For almost as long as video games have existed, there has been Star Wars.
The franchise extends across dozens of games, eclipsed only by the likes of Mobile Suit Gundam. Its roots extend back to the Atari 2600 and arcades, which first gave players a chance to try the Death Star trench run for themselves. In the '90s, the golden era of Star Wars games coincided with LucasArts' renaissance.
Its creative fortunes waned in the 2000s, with Star Wars games declining in conjunction with the prequels. When Disney purchased Star Wars in 2012, it seemed to portend a revival of fortunes for the series, but Star Wars Battlefront in particular has thus far proven contentious with fans. Still, Star Wars has managed to have its share of strong games over the past 15 years — moreso than most licensed properties, at least.
With most of the best Star Wars games now available on Steam, now is as good a time as any to sort through what's available and make some recommendations.
So these are based on the movies, right?
Some of the games are direct retellings of the movies, but the best Star Wars games have their own stories to tell, usually shedding light on some other part of the conflict. A few have direct ties to the old Expanded Universe, with characters from the games making their way into the books, and vice versa.
This is due in part to the golden era of Star Wars taking place in the early to mid '90s, when LucasArts had very little in the way of original source material to work with. With the classic trilogy having been done to death at that point, LucasArts naturally turned to other sources. TIE Fighter in particular is notable for featuring one of the first onscreen apperances of the Imperial capital world, Coruscant.
If you really want to play through the original movies, consider Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, which is available on pretty much every platform imaginable at this point. Aside from being hilarious, they are well-crafted games that are very fun to play with kids. Conversely, there are the classic Super Star Wars games for the Super Nintendo, which are available on the Wii Virtual Console (accessible via the Wii U). One caveat, though: They are really, really hard. Proceed if you really want a challenge.
What if I want to play as a Jedi?
You're in luck, because there are plenty of strong options. The Jedi Knight games in particular stand out for their strong mix of storytelling and first-person shooting action, with long, elaborately designed levels and some excellent duels. They hold a special place in the hearts of many Star Wars fans.
What's tricky is where to start. Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and its spinoff, Jedi Academy, are the newest of the bunch, but they're also the furthest along in the story. That would make Jedi Knight the ideal starting point, but its graphics are looking a little long in the tooth these days. That said, Mysteries of the Sith — which stars the popular Expanded Universe character Mara Jade — is a masterpiece of FPS design and shouldn't be missed.
Jedi Knight is notable for featuring one of the earliest examples of the good/evil karma meter that later made it into a host of other games. Blowing up droids, killing civilians, and eliminating enemies begging for mercy are all examples of actions that will earn you Dark Side points. Ultimately, you will reach a point in which you are tempted to the Dark Side, and your standing will have a large impact on whether or not you are able to resist. Of course, as we all know, the Dark Side is more fun.
If you can handle the fact that Jedi Knight last looked good back in 1997, then by all means, download it on Steam. Otherwise, consider Jedi Academy, which is more of a standalone experience. As an added bonus, Jedi Academy includes the ability to wield dual lightsabers or the Darth Maul-style staff. Like Jedi Knight, it is also available on Steam.
Outside of Jedi Knight, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is probably the best-known Jedi game. Though it received mixed reviews, not the least because its actual lightsaber combat isn't great, its physics engine makes for some of the most visceral examples of Force powers. Half the fun of The Force Unleashed is picking up a stormtrooper and ragdolling him across the room while his compatriots watch in horror. Both The Force Unleashed and its considerably inferior sequel are available on Steam.
Finally, there's the well-regarded Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which is considered by some to be the best of BioWare's catalogue. Originally released as an Xbox exclusive, it won praise for its rich setting, which depicted the Republic at its height, its storytelling, and its entertaining menagerie of characters. If you haven't already been spoiled on the twist, do yourself a favor and don't peek. It's a good one.
KOTOR is different from the rest in that it's based on the rules of Dungeon & Dragons. Even if you don't particularly like RPGs, though, it's worth checking out. Though its graphics are slightly dated, it's easily the best Star Wars game of the past 15 years. Oh, and you can even play it on iOS.
You forgot to mention Star Wars: The Old Republic. That has Jedi too, right?
Yes, it does. And you can even play it for free these days. The Old Republic was hurt badly by its poor postgame content at launch; but having spent a few years marinating and picking up expansion packs, it's better now. Its normal content, which spans a wide variety of professions, is by all accounts quite extensive. It's worth checking out, not the least because the core game is free and it's still receiving extensive support from BioWare. Of course, your mileage will vary depending on whether or not you like MMORPGs. Star Wars: The Old Republic has a few extra bells and whistles, and its storytelling is far more elaborate, but its gameplay is very much in the tradition of World of WarCraft. Just something to keep in mind.
What if I want a shooter where I'm not a Jedi?
Are you okay with playing in the prequel era? Star Wars Republic Commando is a terrific squad-based shooter set in the Clone Wars. It's ten years old now, but it still looks pretty decent; and like most good PC games, it has a solid set of mods. Republic Commando is great if you want a modern shooter without the messiness of lightsabers and magic powers.
If you don't mind skewing a little older - say, all the way back to the days of DOOM - there's always the original Dark Forces. Obviously, it's pretty dated, but it's still a great first wave shooter that makes excellent use of its source material, featuring both great sound effects and a killer soundtrack. It also introduces Dark Troopers - Terminator-like weapons that make for fearsome bosses. Coming as it did during the golden era of Star Wars games, Dark Forces is generally held in high regard by fans, and it holds up better than you think. As with pretty much everything else on PC, you can find it on Steam.
Finally, there's the aforementioned Star Wars Battlefront, which I reviewed back in November. It was a lot of fun in the short run, and I'll admit that I loved the starfighter mode, but it was pretty light on content at launch. Maybe consider picking it up when the inevitable Game of the Year Edition shows up with all of the DLC.