Feature Article

The History of Star Wars Video Games Part 1: 1982-1998

That's no moon.

George Lucas' Star Wars is a well of inspiration for video games, and in the nearly 40-year history of the franchise, there have been more than 100 games released across consoles, handhelds, PCs, and mobile devices. Some are considered classics in their respective genres, and some are perhaps best forgotten. Following the series' humble beginnings on the Atari 2600 in the '80s, Lucasfilm finally broke out LucasArts, its own game division, in 1990. It took a few years before LucasArts began to ship Star Wars games of its own, but they were some of the best Star Wars games of all time.

Sadly, the time of LucasArts has passed, and it was forced to hand over the reins to Electronic Arts when Disney bought the rights to the franchise in 2013. With a new series of films on the way from director J.J. Abrams, there are no doubt plenty of Star Wars games on the way, but regardless of what happens in the future, the past still belongs to the fans. For the first part of our two part look back at Star Wars video games, let's take a look at the most beloved Star Wars games that came out between 1982 and 1998.

It all began with the second movie, on a console far, far away: the Atari 2600.

1982: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Atari 2600)

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The first Star Wars video game was created by Parker Brothers in 1982 for the Atari 2600. The Empire Strikes Back dropped you into battle on the frigid planet of Hoth. Your one and only goal was to defend a secret Rebel base from massive, four-legged juggernauts known as AT-ATs. It was a simple re-creation of the iconic scene from the film The Empire Strikes Back, but more importantly, it was the first interactive Star Wars experience that you could enjoy at home.

1983: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle (Atari 2600)

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A year later, Parker Brothers followed up The Empire Strikes Back with 1983's Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle. It was another simple shooting game, but this time, you manned the iconic Millennium Falcon, shot down TIE fighters, and chipped away at the Death Star before delivering the final blow to the reactor core, destroying the Death Star once and for all.

1983: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi: Jedi Arena (Atari 2600)

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That same year, Parker Brothers also released Jedi Arena for the 2600. It attempted to re-create the excitement of fighting with lightsabers. But with stationary Jedi and abstract combat, the results were unfortunately underwhelming.

1983: Star Wars: The Arcade Game (Arcade/Atari 2600)

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Ultimately, it was the port of Atari's own Star Wars arcade game that defined the true Star Wars experience on the 2600. The original arcade release featured vector graphics and digitized voices, delivering a revolutionary and influential experience for the time. Not all of these elements made it to the home release, but Atari was able to retain the core gameplay, which was a major step up from the previous games set in the Star Wars universe. It was also the first game based on A New Hope, the first film in the original trilogy.

1984: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Arcade)

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Atari took Star Wars back to arcades in 1984, but it leaped over The Empire Strikes Back and instead went straight to Return of the Jedi. Jedi would forgo the model of the first game in favor of an isometric, on-rails shooter that re-created numerous scenes from Jedi, including the speederbike chase on Endor and the Millennium Falcon's assault on the Death Star.

1985: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Arcade)

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Finally, in 1985, Atari closed out the trilogy by releasing an Empire Strikes Back update for the first arcade game, which took you back to Hoth for another go at defending the Rebel base from Imperial forces and their massive AT-ATs.

1987: Star Wars (Famicom)

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By the late '80s, Atari was flagging in the console market, and Nintendo's 8-bit system was on the rise, making it the perfect candidate for a new Star Wars game. In 1987, Namco brought Star Wars to the Famicom--the Japanese version of the NES. Namco's interpretation of the story wasn't entirely accurate, but it introduced Star Wars fans to the world of side-scrolling platformers, which would become the predominant genre for the series over the next few years.

1991 - 1992: Star Wars/Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (NES)

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In 1991, North America got its own Star Wars game on the NES, courtesy of JVC and Lucasfilm Games. From Tattoine to the Death Star, Star Wars was a more faithful interpretation of the original film than Namco's attempt, apart from Luke using his lightsaber in combat, of course. JVC came back a year later with the Empire Strikes Back. It mixed platforming, side-scrolling shooting, and, for the first time, lightsaber-on-lightsaber action, but again, JVC dropped the ball here, giving Luke Vader's red lightsaber, rather than the blue saber seen in the first two films.

1992 - 1994: Super Star Wars Trilogy (SNES)

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While JVC was busy with The Empire Strikes Back on the NES, Sculpted Software and LucasArts were busy re-creating the original trilogy for the Super Nintendo. The SNES Star Wars games had huge detailed sprites and some of the best sound effects in any Star Wars game to date. They were primarily action platformers, but thanks to the SNES's Mode 7, you also got the chance to pilot Luke's landspeeder, an X-wing, and other iconic vehicles in pseudo-3D sequences.

1993 - 1997: X-Wing/TIE Fighter/X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (PC)

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Before the Super trilogy concluded, LucasArts created its first solo Star Wars project for the PC in 1993, the legendary space-combat sim X-Wing. It was one of the first Star Wars games to achieve critical and commercial success. After two expansions, LucasArts created a sequel in 1994: TIE Fighter. TIE Fighter used a new rendering engine and offered a unique perspective on the conflict between the rebel forces and the empire, allowing you to fight on behalf of the dark side for the first time. LucasArts concluded the miniseries with X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter in 1997.

1993 - 1995: Star Wars: Rebel Assault/Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire (PC)

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At the same time that it was developing its series of dedicated space-combat games, LucasArts was also busy crafting Rebel Assault and Rebel Assault II. Thanks to the advent of CD-ROM technology, LucasArts was able to incorporate prerendered 3D models and full-motion video. The film-like experiences were special at a time when games were struggling to break free from floppy disks and into the realm of high-capacity CD storage.

1995 - 1997: Star Wars: Dark Forces/ Dark Forces II (PC)

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Not one to let a trend pass it by, LucasArts, on top of X-Wing and Rebel Assault games, was also working on Dark Forces: a first-person shooter in the vein of Doom. The 1997 sequel, Dark Forces II, took the model of the first game and ran with it. It was the first multiplayer game for the series, and it was also the first time that you were able to go head-to-head with other players in authentic lightsaber battles. Dark Forces II also let you switch between first- and third-person perspectives, which was an unusual feature at the time.

1996: Star Wars: Shadow of the Empire (N64)

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LucasArts was steeped in PC development in the mid '90s, but in 1996, it returned to consoles shortly after the release of the Nintendo 64 with Shadows of the Empire. This third-person action game took place between the storylines of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. You played as smuggler Dash Rendar and assisted Luke in the rescue of Princess Leia from the grip of Prince Xisor. Shadows wasn't as good as LucasArts' other Star Wars games of the day, but it was nonetheless a commercial success.

1997: Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi (PlayStation)

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In 1997, LucasArts did the unthinkable and released a Star Wars fighting game for the PlayStation, Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi. Unfortunately, fighting game enthusiasts loathed the game's rough 3D engine, and Star Wars fans balked at the mistreatment of lightsabers, which were incapable of cutting, well, anything.

1998: Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (Nintendo 64)

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A few months before George Lucas unleashed Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace in theaters, LucasArts and Factor 5 worked together on Star Wars: Rogue Squadron for the Nintendo 64 and Windows PCs. It featured arcade-style action across 16 levels that tapped into many of the original trilogy's iconic locations, and the console version was one of the first games to use the Nintendo 64's RAM expansion pack for high-resolution graphics. LucasArts managed to hide a secret code within the game that unlocked the Naboo Starfighter from The Phantom Menace, which was only revealed to the public after the film hit theaters the following year.

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The release of The Phantom Menace was a major turning point for the Star Wars franchise, and it had a significant impact on the games that would follow in the years to come. Stay tuned to GameSpot for part 2 of our History of Star Wars Video Games feature, where we tackle the games inspired by Lucas' prequel trilogy, Legos, and, of all things, hot dance moves.

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Peter Brown

Peter used to work at GameSpot. Now he just lurks at GameSpot.

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