Note: This piece first ran in 2014.
There have been a LOT of Star Wars games in the past 30-odd years. Like, a whole lot. On pretty much every platform you can think of. Some were developed by LucasFilm Games / LucasArts Entertainment Company, some by outside licensees. A solid 87% of these games feature, in some capacity, the Battle of Hoth, and while I considered a “Ten Best Videogame Battles of Hoth”, a certain editor suggested that might be a bit too niche.
So here are the ten best Star Wars games that don’t involve a dancing Han Solo. I apologize in advance for all the Star Wars fan jargon. I, uh…I have a history.
10. Star Wars (1983) (Arcade)
Atari’s vector graphics arcade game is not so much kill-or-be-killed. Like in the Death Star battle from A New Hope it recreates, the player-as-Luke-Skywalker doesn’t have to kill every enemy, just survive through the dogfights and the surface battle in order to fly down the trench and blow up the Death Star. Of course, it’s much easier to survive when you take out opponents.
These ultra-difficult side-scrolling Super Nintendo games are the saddest victim of Disney’s recent announcement that only the films would be considered part of the Star Wars canon. No longer will fans debate whether or not Luke Skywalker’s shooting of giant scorpions on Tatooine and collecting hearts to refill his health actually happened or was just a 16-bit platformer interpretation of events. It’s the Council of Trent all over again.
The 90s were a big era for the flight simulator genre. The X-Wing series was mission-based: you were given a series of primary and secondary objectives, command of some wingmen, and told to go for it. Play is a combination of combat and ship management. A limited amount of power can be split between shields, lasers, and engines on the fly, giving you a boost where you need it. TIE Fighter, the one that so many people remember the most fondly, cast you as a member of the Imperial navy who gets recruited by a secret organization within it and I’m just going to stop there.
Lucas’s 1977 film launched an unprecedented merchandising empire. In 2005, Traveller’s Tales mashed it up with another empire and…ok, really. the LEGO games are a simple 2D action-ish game with little negative consequences to any of your actions. Scenes from the films are pantomimed by LEGO characters with a sense of humor. But also the recreation of Lando and Chewbacca flying off in the Millennium Falcon at the end of Empire shows Lando lowering and leaning the pilot seat back. Yes, really.
Rogue Squadron (N64), Rogue Leader, and Rebel Strike are the arcade-y cousins of the X-Wing series. Where the latter are built with a series of reusable components that provide the player a variety of paths to resolution, the Rogues simplify and script. These games have no qualms casting you as Luke Skywalker in order to recreate scenes from the films. Speeder bikes and on-foot missions in the third game are, respectively, pretty great and a slog.
A lot of colons in that title. This 1999 PC-ported-to-consoles game turned the only tolerable scene of the first Star Wars film in twenty-two years into what Wikipedia claims is the best-selling sci-fi racing game of all time. In a wave of Episode I related games released around this time, this is the one worth playing, despite (or probably because of) not doing anything formally interesting with the racing game.
I am very much of the school of thought that a game’s design need not be based on as many variables as the system can handle in order to be engaging. Republic Commando, like the Rogue games, streamlines a usually-complex genre: the squad-based first-person shooter. Like in other squad-based games, you’re responsible for your squad’s tactics, but the streamlining ensures that there are never too many options, keeping it relatively accessible. The writing makes the other three members of your squad feel like individual characters. The rapport built across the game’s multiple environments, including an incredibly creepy ghost ship, pays off when, near the end of the game, one of the squad members sacrifices himself for the others. Even though it’s scripted, it carries more of an impact than a certain other Space Opera Trilogy’s character deaths.
And speaking of that Space Opera Trilogy, I’m sure that people are expecting their Star Wars RPG to make this list. But since I’m writing it, I’m picking the Obsidian-developed sequel. Sure, it’s unfinished, and like lots of Obsidian’s work, the ideas’ reach exceeds the technology’s grasp, but that’s precisely what’s so great about it: this is a game with ambitions. It’s a game that inspired a fan community to release an unofficial patch that fixes a lot of the bugs, digging the unfinished sections out of the game’s code and making them playable again.
Back in the day, first-person shooters were called Doom-clones. Dark Forces was more than just a clone. It added a small amount of verticality to the genre: you could aim up and down, and the engine supported a layer system that allowed rooms to be located above and below each other. It combined the level-based structure of doom with the planet-hopping of the Star Wars films. Each level found Kyle Katarn, Imperial defector and mercenary hired by the Rebel Alliance, on a different mission in a different location. Complete your objectives, get to the extraction point, and you’re off to the next space. Like Republic Commando would do ten years later, there’s some genre blending as some levels play out more like the then-as-yet uninvented survival horror. What still stands out about the game, though, is its puzzle design. It combines key hunts (though the keys are things like “nava cards” and “navigational info”) with elaborate environmental puzzles. For example: a prison break requires you to position two elevators so that you can access a maintenance entrance to the facility. All done without context-sensitive button prompts or quicktime events or an engine that can render sloped surfaces.
Yeah, ok, I know that all the other sequels on this list were lumped together with their originals. But Jedi Knight deserves its own entry. Kyle Katarn’s second adventure explodes its predecessor’s vertical tendencies and environmental ingenuity, making it look like…well, a Doom-clone. The first few levels involve climbing along massive freight-moving systems to reach the tops of a city-planet. It’d be a year before Half-Life’s release would dictate that “good” first-person shooter design minimized (or totally eliminated) the amount of time the player spends not locked into their character’s point-of-view, with a plot that justifies the constant-forward motion of the corridors that make up the levels. Jedi Knight, like Dark Forces, is still about exploration as much as combat. Its Force powers are almost out of control: a super-powered jump can just as easily send you to your death as it can put you on a ledge. Wide open spaces, huge chasms, vertigo-inducing drops. The game’s sequel loses some of the coherent mission design, sacrificing openness for the superior graphics of the Quake III: Team Arena engine. It does the best it can with its source material’s binary morality system, keeping track of whether you play like a Lightsider or Darksider and then, in a late-game moment, uses where you fall on that slider to make a key decision for you. “Morality” isn’t a series of explicit moments where you get to choose “good” or “bad”, it’s how you play. Well, sort of. I mean, it really boils down to “do you kill civilians? do you choose dark side powers?”. But it was 1997, people were still figuring things out.
Not that long ago in a galaxy not so far away, Brian Taylor was a Jedi Knight kid in a Half-Life world.