Welcome to Star Wars Week, where we’re celebrating all things from that galaxy far, far away. From retrospectives on old favorites to explainers on timely topics to Face-Offs between beloved characters and beyond, Star Wars Week features articles, videos, slideshows and more on the beloved franchise.
No film franchise has had a more complicated relationship with video games than Star Wars. The Force has been adapted to home consoles ever since the original trilogies were playing in theaters, and in that time we’ve watched the license change multiple publishing hands, enter several elongated peaks and valleys, establish the bedrock for LucasArts’ golden age, and fill in the many empty spaces left wide open in that galaxy far, far away.
We played through the existential probings of KOTOR 2 and the razor-sharp simulations of X-Wing, only to watch those games get dubbed non-canon by the powers that be at Disney. We fed a fortune of quarters into Star Wars arcade cabinets and suffered through the broken mechanics of Masters of Teräs Käsi, and considered if developers everywhere suddenly forgot how to make a fun game set in the universe. Now, we’re standing in the shallow end of the EA Star Wars era, with the electrifying new Squadrons on the horizon, and it’s never felt better to love these games. Trust us, it wasn’t always that way.
So here is a brief history of Star Wars games. From the early ’80s prototypes to those sublime SNES games, to the first Battlefronts, the Angry Birds era, and everything else in between. All together, this timeline represents a slow movement of studios learning from earlier mistakes, and fine-tuning the Star Wars fantasy until it’s polished to a mirror shine. Like Yoda says, pass on what you have learned.
1982 to 1991: The Prehistory
The early video game ‘industry’ was the wild west. So naturally, the publishing rights of early Star Wars games were incredibly lenient compared to the tight lock-and-key Disney keeps the series under today. So here’s something you might not know. The Empire Strikes Back totally had a concurrent movie tie-in game. It came out in 1982, two years after the release of the film, for the Atari 2600. Mechanically, it is an extremely stripped-down interpretation of the battle of Hoth. A nine-pixel snowspeeder flits around a psychedelic backdrop, taking aim at a series of moose-like AT-ATs. Congratulations, that is the first console Star Wars game in history, and it’s about as inauspicious as you might think. The Empire adaptation was developed by Parker Brothers — you know, the Cluedo guys — as further proof that the games industry used to be a complete free-for-all. Long before we were double-jumping through Kashyyyk with Cal Kestis, we first needed to shoot down Vader’s forces with a one-button joystick.
A number of vaguely Star Wars-themed games followed suit for the 2600, Intellivision, and arcades from a slew of different developers. Parker Brothers followed up with Star Wars: Jedi Arena, which was the first time a lightsaber was simulated in home entertainment. And then, in 1983, they put out their tie-in for Return of the Jedi, which replicated the siege of the Death Star on screen.
Meanwhile, Atari was pumping out a series of arcade games built around the Star Wars license. The most famous of all is probably the first one. 1983’s Star Wars was a vectorized version of A New Hope’s finale, and was leaps and bounds ahead of what the 2600 was capable of rendering. That was followed by another cabinet-based Return of the Jedi game, which introduced hitherto unseen Star Wars video game features like, *gasp* discernable color schemes! In an odd bit of continuity weirdness, Atari actually put out their Empire cabinet after Jedi, in 1985. Who knows why, but this also might be the arcade game anyone born after the ‘80s might be the most familiar with — it was an unlockable bonus feature in Rogue Squadron III, so go dig out your Gamecube if you’re curious to see it in action.
And those were the heaviest hitters of Star Wars’ earliest foray into video games! It’s funny in retrospect how all of these titles came from different publishers. The next three decades of Star Wars will be produced entirely in-house by a few stray megacorps. But that’s also the charm of the video game business when it was at its smallest and most malleable. Skywalker Ranch once entrusted Luke and Leia to Atari. What a strange world we lived in.
1991 to 1999: The Lucasarts Golden Age
By 1991, George Lucas began to realize how much money was rushing out the window as he outsourced the Star Wars franchises to bit players around the games industry. So the man decided to bring Star Wars inhouse to his already well-established LucasArts brand. The following decade is responsible for what is still generally believed to be the greatest period for Star Wars video games. LucasArts itself was founded all the way back in 1982, (then known as Lucasfilm Games,) where it developed a historic hot-streak of adventure titles on its SCUMM engine, (Loom, Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Isle, and so on.) which continue to define the genre to this day. Frankly, it was only a matter of time before the team were going to take their talents to Cloud City.
So, in 1991, LucasArts released an 8-bit game called, you guessed it, Star Wars. There were a few more NES games in that ilk until 1992, and the release of Super Star Wars, which is not-so-arguably the first truly great video game set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The quintessential Jedi acrobatics paired beautifully into the floaty side-scrolling template of the 16-bit generation, and the sprite work is still pretty gorgeous by today’s standards.
LucasArts followed up with two more 16-bit adaptations of the original trilogy, Empire and Return of the Jedi respectively, which arrived in ’93 and ’94. And yes, if you’re keeping count, the Atari 2600, the NES, and the SNES each received comprehensive Star Wars trilogy tie-ins, which is quite a feat. But the franchise was about to take a huge leap forward. Instead of retelling these same old stories, LucasArts began to explore all of the stones left unturned in this universe.
1993’s X-Wing can still be argued as the greatest Star Wars game of all time. At the very least, it was the first game to fully embody the film’s fantasy. You sat behind the throttle of a starfighter — simulated perfectly to satiate every nerdy obsession — and buzzed around deep space sending Imperial scions to the oblivion. Most importantly, it didn’t force you down the same mainline path that was repeated ad nauseum by every other Star Wars game that came before it. Instead, players had the chance to experience citizens of this galaxy who’ve never met Luke Skywalker. Two expansions followed: B-Wing and Imperial Pursuit, before LucasArts switched up the perspective completely with TIE Fighter in 1994. Now, you were flying alongside the strength of the Empire in 13 tours of duty, cutting off a coup aiming for Emperor Palpatine’s head.
LucasArts was also beginning to get its feet wet on the first wave of 3D home consoles. The lightsaber side scrolling era was over. Star Wars: Dark Forces arrived in 1995 for the Playstation. That game received a decent response, but it was its sequel, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, that really took the world by storm, proving Star Wars could thrive in an FPS environment. Less successful was Shadows of the Empire, which was effectively an N64 launch title in 1996. “if you like Star Wars and you love games, you’re in for disappointment and disbelief,” finished Doug Perry, in his IGN review.
Yes, there were some hits and misses in the early LucasArts oeuvre. For instance, did you know there was a GameBoy Color action game called Yoda Stories released in 1997? It was terrible. That same year, the company tried its hand at a fighting game with Masters of Teräs Käsi, which might honestly be the worst Star Wars game ever made. (Though it has earned a bit of a cult following.) By the late ’90s, LucasArts was prototyping for the publisher they’d soon become. We saw their first RTS, (Star Wars: Rebellion,) a more casual interpretation of X-Wing, (Star Wars: Rogue Squadron 3D) and of course Star Wars: Yoda’s Challenge Activity Center. (Don’t ask.) Within a decade, LucasArts exceeded the expectations of any director-driven vanity project to unleash an undeniably classic catalogue on the global Star Wars audience. Unfortunately, the prequels await.
1999 to 2013: The Experimental Years
By 1999 LucasArts was in unfamiliar territory; for the first time as a publisher, it actually had new Star Wars movies in theaters. This led to a windfall of unique, verbose, and downright weird video games that jumped through genres and developers. The decade began with Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer, which every middle schooler in the country adored, and was also not a good video game. Don’t try to go back. It’s the Goldeneye effect. You will only be disappointed. And so, the entirely unremarkable beat-em-up Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles followed Racer in 2000, as did the middling RTS Star Wars: Force Commander. The one bright spot at the turn of the millennium was the continuation of the Rogue Squadron series: Battle For Naboo was a well-executed arcade shooter, and the subsequent iterations — Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader and Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike — still hold up pretty well.
But there were a lot of misses in between. 2001’s Star Wars: Obi-Wan should have been a no-brainer. Who doesn’t want to cut through a ton of droids as a young Ewan McGregor? Unfortunately, the gameplay was tanked by a broken camera and nauseatingly bland level design. As for Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, the idea of embodying Jango Fett was in high-demand for Star Wars fans since day one, but it was marred by a boatload of technical issues. Thankfully, dedicated fans had the opportunity to pivot to Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast, which rendered out lightsaber combat in spectacular fashion. It’s 2020, and people are still sinking time into that game’s multiplayer.
That brings us to 2003, where the wheat started to separate from the chaff. Two of the greatest Star Wars games of all time came out that year, and unsurprisingly, neither was associated with the prequel chronology. The first was Star Wars: Galaxies which — don’t laugh — was a genuinely groundbreaking MMO long before some of its latter-day issues manifested. The other was Knights of the Old Republic, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest games, if not the greatest game, in the Star Wars canon. Set thousands and thousands of years before the Death Star struggle, and therefore graciously untethered from some of the obvious fan service that comes from Star Wars games, BioWare delivered a killer Jedi RPG experience that’s never really been topped. We’re still awaiting the return of HK-47.
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LucasArts kept up the momentum for the next couple of years. Star Wars: Battlefront arrived in 2004, proving once and for all that the Battlefield formula totally works on Tatooine. Star Wars: Republic Commando showed up a year later, which I think we all remember as a surprisingly cinematic single-player first-person shooter that had echoes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. EA really should consider reviving that franchise. Honestly, the most auspicious release of this period might be the Lego Star Wars, which predicted a windfall of Legofied versions of every cinematic universe on the planet. (Harry Potter, Marvel, Lord of the Rings, take your pick.) In between that, we received the tragedy of Knights of the Old Republic II — which remains a deeply ambitious, thoughtful Star Wars story, that’s weighed down by drastic cuts in scope, and some game-breaking bugs. Don’t get us wrong, KOTOR 2 is fantastic, it just could’ve used a few more months in the oven.
And then the consistency and quality of Star Wars games started to dip. Yes, Battlefront II, and its impeccable hemispheric dogfights, arrived in 2006, and yes, people do have some nostalgia for the Empire at War RTS, but for the rest of the decade, nothing under the brand came close to KOTOR heights. Instead, there were a lot of Flash games and shuffleware until 2009, which marked the dyad of The Force Unleashed and The Force Unleashed 2. Those were decent games, but served more as a showcase of next-gen physics capabilities than anything else. The early 2010s were even more dire. Fans received The Old Republic MMO, which has a complicated legacy, and well, Star Wars Kinect. Those were the only two major LucasArts releases of that period, unless you want to pay special homage to Angry Birds Star Wars.
There’s context here. Lucasarts was an ailing company as it reached the end of the aughties. In 2012, Disney bought up the ownership of all the Star Wars assets, effectively making Mickey Mouse the landlord over the Millennium Falcon. The following year, in 2013, Disney shut down the company. The last major game the company had in the chamber, the Boba Fett-focused Star Wars 1313, never saw the light of day.
This was a pretty dark time for any gamer that cares about the universe. For a while there, it seemed like it was impossible to make a good Star Wars game, which is weird, because we all grew up playing good Star Wars games. It can’t be that hard, right?
2014 and onwards: The EA Era
After the closure of LucasArts, Disney announced an exclusive partnership with Electronic Arts, granting it carte blanche to produce Star Wars games for consoles for the next 10 years. (As a funny wrinkle, Disney holds onto the rights to publish any Star Wars phone or tablet games.)
EA got right to work by resurrecting Battlefront, which itself is a fascinating story. The first new Battlefront was an impressive technical marvel with barely any meat on the bones. Everyone thought they’d nail it on their second time out. So Battlefront 2? Well… it had a story mode, and a generous suite of locales and weapons, but was also initially packed with an onerous in-game currency system that would force its players into an MMO-like grind for the privilege of playing as Darth Vader. You likely know the story from here. Players revolted, EA aquiased, and today, Battlefront 2 is a normal, controversy-free good video game. Compounding the outrage was the cancellation of Project Ragtag — a Visceral Games endeavor led by Naughty Dog alum Amy Henning — which was rumored to be an Uncharted-like romp through the galactic underbelly starring a Han Solo stand-in. Diehards are still pretty annoyed that Ragtag never made it to consoles.
It’s remarkable how quickly EA recovered from that initial flap. Last year’s Jedi: Fallen Order was developed by Respawn, and was an honest-to-god narrative single-player experience, which is becoming rarer and rarer these days. Motive Studios just announced Star Wars: Squadrons, which appears to pay homage to old classics like X-Wing and Tie-Fighter, which is the sort of thing fans have wanted for years. One thing is for sure: EA is going to keep making Star Wars games. CEO Andrew Wilson said as much earlier this year, claiming that the publisher will “double down” on the license for as long as they have it.
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And that’s where we leave the Star Wars gameography for now. What a ride. Birthed on the 2600, coming of age on the Super Nintendo, digitized into RPGs, RTSes, and edutainment software, cursed with mobile game priorities, before coming out the other end, no worse for wear, with a brand new future on the horizon. Never tell us the odds.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.