As I write this, I’ve just finished writing a bit of an epic on my life with Atari’s 1983 Star Wars Arcade game. But as I write this, you can’t read that yet, so, to avoid future repetition, as far as Star Wars credentials go here, I’ll simply say that I’m a big enough nerd to consider the just-released 665-piece Death Star Trench Run Lego set to be as essential as my family’s weekly food shop! If you do want a bit more flavour though, you can always check out my recent review of The Mandarin on Amstrad CPC. And if I remember I’ll come back from the future when the other one’s on the loose and link to it here too!
What I will exclusively say here is that aside from being a Star Wars (not to mention Lego) nerd, if we’re talking movies in general then The Empire Strikes Back sits at number twelve in my all-time favourites list, sandwiched between The Dambusters and The Blob (1958 original, obviously). Where I’ve seen the other two of the original trilogy dozens and dozens of times, I’ve seen this one literally hundreds of times, although I can’t really pay it a higher compliment than one better than The Blob! What I can also say, though, is that I’m a veteran of the Atari 2600, and while it’s never going to match the timeless exhilaration of that sit-down Star Wars arcade cabinet, I do have a bit of history with The Empire Strikes Back on there too!
We can probably kill two birds with one stone here, so let’s quickly recap what’s going on in the original 1982 Parker Brothers game… If you’ve ever played Defender, it’s a similar vibe, with you playing as Luke Skywalker in your snowspeeder, zooming left and right across the side-scrolling frozen surface of the ice planet Hoth, trying to take down the Imperial AT-AT walkers. You need to keep them at bay and prevent them from attacking your power generators for as long as possible, but they’ll be shooting back at you, and if you lose your five lives or they reach their target then it’s game over. Which is pretty cruel when you think about it – you can’t win! Taking one of these things down is pretty cruel too, with no less than forty-eight direct hits to the head or body needed to finish it off, although that was toned down to thirty in the subsequent Intellivision version. Regardless, it was always a bit more than just a Defender clone in a very impressive and distinctive Star Wars skin, and there’s still fun to be had in its gameplay today. Which I’m sure is why we’re now face-to-face with a brand new Commodore 64 version!
Not to be confused with Domark’s 1988 Commodore 64 port of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (and you definitely won’t be confused if you ever had that particular misfortune), Empire Strikes Back – C64 Fan Version is a 2022 homebrew remaster of the old Parker Brothers Atari 2600 and Intellivision game, created by Megastyle, the self-proclaimed collective of old-timers out to create games on old hardware. Loads of Commodore games for everything from the VIC-20 to the Amiga on their itch.io page if you want to check those out too, but this one’s all about the 64, and your free download from there will get you a digital cassette version of the game (TAP format), a digital disk version of the game (D64 format) and an executable program file of the game (PRG format).
The C64 version stays pretty faithful to the original setup, with you flying to the left to confront the walkers using the radar to locate them, but get to the end of the map and you’re forced to stop, while if the walkers get to the other end and get enough shots away at your power generator then it’s game over. As well as the appearance of Imperial probe droids, we now have two types of walker, with the smaller but more agile AT-STs now also joining the fray. These take 20 shots to take down while the bigger AT-ATs now take 30-50, with headshots causing more damage, and you can still attack from both sides. There’s also the droid hatches, which, if you spot one opening and can fire a missile into it in time, will bring the whole thing down instantly. And if you avoid any damage for a minute, the Force will be with you and you’ll be invincible for the next 15 seconds.
There’s a bit of strategy at play too. If you weaken the lead walker without destroying it outright, it’s going to slow down, causing everything behind it to slow down too, and that gives you a chance to work on the rest with a bit more time on your side before returning to the leader as it approaches the power generator. And you’ll know it’s getting weakened because the more you shoot it, the more battle-damaged its appearance becomes, which is one of my favourite bits of what is already a very good-looking game! It does a great job of spicing up an ice-white environment with a handful of muted colours (and not a C64 brown in sight!), resulting in a painterly feel where delicate, detailed flourishes create three layers of smooth, parallax scrolling across the rocky foreground, mountain backdrop and darkening sky. The snow-speeder sprite and smaller walkers are perfectly recognisable and as detailed as they’re going to get on this platform, but as with the original, the real stars of the show are those huge AT-ATs that relentlessly lumber across the snowy landscape! Their scale just never fails to impress every time you’re flying at full-pelt to get into the action for the first time and suddenly there it is! The whole thing might not quite reach the winter wonderland heights of Winter Games, but when the stunning colours combine with these carefully crafted sprites, all at speed and in multiple directions, this is one of the best-looking Commodore 64 games I’ve seen in a while!
Coming back to strategy, there’s another really cool trick that allows you to get at hatches opening below the head, where you lure the head upwards then quickly fly down to get a shot away while it’s exposed, and there’s even more little tricks that anyone can take advantage of, even on their first go… Download the instruction file and run it on your Commodore 64, whatever form that now takes. Not only does it explain all of this, the scoring mechanics and who’s behind the game, but there’s some really cool big-size pixel art Star Wars and developer imagery! Also make sure you do a slow load to take in the wonderful loading screen and very special SID rendition of the Star Wars theme. Which turns into an every more special rendition of the Imperial March once you get to the title screen – you’ve never heard it so sinister! Speaking of which, you need to wait for the high score table for even more of the soundtrack by SID, but during the game your ship’s movement is accompanied by dynamic drone that becomes almost musical as you turn back and forth amid the more regular sounds of space guns and explosions.
The game is also now stage-based, easing you in with a couple of AT-STs to take down in stage one before a brief cut scene showing another successful evacuation transport taking off, and then it’s ramping up the difficulty in the subsequent stages as you’re introduced to bigger and more enemies. Also worth noting that in this update we’ve got a health bar to play with as well as four lives (with an extra coming at 1000 points), but with semi-homing missiles now coming at you from all directions you’re going to need all the help you can get! While there is certainly now more direction as well as more depth, it’s still very much the Parker Brothers game at heart though, and you can feel the passion for the original everywhere you look! And just like that game, you’re going to feel like the fool every time your impatience means you’ve just taken an unnecessary hit, and it’s going to make you want to go back and do it better over and over!
I’ve been waiting for this for a while, but even though the preview screenshots always told me otherwise, in reality I really never expected to be quite so impressed by this! It might have been put together by some incredible talent with an impressive pedigree, but it’s still a fan version… Not to mention a brand new Commodore 64 game in 2022. And an update of an old Atari 2600 favourite. And a Star Wars one at that! You’ve already spent way too long reading this and not downloading it, for free, right here, so no excuses, go and enjoy it as much as I did!