This article was originally published in November 2015.
A long time ago, we were just stargazing kids, worshipping our letterbox collection of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Years later, the Force is strong with us once again as we do the Imperial March towards Gareth Edwards’ highly anticipated spinoff film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. To celebrate, we’re spending this week talking about Nothing But Star Wars! with a rogue squadron of features, essays, and stories. Today, we’re keeping the series alive by revisiting the franchise’s best and worst video games.
Star Wars has enjoyed a long, fruitful history with video games — you know, just like it’s had with action figures, books, comics, underwear, toiletries, and the list goes on and on until it dissolves into space like one of the film’s epic opening scrawls.
Merchandising has never been a shortcoming of this franchise, which is partly why it’s such an enduring brand and explains how multiple generations can attest to collective all of the above. At some point in our lives, we’ve all wanted to be Jedis or starfighters…
That’s why gaming has been so fruitful. Whether it’s an action-adventure game that pits you as a dashing smuggler or a flight simulator that takes you to the skies like an obedient TIE Fighter pilot, they’ve all made galactic fantasies come true.
Odds are everyone’s played one title from time to time, and with all of this Star Wars hoopla going down, us half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herders got nostalgic and felt the need to talk about all the old Star Wars games we loved … and hated.
Needless to say, there have been a ton over the last four decades. What started out as an unofficial game for the Apple II has since evolved into an all encompassing enterprise that has capitalized on every genre out there — from action to MMORPG to strategy.
So, as you wait to watch Rogue One, grab a controller and head back in time with us.
Jumping fast, thinking quick, and having all the patience in the world is a large part of action gaming, but so are multi-skilled characters, colorful environments, and gripping stories. Which is why the sprawling world of Star Wars has proven to be so essential to the genre; from 1977’s A New Hope all the way up to 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, each film has offered an enviable blueprint for developers to use and translate into a button-smashing adventure.
Though, only a handful of games have actually succeeded. The early ’90s side-scrollers were faithful to the original trilogy, only they proved more irritating than fun, especially the SNES ports that ushered excited fans into the Dark Side with aggravating levels and obstacles. It wasn’t until Nintendo 64’s Shadows of the Empire that gamers were able to step into the light and truly feel the spirit of the franchise, a feeling that’s only grown stronger with titles like The Force Unleashed and Battlefront.
Timeline: Star Wars (1987); Star Wars (1991); The Empire Strikes Back (1992); The Super Star Wars Trilogy (1992-94); Shadows of the Empire (1996); Star Wars: Yoda Stories (1997); Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999); Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles (2000); Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2002); Star Wars: Bounty Hunter (2002); Lego Star Wars: The Video Game (2005); Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005); Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (2006); Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2008); Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Lightsaber Duels (2008); Star Wars Battlefront: Elite Squadron (2009); Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Republic Heroes (2009); Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (2010); Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (2011); Star Wars Battlefront (2015); Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2016)
Do or Do Not, There Is No Try (Essential): Shadows of the Empire (1996)
It’s a shame that Nintendo hasn’t commissioned a facelift of this blockbuster game. Because really, blocky graphics and a hefty lack of voice acting is about the only mark against Shadows of the Empire. It was a goddamn blast playing nearly 20 years ago, and it’s just as fun playing today — that is, if you can manage to find an N64. Thanks to an original story, fans experienced The Empire Strikes Back in a whole new way, playing as agreeable Han Solo stand-in Dash Rendar, who slogged through the junkyards of Ord Mantell, braved the streets of Mos Eisley, and blasted through Coruscant in an effort to save his smuggling doppelgänger and help Luke, Leia, Lando, and Chewie in the process. Sadly, it’s no longer part of the Expanded Universe — or is it?
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This (Still Holds Up): The Force Unleashed (2008)
Despite lame character names like Starkiller and a story that screams of fan fiction, The Force Unleashed is one of the few titles from LucasArts that doesn’t feel dated. The combination of Havok’s body physics, Pixelux Entertainment’s real-world environments, and NaturalMotion’s artificial intelligence offered up an experience that, for many, was on par with seeing Star Wars for the first time. Released three years after Revenge of the Sith, the third-person action-adventure also roped in longtime veteran fans who felt marginalized after years of prequel-related titles with a story that connected to A New Hope. Needless to say, there’s a reason Starkiller actor Sam Witwer appears at Star Wars conventions year after year.
It’s a Trap! (Garbage): Super Empire Strikes Back (1993)
Out of all the side-scrollers, you’ll only need to play 1991’s Star Wars for the Nintendo. For one, the 8-bit renditions of John Williams’ score are exceptional enough to download separately, and it’s also the only game from that era that isn’t nearly as cruel and uncompromising as its 16-bit upgrades for the Super Nintendo. Case in point: Super Empire Strikes Back, the worst of the three adaptations, is basically one long laugh riot on behalf of the developers, who must have been commissioned to craft the most annoying game imaginable. Try playing the first level and see how long it takes before you burn your house down. Who knew the sub-arctic temperatures of Hoth could rival an Amazon rainforest with dangerous wildlife. #theworst
Star Wars has a storied history in arcades. The first game, 1983’s Star Wars, is a true classic of the golden age of gaming and broke new ground with its use of digitized voices of the film’s stars. Featuring shockingly dynamic vector graphics, the game looks like something from the X-Wing’s own targeting computer combined with actually being in Tron’s Grid. It recounts the entire Battle of Yavin, from dogfights in the sights of the distant Death Star to the fabled trench run, and set a precedent for Star Wars arcade experiences that carries onto present day: living the movies.
With the exception of Star Wars Racer, all other Star Wars cabinets have been games on rails that blast you through cinematic experiences while you frantically pilot, harpoon, blast, or wield your lightsaber to rack up points. There’s been a Star Wars title representing every generation of arcade gaming, from the ’83 classic to the recent theme-park-ready experience, Star Wars: Battle Pod. It’s safe to say that so long as arcades exist, Star Wars will be there.
Timeline: Star Wars (1983); Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1984); Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1985); Star Wars Arcade (1993); Star Wars Trilogy Arcade (1999); Star Wars Racer Arcade (2000); Star Wars Battle Pod (2015)
Do or Do Not, There Is No Try: Star Wars: Battle Pod (2014)
Since each Star Wars game created for the arcade is a successor to the last, Battle Pod finds this ranking all too easy. This premium gaming experience gets you seated and fully enclosed in a mini theater outfitted with powerful speakers, directional fans, and in front of a domed screen – thrusting you into the action. The game features five frantic, super-challenging battles, including Yavin, Hoth, Endor, The Second Death Star, and Vader’s Revenge – where you, as Darth Vader, pick off Rebels in an attempt to salvage the superlaser in the wreckage of the first Death Star. Think you’ve got the skills to be Rogue Leader? Challenge the State of the Empire crew and post your scores.
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This: Star Wars Trilogy Arcade (1999)
All other Star Wars arcade titles were exclusively vehicle simulation, but Trilogy Arcade didn’t just let you pilot classic ships – you could also blast Stormtroopers and get hands-on with a lighsaber. If you have the skills or credits to stay alive, Trilogy Arcade will take you on a manic 30-minute journey through A New Hope, Empire, and Jedi – Destroy both Death Stars, deflect Boba Fett’s blasters on the sail barge, duel with Darth, and blast Imperials on Hoth and Endor. Previous Star Wars arcade iterations had an aircraft-style yoke for controls. By comparison, Trilogy’s joystick wasn’t as cool or fluid, but it’s a small price to pay for the wide variety of Star Wars experiences it opened up.
It’s a Trap! Return of the Jedi (1984)
Whereas Star Wars and Empire’s vector arcade adventures had a classy, classic feel, Jedi’s arcade adaptation fell flat. This game uses raster graphics and switches between three stages all in a ¾ isometric perspective (read: diagonal). You can shoot, but the game is really more about dodging as you speed through Endor, into the Death Star, then speed through Endor again, then inexplicably cut between assaulting the Endor shield generator in an AT-ST and flying the Falcon amidst Star Destroyers, then flying into and escaping the exploding Death Star again. Like Star Wars and Empire, Jedi samples actors’ voices, but the playback is muddy beyond recognition. At least the clunky arcade adaptation of Star Wars Episode I: Racer had cool controls.
A first-person shooter set in the Star Wars universe makes sense. Sure, it’s cool to wield a lightsaber or fly an X-wing, but for all the saber duels and space battles in the films, there are plenty, if not more, blaster shootouts. Who wouldn’t want to play as Han during his headstrong sprint through the Death Star corridors or Boba Fett on a bounty hunt or a stormtrooper during the Battle of Endor picking off Ewoks with guilty pleasure? Combine the immersion of the FPS experience, and you’ve got an extremely sellable Star Wars game.
That said, there’s only been a handful of Star Wars FPS titles worth playing, and that’s counting the Battlefront series, which we’re including here because of its first-person infantry aspects (though they’ve become obsolete because of their reliance on long-closed online servers). Fortunately, those few titles — notably the Jedi Knight/Dark Forces series that follows protagonist Kyle Katarn — are not only great shooters, but some of the most memorable games to bear the Star Wars license.
Timeline: Star Wars: Jedi Arena (1983); Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle (1983/84); Dark Forces/Dark Forces II (1995/97); Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith (1998); Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2002); Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy (2003); Star Wars: Battlefront (2004); Star Wars: Republic Commando (2005); Star Wars: Battlefront II (2005)
Do or Do Not, There Is No Try: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2002)
The most important element of any Star Wars game, and where many fail, is the immersion: Does it feel like Star Wars? That’s where the Jedi Knight series thrived. Beginning with Dark Forces and Dark Forces II back in the ’90s, the tale of disgraced jedi Kyle Katarn and his search for redemption was one of the EU’s most engaging narratives — culminating with Jedi Outcast, which finally brought Jedi Knight to consoles. Influenced by the dark aesthetics of DOOM and Quake, the game successfully portrayed the bleak, industrial age of the Galactic Empire as seen in the original trilogy.
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This: Star Wars: Republic Commando (2005)
Not necessarily as dated as the Jedi Knight titles, but also not as compelling, Republic Commando was a squad-based FPS that sought to co-opt the tactical elements of games like Battlefield, Halo, and Ghost Recon. From a technical standpoint, the game was polished, and its squad mechanics were tight and intuitive as players commanded a group of clone troopers during the final events of Attack of the Clones. The game’s inherent drawback was its concept: Who would want to play as a clone trooper? When people buy a Star Wars game, they want to be a Jedi, they want a lightsaber, they want to fly a starfighter — not give military commands and hide behind cover. Fans of tactical shooters took kindly to the game, but sales were moderate to disappointing. Were it based on stormtroopers in the original trilogy era, it would’ve sold better.
It’s a Trap! Star Wars: Imperial Academy (2011)
Released in 2011 for iOS, this ignored and irrelevant gladiatorial shooter pitted four players in small arenas skinned as Star Wars locales. The definition of a cash-grab mobile toss-off, the only thing Star Wars about it are the textures and namesake. You jump around as stormtroopers and shoot until the other players’ health bars are depleted (think Metroid Prime Hunters, the game given away for free with the original Nintendo DS). Perhaps a nice timewaster for a Star Wars addict waiting in line at the DMV, but a pointless release, otherwise.
More than its blaster shootouts and frenetic lightsaber duels, it’s the space battles that set Star Wars apart from the kitschy sci-fi adventures we’d seen before. Closely modeled after footage of WWII dogfights, the dogfights and interstellar fleet actions of the Star Wars trilogy were fast-paced, kinetic, and incredibly exciting. Naturally, this made Star Wars a perfect fit for simulators. From the first ’80s Star Wars arcade game (which saw you in the cockpit of an X-Wing during the Battle of Yavin), innumerable games have tried to recapture that magic.
Surprisingly, many have succeeded: the simulator genre has been kinder to the franchise than others, with more hits than misses in its catalog. None of them boast the strict realism and detailed simulation of other warplane titles like IL-2 Sturmovik – given the films’ own abandonment of zero-G physics in favor of more exciting space battles, I don’t blame them – but each title operates on a sliding scale of arcade thrills that makes the vast majority of them exciting on their own.
Timeline: Star Wars (1978), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1982), Star Wars (1983), Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle (1983/84), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1984), Rebel Assault/Rebel Assault II (1993/95), The X-Wing/TIE Fighter Series (1993;1995;1997;1999), Star Wars Rogue Squadron (1998), Star Wars Episode I: Racer (1999), Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo (2000), Star Wars: Racer Revenge (2002), Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter (2002)
Do or Do Not, There Is No Try: Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance (1999)
The X-Wing series was the unabashed gold standard of space battle games in the ’90s (along with the Star Wars-inspired Wing Commander). While both X-Wing and TIE Fighter are fantastic games on their own, I have to give it to 1999’s X-Wing Alliance. Using then-new 3D acceleration to render sprawling space battles, along with inventive mission design, Alliance is well worth a look. (If you do, check out the vibrant fan community’s attempt to upgrade the ship models to pristine beauty.)
I’ve Got A Bad Feeling About This: Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998)
Star Wars space sims are so plentiful and good that it’s almost heartbreaking to call Rogue Squadron dated – it’s still a lot of fun. Basically a game-length extension of the only good level in N64’s Shadows of the Empire, Rogue Squadron saw you engage in a number of arcade-style ship battles, mostly in atmosphere, with iffy sound-alikes of Luke and crew along for the ride. It got a couple of sequels, but the first is the best.
It’s a Trap!: Star Wars: Rebel Assault II (1995)
Even with this rating, I can’t outright hate Rebel Assault II – after all, it featured the first live-action footage shot for Star Wars since Return of the Jedi! Unfortunately, the actors they got to fill the screen weren’t great shakes, and we all know how well the FMV genre worked in the ’90s. The gameplay was also on-rails, with pre-rendered backgrounds where you had to pretend you were dodging TIE fighters and navigating narrow corridors. Still, it’s kitschy enough that it’s almost worth it for the nostalgia factor.
Unless you were rolling some dice with your friends in 1987, the earliest you could play a Star Wars RPG was in 2003. Since then, we’ve had a single-player game, its one maligned sequel, and two MMO’s. Star Wars is a very accessible universe with wide appeal, so why don’t we have more? Every other videogame genre has no problem cranking out game after game, rehashing the films we’ve already seen a thousand times. Just try to count the number of times you’ve played the battle of Hoth over the years. Too many, right? You can fly around in classic vehicles and relive those cinematic moments all day every day.
But the real beauty of Star Wars is that it’s a whole galaxy far, far away. The Skywalker legacy is just one small part of it. If you want to have your own adventure outside of the films and really experience the Star Wars universe to the fullest, then you currently only have three options. All of which take place thousands of years before any of the films. This may seem constrictive, but it’s actually liberating. And in the end, isn’t that the point of an RPG?
Timeline: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003); Star Wars Galaxies (2003); Jump to Lightspeed (2004); Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2004); Rage of the Wookiees (2005); Star Wars: The Old Republic (2009)
Do or Do Not, There Is No Try: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
Still one of the greatest Star Wars stories ever told. Comparable to (or even better than) the original trilogy. Blasphemy? Perhaps. But not from a certain point of view. To those who have played, it’s not just the best Star Wars RPG, it’s also the best Star Wars game. Period. Player choices went way beyond the stereotypical black-and-white decisions of: “Kill them (dark side points) or let them live (light side points).” Your choices shaped the galaxy and set the stage for the countless films and books that followed. You met unforgettable characters more noble than Obi-Wan and more powerful than Emperor Palpatine. The character of Darth Revan, in particular, is so iconic that I’d bet real money that J.J. Abrams took direct inspiration for Kylo Ren. For those of you who’ve never played: Don’t let anyone talk to you about it. Just play it. Why all the hype? What’s in there? Only what you take with you.
I’ve Got a Bad Good Feeling About This: Star Wars: The Old Republic (2009)
Before you start typing “BioWare fanboy” in the comments, please know that I was actually disappointed with SWTOR when it was first released. It looked neat and the story seemed decent enough, but it took forever to really get going. But after six years of gameplay tweaks and story expansions, it’s come roaring back with Knights of the Fallen Empire. It’s better than ever, free-to-play, and looks like fun for years to come. If you love Star Wars and RPGs, you really can’t go wrong. With so many people returning, there’s never been a better time to start playing.
It’s a Trap! (Awful Game): Star Wars Galaxies (2003)
The downfall of Star Wars Galaxies is a tragic story. It was released more than a year before World of Warcraft, and it was clunky from the start. Many fans were able to look past its initial flaws and saw a game that attempted a true Star Wars sandbox. A perpetual living galaxy was the end goal, and given enough time to work out the kinks, it looks like it could have gotten there. But after the wild success of World of Warcraft, Sony decided to completely change the gameplay to more closely match the experience that Blizzard was offering. Instead of gaining WoW players, this lead to more than half of their own subscribers abandoning the game. Sony finally pulled the plug in 2011. If you’re really desperate, you can play this using an emulator, but without the social interaction (the only memorable part), then it’s a waste of time.
While many of us wanted to climb into the cockpit of an X-Wing and zoom through the trench of the Death Star after seeing Star Wars, a select few of us related to Princess Leia, General Dodonna, and the rest sitting around that conference table planning the whole assault. It may be fun to get in the thick of the fight, but those of us who loved the entire spectrum of Star Wars’ innovative ship and vehicle designs appreciated a bird’s-eye look at them.
A variety of Star Wars-themed real-time and turn-based strategy games (RTS) capitalized on this desire, to varying results. With the popularity of Starcraft and Command & Conquer, it was a no-brainer to apply the license to such a popular genre. Some were innovative and fun while others crashed and burned under dated graphics and sloppy gameplay. If you were more of an Ackbar than a Wedge, you probably recognize some of these titles.
Timeline: Star Wars Electronic Battle Command (1979), Star Wars Rebellion (1998), Star Wars: Force Commander (2000), Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds (2001), Star Wars: Empire at War (2006)
Do or Do Not, There Is No Try: Star Wars: Empire at War (2006)
While no Star Wars RTS games have been perfect, this one probably comes closest: 2006’s Empire at War offered an authentic, if uneven, Star Wars experience. The sandbox nature of the game’s trajectory through the Galactic Civil War offered a variety of possible paths to victory (or defeat), and the graphics were reasonably detailed for the time. A multiplayer option was available, which was crucial to the viability of games in the mid-2000s, but it was buggy and uneven.
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This: Star Wars: Force Commander (2000)
Star Wars Force Commander, from 2000, was a bit of a mixed blessing. To its credit, it felt very Star Wars, with its fully-rendered 3D backgrounds and an interesting campaign that wove its way through the original trilogy (that of a young Navy officer who rises through the ranks in the Empire, only to defect to the Empire in the latter half of the game). Unfortunately, the game was also plagued with somewhat poor graphics compared to other RTSes at the time, not to mention some unfortunate bugs.
It’s a Trap! Star Wars Rebellion (1998)
Hoo boy, did Rebellion want to be something. While most other strategy games followed the Command & Conquer mold, Rebellion strove for the heights of Master of Orion – a 4X turn-based strategy game, Rebellion dove you headfirst into the muck of interstellar diplomacy, manufacturing and admin. While this works for other genres, it feels out of place in the fast-paced immediacy of Star Wars. Unfortunately, this game came out before we learned our lesson from The Phantom Menace – no one cares about trade negotiations.