< Star Wars Arcade Retrospective

Wonderland Game
THE MIDNIGHT POST * December 2008
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Classic Game Spotlight:
Star Wars - The Arcade Game

A long time ago (that is, 1983) in a galaxy far, far away (that is, your local video arcade) one game was sure to grab your attention. You would sit inside its cockpit style game cabinet, insert coins, place your hands on the flight yoke controls... then John Williams' classic music would begin to play, you'd hear Luke Skywalker's voice say Red Five Standing By, and suddenly you were hurtling through space, Tie Fighters screaming past you, and the gigantic Death Star slowly moving into range.

Like no other game before it, Atari's original 1983 Star Wars arcade game made you feel like you were actually IN a Star Wars movie.

Quickly becoming a #1 seller, Star Wars was an instantaneous hit in a time when video games were struggling to survive. Some credit its success (with 15,000 units sold) with keeping Atari's arcade game division afloat as the financial losses of the great video game crash began to pile up. Even today, Star Wars remains one of the most beloved arcade games of all time, and was voted #4 in a recent survey of the best arcade games ever made.

Using 3D vector graphics, the iconic movie soundtrack, and several voice samples from the films, the Star Wars game had you blast your way through three distinct stages - first, a dogfight with Tie Fighters in outer space, then a race across the surface of the Death Star, and finally a recreation of the film's climactic trench run. It is perhaps not a surprise that many space-based Star Wars video games since have retained this same three-level structure, from LucasArts 1993 PC release X-Wing to Star Wars Rogue Leader on the Nintendo Gamecube.

The game was ported to every major home video system, although not until several years later. Conversions appeared for every system, from the Spectrum to the Amstrad to the Commodore 64. A (much simplified) version even appeared on the Atari 2600. However, only the 16-bit conversions, in particular those for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, truly captured the playability of the original.

Given the huge success of the game, it is perhaps surprising that Atari's follow-ups were far less than stellar. 1984's Return of the Jedi threw out vector graphics for a mediocre Zaxxon-style isometric game, and The Empire Strikes back was only released as a conversion kit to the original Star Wars game in 1985. Star Wars had only two other major space-based arcade game releases after the original trilogy: Sega's Star Wars Arcade (1993) and Star Wars Trilogy Arcade (1998), both pictured below.

While nothing quite matches the experience of sitting in an actual cockpit style arcade cabinet, you can still play the original Star Wars game today via emulation, or try one of the excellent retro remakes that have been made over the years. We'll just highlight two of them: a very fun remake for the 2006 Retro Remake Competition can be downloaded here, and an excellent update of StarStrike (a 1984 Star Wars clone for the ZX Spectrum) can be downloaded here.

Finally, if you have a lot of time on your hands, you can check out GameTrailer's excellent Star Wars Retrospective, a multi-part video documentary on the many, many, many different Star Wars games that have appeared on PC, video game systems, and in the arcade.

Have fun, and - we have to say it - may the force be with you.

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