I was recently asked four completely separate questions about arcade games that all had the same answer… Star Wars! The first was favourite memory of playing an arcade game, and I don’t think anything has ever matched the exhilaration of sitting down in that cockpit cabinet for the first time, which would have been at a Stanley Thurston’s travelling funfair in Bedford of all places, probably around 1984 by the time it got there for its twice-yearly visits. The next question was the arcade cabinet you’d buy if money was no object, and from what I can see currently we’re looking around £16,000 for an original; I guess it’s pretty high maintenance by this point too, so I’ll maybe stick with the literal Pandora’s Box of replica stand-up cabinets I’ve just got dangerously interested in as I write this! Third question was favourite movie tie-in game, and that one actually took a bit more thought than the first two – the other main contenders would be a more recent Star Wars game, Battlefront by DICE in 2015 on PlayStation 4, as well as Ghostbusters on Commodore 64 and Robocop’s arcade and Atari ST games. Then there’s also Alien on Atari 2600 (the greatest Pac-Man of them all!), and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on ZX Spectrum, and you’ve got Cobra and Nosferatu the Vampyre on there… In reality there wasn’t that much more thought needed though! Finally, question four was most impressive arcade conversion, and while the initial answer was the Star Wars port on Atari ST, in retrospect I think I meant Operation Wolf on ZX Spectrum, so before I ruin the flow here, let’s talk Star Wars!
I came so close to being able to tell you I’d seen every single Star Wars movie on release at the cinema, but unfortunately a major organ going on strike at the end of 2019 put paid to that little claim to fame on the home stretch. And let me tell you, having to then attempt to avoid any discussion on the film whatsoever until it finally arrived on Blu-ray was almost as painful as my kidneys going south just before Christmas that year! We got there in the end though, and unlike pretty much everyone else, I really enjoyed the conclusion to the new trilogy, as well as the two movies that preceded it, and to this day I’m still watching them all every couple of months without fail. And that’s also very much true of the original trilogy, although The Empire Strikes Back will also get its own regular bonus viewings in-between times too! That’s my favourite, and would sit narrowly outside my top ten of all time – somewhere between The Blob (original, of course) and Dracula A.D. 1972, although I have to say, the latter – which I watch even more regularly and sometimes back-to-back – is increasingly making advances on the top ten, and in no small part thanks to Caroline Munro’s taste in party outfits!
How did we end up there… All roads lead to Caroline Munro circa 1972, I guess! And I’m now struggling to re-focus on Star Wars, but it’s safe to say that despite being a fan of the latest instalments, and also not a fan of that obnoxious baby Yoda thing, I’m probably considered a bit of a Star Wars nerd! As I write I’m still surrounded by figures and vehicles from the late seventies and early eighties, as well as a few more recent “collector’s pieces” and Lego sets that might well have cost a small fortune but they’ll be worth even more in a few years, as I keep telling her indoors! Then there’s the original comics, and the annuals and the novels and the non-fiction books, and the videos and DVD’s and Blu-rays, and the special Silver Screen edition of the original that no one is supposed to be able to see anymore! I was five when that came out, and although by 1984 the little tip on Darth Vader’s extendable light sabre had long-since snapped off, and Yoda had lost the snake that was supposed to be draped around his neck (although I still hold out hope it will turn up in a box someday), I’ll still never forget the feeling of clambering into that arcade machine – with almost no imagination required, you were really in a real X-Wing and you were really slap-bang in the middle of the climax of the movie, and it was all just science fiction come to life!
As distinct as that memory still is, I’m so fortunate to have had an almost comparable but far more recent one! I’m talking, of course, about Star Wars: Squadrons, which was a rare day-one purchase back in 2020 on PlayStation 4, and I’ve played again far more recently on Xbox Series X. It’s PS4 where the action’s at though, because that’s where you also find PSVR! Every mode is available in virtual reality, and it’s all spectacular… At least until the motion sickness kicks in! Apart from that, story mode gives you around fifteen missions and a ton of different Rebel and Imperial ships to pilot across non-stop, spectacular, sprawling set pieces, and there’s multiplayer all-sorts if that’s your bag too. The biggest treat is the simple act of being able to look all around the cockpit though, with authentic features and controls scattered about, though I think the real highlight for me might have actually been just being able to look behind the seat in a TIE fighter (which is also the most fun to fly)! If you want to fly stuff out of Star Wars, there’s really no better place in 2022.
Still doesn’t beat actually sitting in a bit of an X-wing in 1984 though! There was a physicality to two metres and half a ton of cockpit cabinet that can’t be replicated in VR – from the act of climbing down onto the seat to the 25” QuadraScan Color window into space in front of you, dominating your field of vision, while your ears are being equally dominated by all of that realistic sound that totally enveloped you at some serious volume, and not least the iconic analog flight stick surrounded by all the paraphernalia of the X-wing’s interior that quickly faded into more than just some colourful decals! The clever placement of the screen deeper inside the flight deck also created the illusion of isolation too – you versus insurmountable odds – but in reality, while you felt enclosed as the player, the sides were more than open enough and, together with the smoked-perspex roof, meant every every other potential player around you could see what was going on and get sucked in to parting with their cash too!
That analog yoke was a real star of the show on both the sit-down and stand-up versions of the cabinet, offering this incredible precision that’s almost impossible to emulate elsewhere today. In fact, I think playing with a mouse is about as good as it gets, and that’s probably why the 16-bit conversions were as good as they got too! We’ll come back to those, but that flight stick was crazy responsive and so intuitive, with triggers and thumb buttons at the top of each side of the controller ramping up the immersion as you aimed across both x and y axes seamlessly. In fact, it started out life as a joystick but when they got focus groups involved to play-test the prototype arcade game they struggled to work out what was up and what was down, so Atari ended up taking the design of the adapted gunnery yoke from their fabled real-life Bradley Fighting Vehicle tank trainer, in turn based on their Battlezone arcade machine from 1981! And before I get too carried away with more tank control chat than a Resident Evil review, RoadBlasters fans might also recognise the same controller from that 1987 arcade cab.
We should probably mention the game itself at this point… “Operators and players alike will feel the power of THE FORCE. The force of a powerful new video game with graphic simulation that visually assaults the imagination. And special features that include music and dialogue created from the movie. And option switches which can be adjusted in self-test – entirely from the front of the game!” Wow. How did I forget the option switches a minute ago? I might come back to that flyer in a minute when we recap the story, but just to get us properly in the mood let me jump to another Atari marketing masterclass… “It’s the blockbuster game you’ve been waiting for! Now you can take part in the STAR WARS phenomenon! You cannot ignore the power of THE FORCE! DARTH VADER beware! STAR WARS by ATARI introduces a new age of coin video entertainment. Graphic simulation that plunges you head-on into the movie. Special effects that blast you into an unknown dimension! Dare to challenge DARTH VADER in galactic combat. Go in for the attack. Blow up the DEATH STAR. Make your mark in the annals of epic space exploits. Remember – THE FORCE will be with you. Always.”
Okay, enough of that. We really should probably mention the game itself at this point! I’ve actually given far more thought than is probably necessary to a description I read recently that described Star Wars as a rail-shooter. I guess it is, in that you’re shooting stuff but have no control over your path, but I’ve really never thought of it that way – normally I’d associate something like House of the Dead or Time Crisis or Virtua Cop with that moniker. But then I got to thinking that by the same logic, Operation Wolf and Space Harrier and After Burner that I’ve thought of for decades as just 3D shooters also then fall into that bracket. Same for other favourites like Battle Shark and Panorama Cotton. There is possibly some nuance there, in that in some you’re moving a character or vehicle around the screen while it automatically shoots at stuff, where in others you’re moving a crosshair; and let’s not get started on light-guns because none of this is especially important! Just interesting that a throwaway label can really colour and recolour the way you think about things, or even make you think about things you hadn’t thought about before… Possibly for good reason! Right, Star Wars, maybe a 3D rail-shooter designed by Mike Hally and launched into the arcades by the free-falling juggernaut that was Atari in 1983. Actually, it didn’t do too badly for them, and was their top-selling arcade release that year, shifting almost thirteen thousand units.
Back in the machine, once you’ve selected from easy, medium or hard difficulty, which effectively dictate where in the game you start, as well as the massive bonuses on offer for a successful run, you’re in Luke Skywalker view inside the X-wing and ready to take on phase one. Each run consists of three phases, culminating in blowing up the Death Star for that potential bonus then starting again. First you need to get there though, and with a burst of the Star Wars theme to inspire you on, you’re straight into a dogfight with Darth Vader and a bunch of TIE-fighters! The music is worth a mention here because throughout the game you might get a few seconds of that or the Imperial March or any other random bits of John Williams’ iconic soundtrack from out of nowhere, in full chiptune stereo, and each bit apparently no more than once every seven minutes! Alongside the music and the punchy laser fire and explosions, we’re also treated to a load of sampled speech, with inspiration from Obi-Wan Kenobi, congratulations from Han Solo, commentary from Darth Vader and Luke himself, either giving instructions to R2D2 or the classic “Red-Five, I’m going in” as you rid yourself of Empire fighters and survive enough of this initial onslaught to get drawn towards the Death Star as it looms out of the distance! This stage is time-based rather than having to take down any specific number of enemies or the big fireballs they shoot at you, and in fact you could just passively avoid everything if you really wanted to; actually, not shooting a TIE-fighter and letting it fly straight by you will give you my favourite bit of sampled sound in the game – that sinister roar that was based on the German Stuka bomber’s terror-siren, but was, in fact, the sound of an elephant combined with a car driving on a wet road! In reality there’s not really a huge amount to this bit, but that doesn’t take away from the thrill of multiple TIE-fighters all over you at once, and finally nailing one of them and seeing it explode into lots of bits of vector! And there’s always the rumour about if you shoot Darth Vader enough times you’ll get masses of shields to keep you occupied!
The next phase does depend on the difficulty you’ve chosen, as in Easy mode you’ll skip it on your first run, but in other modes or on subsequent runs you’ll be on the surface of the Death Star, making your way to the trench around its middle that holds its fatal flaw. It took me several decades to spot this, but as you transition into this phase and approach the Death Star, the yellow lines that make up its surface from a distance actually spell out “May the Force be with you” if you look very closely – I noticed it when I brought my Atari ST out of hibernation and started playing on there again, but this message does also appear in the arcade version on odd-numbered runs, where even ones will reveal (albeit very obscurely) some of the development team’s names. Once you’ve stopped trying to read cosmic graffiti, there’s further variation depending on difficulty level and how many times you’ve been around, with the first go at it on Easy just seeing you being attacked from enemy bunkers, while later on there’s also laser turrets on the top of big towers that need to be dodged, though taking down the turrets in succession while you’re doing so will reward you with increasingly big bonuses. You can very easily start losing a lot of shields when you start playing that game though, because brush against a tower and you’re being knocked out of kilter, and once that happens it’s easy to stay that way as you then fail to avoid another and another in quick succession! Some of the documentation I’ve read talks about six shields, but as far as I can tell eight is the default, although this was something the arcade operator could alter in the machine’s settings, which might explain any variance.
Keep enough of however many shields you’ve got intact for long enough and you’ll finally drop down into the trench, which, as the horizon spins into transition, is another moment of absolute exhilaration that this game offers! You’re now on the attack run to take down the Death Star, but first you need to negotiate this narrow gulley strewn with laser turrets on either side, and as you increase in difficulty or progress further, will be joined by a series of catwalks across its width, requiring evasive action above, below or in-between, and often all three in quick succession later on! Getting to the end first time around is a cinch on easy difficulty, but things do get really frantic after that as you try to manoeuvre your ship this way and that to both aim at the chaos of laser-fireball things while also avoiding obstacles that need you to wrestle it the other way at the same time! Although you’re not controlling overall direction, moving your crosshair will also have the effect of changing your ship’s immediate direction, which is way more intuitive than that sounds! Once you’re through all of that, there’s a “Yahoo, you’re all clear kid!” from Han Solo and it’s time to use the Force, Luke! This is probably the trickiest part of the game, as you try to keep the crosshair somewhere down and ahead of you to anticipate the exhaust port that’s all too suddenly about to appear at great speed, giving you a fleeting fraction of a second to get a single shot of your proton torpedo away at it and into it! There is a timing to it, but all the same, it’s incredibly tense because there’s always something (literally) hit or miss about getting this right – one in a million, according to another bit of sampled Han Solo! Get it right, though, and you’re going to be hurled back into space as the Death Star exploding consumes the whole screen, and you’ll get any bonus points due and a bonus shield on top, and off you go to start all over, with a few more lasers and more fiendish obstacles to negotiate. Miss your shot, however, and you’re sent back to the start of the trench run with one less shield to play with. And while I’m not sure about that shooting Darth Vader for shields rumour at the beginning, I do know that if you use the Force as instructed at the top of the screen during this stage and don’t shoot anything, you do get a 5,000 point bonus for your trouble!
I’m almost as baffled by Star Wars’ graphics as I am its genre, although in a far more glowing way! It’s all colour vectors – 3D made out of straight lines arranged to give the illusion of perspective, with enemy ships, fireballs and even the classic Star Wars text scroll in the attract mode all done the same way. And none of that should scream realism, but somehow it does! I’m not just taking the “realism” of never having seen big 3D shapes being thrown around so smoothly before back in 1983 either; I mean that while you’re playing, you’re looking at actual TIE-fighters and Death Stars! There’s some black magic at play there, on a whole other level to that regular black magic we expected back then when our imaginations filled in the blanks. And while the vector stylings have evolved from revolutionary and groundbreaking in the early eighties to timeless in the early twenties, that experience is unchanged. It’s Star Wars magically come to life in a load of simple line art!
That magic finally moved from the memories of a fairground amusement arcade to my bedroom late in 1989, the very same day I bought my Atari ST from Selfridges in London with money I’d saved from my Saturday job in Sainsbury’s. There was never any question of the first game I bought for it (illicit copies of Dungeon Master et al not withstanding) since Computer & Video Games magazine had first reviewed the deluge of ports on everything early in 1988; that review was probably why I waited too – while the ST version was lauded as pretty much the holy grail of arcade-perfect, the 8-bit versions all took a beating, especially the Commodore 64 one… Apparently not very good at this new-fangled 3D stuff! To this day I’ve never played any other version either, which I’m sure you’ll be thankful for this far in!
Of course, what the ST version couldn’t bring to the home was that arcade yoke or, indeed, the full cockpit experience, but there was good reason why C&VG was still lavishing almost perfect scores on a four year old game by this point – the game held up without it. And actually, it did more than hold up because while the ST experience didn’t have that physicality, it did have a mouse! Much like that other game I’d never considered to be a rail-shooter before today, Space Harrier, on Atari ST, the mouse controls feel absolutely fantastic, and even bring their own physicality. Apart from that, it does a great job of what I think might be pixel-based vectors, and it’s fast, and the sound effects and speech are possibly even punchier than the original; in fact, the only thing it’s missing are those bursts of random soundtrack, but in their place we are getting a wonderfully dense version of the main theme on the title page. Wonder what the Amiga version sounds like? And how The A500 Mini’s mouse feels too…
Before we’re turned to the dark side by all of this Amiga chat, we should quickly mention the sequels! Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was released into the arcades as a conversion kit for the original game in 1985. As such, it’s much the same format, but this time out you’re starting as Luke Skywalker on Hoth, first taking down Imperial probe droids and then taking on the terrifying might the AT-ST and AT-AT walkers. As well as shooting at everything, you’ve also got four tow cables to fire at the AT-AT’s legs, and taking them down that way will net you a decent bonus. Once that’s done, it’s over to Han Solo in the Millenium Falcon, where you first need to take down a load of TIE-fighters against the backdrop of a huge Imperial Cruiser, then if you last long enough with them you’ll need to survive an asteroid field before starting again. It might not have the impact of the original, and some of the new speech samples don’t really come across that well, but it’s a fantastic follow-up that I’ve never really played enough of. Actually, I didn’t even own a copy until I picked up Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike for the GameCube around Christmas 2003, where all three arcade games are hidden away as secret bonuses…
Just to close the loop on that, there was, of course, also a Return of the Jedi arcade game, which came out in 1984, a year before Empire Strikes Back! This time they went for isometric raster graphics rather than vectors, and gameplay that feels like Zaxxon meets Spy Hunter as you fly through the forests of Endor on a speeder bike before switching to the Millennium Falcon to take down a reactor, before then alternating between that and an AT-ST to take down an Imperial cruiser. It looks alright and there’s some great speech and sound effects, but I’ve always found the gameplay to be a bit clumsy. In its defence, though, I’m not sure the GameCube controller is the ideal way to play!
After all of that Star Wars business, I’ve just set myself another conundrum – is Star Wars my favourite movie series? Well, about two-thirds of it might be! But if one of those other questions we began here with was about my favourite arcade game, then Star Wars probably wouldn’t be the answer. Would it be top five though? Well, we’ve got Shao-Lin’s Road, Elevator Action, Out Run and Deathsmiles to consider first, but yes, Star Wars would definitely come next! C&VG felt the gameplay stood up four years after the fact, and I can only concur closer to forty. Vector graphics might now bestow an element of timelessness, but timeless gameplay is another matter, and this – probably quite uniquely – still has both!
Completely agree. The Atari ST was as ridiculously easy with the mouse as the arcade version was as ridiculously hard.