Episode I - The Atarian Assault
The two Star Wars prequels may have dipped below our expectations, but the upcoming prospect of Episode III has us stupidly excited... so excited that we asked Star Wars uber-geek Dan Whitehead to chart the history of games based on the sci-fi saga. In the first of a three part series leading up to the release of the new movie, Dan looks at Atari’s original arcade trilogy and the early computer and console licenses.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away...
Well, OK, technically it was 28 years ago at Mann's Chinese Theater, Los Angeles. That was where, on May 25th 1977, a little sci-fi flick simply called Star Wars first revealed itself to mankind. Fledgling director George Lucas was so convinced that his “space opera” - which had cost the princely sum of ten million dollars - would be such a disaster that he went on holiday with pal Steven Spielberg to talk about making a movie about an adventurous archaeologist rather than face the inevitable bad news from the box office.
When he heard that people were queuing round the block to see Luke Skywalker take on Darth Vader over and over again, he flew back and watched in amazement from a burger bar across the street as movie history was made.
The arse end of the 70s and the early 80s were bookended by the further chapters in George's saga, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with plain old Star Wars now rechristened as the more franchise-friendly Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, sparking speculation that one day we might see a whole new trilogy explaining just who Obi Wan was, what that fleeting reference to the “clone wars” was all about, and where all the Jedi vanished to.
On May 25th this year, that story will be completed, as Episode III: Revenge of the Sith brings the saga to a close, and we'll finally get to see perpetual whiner Anakin Skywalker burnt to a crisp, encased in black armour and given the vocal chords of James Earl Jones. But before all that could happen, there was the giddy and innocent golden age of Star Wars to enjoy. Back in 1977, unprepared for the modest film's extraordinary success, toy maker Kenner was caught off guard and was unable to get enough stock into shops for Christmas. Fans had to buy an empty box, with the promise that a cut-out voucher could be swapped for the first set of figures - which eventually arrived the following March. With their rigid legs, squashed faces and lightsabers that slid up into their hollow arms, they were hardly the most impressive playthings ever. But to young boys and girls around the world, imaginations fired up by repeat cinema visits, they were plastic passports to another world. Anything with that iconic logo was snapped up.
You were there. We don't need to remind you. There were comics and sticker albums. Pillow cases and lunchboxes.
And, of course, there were video games.
Red Five standing by
The late 70s rise of Star Wars overlapped neatly with the rise of ‘electronics' as the new wonder-science of the future. With this brave new world came the coinop arcade machine, though the technology was still very much in its infancy when Star Wars mania first struck and it would be several years before the simplistic world of Space Invaders was ready to do justice to Lucas' galaxy far, far away.
Indeed, the humble local arcade wouldn't see any Skywalker action until 1983 - the year that saw the end of the Star Wars trilogy with the release of Return of the jedi in cinemas. Despite the six year gap, the first Star Wars arcade cabinet harked back to the first movie for its inspiration and delivered a game that still raises the neck hair of most thirty-something sci-fi fans. Already primed for the experience by years of pelting around playgrounds, making ‘pee-yow' laser noises, Atari's adaptation cannily realised that it was the climactic Death Star attack that kids most wanted to relive, especially Luke's hair-raising race down the trench to deliver an explosive payload right up Peter Cushing’s exhaust port.
Drawing heavily on Atari's 1980 hit Battlezone for both inspiration and design, the game used the then-amazing technique of 3D vector graphics to recreate the big screen spectacle in the arcade in a first-person view. Hurtling down the trench with John William's bombastic soundtrack crackling through the speakers, and a library of sampled lines from the movie playing at opportune times, it's easy to see why many young fans happily shovelled their entire pocket money for the week into this beast. Unlike the movie, when you finally blew up the Death Star you simply looped back round and did it all over again - the scramble for high scores and a stream of 10p pieces outweighing the need to be too faithful to the story.
Even now, it's still a great game - though the inverted aiming and wandering crosshair are charmingly clunky by modern standards. If you want anything even remotely approaching a challenge, you need to play it on Hard mode as well. In Easy mode it's perfectly possible to destroy the Death Star five times or more in the time it takes to watch a movie trailer. Still, it's a classic for all the right reasons and remains one of the few film-based games to capture the magic of the movie that inspired it.
Star Wars fans expecting more of the same were in for a surprise though.
Out of order
As the final film in the original trilogy was still fresh in peoples' minds, the next Star Wars arcade machine to see the light of day was based not on The Empire Strikes Back, but Return of the jedi. This came along in 1984, and abandoned the 3D vector graphics of its forebear for a scrolling isometric third-person chase game not unlike Sega's Zaxxon. A multi-level blaster, it once again leapt to the end of the movie for all the action.
TV ad for the Return of the Jedi Atari home videogame.
Starting out as Princess Leia racing through the forest of Endor on a speeder bike, the first level set the tone for the rest of the game - dodging left to right, while occasionally blasting Imperial troops who stray in front of you. Leading them into Ewok traps adds a fun twist, but some wonky collision detection didn't help matters, as the isometric view made it hard to tell if you were heading for an obstacle.
The next level saw Atari trying to mimic the climax of the film by cutting between Lando Calrissian's assault on the second Death Star in the Millenium Falcon, and Han Solo's attempt to shut down the shield on Endor. Switching between the two different challenges at annoyingly regular intervals, the end result was one of confusion and irritation for gamers as the flow of the gameplay was interrupted time and again. Finally, you had to guide the Millenium Falcon inside the Death Star and destroy the power generator. Watching the Death Star ripped apart by a typically rubbish 8-bit explosion , was fun, but by losing the first-person perspective the visceral thrill of the movie sequences was lost. Not helping matters was the fact that all the levels played in exactly the same way, with only the scenery and vehicles changing.
With its claustrophobically narrow play area and twitchy controls, this wasn't a game that did justice to the final chapter of the legendary trilogy. just as older fans found Return of the jedi, the movie, to be a somewhat over-simplified addition to the cinematic trilogy, so this dumbed-down arcade machine failed to live up to its predecessor. Luckily, the games still had one more chance to get it right.
Given the less-than-enthusiastic response to the jedi arcade machine, you can hardly blame Atari for sticking with what worked for its next effort - the middle chapter of the trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, in 1985. Another vector graphics blaster, it was essentially a re-jigged version of the chipset from the first Star Wars game with different scenes. Lazy? Well, yes, but a welcome return to form after the limp Ewok outing.
Of course, the movie was unique in the trilogy in that it had all the exciting vehicle combat near the start of the film, with the ending relying on a whole ton of shocking revelations and plot twists that would be rather tricky to capture in game form (Luke, am I your father? Press the right button now!).
This meant that the first level, still rendered in those timeless wireframe graphics, saw you trying to blast those pesky Probots in the snowy wastes of Hoth. Nothing too taxing or exciting, but it was just a taster for the debut appearance of what would become a Star Wars gaming tradition: the AT-AT battle.
Still the coolest moment in any of the Star Wars movies, it's an iconic action sequence with good reason - which probably explains why it's appeared in pretty much every Rogue Squadron game ever since. Zipping along mere feet above the ground, and flying between the legs of the gigantic walking machines for bonus points, this was an experience that matched - and even topped - the trench battle from the first Star Wars game. Trouble was, this was only level two, and the Empire Strikes Back game suffered from peaking too early. Once the AT-ATs were despatched, you switched to the Millenium Falcon for an outer space battle with TIE fighters, followed by a diversion into the asteroid field. There's nothing wrong with these levels - indeed, as the game is essentially a reworked version of the first game, it's every bit as fun and playable. But there's no real climax to the game, no big ending to aim for that could compete with destroying the Death Star. This is largely due to the structure of the film, of course, but there was always a nagging voice in your ten-year-old mind that just wanted to go back and play the AT-AT level over and over.
Ironically, you could actually do that...if you had an Atari 2600 at home. [And you can do it right now at Virtualatari.org]
Photo: Many arcade operators chose to upgrade their Star Wars machines to Empire, hence the current rarity of the original
As detailed in our feature on the peculiar history of 20th Century Fox's entry into the Atari 2600 market back in issue 11, the rights to turn the blockbusting movies into home videogames went to Monopoly creators Parker Brothers. just as the coin-op releases monkeyed around with the order of the movies, so did the home versions. The first game release - in fact, the first official movie-to-game adaptation ever released - was The Empire Strikes Back which arrived on the console in 1982, two years after the film, but a whole year before Atari got its first Star Wars game into the arcades.
Based entirely around the AT-AT scene, it was a side-scrolling shooter that managed a remarkably solid job of recreating the Star Wars vehicles using the 2600's limited resources. Controlling a snowspeeder, you had to bring down the lumbering Imperial behemoths - no small task, as each one could take up to 48 hits before being destroyed! All the time, you had to dodge incoming laser blasts and the occasional homing missile. Take too many hits, and your craft turned red. You could land for repairs twice, but after that you were on your own. On the other hand, if you could avoid enemy fire for two whole minutes (which was nigh impossible) then you could “use the Force” and become invincible for a short time. Surprisingly involved for such a primitive game, and a damn fine shoot-em-up in its own right, Empire Strikes Back was a predictably huge hit for Parker Brothers and set a high benchmark for both future Star Wars games and movie-based games in general.
Vintage TV Ad for The Empire Strikes Back Atari 2600 videogame
1983 rolled around, bringing with it a fresh wave of Star Wars mania as Return of the Jedi opened in cinemas and Atari's Star Wars game hit arcades. Eager to capitalise on this, but with no time to try and tackle the task of recreating the coin-op, Parker Brothers instead rushed out a couple of Star Wars games based on scenes from the trilogy.
photo: Atari’s 2600 console was home to four variable Star Wars games released between 1982 and 1984
Star Wars Jedi Arena took its inspiration from the scene in the first movie where Luke begins to learn to use his lightsaber against automated drones. The game has you, as Luke, standing in the middle of the play area, deflecting blasts by moving your lightsaber around. Realistically, it's entirely possible that this simplistic variation on the bouncing-ball game was simply an existing prototype that was tagged with the Star Wars brand to quickly cash-in. Apart from some token references on the front-end there's little in the game to connect it with Star Wars and, with or without the movie branding, it's hardly a great game.
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Vintage Ad for the Atari 2600 Video game, Star Wars Jedi Arena.
Star Wars Death Star Battle was certainly tied to the movies, though the quality wasn't much better. Loosely based on the climax of Return of the jedi, you controlled the Millenium Falcon and had to blast incoming fighters while the Death Star hovered above, protected by a big thick shield. Slipping through the randomised hole in the shield granted you access to the next stage, in which you had to batter down the outside of the Death Star to expose the vulnerable core inside. Destroy that, dodge the debris and loop back to the start. A version of the game also appeared on the 5200, but besides a few new graphical effects, it was exactly the same game.
[Play Atari Star Wars Death Star Battle online now]
Parker Brothers returned to form in 1984 with - finally - a home conversion of Atari's original Star Wars arcade machine. Shifting all those vector graphics around on an arcade chipset was tricky enough, but attempting to replicate the effect on the minimalist 2600 was a mighty undertaking.
Amazingly, Parker Bros pulled it off. Sure, the vector lines are a bit chunkier and the game doesn't move quite as fast, but for a generation of kids who had played the game to death, this was truly like having an arcade in your home. The game even attempted a lo-fi version of the famous theme tune, and tossed in some early voice samples for good measure - even if they did sound like Alec Guiness was whispering through a sock on a badly-tuned radio. The game was also converted to the Atari 5200 and Colecovision consoles, with both versions offering better graphics and clearer sound.
[play the Atari Star Wars arcade game online for free]
Despite the variable quality of the console versions, it was inevitable that the success of the games would attract the attention of the nascent home computer industry. Sinclair Research snapped up the rights to Death Star Battle for the Spectrum in 1984, while the Commodore 64 received a version of the original arcade game which famously used sprites instead of vector graphics.
However, it wouldn't be until 1987/8 that Domark clinched the rights to bring Atari's coin-op trilogy to the home computer scene. All three games landed on the (deep, Vader-style breath) Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, Amiga, Atari ST and PC. Return of the jedi was still a rather limp side-scroller, but the two vector graphics games (adapted, of course, by Vektor Grafix) still retained their charm even though titles like Elite and Starglider had already shown that home computers could do more with wireframe spaceships than simple blasting. The new version of Star Wars for the C64 did attempt to use vector graphics, but at the expense of the frame rate which was slow and choppy. Star Wars on the Speccy, meanwhile, was completely silent with no in-game music or sound effects. Domark's decision not to include a 128Kb version with sound was bizarre. Lessons were obviously learnt though, and The Empire Strikes Back did feature an enhanced 128Kb version with some stirring AY renditions of the original arcade music.
Photo: Domark bundled together its conversions and released them as The Star Wars Trilogy
And so the Star Wars movies left cinemas, and the first wave of Star Wars gaming came to an end. While fans would have to wait many years for the films to return to the big screen, keen gamers didn't have long to wait for the next wave of Jedi gaming. As the 90s dawned, Nintendo slowly began to take control and its range of home consoles would offer developers exciting new ways to bring Star Wars to life.
Star Wars secrets
Within weeks of the original Star Wars taking residence in arcades, rumours were whispered in school corridors regarding tricks and secrets that only the hardcore knew.
Shooting Darth Vader’s TIE fighter more than 30 times would give you an abundance of extra shields. The faint yellow vector lines on the Death Star sometimes spelled out “May the Force be with you” as you approached. And for those who heeded the wisdom of Obi Wan, you could earn up to a whopping 100,000 bonus points for “using the Force” and not shooting anything in the trench apart from the exhaust port.
Battle for Endor
Controlling an Ewok in a glider you swooped over the multi-screen forest, throwing rocks at well rendered AT-ST Scout Walkers, speederbikes and Stormtroopers. By flying into an imperial vehicle at the right height, you could gain control of it and use it to attack the shield generator. Destroy the shield generator and you started over, on a higher difficulty. Ewok Adventure was true to the movie, had better-than-average graphics and gameplay that was both varied and challenging. Nobody really knows why it didn't deserve a commercial release, but it can now be found online in ROM format so all is not lost.
Attack of the Clones
The lack of Star Wars games for home computer systems led, inevitably, to the void being filled by a slew of unofficial titles that ripped off Star Wars with an audacity that, today, would lead to the Lucasfilm lawyers hauling you into court faster than Mark Hamill’s career went down the toilet. However, some of these clones were better than the official Star Wars games. Others, meanwhile, were like a punch in the Jawas. Here are some of the most notable rip-offs in all their galactic glory...
Return of the Jedy, M.K. Circuits, 1983
A frankly bizarre game in which you control a rotating laser gun in the middle of the “Jedy games arena”. There are eight targets and either “D.Vader” or “R2” will appear at random. Pressing 0 rotates you (clockwise only) and pressing 1 fires the laser. Destroy 30 Vaders and. you get to do it again, only faster. George Lucas would not be amused.
Battle on Hoth, Duncan Kinnaird, 1983
OK, it’s not really fair to call this a rip-off, as it was a type-in program from Your Computer magazine, sent in by 16-year-old Duncan. A side-scrolling shooter not a million miles from Parker Brother’s Empire Strikes Back game, it contains possibly the worst rendition of the Star Wars theme, but also the best AT-AT graphics of the 8-bit era.
3D Starwars, Elfin Software, 1983
After an interminable amount of guff about Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, plus such grammatical gems as “the Jedi mission unsuccessfull” and “metiorites harmless”, this game finally lets you get into action, and plonks you in a baffling space shooter where the enemy are star-shaped blobs or freakish bird things. In other words, it’s got sod all to do with Star Wars.
3D Death Chase, Micromega, 1983
Obviously ‘inspired’ by the speederbike chase from Return of the Jedi, this is a bona-fide Spectrum classic regardless of its roots. With a simple 3D game engine, and basic controls (left, right, fire) it manages to capture the exhilaration of the movie sequence far better than the subpar official arcade machine.
Death Star, Rabbit Software, 1983
In a twist that would have most Star Wars fans scratching their heads, you control a miniature Imperial Star Destroyer as it chugs down the Death Star trench, blasting things that look a bit like TIE Fighters and other sundry rotating shapes. Sluggish, to say the least, it’s also worth noting that all the sound effects are lifted wholesale from the underground motorbike classic, Wheelie.
Empire Fights Back, Mastertronic, 1985
Is fighting back better or worse than striking back? You’ll never know, especially if you play this incomprehensible game - which does contain stars, but otherwise has no connection to Star Wars at all. Written by Clive Brooker, who would also bring us One Man and his Droid, this is strangeness incarnate.
[Source: Retro Gamer Volume 2, Issue 1, P.42-47 Copyright © 2005 Live Publishing Int Ltd.]