Debating the Greatest Star Wars Video Game of All Time
With EA's <i>Battlefront</i> and <i>The Force Awakens</i> looming, it's as good a time as any to argue about the best games ever spawned by the series.
'Star Wars: Battlefront' comes out in November
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell: OK, in the absence of a massive, cosmic scrolling-text intro, I'll begin by saying that the Jedi Knight series and in particular, Jedi Academy, are the best Star Wars games ever made, because they are among the very, very few to make lightsaber combat fun or challenging. True, JA lacks the grand narrative arc of a Knights of the Old Republic, and for much of it you're basically just trotting from room to room, murdering Dark Siders and pushing buttons. But I challenge you to dwell on such trivialities while somebody's swinging a blade at your head. Especially if you've forgotten which hotkey activates Force Speed.
Sean Cleaver: It seems like a galaxy far, far away now where the saga of Kyle Katarn graced our computers. I loved the early games like Dark Forces and Jedi Knight. They were fun to play and still kept the familiarity of the Star Wars universe. Those in-house engines from LucasArts were great, too: "Jedi" for Dark Forces (and the much underrated Outlaws) and "Sith" for Jedi Knight. But if we're going with a big hitter straight away, it's got to feature dogfighting, and that can only mean 1994's TIE Fighter.
Okay, so I know X-Wing was first and it was great, and the graphics are horribly dated, and it has a complete lack of Admiral Ackbar. But there has never been a more fun or challenging licensed combat game than TIE Fighter. Firstly, you're the bad guy. You're the kamikaze laser fodder dressed in black plastic and put into a shieldless yet highly responsive craft. Then there's the thrill of that combat, of being able to violently steer your ship, dodging fire that will destroy you in an instant, and lining up a soon-to-be-dust A-Wing in your crosshairs. I dare say that nothing has ever come near it, with the exception of Elite and maybe another Star Wars game we're sure to mention.
EE-T: Hah, that takes me back. One thing I always liked about the X-Wing and TIE Fighter games was the micro-managerial stuff—rerouting power between your ship's systems, or bossing your wingman around. In theory having that weight of tactical considerations pressing down on you during a dogfight isn't fun at all, but it really added to the illusion of the cockpit for me, and I loved the idea that you could "cheat" the combat balancing by funneling all energy into your shields while your ship self-repairs, and suchlike. Not that I was ever talented enough to pull that off in practice.
Regarding playing as a bad guy, it was nice to get insight on some of the key events in the chronology from the other side. Actually tracking down the Bothans who are passing info about the Death Star to the rebels, for example. I think that exploring events from movies or books in different forms is something plenty of licensed games get wrong—for example, The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, where you're basically in charge of a watered-down B-team who follow behind the main cast, re-enacting many of the same battles—but in this case I found it quite compelling.
Still, I stand by my choice of Jedi Academy. Lightsabers, dammit! It's amazes me that so many Star Wars games either leave them out or reduce them to glorified police batons.
A screenshot from 'Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy'
SC: Well, before we age ourselves too much and end up with nostalgia for the old Wire Frame cabinet, we should probably talk about the Nintendo era, because arguably, during the late 1990s, two of the best Star Wars games were released on their platforms: the N64's Episode I: Racer and the GameCube's Rogue Squadron II.
Before these games, Star Wars on consoles was a fairly drab affair. There was a terrible Game Gear and Master System game, the SNES's "Super" series from JVC and the 32X port of Star Wars Arcade (although Dark Forces was PS1 as well). But there seemed to be a lack of fun in those, and at a time when the new movie, The Phantom Menace, was making waves for being rubbish, LucasArts took the best bits of it and made something awesome with Racer. As far as racing games go, I'd say it's definitely on par with, if not better than Wipeout.
Of course the Rogue Squadron series did something that no one else has truly matched in getting the controllers precisely right for the games and giving fans what they wanted. Rebel Assault tried it and failed but Rouge Leader on the GameCube specifically made an incredible space arena come to life. OK, I know it's not got the lightsabers, but it does have the Millennium Falcon, which probably gives us our first real challenge here. You are a believer in the Force, and I tend to shoot first.
I mean, the Millennium Falcon! That is the surely the best non-Jedi thing, apart from being one of the Fetts, which no one has truly nailed.
EE-T: I'd forgotten about Racer. Careful though—I'm a big old Wipeout fan, and generally upend tables at the suggestion that any other hover racer has it beat. You're right, though. It was the best thing to come out of The Phantom Menace by miles, fight scene choreography aside, and as for Rogue Leader on GameCube—man, what a gem. I cut my pilot's teeth on the Colony Wars series from Psygnosis, so would have preferred the RS2 campaign to be a little more open-ended (and just plain longer), but the handling is marvelous and no other developer has captured the look of Star Wars as closely, from engine glare to the texturing on cockpit struts. DICE will raise the bar yet again with the new Battlefront, I guess. I hope they add in proper space combat at some stage, preferably not for a hefty fee.
As for Fett-themed games, I had the misfortune to play Star Wars: Bounty Hunter on the GameCube, which stars Boba's dad Jango. It's not an irredeemable game, but it's fairly graceless and clunky: You jump and somersault like somebody's physically rotating the character model with their hands. Star Wars 1313 could have been good, as dangerous as it is to judge a game on the strength of an E3 demo: Cutting a long story short, it began life as more of a generalist action-adventure, but Lucas asked the team to make it a Boba Fett game after a few years in development. There would have been a jetpack, open-world bounty hunting and everything. Alas, it's one of many promising projects LucasArts managed to screw up somehow. I wonder where the IP would be if the publisher had been a little less prone to mismanagement or executive reshuffles, and less constrained by the wider politics of the Lucas empire. In their defense, it's not like every Star Wars game is forgettable—just, er, most of them—and individual development teams must shoulder some of the blame for project misfires.
Anyhoo, I'm straying from the topic. I'll see your Rogue Squadron and raise you a Knights of the Old Republic. That's probably the top Star Wars game "objectively" speaking, right? Certainly it's the most frequently serenaded. And you could argue that BioWare's own, very obviously Star Wars-y Mass Effect series wouldn't have existed without the formative experience of that company working on KOTOR. And how about That Twist?
SC: It's the Star Wars game I hear the most about and quite possibly one of the most readily available now it's on PC, Mac, Xbox, and iOS. It's certainly the game that nailed BioWare's place as one of the great RPG studios. Playing a bit of Sith's advocate here, it isn't a game that's aged well when you hear the dialogue. It also was, as you say, incredibly superseded by how great the Mass Effect series was. I can't recall anyone else tackling a Star Wars-based RPG before it or even after it.
Yes it has a great twist which allows you to actually have a consequence with your choices, but it takes a long time to get there. In my mind, a great Star Wars game is one that can give you repeat business for hours on end over many sittings, and while KOTOR is a lengthy game, it's hard to have that replay value that, say, the LEGO Star Wars games provide. If I'm really being an evil Sith overlord, I could say that in places I prefer the freedom and more personalized story that you got out of Star Wars Galaxies, once it was fixed of course.
KOTOR is no doubt a terrific game. But out of all that we've mentioned so far, it's probably the hardest to get into if you were to pick it up now, and one that certainly suits fans of a genre rather more than fans of Star Wars.
You've mentioned the new Battlefront, so we should point out Battlefront II for the Xbox, PS2, and PC. That was a great game that really nailed both the casual space combat and the ground shooter sections with a story that spans both movie universes. Although once we leave that, we get on to some dodgy entries, unless we talk about strategy.
A screenshot from the iOS version of 'KOTOR'
EE-T: Yeah, KOTOR hasn't aged as well as some—certainly, modern audiences are more attuned to the Mass Effect blend of slick on-foot action and stat-massaging than KOTOR's approach, which is obviously more redolent of BioWare's older top-down RPGs. You could also say that KOTOR II is the more sophisticated piece of writing, because it moves away from the rigid light/dark, Jedi/Sith binaries of the movie trilogy. Still, I think KOTOR remains the high water mark for Star Wars storytelling in video games, which is perhaps more an indictment of other Star Wars games than praise.
Battlefront I agree is brilliant, though a lot of what it does well derives from the Battlefield series—the main objective mode is a straight-up Conquest homage. I remember it most fondly for how it lets you fly into and fight inside some of the franchise's most recognizable capital ships—as colossal and intricate as video game environments have become, there's something inimitable about how Battlefront combines small with large-scale combat. Also, it's one of a handful of Star Wars games that, like Racer, burrow into the prequel trilogy and are stronger for the experience. The technology of the Clone Wars era is never more worthwhile than when you're deploying it in Battlefront, for my money. I'm a bit sad that there won't be any droidekas in DICE's reboot.
SC: The expectation for the new Battlefront is probably overwhelming if you're a Star Wars fan, and a video game fan that knows what DICE can do. From my experience so far, it looks like the game does a lot of key Star Wars tropes well, but the lack of a story or end goal may not grip the fans of the franchise, but we'll have to wait and see.
I have to give a mention to the strategy titles as Empire at War was excellent and when you have an RTS that allows you to build a Death Star and blow up planets, you're on to a winner. And we'd be remiss to not acknowledge the success of the LEGO games—a fun and endlessly playable way to access the movies for every age and level of geek.
We could probably do an entirely separate debate for the worst Star Wars games as well. But if there's anything we've discovered, it's that the midi-chlorian levels are highest in the classic games: the Jedi Knight series for first person, X-Wing and TIE Fighter for space combat and KOTOR for role playing.
Star Wars: Battlefront is released for PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One on November 20. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in theaters on December 18. The 32X version of Star Wars Arcade was ace, and I won't have a bad word said against it.