ByAlex Kane, writer at Creators.co
Exec producer, The Prequels Strike Back. Staff writer for The Meta.
Alex Kane

When Disney put LucasArts to rest in April of 2013, it signaled the end of an era. Despite a somewhat checkered history marked by frequent delays and disappointments, the studio was for many of us a vital part of the Lucasfilm legacy in the years-long gaps between Star Wars films, particularly when it managed to deliver an experience that enriched or even elevated the on-screen universe of the franchise’s core installments. Having signed a multi-year exclusivity deal with Electronic Arts,[1] whose official Star Wars: Battlefront website bears not even a vestigial LucasArts logo as of this writing, Lucasfilm seems intent on retiring the familiar “Gold Guy” figure who introduced the Star Wars games of yesteryear—sometimes with a surge of Force lightning or saber flourish—in favor of looking ahead.

The glimpse of the future offered during this month’s widely publicized Star Wars: Battlefront beta suggests that this might not be such a bad thing, provided gamers are willing to forgive EA for the pricing model on its Season Pass and Deluxe Edition. But LucasArts’ history is one well worth preserving; from its development of such gems as Star Wars: Episode I—Racer and The Force Unleashed to licensed masterpieces like 2003’s Knights of the Old Republic, the company served to keep the galaxy far, far away in the hearts and minds of fans in much the same way as the toys always have.[2]

In a sense, it’s probably fair to say that, for the so-called “nineties kids” of my generation, videogames were our toys. Not that we didn’t have action figures, because I certainly did, but we saw a kind of Golden Age in the development of triple-A games which took place roughly from 1996 to 2008—that’s just if we’re focusing exclusively on LucasArts’ Star Wars properties—bookended by the two major George Lucas–approved multimedia events, Shadows of the Empire and The Force Unleashed.

Looking back, those two milestones in the company’s history were certainly among of its finest achievements, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out some of the lesser-known highlights from the studio’s nineteen-year stint as the home of the Force. The best of them are titles sure to be all but forgotten in today’s fast-moving gaming industry: Episode I—Racer (1999), Obi-Wan (’01), and the uneven yet dazzling sequel The Force Unleashed II (’12), which ultimately marked the end of LucasArts’ Star Wars legacy once development on the Boba Fett–centric 1313 came to a painful halt.

Star Wars: Obi-Wan is a game I’ll always remember fondly for its endearing combination of awkward lightsaber combat mechanics and campy voiceover work. Without a doubt, it’s the game that best represents both the best and worst of what made LucasArts the proverbial mixed bag that it always was: often fun, at times unintentionally hilarious, and always beautiful in the way that a film like Attack of the Clones can be called beautiful. The story begins with the titular Padawan making his way through the Coruscanti criminal underworld, to the cortosis mines of Obredaan, and finally to Naboo, where some of the key events from The Phantom Menace culminate with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon’s fateful confrontation against Darth Maul.[3]

The swordplay is a far cry from what the developers would later achieve with Starkiller’s complex player movements in The Force Unleashed, but I have some fond memories of the split-screen multiplayer mode, and there’s great satisfaction to be found in singlehandedly melting the entire Trade Federation droid army with your lightsaber over the course of many hours. And the bits of dialogue that sound, for example, when Obi-Wan hurls his lightsaber through the air like a Force-driven helicopter blade (“Defend yourself!”), or when Mace Windu executed his signature killing stroke (“There is no death—there is only the Force!”), make for an unforgettable game. Unfortunately, it seems the only way to play this title in 2015 is to track down an original Xbox console and a disc copy; it doesn’t appear on Xbox.com’s list of 360-compatible Xbox titles.

Star Wars: Episode I—Racer comes up in conversation with only the most open-minded fans, given the toxic nature of mentioning anything to do with Phantom Menace, though it stands as one of the best licensed games from the Nintendo 64–PlayStation era apart from GoldenEye, Mission: Impossible, and our old friend Shadows of the Empire.

If there’s one thing I remember about the titles I rented for the N64, but never owned, it’s that they tended to be a lot of really phenomenal racing games: Diddy Kong Racing, Pilot Wings, Mario Kart, F-Zero X, Cruis’n USA—the list is practically endless.[4] I suspect this has something to do with the sublime novelty of the N64’s controller, the likes of which the world had never seen before: It had only a single joystick in the age of 3-D graphics, for starters. It also had what came to be called a d-pad, which is a contemporary way of describing the more primitive directional controls that existed prior to 1994—a single cross-shaped button with both x and y axes used to guide Mario and Luigi et al. across the two-dimensional plane of early videogames. And it had no less than ten additional buttons.

My hunch is that the lone joystick lent itself best to the mostly linear courses inherent to racing games, particularly in the case of titles not developed by Nintendo themselves, and Episode I—Racer was a large part of that tradition. The podracing sequence in the film was already such a vibrant, thrilling piece of cinema—but getting to choose your favorite pod, your favorite alien racer (Ody Mandrell, obviously), and getting to participate? It took Jedi reflexes to race pods, after all, and mastering the skills necessary to progress through the more difficult tracks was an utter delight. If only EA would remaster and rerelease it for current-gen consoles.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II hewed to the dangerous tradition of an Empire Strikes Back ending, which is made all the worse by the reality that it’s the second act of a trilogy doomed to remain unfinished. But for all its faults—its lack of closure for Galen Marek, codename “Starkiller,” and the general feeling that it’s a half-finished game—The Force Unleashed II has some truly grand moments, right on par with the films themselves. It’s uncertain whether Disney will allow these two masterpieces to be made backwards-compatible next month, when the Xbox One gets a host of Xbox 360 titles added to its catalog, or ever, but folks who have held onto their last-generation hardware should cherish these games and all the Stormtrooper-tossing, TIE fighter–crashing, lightning-riddled shenanigans to be had within.

Story-wise, science fiction author Sean Williams and LucasArts writer Haden Blackman crafted an epic character study that now serves as a Legends-era alternative to the continuity covered in television’s new Rebels series; anyone curious about Darth Vader’s secret Dark Jedi apprentice should take this as a recommendation to seek out Williams’s novelizations and Blackman’s graphic novel adaptation. That said, the real fun happens while hunting down rogue Jedi during the first game, when you’re commissioned to seek out Order 66 survivors and eliminate them, or in the two glorious duels with your former master, one of which takes place aboard the original Death Star while ol’ Sheev Palpatine himself watches from the sidelines.

If there’s one definitive testament to the studio’s legacy, it’s probably Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2008), though I leave you with a book recommendation: The Art and Making of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, co-written by Blackman and Brett Rector.[5] I’ve taken a lot of time here today to reflect upon the defunct LucasArts and its merits. One has to ask, But what’s really been lost? The conceptual artwork and development notes in Rector’s chronicle give us the best answer to this question, especially since we’ll never know exactly what 1313 would have become by the time Lucas gave it his stamp of approval. What we’ve lost is a team of tremendously gifted, if sometimes misguided, artists who cared very deeply about the Star Wars universe.

Like the stories in their games, the folks at LucasArts ought to be called legends.

• • • •

Notes

[1] BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic and its ongoing content updates are the sole exception to this, outside of games developed for mobile devices, tablets, and browsers.

[2] Twelve years ago, it was not at all uncommon to see reviewers everywhere calling Knights of the Old Republic “the best Star Wars story since The Empire Strikes Back.” I’d argue the claim more or less holds up today, though I think there are also a number of comics, novels, and Clone Wars television arcs that could be considered contenders.

[3] I don’t seem to recall Tatooine playing a role in the game’s story, which probably says less about story logic than the studio’s desire to keep the character of Jake Lloyd–era Anakin uninvolved with the game.

[4] The one I did actually own, and still have somewhere, was Nintendo’s own Ridge Racer 64. Another underrated gem!

[5] Hayden Blackman and Brett Rector, The Art and Making of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2008).

About the Author

Alex Kane is the managing editor of the Critical Press, a publisher of books on film and culture, as well as an executive producer of the Star Wars documentary The Prequels Strike Back. A graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, his fiction has appeared in more than a dozen venues. He’s also the writer of the creator-owned space opera comic Asphodel. His reviews and criticism have been published in Foundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction, SF Signal, and Omni, among other places. He lives in west-central Illinois.

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