The history of Star Wars games goes back nearly forty years at this point. And the first game in the series? I know what you’re thinking, but the arcade game was neither the first game in the series, nor the second, Let’s take a walk down memory lane…
I guess the first game to be considered Star Wars wasn’t a licensed game at all, instead it was Apple Computers (yes, that Apple Computers) releasing a thinly veiled knockoff in 1978 called “Space Pilot Trainee” on cassette tape for the Apple II. In this game, you shot space enemies that looked suspiciously like Tie Fighters from a first person perspective. I was unable to find a graphic of this game, sadly.
The first officially licensed Star Wars game was released by Kenner a year later, in 1979, and it was called “Star Wars Battle Commander“. Similar to the handheld electronic games of the time, it was, a bit different, as players explored a galaxy, trying to avoid black holes, locating enemies, and trying to find MAGNA, “The Force-Giving Star”. I dunno, it might have been a better explanation then midichlorians, mind you.
The first home console system game in 1982, (or to put it another way, TRUE video game) however, was not based on the original movie (now Episode IV: A New Hope), but instead was based on a part of the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back. This game, for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, was based on the Battle for Hoth. You flew a snowspeeder, trying to take out Empire’s AT-AT walkers before they could make it to your base’s shield generator. The AT-AT’s would change color to indicate their damage status, and would take about forty hits to destroy (of course, you could shoot the weak spot when it appeared for massive damage.) I was only 8 at the time, but I did play this game a lot. It was frustrating, I think I wore out the fire button on my Atari 2600 with this game.
Now, we get to 1983 and the first game that EVERY body of a certain age played growing up, and that is Star Wars: The Arcade Game. You remember this right? (well, if you’re old enough to actually have been alive during the time frame). You were Luke Skywalker, and in this arcade game, which used vector graphics, you took on enemy TIE fighters, took out ground towers in preparation, and then the iconic Death Star Trench Run. Fun fact, the single credit record for the Arcade Game was done by a team of players in England in June of 1985. Using the factory settings (which replenished some lost shields after every three levels), they played the game for over five days, scoring one BILLION points. (The game counter reset at 100,000,000. To prevent world championships from turning into the Video Game version of the Battan Death March, for the 1986 Video Game World Championships, the game was put on a harder setting that did not replenish lost shields, and the champion ended up scoring 31 million in seven hours. That remains the tournament record to this day.
I actually played this last year at the classic arcade Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire, and the game is still addicting, 33 years later. It was one of the first arcade games to feature digitized voices (Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan, and of course “I’ve lost R2”!). Eventually, this game made its way to all the home console and PC systems. You can still find working copies of this arcade game on eBay.. if I ever hit the lottery, one of the first things I will do is buy this for my home arcade.
There were two other games released in 1983 for the 2600, Star Wars: Jedi Arena, a one or two player Atari 2600 paddle game where a single player (against the computer) or two players recreated the training scene from the original movie where a seeker ball continually zapped Luke with electricity.. the players use the paddles to direct their lightsaber to block the seeker’s electrical bolts and try to knock them into the other player. Let’s just say.. it was more of an Impressionist remaking of that scene then an accurate recreation of that iconic scene.
The other 1983 release was Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle where you piloted the Millennium Falcon through the energy shield and attacked the second death star. Again, limited by the hardware of the time, but it was a decent enough game.
In 1984, there was an arcade version of Return of the Jedi, a series of isometric runs (first as Princess Leia fighting off stormtroopers on a speederbike, then as Han piloting a AT-ST to destroy the shield generator, then Lando making the run on the Death Star, then of course the final run inside the Death Star itself.
This brings us to the final Star Wars game of the early era, one that people may not remember.. they went to the arcade well again in 1985, with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. This time, instead of shooting TIE fighters, ground turrets, and the Death Star Trench run, you shot Imperial Probe droids, shot down AT-AT walkers on Hoth (and you had a limited use tow cable weapon that would one-hit the giant walkers, if you missed you would have to shoot the cockpits, easier said then done), and then escort the convoy out under fire from Imperial Star Destroyers. Why do people not remember this game? Because it wasn’t sold as a full unit. Instead, it was sold as an upgrade kit for the previous Star Wars arcade game, which was still so popular that not many arcade owners wanted to swap out their old game for it! You can still find some of the upgrade kits online, but it’s kinda sad to see an innovative reiteration of the second movie get lost behind its more popular brother.
That brings us to the end of the 80’s, as the video game console market crashed and burned much like the Death Star(s), and we would be entering the NES era, as well as some of the most remembered PC Games of its generation. That will be coming up on Part 2: The 90’s.
David "SirFozzie" Yellope is the operator of the "An 8 bit mind in an 8 Gigabyte World". (an8bitmind.com) While not QUITE yet at the stage of waving his cane and telling the kids to "get off his lawn", he does admit he owns three canes.