Retro Rated: Star Wars

Factfile
Developed by:Atari
Released:1983
Format played:Arcade

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Ruminations

The original arcade show stopper, Star Wars hit the arcade in 1983.

Taking its cue from the events of the film, the player jumps into the cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as you try to defend the Rebel Base from the looming threat of the Death Star.

The original arcade game came in two flavours; a bog standard stand up cabinet as well as a sit-in version, the latter adding an extra layer of enjoyment as you really felt like you were climbing aboard your Rebel ship to give the Empire a good hiding.

As was inevitable, the game was a tremendous success, the burgeoning gaming scene a perfect match for the effects laden, explosive filled excite-fest that was Star Wars. It would go on to be converted to numerous home systems from Atari 2600 to Amiga and everything in between.

Such was its popularity that it also spawned a record chasing community with competitors battling it out for high score and endurance records.

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Second Impressions

It may be cliché, but then clichés become such because of their inherent, repeated truth; graphically this is timeless.

Utilising wire frame vector graphics, this lacks all the detail, filled polygons and 3D this-that-or-the-other of modern games but it matters not a jot. From the moment you sit in the cabinet you are immersed in the Star Wars universe as the usual opening crawl goes up the screen, setting out your mission objective.

It is a strange thing that the graphics are technically so simple and yet to manage to capture so much of the spirit of the film. Your viewpoint is from the cockpit, the four blasters of your X-Wing positioned down the side of the screen. The TIE Fighter design lends itself naturally to the wire frame style whilst the Death Star is also well represented, the trench run in particular evoking if not a true graphical representation of the film then that little picture of the trench that appears on Luke’s scanner as he makes his way towards the target.

Colours are simple but again combine to good effect. The black backdrop of space naturally makes this a simpler affair, offset by the bright greens and reds of enemy ships and gun placements.
Technology has clearly advanced but as a game like this shows, sometimes simple is best.

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Gameplay

Based on the Battle of Yavin, this plays out as an on-rails shooter as your X-Wing progress along a fixed path. You have some degree of movement, useful for skimming the surface of the Death Star or avoiding obstacle in later trench runs, otherwise control is taken out of your hands. Blaster fire is directed by an on-screen cursor whilst your four lasers spit out a relentless stream of fiery Rebel thunder.

After selecting your difficulty level, a quick stab of the fire button and we are in, TIE fighters screaming at you, blasting hot death in every direction.

In a change from the film, the Empire doesn’t fire lasers at you but a projectile weapon, giving you a chance to shoot them before they reach you. This makes the game less an all-or-nothing blaster like, say, Space Invaders and more a survive-em-up as you try to stay alive long enough to face the final showdown.

The game has three principle elements. We start with a Tie Fighter tangle as enemy ships fly around the screen. You can shoot the ships themselves for extra points, otherwise just dodge projectiles or shoot them out of the sky to stay alive, your ship able to withstand up to 8 hits or collisions before it’s game over.

If you survive the initial assault, it’s on to the Death Star itself. The second section sees you skimming across the surface of the space station as gun turrets rain down fire. As before, shoot the projectiles if you can and blast the turrets for extra points, all the while being careful to avoid flying directly into them or risk losing another precious shield.

The final run is along the trench. Speed along, avoiding or blasting as you go before reaching the target and unleashing your missile into the heart of the steel beast before pulling back to revel in the glorious technicolour explosion.

It is simple stuff but absolutely thrilling. For a game this old, it is testament to its quality that it seems so fresh. Okay, so it is technically limited but it succeeds in that all important, almost intangible quality whereby you really feel like Luke, taking on the might of the Empire single-handedly.

The three difficulty settings offer a nice variety of challenge too. The first is a breeze with only a handful of ships and limited projectiles. But as the level of challenge steps up, so to do the number of enemies, the screen becoming a blur of deadly activity.

Whichever skill level you choose, once beaten the game loops around to the start, adding further ships and obstacles to your flight path. The trench run in particular, initially a clean run through, becomes a tunnel of death as turrets fire from either side whilst barriers must be negotiated in some form of deadly soft play obstacle course.

Control is sharp and responsive, the laser curser verily zooming across the screen to the point that it takes a little while to reign in and master. But once done, you are rewarded with a satisfying twitch shooter. There is no longevity here of course. You will likely beat it on your first fly through. But that’s not the point. This is old fashioned gaming as you see how long you can last, bragging rights coming not from finishing the game but whether you can topple your mates from the top of the high score table.

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Sound

I wrote a bit about the soundtrack in a separate feature but it can’t be overstated how much it adds to the fun.

From the first chords of digitised theme music you know you are in for a treat. Your laser fire isn’t strictly accurate to the films but it’s more than adequate whilst attacking TIE Fighters do a passable job of replicating the screech of Vader’s minions.

Much like in the film, your Rebel friends offer you encouragement throughout via some well implemented digital speech, from Han’s. ‘You’re all clear kid,’ to Obi Wan’s, ‘Use the Force,’ right down to Luke himself with a heartfelt cry of, ‘I’ve lost R2!’ as the little astromech droid lets out an agonised scream.

And all of it against the backdrop of the John Williams iconic theme, driving you on, past the TIE Fighters, past the laser cannons, along the trench until you reach your goal, let loose a missile and head home draped in medals and glory.

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Bottom Line

The perfect marriage of game to source material.

Other Star Wars games may have come along since that seem to offer more. Better graphics, more complex gameplay, deeper challenges perhaps. But none come close to capturing the raw, visceral thrill that this offers.

Exhilarating, action packed and just downright fun to play, this remains an absolute arcade classic and a game that any true Star Wars fan should go out of their way to experience first hand.

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