Blasters, Lightsabers, and a Joystick

So, big confession coming here: I love Star Wars. I can hear everyone who knows me collectively shouting, “YA THINK???” Yes, they are my six favorite movies of all time, and in further anticipation of the next episode in this great saga, I thought I’d talk about some of the best Star Wars video games ever to grace store shelves.

DISCLAIMER: I have not played every Star Wars game in existence (for instance, I have not played The Old Republic, Galaxies, or Kinect Star Wars), but I have played a lot of them. Thanks to Humble Bundle, I’m mending some of those gaps, but don’t flame at me if your favorite game isn’t here. Chances are I simply haven’t played it.

Star Wars was kind of a hit-or-miss franchise video game-wise. When it missed, it could miss badly (Jedi Power Battles, Masters of Teräs Käsi), but when it hit, it frequently hit home runs. The prime example of this is the X-Wing series. I consider these games some of the best video games ever made. They fulfilled every Star Wars fan’s fantasy, putting the player in the cockpit of some of the films’ most celebrated ships: X-Wings, Y-Wings, TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, and many, many others. In X-Wing, the player flies for the Rebel Alliance, and in TIE Fighter, the player flies for the Galactic Empire. X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter allowed players to pick either side within the game.

Gameplay still from TIE Fighter, in the cockpit of an Assault Gunboat.

Gameplay still from TIE Fighter, in the cockpit of an Assault Gunboat.

But my favorite of these games was X-Wing Alliance. Unlike the others, in Alliance the player actually played a character, Ace Azzameen, whose family ran the Twin Suns trading station. Eventually, the family gets pulled into the Galactic Civil War and joins the Rebel Alliance. The enhanced graphics and sleeker gameplay were upgrades enough from previous entries in the series, but by far the best part of this game was the Quick Skirmish mode, which allowed players to make their own missions. I can’t think of all the hours I burned away creating missions that simulated battles in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, or were simply battles I made up on the fly. In all, it was a great conclusion to a superlative series.

X-Wing Alliance's Quick Skirmish mode

X-Wing Alliance’s Quick Skirmish mode

Coming close to the X-Wing series is Knights of the Old Republic. I resisted playing KOTOR for years, because I don’t normally care much for RPGs, because they generally take a long time to complete and have so many rules and moves to make and buttons to press that they get bogged down in themselves (a la Dungeons & Dragons). But KOTOR broke that mold, blending a strong combat engine that kept the game engaging with the interactive world of an RPG. It also had a well-crafted story with some great plot twists near the end (no, I’m not telling you what they are… play the game kid!). I haven’t yet played KOTOR II: The Sith Lords, but I’m sure it will be just as good.

Knights of the Old Republic still

Knights of the Old Republic still

Just behind KOTOR in my mind is the Jedi Knight series, which spans many eras of gaming. The original game, Dark Forces, is a first-person shooter heavily reminiscent of the Doom series, with the main character, Kyle Katarn, even wearing a similar stoic mug of the protagonist from those games. But the series started to acquire the Star Wars touch with the second game in the series, Jedi Knight, in which Katarn discovers that he is Force sensitive and undergoes training as a Jedi. So in case the X-Wing series didn’t fulfill your deepest Star Wars fantasies, running around with a lightsaber and using Force powers undoubtedly did. That game is notable for its live-action cutscenes, which sound insignificant but I think added a lot to the experience. It was also one of the first Star Wars games to include ethical decisions in its gameplay, in which a player’s actions determined whether Kyle would choose the light or dark sides. KOTOR would later expand on this model.

Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast features Katarn returning to the ways of the Jedi after letting his Force skills decay for fear of falling to the dark side.  Jedi Academy features the player taking control of Jaden Korr, a knight in training at Luke Skywalker’s academy. Outcast and Academy further refined the lightsaber duel and Force powers, making for an improved play control and smoother graphics over the first game.

Actor Jason Court portrayed Kyle Katarn in Jedi Knight's live-action cutscenes.

Actor Jason Court portrayed Kyle Katarn in Jedi Knight’s live-action cutscenes.

Finally, I’m currently working on a game that I consider one of the best in the franchise, Empire at War. I feel like Empire at War is a sleeker, more refined version of Galactic Battlegrounds, which was little more than an adaptation of the Age of Empires engine with Star Wars characters put in. EaW is more true to the universe, and is a more versatile real-time strategy game, featuring land and space battles. Galactic Battlegrounds often felt like a slow experience where the player had to spend a lot of time gathering resources in order to build or do anything. EaW is much easier to learn, but not necessarily easy to master, even if it could get repetitive at points. I like to think of it as a version of Risk with more player control over the outcomes. Also, there’s a part where you get to roam around with the Death Star and blow shit up indiscriminately. Who doesn’t love that?

The "Risk board" interface of Empire at War.

The “Risk board” interface of Empire at War.

As far as other games, I feel Star Wars Trilogy Arcade deserves mention here. I recently got to play all the way through this game at the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo in Atlanta, where collectors bring in their arcade machines and put them on Free Play. While its controls aren’t the best, it’s a versatile game, simultaneously being a first-person shooter, flight simulator, and lightsaber dueling game. The Super Star Wars & Rogue Squadron trilogies featured good gameplay, but were often so difficult to complete that my controller frequently skittered across the floor in anger and frustration. Some may wonder why I didn’t include the Battlefront games in my top list, and it’s mostly because they didn’t really capture my attention. They weren’t bad games, but I just didn’t consider them all that memorable. In fact, I barely remember playing them.

The last stage of Star Wars Trilogy Arcade, where the player duels with Darth Vader.

The last stage of Star Wars Trilogy Arcade, where the player duels with Darth Vader.

So, in short, Star Wars has probably produced more solid video games than many movie franchises, and it will be interesting to see what happens with the new canon. The new Battlefront game already looks stunning, and it will undoubtedly be followed by many more.

Did I leave a game out? Let me know in the comments!

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One thought on “Blasters, Lightsabers, and a Joystick

  1. i LIKED jedi power battles!!!

    A lot of people will disagree with me, but I loved Rebellion. It was uber-simplistic, but had enough depth to keep you playing for hours and hours if you really picked up the nuances.

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