"The Greatest Star Wars Game Ever": Atari's Star Wars Arcade Game

The USG team recounts their personal favorite Star Wars games through the years. Today: Jaz on the original Star Wars coin-op.

Article by Jaz Rignall, .

While it's obviously aged considerably since its release way back in 1983, one of my favorite Star Wars games remains Atari's coin-op, which gives me huge pangs of nostalgia whenever I think about it.

When it first appeared, gaming was going through an incredibly exciting time. Sure, with the benefit of hindsight you can now see the foundational shifts that were beginning to undermine the industry and would cause its revenue to decline from a high of $3.2 billion to just $100 million within 24 months, but in the Summer of 1983, everything in gaming looked rosy. There was a huge range of exciting consoles available, from the ageing Atari 2600 to the brand new Vectrex, a new generation of home computers was beginning to take off, and there was no shortage of new games. Indeed, there were too many of them – but few thought about the dangers of market over-saturation at the time.

However, if you wanted to experience the very best that gaming had to offer, you needed to visit your local arcade. The Golden Age of Arcades was in full swing, and there were exciting new coin-ops emerging almost every month, introducing previously-unseen gameplay concepts, and taking graphics and sound to increasing heights. One of those was Atari's Star Wars – and it represented a huge leap forward for video games.

Star Wars was still massively popular at the time – Return of the Jedi was released during the same month as the Star Wars coin-op – yet apart from Parker Bros.' mediocre Atari 2600 and Intellivision game, The Empire Strikes Back, there was, somewhat surprisingly, no Star Wars game available to play. Atari's arcade machine changed all that.

Slipping into its darkened cabinet was quite an experience: The coin-op's color vector graphic monitor glowed pin-sharp and bright. Although Tempest had introduced the technology eighteen months beforehand, color vector graphics were still quite remarkable. They gave the game a unique look, and enabled something that was still rare at the time – 3D graphics. And to gamers like me, the chance to be able to fly an X-Wing into battle against the Imperial forces of the Empire in full 3D was a dream come true.

The game was controlled using an X-Y yoke that sported a pair of triggers and two thumb buttons, each representing one of the X-Wings guns. You used it to both aim and shoot your lasers, as well as fly the ship – and it gave full movement and pin-point accuracy that really felt like you were flying an X-Wing.

The game itself played out over three levels that were based on the movie's climactic Death Star battle. First of all, you fought Tie fighters out in space. Unlike the movie, the Tie fighters shot circular fireball-like laser blasts. These could actually be hit with your lasers, and a large part of the strategy in this first level was tracking Tie fighters with the cursor, taking out their repeated laser blasts so you could get in your shots and destroy them.

Assuming you were able to survive dog-fighting with the swarm of Tie fighters that engaged you in the first round, the action then switched to a rapid low-level sweep across the surface of the Death Star. Here, the objective is to either destroy or avoid bunkers, and the deflector towers that emerge from the ground – plus take out any offensive laser blasts that are heading your way so that you don't lose any of your shields.

Best that encounter, and the action moves to the game's finale – a hazardous run along the Death Star's trench, which is packed with gun emplacements and obstacles to fly through. Dodge and shoot everything, and you get the chance to drop a proton torpedo into the exhaust port at the end of the trench. Doing so successfully sees the Death Star explode – and you get to play through the game all over again at a higher difficulty setting.

One of the most notable aspects of Atari's Star Wars was its sound. In mid-1983, speech was still unusual in video games, but Star Wars boasted a relatively vast array of sampled phrases from Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, Wedge, Darth Vader, and R2-D2 that were used at key moments to really bring the action to life. Combine that with seven different pieces of Star Wars music, and great sound effects, and you have one of the best-sounding games of the period.

But what made the Star Wars arcade game great was simply the breathtaking experience it delivered. Its bright 3D graphics and tight gameplay really captured the essence of the movie's finale in a very condensed form, and gave players the thrill of playing Luke Skywalker and destroying the Death Star. It was a brilliant achievement for its time, and even now, some 32 years later, it's still fun to play – assuming you can actually find a machine that still works!

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  • Avatar for GaijinD #1 GaijinD 2 years ago
    I was very young at the time, so my memories are hazy, but I absolutely played this in an arcade in Las Vegas on the early '80s. I saw, and I believe sat in, the enclosed version, but I'm pretty sure it was the standard cabinet I got to play. I don't think I actually succeeded in hitting the exhaust port (guess I should have practiced on some whomp rats), but remember being sent on another loop of the game after pulling out of the trench.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #2 kidgorilla 2 years ago
    @GaijinD Same here, just not in Vegas. I'm pretty sure this was the first video game I ever played, actually.
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #3 SuperShinobi 2 years ago
    I used to play the sit-down version of this rather a lot at the local amusement park, which had a well-stocked coin-op games section. It was definitely one of the technically impressive games of its day, especially the digitized movie quotes were just mind-blowing for the time and really enhanced the game's immersiveness. I think the game's crisp and clean visuals have aged quite well and the smooth frame rate also helps. It was such a popular machine at the amusement park that they didn't replace it until the '90s.

    The gameplay is sharp and responsive, but the limited gameplay variety is a problem - a common one for coin-op games. You have the same 3 short gameplay segments repeating over and over, which could get tiresome after a while. Aside from that, it's a truly classic coin-op of the golden era.Edited December 2015 by SuperShinobi
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  • Avatar for Sebulr #4 Sebulr 2 years ago
    This game is one of my favourite ever arcade games. I used to play this all the time as a nipper when on Holiday during the 80s. One of my treasured memories as (I think) an 8 year old was watching some hoary old geezer who was probably about 20 get to wave 10 on one 50 pence credit in the Skegness pier Arcade. I stood there open mouthed at his skills and dare not breathe a word, it looked so hard.

    I think my best effort has only see me get to get wave 6 without cheating on MAME, I dread to think how much the fella spent on the game to get that good.
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  • Avatar for Timotribal #5 Timotribal 2 years ago
    One of the best arcade games ever.
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  • Avatar for Spectreman #6 Spectreman 2 years ago
    Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for Atari 2600 also have a cool history. The book Racing the Beam has a chapter about the game and how they reverse engineering the Atari code to do a great game.
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  • Avatar for TheOldMan2084 #7 TheOldMan2084 2 years ago
    I don't have much experience with the original Star Wars, but I DO have a lot of experience with the Empire Strikes Back vector graphics game. It was the early 90's and every time my family went on vacation to Ocean City, NJ, one of the arcades had an Empire Strikes Back cabinet. Playing that was part of my daily ritual while on vacation.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    I played this for the first time in years at Portland Retro Gaming Expo this fall and it's so good! Also, it was nice to play it for the first time after having developed some competence at shooters—I made it much further than I did the last time I played, back in... high school?
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  • Avatar for metalangel #9 metalangel 2 years ago
    Played a lot of this back in the day, was never quite sure on how to launch the proton torpedo at the end (so I just fired mah laz0rs like crazy at the exhaust port and most of the time it worked).

    Enduring memory is dying from multiple hits in close succession.

    Check this mini version of the cabinet out!
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  • Avatar for mattzed42 #10 mattzed42 2 years ago
    Nice little write up of the arcade Star Wars game here
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