Thursday, April 4, 2013

Let's remember LucasArts

The news came swiftly Wednesday that LucasArts (originally Lucasfilm Games) would shut down. The news wasn't a major surprise--it's no secret that attempts to create killer original IP material weren't working. The company's most recent games were underwhelming, including the critically panned and universally reviled sequel to The Force Unleashed.

Still, the announcement saddened me. LucasArts games were part of growing up. True, I stuck mostly to their awesome line of Star Wars games, but there was a time when you saw a LucasArts logo on the box and you just knew the game was going to be phenomenal--it had to be because LucasArts made it. From the early 90s to the early 2000s, they had a run of great titles. Was each one perfect? Of course not. However, the overall quality was astounding.

So as the once great studio transitions from an internal developer to a licensing entity under Disney (that just sounds so imperial), I'm taking a few minutes to recall some of my fondest LucasArts memories. The list will be Star Wars heavy--bear in mind that this is a personal list of games I've actually played and not a definitive history of LucasArts games. So if you're wondering about the exclusion of Sam & Max Hit the Road or Day of the Tentacle, it's because those games didn't interest me when I was younger and I didn't play them.

Star Wars (NES, 1991; Game Gear, 1993)

I played the NES version several times via rental but never owned it. I did, however, own the Game Gear version, which was virtually identical. The game followed (somewhat) the plot of the movie, though of course there were differences. Released in the era of the platformer, there wasn't much about this game that was particularly special other than that it happened to be a Star Wars game. The 8-bit music was pretty enjoyable as it interpreted most of the main themes from the movie, including the "Cantina Band" and "Princess Leia's Theme." I believe they also threw in "Han Solo and the Princess" even though that's from Empire Strikes Back.

They changed up the platforming formula a couple times to keep things interesting. You got to blast TIE Fighters from the Falcon with a first-person view. The trench run was a top-down shooter that moved pretty fast. Not a great game, but certainly enjoyable for its time.




The Empire Strikes Back (NES, 1992)

Other than being freaking impossible, this was a great game. It gave us some terrible attempts at voice sampling ("Luke!" Obi-Wan yells at various points throughout the game) and decent music. You got to ride a tauntaun, fly around in a snowspeeder (a level I played over and over again just because I liked it), develop Force powers, fight wildlife on Dagobah, and die horribly multiple times during the final fight with Darth Vader.

I beat this game exactly one time. I remember it being unforgiving, especially after you get to Dagobah. Despite the fact I wanted to kill this game with fire on several occasions, it was the only NES game I kept when I sold my Nintendo several years ago. I still have it, box and all, even though I have no system to play it on.



X-Wing (PC, 1993)

My very first PC LucasArts game, X-Wing came out at a time of tremendous excitement. The first book of the Timothy Zahn trilogy had just been released, and Star Wars was coming back in a big way. In fact, after seeming dead for so long, Obi-Wan's final words were truly prophetic ("If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine").

I had a 286 computer without a SoundBlaster. A friend copied X-Wing on five 3.5" floppy disks so I could play it. Despite the lack of decent sound, it worked well enough. I wasn't a very good pilot without infinite proton torpedoes, but the game was fantastic. I'm not sure I ever finished all the missions, but it remains very dear to my heart.



TIE Fighter (PC, 1994)

I didn't get TIE Fighter until the Collector's Edition came out on CD-ROM as part of a LucasArts Archives Collection. By that time, we had a Compaq Presario that had a proper sound card. I always loved the introductory music for this game, which transitioned from the opening burst of the Star Wars main theme to the "Imperial March." There were no shields for several of the craft in this game, and like X-Wing, I wasn't very good at it.

Playing from the Empire's point of view wasn't just a gimmick, either. The story revolved around a growing faction of Imperials who tried to launch a coup against the Emperor. I remember that Grand Admiral Thrawn was a major force later in the game and in the expansions. Had a great time with this one.



Rebel Assault (Sega CD, 1993)

I owned the Sega CD version of Rebel Assault. This was a big deal because I had a Sega Genesis and not a Super Nintendo (note the lack of the Super Star Wars games on this list), thus there were no Star Wars games to be found. Finally, Rebel Assault came along. I ordered it from a company called Jack of All Games and waited FOREVER for the disc to arrive. I beat the game countless times as "Rookie One" (**cough**Luke Skywalker**cough). The full motion video was horrendously pixelated (all Sega CD video suffered from that problem) and parts of the game were unplayable on the hard setting (which took away the sticky targeting reticle) because the game's environments were so grainy.

Still, I appreciated Rebel Assault for what it was: a Star Wars rail shooter with a few epic moments, including an attack on a Star Destroyer, a chase through an asteroid field, a commendable recreation of the Battle of Hoth, and an alt-history take on the Death Star assault (it plays out like the first Star Wars except the characters are different and someone other than Han Solo comes to your rescue). After doing some research, it appears the Sega CD version was actually missing a level. Had no idea.



Rebel Assault II (PC, 1995)

I didn't spend as much time with this one as I did with the first Rebel Assault. I do remember you got to fly a Millennium Falcon-like ship at one point. It seemed like the role of video had been expanded for this one with more video segments than actual gameplay. If I recall correctly, you ended up encountering one of the characters from the first game. The plot revolved around a new Imperial superweapon. Spoiler: it's a cloaking device. For TIE Fighters.



Dark Forces (PC, 1995)

Pretty much Doom in a galaxy far, far away, Dark Forces was incredible. The first mission had you stealing plans for the Death Star (Bothan spies my ass!). You play as Kyle Katarn, a mercenary who ends up foiling the Empire's plot to unleash "Dark Troopers" on the galaxy.

The shooting was fast-paced and fun. There's just nothing better than hearing that signature blaster sound and watching a stormtrooper go down.



Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (PC, 1997)

A worthy sequel to Dark Forces, this one absolutely killed you with full motion video. You like some overacting? Quaint special effects? This is the game for you.

Fortunately, the story isn't too bad and the gameplay is fantastic. We learn our mercenary, Kyle Katarn, has Jedi heritage. You know what that means? Lightsabers! Force powers! Battles against Dark Jedi who don't seem to obey the stupid "Rule of Two!" Seriously, this is a great first person shooter. A couple of the puzzles were pretty good, too. I remember loving the bowcaster because it kind of followed targets for you. The final battle with Jerec was a pain in the butt thanks to his rejuvenation chamber.

The game also let you embrace the "light" or "dark" side of the Force. Basically, don't kill any innocent bystanders and you'll be fine. Slaying random people puts you on the path to darkness.



Star Wars Rebellion (PC, 1998)

I think a lot of people scoff at this one, a strategy/resource management game that allows you to take the side of the Rebellion or the Galactic Empire. I loved Rebellion. It had limited cinematics, but the game felt sweeping with the sheer amount of characters and things you could do. The goal is for the player to pick a side and build resources to overthrow the Empire or crush the Alliance. You took over planets, tried to use diplomacy to sway systems to your cause, organized sabotage missions against the other side, and incited uprisings on enemy-controlled planets in hopes of gaining allies.

The game included resource management, ship building, strategy, espionage, and intrigue. As the Rebels, you could always move your base of operations (one of the final objectives was raiding and capturing the enemy base) while the Empire was always stuck on Coruscant no matter what (and it was very heavily defended!). I sank a lot of hours into this one, winning as both the Rebels and the Empire (I also got my tail whipped as both). Different characters like Luke Skywalker, Darth, the Emperor, and Princess Leia could be sent on missions and kidnapped, captured, or killed.



Rogue Squadron (PC, 1998)

Out for both PC and N64, my experience comes from the PC version. As a member of Rogue Squadron, you undertook missions with various Alliance starfighters in an effort to topple the Empire. I remember that taking down an AT-AT Walker for the first time was extremely difficult with my keyboard/mouse setup. I finally got a controller and managed to do it.

Each mission awarded you medals based on performance. You performed a variety of missions from destroying targets to recon and the ever popular "protect the target" operation. The game was really a lot of fun, a chance to just go out and blast stuff.



Masters of Teras Kasi (Playstation, 1998)

There was never a Star Wars fighting game despite what the video below would have you believe.



The Phantom Menace (Playstation, 1999)

I almost didn't include this clunker of a game, but then I remembered how often my friend Scott from college got turned around during various levels, inspiring the phrase, "You're not good in malls, are you?" We played this a lot in college despite its clear mediocrity.

You could deflect blaster bolts all day. That was thrilling. We killed Darth Maul by standing off screen and firing at him. That was equally thrilling.



Jedi Power Battles (Playstation, 2000)

This one had a definite arcade feel to it. I always liked playing as Plo Koon for some reason. Fast-paced and pretty mindless, it was more fun than the Phantom Menace game. Of course, so is pretty much anything else ever.



Jedi Outcast: Jedi Knight II (Xbox, 2002)

My computer was unable to play this game (graphics card issue!), so I had the Xbox version. Kyle Katarn returns, but after nearly succumbing to the dark side last game, he's back to his mercenary ways. Thus, you start out with a pretty standard shooter as Kyle does missions for the New Republic.

However, as this is Jedi Knight II and not Dark Forces III (I don't get it either), Kyle learns to embrace the Force once more. In this game, he gets help from both Lando Calrissian and Luke Skywalker, so you get some nice cameos from them. I believe Billy Dee Williams voiced Lando while Luke was a soundalike. In the end, you fight a lightsaber-wielding velociraptor. It's better than it sounds.



Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox, 2003)

This game rocks. I'm not going to write about the sequel (it was rushed and had problems although I still enjoyed it), but the first game is simply stunning--everything you'd ever want in a Star Wars game. It's an "action RPG" with an incredibly engaging storyline set in the Old Republic timeline (4,000 years before the original trilogy).

You'll make friends and enemies, want to punch or put a lightsaber through Carth, and marvel at the meatbag-hating HK-47. You'll play a blackjack-like card game, participate in swoop races, compete in a gladiatorial arena, and shoot down enemy starfighters. The game takes you to several planets, including Kashyyyk, Tatooine, and Korriban (site of a Sith academy) as you try to stop a galaxy-destroying device called the Star Forge.

If you haven't played this one, play it. I'm not a huge RPG guy, but the story just sucks you in. The voice acting is incredible, the game's got plenty of heart and humor, and many of the side missions are fun. There's also a great reveal in the game that I won't spoil. If you've played it, you know what I'm talking about. Seriously, play it.



Battlefront II (Xbox, 2005)

It's a shame that an Xbox 360/PS3 Battlefront never got off the ground. While I've played Halo and some of the Call of Duty games, an Xbox 360 version of Battlefront would've owned my soul (even as other players owned me on the battlefield). A fantastic shooter with an epic scope, players reenact key battles from the Star Wars movies. The action is fast and furious. You pick a class and go to work, blasting away at the enemy.

During certain points of the game, you unlock powerful "hero" characters that can turn the tide of a battle. Players could also engage in some fun vehicular shenanigans as well.



The Force Unleashed (Xbox 360, 2009)

This game and I had our issues regarding the Star Destroyer level. Overall, though, I liked it. The game looked good, you really felt like you could do anything, and they put an emphasis on the story. While Vader's "secret apprentice" Starkiller is kind of tough to swallow, it allows for some decent storytelling.

The story ties in with the formation of the Rebellion, which is a nice touch. I remember fighting against AT-ST Walkers and Rancors. You could hold dozens of stormtroopers at bay with your Force powers and pull off some truly incredible feats. Some enemies were pretty tough (the purge troopers were really challenging on higher settings, as were the royal/shadow guards). Target-locking can be a problem, especially during encounters in which you have to hurl "junk" at enemies. Still, I think the game gets more right than it gets wrong, though some fans absolutely hate it. I never played the sequel (just its demo).



So...thank you, LucasArts. You had a good run. I mean...I didn't even include your non-Star Wars triumphs like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, and Monkey Island. I didn't mention some notable Star Wars games like Republic Commando, the Lego series, Episode I Racer, Starfighter, and Shadows of the Empire. To be fair, I didn't mention Kinect Star Wars. Until just now.

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