The Evolution of the Most Iconic Battle in Star Wars Games

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Now Playing: The Evolution of the Most Iconic Star Wars Battle in Video Games


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Ever since The Empire Strikes Back's theatrical release 34 years ago, Star Wars games have been obsessed with re-creating the Battle of Hoth. Though the Rebel Alliance's tactical retreat from the icy planet may not be as iconic as the Death Star trench run, or Luke Skywalker's lightsaber duel with Darth Vader, the battle contains more than enough moments that could make for thrilling action.

Whether you want to be a snowspeeder pilot tripping up Imperial walkers with harpoons and tow cables, a parka-clad private fighting the war on the ground, or the stoic commander of an AT-AT itself, the Battle of Hoth is the one Star Wars skirmish where all of those roles engage in the same place, at the same time. Can a single Star Wars game even capture this complexity, or does each one need to pick and choose which aspect of the battle to depict? Does the Battle of Hoth work best as a side-scroller, a rail shooter, or a multiplayer game? Find out as I explore how three decades of Star Wars games have depicted the Rebel Alliance's most catastrophic defeat.

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Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Parker Brothers, 1982, Atari 2600

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If you needed more convincing that re-creating the Battle of Hoth is the brass ring for Star Wars games, then the fact that the very first Star Wars game skipped A New Hope and strapped you straight into a snowspeeder should make it clear. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, released for the Atari 2600 two years after the film and made by just two people, pitted your tiny snowspeeder against an ever-advancing column of AT-ATs. Your snowspeeder wasn't armed with tow cables, so your only option was to fly laps around each walker and blast through its armour in pursuit of points. This high-score focus had the additional effect of capturing the nature of the film's battle: it was impossible for you as a Rebel pilot to actually win. The game ended when you lost all your lives, or when a walker reached the shield generator on the far right side of the screen. Until then, you just had to take as many of the AT-ATs down as you could.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Atari, 1985, Arcade

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Atari's The Empire Strikes Back arcade cabinet was a conversion for the original 1983 Star Wars arcade game (which came out after a similar conversion for Return of the Jedi), and offered first-person snowspeeder piloting, rendered in vector graphics. Sure, it looks primitive now, but it was also the first time you could shoot tow cables at the AT-ATs' legs to trip them up. However, they went down instantly, and without needing to fly circles around them, so it was not exactly the most authentic re-creation of the film. That said, it was the first Star Wars game to feature digitised speech ripped directly from the movie, but James Earl Jones' baritone deserved a better audio processor than 1985 could offer.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Lucasfilm Games, 1992, NES

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Seven years later, Star Wars games were still being conservative with their titles, but it was for a good reason. 1992's NES side-scroller, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, featured a more complete exploration of the film's plot. This wasn't just a game about one particular scene. That said, the game's Battle of Hoth sequence diverged from its floaty platforming to smooth, side-scrolling snowspeeder combat directly inspired by the 1982 Atari 2600 game. This time, you had an additional option for taking down the Imperial walkers. If you took enough damage, your snowspeeder would crash into the foreground, and you would continue on foot. Fighting past snowtroopers to the next AT-AT allowed you to jump into the background, grapple up to the walker's underbelly, and destroy it with a grenade--just like in the film. Finally, the game allowed you to actually "win" the battle by taking out every walker, though this didn't change the nature of the Rebels' tactical retreat itself. Given the console's technical restrictions, this rendition of the Battle of Hoth was surprisingly well rounded.

Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

LucasArts, 1993, SNES

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A scant few months after the Battle of Hoth made its NES debut came this notoriously tough Super Nintendo interpretation of the film. Everything was souped up: the graphics, the difficulty, and especially the snowspeeder level. Rendered using the console's Mode 7 capability, Super Empire Strikes Back turned the Battle of Hoth into a quasi-3D open space reminiscent of Star Fox. Though it added snowtroopers on speeder bikes and smaller AT-ST walkers to fire at, the game was significant for being the first in which you actually needed to fly your snowspeeder around an AT-AT to tangle its legs in your tow cable. Although, actually accomplishing this whilst grappling with the Mode 7 engine's loose interpretation of depth perception was no easy task.

Star Wars: Rebel Assault

LucasArts, 1993, PC

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An on-rails shooter and one of the earliest PC games to make use of full-motion video, Star Wars: Rebel Assault was, at least graphically, the most faithful interpretation of the Battle of Hoth yet. As far as showdowns with the Imperial walkers went, the game actually took a few steps backward. Because the first-person view from your snowspeeder's cockpit was prerendered, you weren't so much whizzing around Imperial walkers as you were watching a film and aiming a barely responsive crosshair over the footage. With no tow cables, the AT-ATs could be destroyed only by endlessly blasting their hulls with lasers. Though a visual feast, Rebel Assault made playing the Battle of Hoth rather boring.

Shadows of the Empire

LucasArts, 1996, N64

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Shadows of the Empire suffered the opposite problem to Rebel Assault; its opening level, set during the Battle of Hoth, was so thrilling that the rest of the game seemed dull by comparison. With a musical score and sound effects ripped directly from the film, and a system finally powerful enough to output them well, the Battle of Hoth was lent a previously unheard-of authenticity. Piloting the game's snowspeeder in a fully 3D environment for the first time was like playing Rebel Assault but being in complete control. To take down the AT-ATs, you needed to launch your tow cable and then fly circles around the walker whilst the camera shifted to an incredibly awkward cinematic perspective. Though Super Empire Strikes Back did this first, it wasn't until Shadows of the Empire--16 years after the release of the film--that tripping up an AT-AT finally felt satisfying.

Star Wars Trilogy Arcade

Sega, 1998, Arcade

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Star Wars Trilogy Arcade returned to Rebel Assault's style of on-rails snowspeeding, which was a shame after Shadows of the Empire's free-form flight. The graphics and audio were a cut above the N64 classic, however, creating what was the most immersive Battle of Hoth experience to date. Though you didn't get to use your own tow cables on the AT-ATs--instead, you watched a friendly pilot trip a walker--this was the first game where the AT-ATs had location damage. As in the film, they could be destroyed by shooting a weak point in their neck. You were also told to go into "attack pattern delta" several times, purely because it's a line from the film; to this day, I have no idea what attack pattern delta actually is.

Rogue Squadron

Factor 5, 1998, N64

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Famous for being an entire game inspired by Shadows of the Empire's opening Hoth level, Rogue Squadron flew through a number of iconic Star Wars encounters but saved the Battle of Hoth for an unlockable bonus level. Rogue Squadron played very similarly to Shadows of the Empire, though the cinematic camera was even more awkward when your snowspeeder was wrapping a tow cable around an AT-AT's legs. When you had Shadows of the Empire available on the same system, it was probably a good move not to focus on this version of the Battle of Hoth too significantly.

Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader

Factor 5, 2001, GameCube

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Here we had what felt like the definitive Battle of Hoth--at least, when viewed from a Rebel pilot's perspective. Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader took its predecessor's bonus level and fleshed it out to create a cinematic engagement featuring even more Imperial walkers over an even wider expanse of snow. What's most notable about Rogue Leader is how it finally got the scale of the Imperial walkers right. These things were huge, and actually looked like they could crush your snowspeeder under one of their enormous, stomping feet.

Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike

Factor 5, 2003, GameCube

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What do you do after you've created the definitive Battle of Hoth of the time? For Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, Factor 5 opted to get you out of your snowspeeder and experience the battle from an on-foot perspective as Luke. As you ran around shooting snowtroopers with a blaster, you could also grapple up to an AT-AT's underbelly and throw a grenade in through a series of quick-time events. It's worth noting that this was the only Star Wars game you could do this in since The Empire Strikes Back on the NES more than 10 years earlier. With the inclusion of actual footage from the film as cutscenes, the game then saw Luke climb into his X-wing and defend the Rebel transports from TIE fighters as they evacuated the skies above Echo Base. Though it offered an interesting perspective on the battle, Rebel Strike's clunky on-foot section was nowhere near as satisfying as being behind the controls of a snowspeeder.

Star Wars: Battlefront II

Pandemic, 2005, PC, Xbox, PS2

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While Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike experimented with on-foot sequences, Star Wars: Battlefront II was the game that finally married it with the vehicular engagements that the Battle of Hoth is remembered for. By creating a level based on Battlefield-style combined arms warfare and letting you choose your role within that, Battlefront II overtook Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader to present the most fully featured, intense, and immersive depiction of the Battle of Hoth. Given the game's multiplayer nature, you were finally able to play as the Empire and pilot an AT-AT for the first time, shooting down pesky snowspeeders as they tried to run circles around you. Piloting the snowspeeders themselves was a cooperative effort, because the tow cables were aimed by a separate gunner position, as in the film.

I'm skipping the first Battlefront game for one important reason: though the Hoth maps are nearly identical, Battlefront II added the ability to play as Luke and Darth Vader. This meant the full extent of the Battle of Hoth could be re-created--from the initial assault against the Imperial walkers, to the destruction of the shield generator, through to Vader's storming of Echo Base itself.

It took 25 years after The Empire Strikes Back hit cinemas for a game like Battlefront II to fully achieve the idea of what participating in the Battle of Hoth could be like. With the Battlefront license now in DICE's hands, and a teaser trailer for a new Battlefront game opening with the Battle of Hoth itself, we could be set to realise all over again why Star Wars games haven't been able to leave the frigid planet behind.

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