By 1993, Star Wars was back.
10 years after Return of the Jedi the Star Wars renaissance was in full swing. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy had launched the Expanded Universe to great success, a venture continued with gusto by Dark Horse Comics.
Yet something equally epoch-defining was happening on a brand new medium for Star Wars – home PC. 1993 saw the release of X-Wing and Rebel Assault, games by the soon-to-be legendary LucasArts, and for this young fan life would never be the same again…
From Rebel Assault to Rogue Squadron
Rebel Assault, which became the biggest selling CD-ROM game of the time, was a satisfactory Star Wars adventure. Truth be told I found it a bit boring. But it was X-Wing, programmed by flight simulator expert Larry Holland, that truly blew my friends and I away.
The campaign put players right in the heart of the Rebellion. Playing as a normal combatant – no Jedi destiny or special lineage – you built your character through a range of training trials and increasingly complex missions.
The in-game physics engine and flight, shield and team controls made for a totally immersive ride. Yet it was the level design that made X-Wing a challenge like no other. As Rob Zacny recalls on Rock Paper Shotgun:
“Death and failure are frequent and punishing, and only through repetition and memorization can you succeed in each mission. X-Wing is a game you are supposed to “beat” rather than experience. “
All this is true. Yet it didn’t stop Star Wars: X-Wing from becoming a commercial hit that surpassed LucasArts’ predictions and went on to sell nearly 500,000 units by December of 1993.
I’ve no doubt that this success was in no small part due to it being, at the time, the most rewarding Star Wars experience on the market.
It was this same sense of immersion that inspired author Michael A. Stackpole to devise the Rogue Squadron series of novels and comics. This was the Expanded Universe series that left a true impression on me as it a) focused on the awesome fighter craft and space combat, and b) moved the conflict away from the Skywalkers and on to the pilots, spies and technicians that made the war happen.
Drawing a through line, my undying love for X-Wing is probably why I have so much time for Rogue One. I’m not an OT-only kinda guy at all, but give me the tales of the grunts, outcasts and rank and file that populate the background and I’m a happy Star Wars fan.
Flying the Eyeballs
In July 1994 LucasArts released X-Wing‘s sequel, TIE Fighter. Finally, those loyal to the Emperor could defend his reign against treachery. The lack of shields made it an even harder game than X-Wing, and one that required a completely different discipline. With a main campaign set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and featuring Zahn’s aforementioned Grand Admiral Thrawn, TIE Fighter added huge depth to the universe and solidified the series as a definitive Star Wars experience.
In 1997 LucasArts pulled both Rebels and Imperials together for the amazing X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. This multiplayer game has swallowed up more hours of my life than I could count, and even today my friends and I still fly missions on LAN. From the refined physics to the beautiful graphics to the lush John Williams score, the game is still my go-to when I feel the need to immerse myself in the galactic civil war.
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that some fans hadn’t been happy with this release, but that’s never mattered to me. X-Wing vs TIE Fighter remains my favourite Star Wars gaming experience of all time.
Secrets of the Force
That’s not to say that there weren’t other contenders. The fourth game in the series, X-Wing: Alliance, was fun but put too much emphasis on the story of Ace Azzameen. Dark Forces (and sequel Jedi Knight) were both fun character-based adventures that brought Kyle Katarn into the wider universe. Pod Racer remains the definitive N64 Star Wars game; fun, very fast (and not at all dangerous).
A PC game that’s a footnote to most that gave me hours of enjoyment is Yoda Stories. Set in the indeterminate period of time at the heart of The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda Stories was a top-down 2D desktop puzzle game in which Yoda instructed Luke to race around the galaxy, visiting different locations, killing Imperials and creatures and completing vague puzzle missions.
The game itself was a fun distraction, but even better were the sound files that came with it. I was thrilled to replace the every mundane default Windows sound with music and sound cues from the OT; although, given it was the family PC, it’s fair to say my Dad was not so chuffed…
As great as these adventures were, it wasn’t until 2003 that we were finally treated to the greatest Force-based experience that gaming could offer: Knights of the Old Republic.
Regarded by some fans as the best prequel of all, Knights of the Old Republic (better known as KOTOR) is an epic RPG set 4,000 years before the Galactic Empire.
Rescued by Republic forces, the amnesiac main character joins with a ragtag band on a quest to save the galaxy from the evil Darth Malak. Along the way the warrior learns the ways of the Jedi, grows stronger in the Force and eventually recalls their own true identity.
A fan-favourite, the game would spawn a direct sequel and hugely inform the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic. It also introduced Darth Revan, one of the most iconic characters of the old EU (and clear visual reference point for Kylo Ren).
The open world of the game invited players to spend countless hours in the Star Wars universe learning new abilities, completing side quests and playing Sabacc. Most revolutionary of all was how your actions determined your aptitude for either the light or dark sides of the Force. It was a device that drove multiple endings and gave us reason to return to the game again and again.
16 years on, KOTOR remains a high watermark for the Star Wars franchise as a whole.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Nowadays I’m content to while away time playing Battlefront II. I’m not particularly good but just enjoy playing and levelling up my main character, Rey.
But a good narrative will always grab me, which is why I’m tentatively looking forward to this year’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.
It looks like a toned-down version of The Force Unleashed, the OTT but incredibly fun console game series from years back, albeit with a distinct graphics upgrade. Check out the gameplay trailer and see for yourself…
The amount of Jedi and lightsaber-wielding characters during the supposed dark times put me off Rebels, despite my best efforts to embrace the series. But if Jedi: Fallen Order provides a compelling narrative and interesting game play then I’m sure I can accept it enough to enjoy it.
And even if it’s a let-down, then at least we get to see Saw Gerrera back in action.
So there we go. It’s not a comprehensive trip through Star Wars gaming history; more a tour through the experiences that helped to shape my love of the franchise. Now it’s over to you.
Whether you’re a hardcore fan of Battlefront, Bounty Hunter or even Masters of the Teräs Käsi, I’d love to know why. Get involved in the comments and tell me about the Star Wars games you’ve played and loved over the years!