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Games time forgot: Star Wars (the 1983 arcade game)

2:00 PM on 01.13.2009 // Anthony Burch

Gamers today really take Star Wars for granted. Everytime we turn around, we trip over a new game taking place in George Lucas' cash cow universe: "Hey," we're told. "This is sort of like the other games -- except this time, it just focuses on lightsaber duels!" Or, "this time it's a massively multiplayer experience where you can hang out and give lap dances to other fans!" Or,  "this time, you have the force powers of Yoda multiplied by Emperor Palpatine plus Luke Skywalker, minus any interesting level design!" 

Back in 1983, though, gamers had only one way to scratch their Star Wars gaming itch: the Star Wars arcade cabinet. Available in both stand-up and awesomely ornate sit-down versions, the Star Wars vector game  is...well, believe it or not, it might be my favorite Star Wars licensed game ever made.

And I only played it for the first time a few months ago.


It's the Death Star run from the first Star Wars movie.



It's the Death Star run from the first Star Wars movie.

And it's awesome.

There are only three levels in the entire game (comprising the three stages of the Death Star attack), but they all feel totally different from one another.

The first level tasks consists of shooting TIE Fighters, and the deadly "fireballs" they shoot at you, as you approach the Death Star. It plays pretty much as you'd expect -- you have little to no control over your ship, making the whole thing feel like an intense shooting gallery. If you've ever played the first-person turret levels in Shadows of the Empire for the Nintendo 64, the first level feels exactly like that.

The second level, my personal favorite, forces you to dodge gun towers on the Death Star surface as you make your way to the exhaust trench. It's here where Star Wars' control scheme really gets a chance to shine. Though it may not seem terribly interesting now, Star Wars had a damn near revolutionary control scheme for its time -- both aiming and shooting are bound to the same yoke control. Moving the yoke lightly in any direction moves the cursor, while more extreme movments alter the position of the X-Wing itself. The second level simultaneously forces the player to dodge gun towers (which shoot out of the ground like weeds for no apparent reason) and shoot the turrets. Thanks to the smooth, responsive controls, this never feels as difficult or as frustrating as one might naturally expect a game from nineteen-eighty-and-goddamn-three to be.

The third level is the trench run, which focuses mainly on obstacle dodging and "fireball" blasting up until the final, downright orgasmic face-off with the exhaust port. Should you hit the port with your blasters in time, you're treated to a gorgeous cut scene of the Death Star exploding. It's impossible to describe unless you've seen it in person, but the screen positively bursts with vibrant, bright colors that radiate out in every direction. 

It now occurs to me that I've made it this far into the article without talking about the game's graphics. As you can tell from the embedded YouTube video, the Star Wars arcade game was made with colored vector graphics. Where most graphics (the TIE fighters, the HUD, the visible edges of the X-Wing) are shown at regular brightness, certain important objects like the TIE Fighter projectiles or the Death Star explosion are lit at a much higher brightness level, which makes them much more visually distinctive. I can't really describe what it looks like in person, because I'm a shitty goddamn writer, but certain sprites are so much brighter than everything which surrounds them that they call attention to themselves and look much more pleasing to the eye. When you blow up the Death Star, the entire screen is filled with superbright colors like this. Hence, orgasmic. 

And even if you do miss the exhaust port, don't worry: the game simply spawns you a few feet back from the port so you can try again, without forcing you to start all over. Such a remarkably forgiving design decision is, again, quite surprising for such an old game.

Then the whole game restarts on a higher difficulty level.

Why you're probably not playing it:

Star Wars is one of those few arcade cabinets that was so goddamn popular during the time of its release that you can probably still find it in any arcade that's worth a damn.

The difficulty, of course, comes in finding an arcade that's worth a damn. And even for those people who can find it, I wouldn't be surprised if most people only put two or three credits into it -- though Star Wars is incredibly rewarding even in short play sessions by only having three actual levels, it doesn't give you much incentive to keep pumping quarters in after you've already seen the Death Star explode once or twice -- at least, not on the level of a beatemup or a shooter where you're driven to keep tossing away money in a rabid effort to get to the actual end of the game.

Additionally, where most new Star Wars games (Force Unleashed, Knights of the Old Republic, etc) are mainly concerned with making the player feel like he's an actual part of the living, breathing Star Wars universe, the original arcade game just felt like an excuse for some really intense, Star Wars-themed action. Though the controls are incredibly tight and most of the music and digitized speech are ripped directly from the movie, the minimalist graphics and creative license taken with the film (TIE Fighters do not shoot "fireballs") thankfully make the whole thing feel like more of a badass, gameplay-comes-first-franchise-comes-second retro game than most modern Lucasarts titles do.

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