Pushing Buttons: Why the force is still strong with Star Wars video games
In this week’s newsletter: For 45 years, the sci-fi series has influenced the visual and narrative language of countless games, not just films – and shows no signs of slowing down
In the top 10 list of my favourite-ever video game moments – a list that changes radically every year or so – there are two absolute immovables. And they both involve Star Wars. The first time I sat in the beautifully elaborate arcade cabinet of Atari’s 1983 Star Wars game and experienced its thrilling depiction of the Death Star assault was a life-changing moment in an otherwise unremarkable holiday in Blackpool. Those crisp vector-based visuals, resonant voice samples (“Yahoooo”) and minimalist electronic version of the famous score? To a boy who watched the film practically every week on video it was a dream come true.
Much later, in 1996, I was a young writer for Edge magazine visiting Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, for a feature on their Direct X graphics technology. After the interviews they took me to a new multiplayer gaming centre in the city; it was a roomful of pods, each housing a state of the art PC and flight controls. There we played X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, a breathtaking simulation of aerial combat, where we weaved between Star Destroyers, chatting over headsets, indulging in team-based space battles for hours. This experience convinced me that online multiplayer was the future and would change the industry forever.
Star Wars has been there throughout the history of video games, simultaneously benefiting from advances in computer technology and the growing global audience of unashamed sci-fi geeks. In many ways, the visual and narrative language George Lucas developed for those films has become the de facto vernacular for games, even those not directly licensed from Lucasfilm.
The archetypal game design concept of rebel fighters challenging vast extraterrestrial empires came from Star Wars more than from ancient storytelling tropes: it was the huge success of the original movie that inspired designer Tomohiro Nishikado to go with aliens for Space Invaders, his seminal 1978 shooter, effectively providing the template for the entire shooter genre. It was also Star Wars games – namely TIE Fighter and Dark Forces – that popularised the concept of playing as the baddies in a cinematic tie-in. For those who always secretly thought the Empire’s fighter craft were the coolest, and that stormtroopers were style icons, games allowed them to experience and explore these modestly transgressive fantasies.
Star Wars has also proved a vital gateway into new genres. The acclaimed fantasy adventure Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) introduced a massive new audience to the emerging concept of epic role-playing games, and its developer, Bioware, would go on to craft two of the most successful series’ in the canon: Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Later on, EA’s Battlefront titles provided an introduction to the intimidating world of online shooters – using its license to great effect with accurate weapons, landscapes and hero characters.
For a lot of parents, including me, the Lego Star Wars titles have been the default way to introduce kids to gaming. With their cooperative two-player modes, logical puzzles and sharp humour, they have provided spaces in which to navigate the conventions of games and the vagaries of controllers, while effectively holding the hand of a mum, dad or carer.
What I love about those games is the gradual exchange that happens: at first, the parents solve the puzzles while the kids smash stuff up on screen (a totally valid introduction to the cause and effect of interactive media), but as your child gets more confident, the roles reverse, and they start to take control. It is, in a lot of ways, a lovely metaphor for good parenting – you show, you help, you accede responsibility and then you step back. My sons are teenagers now, but we returned to last year’s Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga with relish. No matter how mature your kids get, there will always be little rituals of love and memory that they’re willing to share. Star Wars has been a part of that for us.
This year we’ll see Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, a sequel to Respawn’s excellent action adventure Jedi: Fallen Order. It’s a game that perfectly captured the aesthetic of the movies: the sounds, the music, the futuristic cities, the little civilisations surviving as the imperial war raged on. For me, Fallen Order symbolised the entire appeal of Star Wars games – and games in general, I suppose: it’s all about the way they let us in.
What to play
I’ve got to recommend a Star Wars game now, don’t I? OK, I’m going with the fabulous Star Wars X-Wing bundle, which is available on Steam right now for just £22. You get the special edition of X-Wing, as well as TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE-Fighter and X-Wing Alliance. They all hold up really well as space combat sims, with a great sense of speed, flight and tactics.
Available on: PC
Approximate playtime: A long, long time
What to click
What to read
This is an all-too-familiar story about a Japanese gamer who set up an experiment to control the latest Pokémon game with his pet fish and a motion detector. Sadly, due to a bug, the fish gained access to his credit card details and shared them with thousands of viewers. Why does this keep happening?
The New York Times covers the increasing unionisation of the games industry.
Here’s an explainer on the “silliness switch” trope in video games. I didn’t even realise this had a name!
If you’re quick, it’s worth rushing out to your newsagent and buying Edge magazine issue 380. It has a good feature on the future of PlayStation VR and all of the magazine’s awards for the best games of 2022.
This week’s question was tweeted to me by John Brazier: “What’s the technically worst game you’ve spent the longest time playing outside of professional obligations?”
I have played a lot of technically terrible games in my career for far longer than I needed to (often because they were fascinating: take a bow, Ephemeral Fantasia, Deadly Premonition, Polaroid Pete and Call of Juarez: The Cartel). However, I’m going to have to go with the 2001 Dreamcast release Uefa Dream Soccer.
While working on DC-UK magazine, we played this mediocre football sim every lunchtime for months, despite the fact it was riddled with bugs. Sometimes the goalkeeper would just start slowly levitating along the touchline and out of the side of the stadium; sometimes at kickoff, the ball would keep going up and up into the air and the camera would follow it, until the pitch was a speck in the distance, then the game would crash. Also, your keeper could run out with the ball, trick dribble past every defender and score from 30 yards – almost every time. But it was the only half decent football game on Dreamcast so what could we do?
Oh, that and Flappy Bird.