certain defeat by the evil Galactic Empire by destroying the Death Star, in this case in three attack phases. As ‘Luke’, he/she simply has to survive, taking the X-Wing through the levels and dodging or shooting down the shots of their many enemies, including Imperial TIE fighters, ranged against him/her.

Each hit on the X-Wing deletes a shield, and when shields run out the next hit signals game over. The final, crucial task is to hit the thermal exhaust port and destroy the Death Star. This original arcade game also features digitized samples of the voices of Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi), the beeping droid R2-D2, and growling wookiee, Chewbacca.

Star Wars at home
The Atari 2600 console conversion

The Atari 2600 console conversion

The licensed Star Wars vector arcade game was first developed and put on sale for early games consoles and 8-bit home computers by Parker Brothers in 1983-1984. These included the Atari 2600, Atari 5200 and ColecoVision consoles (the latter programmed by Wendell Brown) plus the Atari 400, 800 and XL series, and the Commodore 64.

Amstrad CPC Star Wars

Amstrad CPC Star Wars

Later, the same game was converted again, in 1987-1988, mostly by UK-based developers Vektor Grafix, and published in Europe by Domark, for the eight-bit Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, Acorn Electron and Enterprise home computers, plus the Atari 8-bits (the sole conversion by Zeppelin Games) and the Commodore 64. The quality was variable, depending on the specs of each machine; personally I like the Amstrad CPC version best out of the 8-bit conversions, though YMMV. But the best conversions were to be made for the far more powerful 16/32 bit Atari ST and its competitor, the Commodore Amiga.

In 1988, Brøderbund licensed the game and went on to publish North American versions for the Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64 and MS-DOS.

Putting  the ST in Star Wars
Choosing difficulty level on the Atari ST Star Wars

Choosing difficulty level on the Atari ST Star Wars

The Amiga and Atari ST versions of the game are very similar to the arcade original, with the use of vector graphics allowing a good turn of speed, and indeed the ST version is the first Star Wars game which I personally was able to play at home, having already gained plenty of experience of it in the arcade!

Feel the ST Force - shooting at fireballs and TIE fighters

Feel the ST Force – shooting at fireballs and TIE fighters

These first versions for the 16/32-bit 68000 processor machines allowed the user to control their X-Wing fighter by mouse and keyboard  for the first time and, as in the arcade, featured digitized sound effects. The arcade game had used an analogue self-centring yoke, and many hold the opinion that a mouse is a much better approximation of this analogue controller than a typical 8-way joystick. An analogue joystick like the Gravis ones used for flight simulators etc. could have been better still, but this was not an option on these machines.

Shoot the towers, Luke!

Shoot the towers, Luke!

The ST version, which is one of those developed in Britain by Vektor Grafix for Domark, is a particular favourite of mine, being one of the first games I bought for the Atari 520STFM computer I owned at the time. It has great game play and I spent far too much time playing it as a result. It was just like being in the movie and flying a real X-Wing fighter (at least I thought so at the time). Anyways, by playing at being a rebel fighter on the Atari ST in my bedroom, I had a ton of fun – and saved a pot of cash compared with going down the arcade!

Get ready for the thermal exhaust port!

Get ready for the thermal exhaust port!

The game itself was programmed by Jürgen Friedrich, with music by David Whittaker, and was in English, with English, French, German, and Spanish instructions in the box.

It’s quite an impressive game considering it came on one single sided (360k) floppy disk!

Playing Star Wars today
Star Wars - The Old Republic is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game

Star Wars – The Old Republic is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game

Time has moved on, and today there are not only seven main sequence Star Wars movies (not counting Rogue One), with at least another two to come, but also a massive selection of Star Wars video games available to play, from collectible original retro versions from the home computer and early console years, through emulated versions, right up to the latest hand-held and modern console and PC games, which in their modern CGI-laden forms are far closer to movies than the first arcade version ever was.

You can even download games, including the Atari ST version for emulators, or go role-playing in the Star Wars universe online using the massively powerful desktop computers we take for granted now. It’s almost like being a movie star yourself.

Star Wars arcade game poster (1983)

Star Wars arcade game poster (1983)

There are now so many Star Wars games to collect and play (too many to list here, but follow this link ) that you could certainly be forgiven for having forgotten that first, great, vector classic of the Golden Age arcade and home computer era. Sadly, video game arcades are rare now, so the chances of playing on the original arcade machine are slim.

At some point I’ll take another look back at the many games of Star Wars, but for now, have a happy Star Wars Day – and May the Force Be With You, always. Guess what I’ll be playing tonight?

Red Five over and out.

Stuart Williams

Stuart Williams has, amongst other things, been an English computer journalist for 30 years. He is also a writer of short stories in the SF/Fantasy genres, and describes himself as an Apple, Amiga & Atari ST geek living on the edge of Mordor. He is famous in a parallel universe.

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