The Best (and Worst) of Star Wars
By Aaron Daniel, Bill Henning, Josh Snyder
For Star Wars fans, May 4, or better known as “May the Fourth,” is a holiday, a chance to celebrate one of the most beloved franchises in movie history. But Star Wars is more than just six films – it’s a series of novels, comics, animated shows and, most importantly, video games. In honor of May the Fourth, Theory of Gaming set out to determine which Star Wars game is the best digital representation of the franchise. But after discussing so many of the franchise’s games, it became apparent that not only are there many great ones, but there are some bad games. Really bad games. Each author has chosen what they feel is the best Star Wars game, along with their pick for the worst.
Aaron Daniel, contributing writer
Best Star Wars Game – TIE Fighter
I’m lucky to be of an age where I got to see video games rise from beeps and boops to modern day masterpieces. Having played my fair share of games throughout the years, there are some that inspired me, changed my viewpoints, or helped redefine video games. Published by LucasArts, and developed by Totally Games, Star Wars: TIE Fighter is one of the few games that did all three for me and is my favorite Star Wars game of all time.
TIE Fighter is set during the interval between the Battle of Hoth and the Battle of Endor. The game is told entirely from the Empire’s perspective, a first for Star Wars games, and puts you in control of a rookie fighter pilot. Unlike most of the Star Wars games, you did not play as a Jedi of any kind, nor do you have any superhuman powers. Before embarking on any missions, there is a concourse where you can practice in the combat simulator, check technical specifications of craft, and view gun camera footage in the film room. Jumping into combat without first practicing isn’t advisable as there are so many keys that players need to learn to be effective during combat. The ‘k’ button, which brings up a list of what each key does, became my best friend for the first few missions as I relearned what buttons I needed to press to get the desired outcome.
TIE Fighter was modeled to bring the feel of World War II era dogfights into space, and it succeeded wonderfully. Being able to fly in any direction you want to let you set up an approach angle of your choosing and let you engage the most dangerous enemies first. I quickly learned to cycle through the available targets to ascertain which craft I needed to focus on first, usually striking them from a distance with missiles before getting up close and using lasers to finish them off. Also, focusing on just the enemy you have targeted can leave you open to attacks from other ships as you are usually outnumbered. Spacial awareness, and knowing that enemies will attack from any available angle, had me jumping from target to target in order to keep them from getting a good shot on me.
Sure, Star Wars: X-Wing came first, but TIE Fighter was so much more to me than X-Wing ever managed to be. TIE Fighter featured upgraded graphics with gouraud shading and allowed more aircrafts at one time with better definition. The heads-up display (HUD) was a huge improvement, showing 3-D rendered pictures of targeted craft with their correct orientation to your own craft. This allowed you to easily set an intercept course or to see if another craft was closing in behind you. Before the mission you could talk to the flight officer for a full run down of the objectives, what enemy craft you will run into, and what you will be flying. Also, you could talk to the “cloaked figure,” a lesser prophet, to get your secondary objectives, completion of which gave you greater prestige and medals.
TIE Fighter was a fantastic deviation from the other Star Wars games as it finally let you play as part of the Galactic Empire. Thinking back to the early to mid 90s, there were not many games at that time that put you on the side of the bad guys. Totally Games did a fantastic job of painting the Empire as a force of peace and order and not the diabolical evil the movies show. Many of the missions charge you with hunting down pirates or other malcontents, thereby assuring peace throughout the galaxy. Meanwhile, the Rebels are seen as the cause of disorder and chaos. Video games of today, such as the Fallout or inFAMOUS series, let the player decide to be good or evil, and I wonder if we would have that option if games like TIE Fighter never happened.
For me, TIE Fighter is the epitome of what the good Star Wars games should be. The controls are tight, well setup and, after enough practice, easy to use. The combat is fast, engaging and fun. The universe of Star Wars is so vast that there are so many stories to be told. TIE Fighter fits into that universe without being tied to any movie plot and it does it wonderfully. To me, TIE Fighter is the best Star Wars game of all time.
Worst Star Wars Game – Super Star Wars
Remember in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope when Luke murders the Jawas to get R2D2 back? Or when Luke’s blaster shot homing missiles? How about when Luke, Han and Chewbacca storm the Death Star and rescue Princess Leia while jumping over speeding TIE Fighters? Perhaps you remember when Luke fought the Sarlacc Pit Monster on Tatooine? No, I didn’t recall any of that either, but Super Star Wars, released in 1992 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and developed by Sculptured Software takes you there and beyond.
Since it is an action game, Sculptured Software took a number of liberties in its adaptation of Episode IV. I’ve already pointed out that the story was changed to up the ante and while I don’t agree with it, I understand why it was done. What I don’t understand is why it needed to be so over the top since Episode IV has a fair amount of action as it is. The story is changed where it doesn’t need to be and it ends up painting the story’s heroes as superhuman mass murders.
I’m willing to forgive the fact that Super Star Wars deviates a great deal from the story of Episode IV upon which it is based, but what I’m not willing to overlook is the shoddy gameplay. Super Star Wars is known for its punishing difficulty which comes from two sources: skill based challenges, and cheap ones. Quite a few of the levels feature extended jumping sections where a misstep will end in death or plummeting down to the start of the level. Joined with clunky jump controls and environmental hazards that will end your life instantly these sections quickly become insanely frustrating.
There are three difficulty settings: easy, which is the only way many will see the ending, brave, which is the default setting and is quite hard, and Jedi, which is absurdly punishing. Enemies continuously spawn, leaving you no room for breath, and a quickly depleting health bar. I often found myself falling down a level due to a missed jump, and having to fight my way back up, killing all the enemies that I just offed on my last climb.
SNES action games of that era all had boss fights, but most of the boss fights in Super Star Wars left me wondering why, rather than giving me a sense of satisfaction. The first level ends with a fight against the Sarlacc Pit Monster first seen in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The cantina fight, which in Super Star Wars language means you murder everyone in the place, ends with you fighting Kalhar, a creature from the dejarik board game played between Chewbacca and R2D2. The problem is that if there have to be boss battles, there are more logical choices for bosses for the character to fight against.
The vehicle combat isn’t very well executed, even if it does look great. While piloting the land speeder, if you are accelerating, all of your shots will plow into the dirt right in front of you. This leaves you fighting those dastardly Jawas while coasting along or strafing left and right. The X-Wing levels are better than the land speeder, but still aren’t great as the constantly spawning TIE Fighters can quickly take you out if you are the least bit reckless and you are limited to where you can fly. Both vehicle combat sections feature a set number of enemies that must be destroyed before the level will progress.
That this game is still positively received to this day is mind boggling. While the graphics were great for the time, the gameplay and story were fairly awful then and they are even worse now. If it is the difficulty that attracts you, there are better games for that. If it is the Star Wars story that attracts you, there are better games for that too. It’s time that we bury Super Star Wars and forget that it ever happened because it is one of the worst video game incarnations of Star Wars.
Bill Henning, contributing writer
Best Star Wars Game – Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight
In 1995, a Star Wars game came out on PC called Star Wars: Dark Forces – a first-person shooter (FPS) that looked a lot like Doom, expect the player could jump, crouch and look up and down. It also had unparalleled level design that consisted of multiple floors, which was unheard of at the time for a FPS. It also gave players the ability to play as Kyle Katarn – imagine if Han Solo was a mercenary rather than a smuggler. For me, the game was like a checklist of awesome. Do you like Doom? How about instead of killing demons from Hell you kill stormtroopers? Yes, please.
Two years later, the sequel, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, was released. Once again, gamers played as Kyle Katarn, but this time with a twist – the player is given a lightsaber, and throughout the twenty-one levels, slowly learns awesome and devastating force powers. So now we have a more badass Han Solo with a lightsabers and force powers – looking back, it’s easy to see how a younger me fell in love with this game.
As I replay this game, I’m seeing all over again why this game truly is the best Star Wars game to date. And it isn’t just the nostalgia – this game really is the best Star Wars game, mainly because it feels like the original trilogy, letting players live the life of a Jedi in dark times.
The game tells an amazing story of an angry, young man trying to find the person who killed his father, and quickly finds himself thrown into a plot around seven Dark Jedi (the term Sith wasn’t widely used until the movie prequels) and the fate of the universe. Although the graphics are dated, much about the gameplay still feels fresh. The perspective can be changed seamlessly between first- and third-person with a single hit of a button, the force powers are unique and enhance the gameplay tremendously, and there are plenty of secret locations to find throughout each level. It was also one of the earliest Star Wars games to implement the idea of different endings, based upon the actions of the player throughout the game. Leaning toward the light side or dark side changed more than the outcome of the game – the player would get different force powers, different lightsabers and even different bosses. All of this was six years before Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which popularized morality in Star Wars games.
The level design was classic FPS, with open, non-linear levels, unlike modern day FPSs which are glorified on-rails shooters. Jedi Knight had some hallway sections to guide the player, but there were plenty of open areas that could be completed in multiple ways, with branching paths and levels laid out like those found in Doom. Secrets could be found in every level, giving you new gear and points to spend on force powers, along with puzzles that started to get more and more complex, which forced the player to use different force powers in clever ways. This added to the experience, making every level feel different and new. But the one thing that really stands out are the boss fights.
Six different levels were set aside as boss fights – no extra enemies, no running around looking for keys, just you and a Dark Jedi. Before each fight a brief narration presented backstory about the Dark Jedi, telling the player how each Dark Jedi fights differently, allowing these levels to feel unique. It gave each fight a weight to them, making them feel epic in scale. In fact, in one level you have to fight two at the same time, which is still one of my all time favorite levels as it added a new element to an already fresh take on boss fights.
Some will claim that, when it comes to the combat, Jedi Knight begins to show its age with clunky and rigid lightsaber mechanics, but I would disagree – the combat is perfect. Combat is slow, but precise – there is a fast attack that does less damage, and a heavy attack that is slower and more powerful, but leaves the player open for a counter attack. There is an upside to the slower pace of these fights – although it may feel cumbersome at times, the combat made Jedi Knight feel like it was part of the original trilogy, with it’s well timed sword fighting, and not it’s mindless hack and slash counterparts. After all, the lightsaber is an elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.
What really makes Jedi Knight stand out from other Star Wars games is that, sometimes, the lightsaber wasn’t always the right weapon. Games like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Knights of the Old Republic were limiting in that the lightsaber was the only weapon needed. But in Jedi Knight sometimes you had to fight AT-STs, waves of stormtroopers and kell dragons. The clunky controls of the lightsaber, even if it was only one hit to kill most enemies, gave it a handicap to make sure the other weapons within the game would still have a use, and leaving the lightsaber for boss fights made those levels stand out even more.
Jedi Knight felt like playing in the original film trilogy. It had a personal story that slowly turned into a galaxy saving quest, it had an industrial science fiction aesthetics, and had combat that felt like the original trilogy. The lightsaber battles were eventful and memorable, and felt like they had a greater sense of purpose. There’s not much that is missing from this game, making it the must-play game for every Star Wars fan.
Worst Star Wars Game – Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
In the sequel to Jedi Knight, Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, the graphics were enhanced and more in-depth force powers and lightsaber combat were implanted into the gameplay. On paper, it was a better game than Jedi Knight, but the problem was that by adding more bells and whistles the game started to lose parts of the core gameplay that made Jedi Knight feel like it belonged to the original movie trilogy. Jedi Academy is my least favorite game mainly because it doesn’t live up to its name and feels tacked on rather than a full fledged sequel.
Jedi Academy takes Kyle Katarn away as the playable character, casting him in a supporting role. Instead we are given a character creator mode, choosing between some of the more popular Star Wars races, along with the ability to select gender and light saber color. The protagonist is the padawan of Kyle Katarn, who now goes on missions with him. A certain number of missions are open for you to pick, and after doing so, many plot elements takes place, opening more random missions before a final fight with the boss.
The single player campaign doesn’t work because the story is bland, and most of the levels feel like pointless side quests that have nothing to do with the main plot. The main plot isn’t even a focus in this game because of the open-ended structure. In fact, most of the levels are forgettable, except for the Hoth level, and that only works because the developers are pulling on the old nostalgia heart strings.
One of the most baffling choices is to have Kyle Katarn play a supporting role, instead of being the protagonist. By removing such a rich character from the center of the story, all of the emotional investment that players had for him is lost. The lack of a compelling story and filler missions can’t be saved by better graphics and better fighting mechanics.
That’s not to say that developer Raven Software didn’t try. Lightsaber combat in Jedi Academy was enhanced with the inclusion of three stances – low, medium and high. Matching the attacks of your opponent will help block attacks, while switching them will allow you to land more attacks. Players also had the option of choosing a specific type of lightsaber combat for their class, such as using one lightsaber, using a double-bladed weapon, or even wielding two lightsabers. The whole game was more or less a way to give players their own personal Jedi experience, and thanks to player mods it mostly worked.
However, these changes led to a lack of tension in lightsaber fights. Raven Software introduced numerous characters who also have lightsabers, including common enemies. When I first played Jedi Academy I thought these characters would be minibosses or crucial to the plot. Instead, these basic enemies serve to diminish the emotional depth and weight of lightsaber fights. They just become another thing the player has to do, instead of being a memorable event. On top of this, the combat really just boils down to running in and hacking and slashing at the enemies until one dies.
Jedi Academy removes all of the ground work the previous games had worked hard to establish. Gone is the personal story and the engaging lightsaber combat. Jedi Academy completely abandons the structure that Jedi Knight established, and while it works sometimes, for the most part it flops. It is like the movie prequels in that sense, when the state of the art graphics can’t hold a movie together because the movie itself is flat and unwatchable. Jedi Academy is like the prequel movies to the Dark Forces series.
Josh Snyder, managing editor
Best Star Wars Game – Knights of the Old Republic
Considering my publicly professed love of BioWare games, my pick of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) probably seems like a cop-out. After all, there are plenty of great Star Wars games that get no love, and one could argue that KOTOR gets more attention that it deserves… but they would be wrong.
The universe of Star Wars is expansive, the canon well-established, the possibilities endless. Because of this, it almost seems tragic that many Star Wars games are such linear experiences – it is a franchise that is best served by a game that allows the player to explore an open world at their own pace, that allows them to travel to multiple worlds on a whim. One where the player can shape the story, and the characters around them, as they see fit.
KOTOR is that game. With a plot that rivals any of those found in the films, KOTOR sets itself apart by being the best Star Wars tale told in a video game to date. The tragic descent into the Dark Side by Revan and Malak after the Mandalorian Wars is a fantastic backdrop to a story that explores the philosophical debate of personal identity. What defines a person – is it their past actions, their memories, or are they defined by their physical form? What happens if any of those factors are altered – do they become a new person, or can people never truly change? Players were forced to ponder this after learning that the player character, the same one they had grown attached to all game, was, in reality, the Dark Lord Revan, whose memory was erased after being captured by the Jedi, in an attempt to learn the secrets of Malak’s plan and to stop the Sith once and for all. This development is shocking for multiple reasons, most notably because it offers an insight into both the Sith and Jedi that are rarely seen or explored. The Sith are relentless, and want nothing more than to control the galaxy, but they value self-empowerment, and strongly urge each individual to seize upon this power to better themselves. The Jedi, always seen as peaceful negotiators, are now recast as a group willing to erase a person’s memory solely to use them as an unknowing weapon. It is an underhanded tactic that is typically reserved for the Sith, not the supposedly noble Jedi.
But what KOTOR does that many other Star Wars games fail to do is ground the story in the canon’s ancient history. Every Star Wars movie, and most of the games, opens with the phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” This establishes that there is an ancient history to this universe, and one of the many reasons the original Star Wars film worked is because the movie immediately casts the characters as players in a war that pre-dates the movie by decades. KOTOR takes this a step further – the plot centers on uncovering a mysterious artifact known as the Star Forge, which was made more than 20,000 years prior to the events of KOTOR, and was constructed by a race of now-extinct aliens, the Rakatan Infinite Empire, that predates the Galactic Republic by roughly 5,000 years. This cast everything fans thought they knew about Star Wars into a new light – these events, epic and grand in scale, are just a minor blip on the galactic timeline, one that stretches so far back that multiple empires have risen and fallen.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg – pages could be written about the eclectic cast of characters the player can recruit into their party, the complicated relationships that are forged between them. The combat system, a cross between real-time and turned-based, is still one of the most fluid, easy-to-learn-yet-difficult-to-master combat systems ever seen in an RPG. And the variety of playstyles the game accommodates is insane, made even better by the ability to directly control any character in the player’s party during combat. Getting tired of swinging a lightsaber at enemies? Spec out Zaalbar to be an expert Wookie sniper, or go the stealth route with the young Twi’lek, Mission Vao.
KOTOR is the complete Star Wars game – it offers the players the chance to explore the universe of Star Wars, and to be a part of its history, all the while uncovering some long buried truths during an excellently crafted story. KOTOR is the complete package, and the best Star Wars game ever made.
Worst Star Wars Game – Star Wars Galaxies
Back in my high school days, one of my favorite pastimes was building the biggest bonfire possible, and keeping it going with as much gasoline as I could. It’s amazing that I still have all of my fingers, and that my hair was never torched. During my junior year, and during a particularly cold and snowy Michigan winter, a group of friends came over to my house for the weekend, and we kicked things off by immediately proceeding to trudge out into the woods and build a massive bonfire. But what made this specific bonfire memorable was that, earlier that day at school, a friend eagerly told us all about Star Wars Galaxies, a Star Wars game, where you could play with thousands of other fans, and play as whoever you wanted to be, with no limitations. It was instantly, in our minds, the best game ever made.
All during the night, as the bonfire went from comically massive to burning embers, my friends and I all planned our clan – we would all be Wookie moisture farmers on Tatooine. We intricately detailed each person’s role, and how they would each contribute to what would be the most economically-efficient Wookie moisture farmer clan across all of Tatooine. The conversation continued for weeks. I had never wanted to play a game so badly as I did Star Wars Galaxies.
Years later, I finally had my chance, after dropping $50 on the game and immediately purchasing a three-month extension to my subscription (yes, Star Wars Galaxies required a monthly subscription). Within minutes, my world came crashing down – Star Wars Galaxies, as I learned, was an absolutely horrendous game.
One factor that makes any successful Star Wars game feel like a Star Wars game is the lightsaber. It’s a symbol of power, and a symbol of the technological marvels this world possesses. Even if the player takes on the role of a bounty hunter or fighter pilot, the sight of a lightsaber is what really makes the game feel like a Star Wars game. And it’s also just plain fun – wielding a beam of light that can cut enemies in half and deflect blaster shots is pure awesome. So of course, Star Wars Galaxies limits the number of players per server who could play as a Jedi. We were told this was done to help keep with the continuity – the game took place during the original trilogy – but all it did was force players to grind through useless classes for hours on end in the hopes of getting the one thing that should have been available to players from the beginning – a goddamn lightsaber.
Instead, I remember starting my game with an axe. Not a light-axe or some super-advanced particle-wave-beam-thingy-axe. A boring old axe, that in any fantasy game would be used for chopping wood. But I wouldn’t be using it for such a mundane task – instead I would be using it to kill some weird frog-like alien creatures for, of all people, Watto, the shifty mechanic and pod racer owner from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Right off the bat, Star Wars Galaxies commits two huge sins – it forces the player to grind through boring filler missions that take zero advantage of the setting, and it immediately links the experience to a character from the worst film of the anthology. To this day, I fail to understand how this experience made it into the final product without one person raising a hand and asking, why, of all the characters the player could interact with, is Watto the one. And where are the lightsabers?
From that moment, everything else went downhill. My time with the game came before the combat upgrade and the complete overhaul that was the “new game experience,” but the fact that the developers had to completely change the fundamentals of the game years after its original release illustrates just how poor the initial experience was. Nothing about it felt like Star Wars – it could have easily been a World of Warcraft clone, or any generic fantasy-based game. The mechanics were confusing and poorly implemented, and the game practically forced players into grinding. I remember the moment I decided to quit for good, when I learned that the character class I had spent a month working hard on was about to be altered in a way that rendered its special abilities absolutely useless. All of that grinding, killing all of those pesky alien frogs for Watto, all for nothing.
Star Wars Galaxies had so much potential, so much promise, and none of it was tapped into. And I’m still waiting for that game my friends and I talked about all those years ago. Because the one thing this world needs is a hippie-like commune of Wookies, on Tatooine, farming water. And the last thing it needs is another failure like Star Wars Galaxies.
About the Authors
Aaron Daniel began gaming on the Atari 2600 and hasn’t stopped. He still owns a NES, and SNES, but is most pleased with his complete Sega Master System. His favorite games are Xenogears, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Skyrim. His favorite genres are any RPG and First Person Shooter, and his favorite developers are Bethesda and Gearbox.
Bill Henning didn’t start gaming on consoles, he started with Battle Chess on MS DOS, sticking mostly to PC games until about 13 years ago, when he finally owned his very own system. A great story is just as important to Bill as graphics, control and overall gameplay. Some of his favorite games are: the Max Payne trilogy, Mass Effect trilogy, Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, the Hitman series and Alan Wake. Some of Bill’s favorite developers are Gearbox Software, BioWare and Remedy Entertainment.
Josh Snyder has been a dedicated gamer for 20 years, cutting his teeth on the original Game Boy and NES. He is the proud owner of a Panasonic 3DO, and considers the N64 controller to be one of the most revolutionary pieces of gaming hardware ever produced. His favorite games are The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Halo, Fallout 3, Super Mario 64 and Mass Effect. His favorite genres are the First Person Shooter and the Western RPG, and his favorite developers are Bioware, Bethesda and Bungie.