My Top 5 Star Wars Video Gamesby Todd King, contributing writer
Inspired by fellow MousePlaneteer, Chris Barry, and his fun Top 5s—and particularly his recent "Top 5 Disney Video Games"—I wanted to look at some of my favorite Star Wars video games in a Top 5 of my own. Just like with Disney video games, there are more Star Wars games than there are dolls in "it's a small world." To narrow it down to only five is an act of futility unless you haven't played them all and prefer not to use this subject for my NaNoWriMo.
Having stuck to console gaming most of my gaming life, that also narrows down my list to not include PC games. Unfortunately, that likely leaves out some of the best games in the franchise, so I'm told. I couldn't keep up with the video card technology to allow those games to run on my old laptops that struggled to run Calculator.
So I had video game consoles, or more specifically, Nintendo game consoles. Hey, this narrowing down is easier than I thought. And after that, not all those games were, you know, good. That helps it get down to five, or less. No, five. I can find five good ones from old Nintendo systems, right?
5. Star Wars (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1991)
What better way to start than with a game based on the first movie? However, this is not the first Star Wars video game, by far. There were arcade games and Atari 2600 games. Those usually took one sequence from a movie and adapted it to a video game centered around a single mechanic. In the first arcade game, you piloted the X-Wing to take out the Death Star. And in a 2600 game, you flew a snowspeeder to shoot Imperial walkers. In this one for the NES, it attempted to take you through most of the movie. Even in 1991, that was pretty ambitious.
But how do you make a game follow the whole plot of A New Hope? Do you play as Luke staring at the sunset? Do you play as Leia and sit around in your prison? OK, so not all events can be gamified—so what do you do? You start the game as Luke Skywalker, even though he doesn't enter into the movie until 17 minutes in.
When he's introduced in the film, his first task is to clean the droids. Where's that in the game? That won't do, so what does he do next? Whines about being stuck at home and mopes at the dusk. Still not game material and we're 28 minutes into the movie. Finally, he has to hop on his landspeeder and go searching for R2-D2, who left only to liven things up a bit. Now there's our game!
You start the game in the landspeeder in an overhead view. You drive it around for a while until you realize R-D22 isn't rolling around in the desert. Your only choice is to head into nearby caves to conduct your search. That's right, caves. Remember all the caves from the first movie? In other words, some artistic license had to be taken here and that's okay because it's pretty fun.
In a side-scrolling view, you're Luke with a blaster shooting down cave-dwelling rats and mummy-like things. Look, they had to start somewhere—and as long as it was decent action with good controls (which it was), it worked. Once you get R2 and your lightsaber (from Obi-Wan, also lost in a cave because, why not?) it circles around back to the movie and you face Jawas in the sandcrawler, mow down aliens in the Cantina, fly the Millennium Falcon through asteroids (in a first-person perspective), wind through the maze inside the Death Star, and fly your X-Wing through the trench to destroy the battle station. You can even play as Leia and Han along the way.
Overall, this is an underrated game and even though it is difficult, it is better than its sequel (not always the case in the movies) that should only be played by masochists.
4. Shadows of the Empire (Nintendo 64, 1996)
Believe it or not, there wasn't much going on with Star Wars between about 1984 and 1994. Actually, there was so little happening with the franchise that this was called by fans as "The Dark Times." Aside from a few books (like the Thrawn Trilogy), there was basically nothing new. It was during these times that we just sort of put Star Wars aside and maybe, every once in a while, considered the possibility that more movies would someday arrive. Until then, it was all speculation and hope.
Then, out of nowhere, there came a… well, not a movie, but an initiative of sorts. Lucasfilm had just partnered with Kenner, again, to produce some new action figures to test the waters to see if fans were still out there, whether there was still any interest in Star Wars after all this time. The toys sold like crazy and so the answer was, "Yeah, a bit." It was enough for them to make a bigger test and not only create a new book and comic book series, and new action figures, but also a video game that all drew from a storyline called, "Shadows of the Empire." The story was a first in Star Wars in that it didn't follow one of our main characters, but put a side character into the starring role. This took place between films in order to fill in the gaps of some time and story. It was a smart move so that they didn't have to worry about messing up anything about the main saga or getting the rights to likenesses of the main actors.
The video game, Shadows of the Empire, on the Nintendo 64 (as well as on PC) takes place between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It's like Episode 5.5. You don't play as Luke, Leia, or Han. You are Dash Rendar. Who? No, it isn't some spice used on Ronto Wraps. Dash was a Han Solo-type character—a smuggler with a junky ship and weird co-pilot (a droid, this time) who was a good guy because he was quick with a blaster and hated the Empire.
The game starts you in familiar territory with the battle of Hoth, where you fly a snowspeeder and take down AT-ATs. This was finally some gameplay that made you feel like you were in the movie. It's a 3D game with flying sequences as well as run-and-gun, on-the-ground platforming and shooting. With the power of computers at the time, and the 3D graphics engine that was part of the N64, this game broke the chains and let you explore and run around in the world of Star Wars. You even got to fly around with a jetpack. 10 out of 10 right there! Until you face Boba Fett, who was much better at jetpacking and would kill you a hundred times.
Nowadays, the game has been far surpassed by advances in graphics and controls, but the nostalgia is strong with this one. And while it feels clunky now, it is still a fun slice of Star Wars that is all but forgotten (and non-canon) these days.
3. Super Empire Strikes Back (Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 1993)
It's "super!" There once was Mario Bros. but later there was Super Mario Bros. The successor to the Nintendo Entertainment System was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. What do you name your new Star Wars game for the Super NES? Super Star Wars, of course.
There are three games in this series, its own trilogy each representing its own movie from the Original Trilogy. Why did I choose Super Empire Strikes Back out of the three? It's simply because it is the only one I actually owned and beat. I did play the others; rented them, but never owned them. Over the years, I've read retro reviews on it and many consider Empire the best of the three so I might have just gotten lucky. This game seems to have a good balance of fun and difficulty that the other two didn't quite master, so they say. They're all fun, but all quite challenging.
Like the NES Star Wars, this one has to take some liberties with the story so that you can get into the video game action. It begins like the movie with Luke on his tauntaun traversing the surface of Hoth, the ice planet. Although he's only here briefly in the movie, it's enough of an idea for the entire first portion of the game. You have to hop and jump while mounted on your trusty steed blasting ice creatures and the first boss of the game is a wampa. A giant wampa. You finally get some revenge on that thing and not just by removing one of its limbs.
Speaking of removing limbs, you actually get to start the game with a lightsaber. Because of that elegant weapon, you get a new level of gameplay from the beginning. Super Empire, like its siblings in the game trilogy (and similarly in the NES game), allows you to play as other characters like Chewbacca and Han Solo on certain stages. This adds variety and challenge to the game's progression and also presents creative ways for it to follow the story of the film. This game feels like you're in the movie, better than any movie-licensed game before it. The graphics match the movie's aesthetic, the music, while still digitized, matches the score in all the right places, the sound effects are darn close to authentic, and in the end, you get to use Force powers and actually fight Darth Vader in the final battle. It's got everything including past games' relentless difficulty.
2. LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Wii and everything, 2007)
LEGO had been creating Star Wars building sets since 1999 with the release of The Phantom Menace and later started making several LEGO series of co-op video games for just about every platform out there. LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga is the one I played on the Nintendo Wii. The reason it is so high on my list is that I still play it. Its replay value is through the roof because it is simply fun to play, is straightforward and fairly easy, has a huge cast of unlockable (and then playable) characters, and scatters secrets and easter eggs across every level. It is unstressful chill-and-play that is always welcome.
This particular LEGO game (there are several Star Wars-related ones) follows stories of the first six movies which, at one time, was the "complete" saga. From the outset, you get to basically choose which movie you want to play through and even change from one to another at almost any time. The level designs are so fun because you not only get to explore the movies' famous settings, but they're all built in LEGO. You get to interact with much of the environment and build pieces, weapons, bridges, ships, and all sorts of things to make progress through the stages. For the truly devoted, you also collect gold bricks and stud pieces, and it can be an adventure to find them all. It strikes a great balance where none of it is frustrating but also—and this is key—not boring.
On top of that, all the LEGO games overflow with personality and humor. Seeing structures and enemies explode into (LEGO) pieces is always satisfying (and it can happen to you, too). Perhaps most rewarding of all are the cutscenes. These are the mini-movies usually presented to the player after completing a stage or level. We are treated to non-verbal LEGO minifigures acting out scenes from the movies but usually with a humorous twist. They are delightful and keep you playing the game just to see what they do next. These cutscenes became so popular with players and fans that it led to many more games made in this style, from Harry Potter to Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, and all the Marvel superheroes. A lot of that talent went to producing LEGO movies, like The Lego Movie and its spin-offs and sequels. Finally, it has led to something previously unthinkable in the Star Wars realm: The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. More on that another time.
LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special | Official Trailer | Disney+. Star Wars YouTube Channel.
The LEGO games are just plain fun and they're still making more in the current generation of game systems. Oh, and did I mention the games are easily played by young and old alike?
1. Star Wars Episode I Racer (Nintendo 64, 1999)
How do you top the LEGO games? Well, if you are like me and haven't played every Star Wars game out there (and you haven't actually played Battlefront II), then you don't. But this isn't a list about the best, it's about my favorite ones that I've actually played. Because of that, my favorite one is "Pod Racer." That's what I call Star Wars Episode I Racer for short—as does most everyone, because that's what it should've been called. This tile kind of goes back to the early early games that just took one sequence from a movie and made a game out of it. Except this time, it punches that one sequence into hyperdrive.
At its heart, it is what it purports to be: a racing game. Most racing games feature cars or karts, on the ground, on tires, over concrete tracks. For their previous system, the Super NES, Nintendo began a new racing franchise called F-Zero, which was one of the few futuristic-style racing games. Pod Racer takes that futuristing setting, too, but develops it from the galaxy of Star Wars. With that aesthetic, you find yourself piloting junky put-together used jet engine pods and fly them at blistering speeds of over 650 miles per hour. Star Wars often displays George Lucas's love of speed from the trench battle run to the speeder bike chase; the pod race is no different, and it is captured gloriously in this game.
There is only a little familiar territory with this game. The first race is on Tatooine and you can choose young Anakin Skywalker as your racer of choice. Beyond that, there are lots of other pod racers and the competitions take place on several different planets (most of them are only mentioned in passing in the movie scripts, like Malastare). The more you play, however, the more details you notice that are taken from The Phantom Menace—like the place where you buy your parts is Watto's shop. When your pod needs fixing, there are Pit Droids (recently seen again in The Mandalorian at Peli's shop). The sound effects of the pod engines are right from Ben Burtt's collection. Some of John William's score is reproduced for the races and other scenes. And most fun of all, the racers you can choose from (and those you unlock during your progress across races) are all from the famous scene in the movie. You'll be watching Episode I and if you've been playing the game, you may shout (like I have done), "Hey that's Mars Guo's pod!" Even their individual pods, which are discernable on the screen only for a few seconds each, are re-created in detail in the game.
Oh, and you should know that the voices in the game are performed by the actors from the movie. They went all out on this one. For a few examples:
- Jake Lloyd – Anakin Skywalker
- Andrew Secombe – Watto
- Lewis MacLeod –Sebulba
- Greg Proops – Fode
Finally, on top of the game looking and sounding good, it plays as smooth as blue milk. There are tight turns, quick loops, moving obstacles, breath-holding leaps, and even hidden shortcuts. For a racing game, it has it all ... plus, it's Star Wars. Lucky for me, the game was recently re-released for the Nintendo Switch, so I've been falling in love with this game all over again now in glorious HD. It's great that an old game is accessible to a new audience. I wish it had new stuff, like more tracks and racers. Perhaps if it gets enough downloads it will draw interest for a remake or a sequel.
In the meantime, it's still a game, like all these on the list, that I can return to anytime for a fun trip.