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"The Greatest Star Wars Game Ever": Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

The USG team recounts their personal favorite Star Wars through the years. Today: Mike on being a Jedi for the first time.

Retrospective by Mike Williams, .

I'm a huge Star Wars fan. I'm just old enough that my mother took me to Return of the Jedi during its original theatrical run. In the movie theatre, my young, semi-sentient self was quiet for once. I was entranced by this world of lightsabers, blaster bolts, weird aliens, and stormtroopers. A universe of Light Sides and Dark Sides, simple good vs. simple evil.

Nooooooooooooo.

Toys, books, and games; I've dived into everything Star Wars. I've been there for the heights of Star Wars gaming, like Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II or Star Wars Galaxies, and the low points, like Rebel Assault (WHY?!) and Star Wars: Master of Teras Kasi. Ahead of every Star Wars gaming experience I've had, from Super Star Wars to the Force Unleashed II, sits a single game: Knights of the Old Republic.

While I feel that the heights of Knights of the Old Republic II are much better than this first title, it's a bit uneven and completely whiffs the ending due development issues. Even beyond that, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a series of firsts for property. KOTOR was the first RPG in the Star Wars universe, a fact that's shocking when you realize the first Star Wars game was back in 1982 and KOTOR didn't launch until 2003. That's 21 years where either the idea of a character-driven Star Wars roleplaying game just didn't come up or was shot down by Lucasfilm.

Second, while most Expanded Universe spinoffs dealt with the trilogy characters earlier in their lives, somewhere during the trilogy, or after Return of the Jedi, Bioware jumped way back in history for Knights of the Old Republic. As the game's title suggests, it takes place during the Old Republic era, around 4000 years before the Battle of Yavin depicted in Star Wars: A New Hope. This was an era that had been explored by Dark Horse's Tales of the Jedi comic series, but was ultimately an open playground for Bioware to work with.

"The setting is roughly 4000 years before the time period of the films. In the Star Wars timeline, space travel has existed for over 25,000 years, so that places the technology of the period relatively close to that of the movies," KOTOR producer Casey Hudson told IGN back in 2003. "This gave us the unique opportunity to create a cinematic experience that would capture a similar look and feel to the movies, while also giving us the freedom to create all-new art, characters, and storylines. In fact, we were even encouraged by LucasArts to 'blow up a planet.' Such was the freedom we were afforded by this time period."

Third, for many players, including myself, this was our first real exposure to the Bioware style of RPG. I had long been a PC game player, but I lived on action and adventure games, never really messing around with RPGs like Wizardry or Ultima. (I played Wizardry VI and that turned me off of first-person RPGs in general.) KOTOR brought that deep CRPG experience to home consoles for the first time and through the use of the Star Wars brand, really opened those types of games to a new audience.

Imagine, following the Star Wars universe for years and stepping into the shoes of Luke, Han, Leia, Kyle Katarn, and other offshoot characters. These were fun experiences, but they weren't really you. For the first time, a Star Wars fan could project themselves into a universe of Jedi, Sith, space pirates, and aliens.

For the first time ever, I could be a Jedi. A black Jedi.

It works here if you squint.

That final contention may not matter to you. I understand that, but in the Star Wars up until that point, there had been a handful of black people in the saga at all. Lando Calrissian classed up the joint in the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Mace Windu had just become the first black Jedi in Attack of the Clones a year earlier. (Second, if you count the guy briefly shown in The Phantom Menace.) And... that was pretty much it.

Does this mean I regretted my time with Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa-Solo, Mara Jade, Jacen and Jaina Solo, Kyp Durron, Kyle Katarn, Corran Horn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Tahiri Veila? Of course not. These were all great characters and I enjoyed reading them or playing them. But sometimes, you do want to see a bit of yourself in the things you love.

Knights of the Old Republic was a chance to say "Hey, you can be a soldier or scoundrel in this mythic Star Wars universe. Hell, you can even become a Jedi." Did Bioware offer up a full-fledged character creator like we expect these days? Not really, but 15 male portraits and 15 female portraits gave you a good number of choices. Close enough is better than nothing at all. Star Wars Galaxies offered deeper character creation one month earlier, but the experience in KOTOR was more driven, immediate, and adventurous than the basic MMO quests found in the former.

Good enough.

For once, I was able to take myself on a real Star Wars adventure. In the Ebon Hawk, I traveled to and wandered across existing Star Wars planets like Tatooine, Kashyyyk, and Korriban. I explored the depths of new planets like Rakata Prime and Manaan. I witnessed the fall of Taris as the Empire-like forces of Darth Malak destroyed an entire city just to kill me.

My choices mattered. Was I good or evil? Do you murder the Tusken Raiders and take their robes or use your assassin droid, HK-47, to make a deal? Should you help the Wookies of Kashyyyk free themselves from local slavers, or do you kill everyone? Are you evil enough to Force Persuade one of your party members to kill two others, including his close, personal friend? (KOTOR was rather open to you killing your party members.)

Speaking of party members, Bioware offered up some excellent companions for your Star Wars adventure. Sure, there were characters that felt quite boring and vanilla on the surface, like Carth and Bastila, but eventually, their personal missions filled in their motivations and desires. The cantankerous old hermit Jolee Bindo was one of my favorites, rounding out my all-Jedi kill squad with a dry wit. Angry and abrasive assassin droid HK-47 is probably one of Bioware's best characters ever, which is probably why he appears in some fashion in Knights of the Old Republic II and The Old Republic. Depending on which side you choose to lean, the Wookie Zaalbar becomes one of the most conflicted characters in the game; torn between his friendship and his life debt.

I admit that in KOTOR, the Dark Side options always made me feel like a cartoonish mustache murder machine, while the Light Side options generally espoused the kind and noble traits of the Jedi. There's never really the feeling from the comics and books that you embrace the Dark Side by giving into certain passions and desires; instead, if given the chance to kill something, Dark Side users in KOTOR always say yes. Saber to the gut, saber to the head, force choke all the way.

In the end, KOTOR feeds into Bioware's binary motivational system better than any other game they've made. The Light Side and Dark Side of the Force are established in the Star Wars universe and KOTOR allows you not only to lean in either direction with tangible repercussions, but also to visually see the Dark Side rot you from within. When the game finally reveals your true identity, that of Sith Lord Darth Revan, the player is given a heavy choice: Do you return to the character you once were, the Revan of legend, or do you forge a new path?

Whether you destroy the Star Forge as a hero, or use its power to enslave the galaxy, the person making those choices is you. (If anything, the evil ending is stronger, almost as if it was meant to tempt the player like a Digital Dark Side.) You made the decisions leading you to that end, you forged the friendships that allowed you to overcome certain obstacles, and you ultimately triumphed. Not Luke, or Leia, or Kyle. You.

That's the ultimate strength of Knights of the Old Republic and why it sticks with me to this day. When I see Finn wielding a blue lightsaber in Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailers, I get excited about the possibility of another black Jedi, but regardless of the movie's outcome, I've already seen the best black Jedi. Myself. All thanks to Knights of the Old Republic.

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Comments 19

  • Avatar for The-Challenger #1 The-Challenger A year ago
    I admit that I never once suspected that the main character was Revan, nor did I suspect Kreia in KotOR at the time. In hindsight it seems kind of obvious, there are tells all throughout the game.

    I think I prefer Dragon Age Origins more.
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  • Avatar for prymusferal #2 prymusferal A year ago
    I still feel that KOTOR is the best Star Wars experience I have had in any medium... outside of the original trilogy of course. I waited the extra six months in 2003 to get the PC version, and during my college semester break proceeded to play the game through three straight times. I have only ever done that one other time: when Earthbound was released in 1995. Though KOTOR II had more potential (albeit wasted potential), I appreciated KOTOR more because it was the more novel experience and truly made me feel like I was living in the Star Wars universe.
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  • Avatar for adamacuoadamacuo #3 adamacuoadamacuo A year ago
    What a great article. Thanks for sharing your memories, it brought back some nice memories of my own. KOTOR is a free Android download on Amazon underground this month. I downloaded it and I'm looking forward to revisiting this terrific game.
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  • Avatar for adamacuoadamacuo #4 adamacuoadamacuo A year ago
    @prymusferal I agree, except for me KotOR (the first game, not the sequel) is better than any of the films as well.
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  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #5 Tetragrammaton A year ago
    For years I was with you Mike--KotOR was MY game, far surpassing its sequel, the other Star Wars games, and Bioware's stuff.

    Something along the line, something changed--maybe reading the right LP, or playing later (disappointing) Bioware games, or finding out that TSLRP had finally released in some form, but I think KotOR 2 is the better game now, even if the first one has the bigger iconic moments.
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  • Avatar for Concession #6 Concession A year ago
    I'm inclined to say KOTOR is better than the movies it's based off of.
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  • Avatar for orient #7 orient A year ago
    Would this be good to play today? I own both on Steam and wouldn't mind jumping into a Star Wars game with all the HYPE.
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  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #8 Tetragrammaton A year ago
    @NiceGuyNeon HAH! No, that was Neverwinter Nights. KotOR set it in stone and added the character development system that Bioware's become known for.
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  • Avatar for orient #9 orient A year ago
    @Tetragrammaton@NiceGuyNeon Is the combat like Jade Empire, because I remember JE being really actiony and I wasn't the biggest fan.
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #10 pashaveliki A year ago
    @orient not not in the least.
    It is very much rooted in the die-roll system, turn-based system of earlier Bioware games. The presentation is flashy and actiony, but in practice it is simply queueing up attacks and whatnot for the characters.
    You can focus on your own player character and just spam attacks or pause the action, queue up actions for each character focusing on certain enemies, unpause, and watch them run.
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  • Avatar for orient #11 orient A year ago
    @pashaveliki Perfect, thanks. Downloading now :)
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  • Avatar for justinfinkbeiner65 #12 justinfinkbeiner65 A year ago
    Yeah, KotOR was a great game. I just wish it had aged better and I'm not talking about the graphics. A decade of better writing in RPGs and heck even in the sequel makes it hard to go back to Knights of the Stupid Questions. I seriously think the Jedi scrubbed a little too hard when they brain washed Revan. Seriously count how times your dialogue choices are "Who are you?" or "What is ?", while in the sequel you get choices like in the beginning where you decide how Revan is remembered. A lot of KotOR2's questions are presented in ways that make it seem like you know a lot of what is going on but you need more details.

    The other part that hurts is how many of the alien species voices are the same 4 unintelligible noises over and over and over again. The Wookie home world of Kashyyyk is especially terrible as it is basically two hours of growls and Wookie noises (more than TWICE the Holiday Special!)
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  • Avatar for DrCorndog #13 DrCorndog A year ago
    You guys keep firing and hitting just wide of TIE Fighter. Maybe the next one of these features will hit the mark.

    (I say this in a completely jovial way, of course.)
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  • Avatar for Namevah #14 Namevah A year ago
    I have to admit that I'm not much of a fan, but that's only because I only once left that initial planet. Going from an empty city to an ugly underground city to sewers never left me eager to continue, so I inevitably dropped the game.

    While I do want to return eventually and give those sewers another go, a part of me hopes that BioWare is given an opportunity to just remake KOtoR. Long shot, I realize.
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  • Avatar for koup #15 koup A year ago
    This was the first game, once I entered the working world, that kept my attention for a significant time. I had all the consoles and even had an avid gamer as a roommate, but finding the time to play anything was a challenge until KOTOR. I spent a lot of time with KOTOR and I judge every RPG and Star Wars game against it. It is the game that got me back into regular gaming.

    HK-47 calling people "meatbag" made me giggle every time.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #16 SargeSmash 11 months ago
    KOTOR is the gateway through which I finally got into Western RPGs. I'd played pretty much only JRPGs until then. I still love them, of course, and a lot of WRPGs are still pretty obtuse, but I find enjoyment in both sides now.
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  • Avatar for AdventuringThruGames #17 AdventuringThruGames 11 months ago
    The sequel was great in many ways but this just blew me away at the time, even though it hasn't aged well in some respects, mainly combat-wise.
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  • Avatar for reptilio #18 reptilio 11 months ago
    ahaha the line about cartoonish mustache murder machine made me burst out laughing. So true, and such a fun way to play (evil laugh)
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  • Avatar for paulhurt95 #19 paulhurt95 11 months ago
    Great article. I totally get the fact that you liked choosing a character that was a little like yourself. Now You guys just need to hit on the other unmissable starwars franchise tiefighter/ Xwing alliance.
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