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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