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1. Revolutionary Arcade Adaptation
The Star Wars Arcade Game came out in 1983. While modern gamers might find it simplistic, arcade players of the time were blown away by the bright graphics and voice samples from the first Star Wars movie. And if you got to play in the cockpit version of this game, it really did feel like you were stepping into an X-Wing and taking on the Death Star.
While this game helped to kick off Star Wars video games (though it was preceded by a crappy Atari Empire Strikes Back home adaptation), it also represented the end of an era. It came out in the same year that Return of the Jedi came out. At the time, George Lucas felt he had no more movies in him, so everyone from the creator of Star Wars to his legions of fans thought there would be nothing left but occasional merchandise.
As arcade games go, Star Wars was a major success for Atari (it was their best-selling game of 1983). But this game also established the early trend of Star Wars games just having you recreate adventures from the movies. It would be a few more years before Star Wars games started expanding the canon.
2. Disappointing Early Home Releases
The Star Wars arcade game seemed revolutionary at the time. Unfortunately, anyone wanting to play Star Wars games at home in the 1980s was virtually guaranteed to be disappointed.
Early home games came out for systems like the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision. But they mostly alternated between being boring and frustrating. Even among hardcore retro gamers, these titles aren’t worth paying much attention to.
And in their own way, these disappointing games were nearly the nail in the coffin for Star Wars. The last movie (or so we thought) had come out, and there were no new toys on the horizon. These video games could have kept the spirit of the franchise alive, but between their poor quality and the video game crash of 1983, things didn't look bright for Star Wars as a viable video game property.
3. Enter West End Games
For a few years, we just didn’t have anything substantial in the way of Star Wars content. Sure, we had those weird Ewoks home movies and the disappointing Droids cartoon, but those had few fans outside of some weird cult followings.
West End Games created a fantastic Star Wars tabletop RPG in 1987. To hear their game designer Bill Slavicsek tell the story, West End Games was the first company to convince Lucasfilm Licensing that creators could tell awesome new Star Wars stories outside of the movies themselves.
The RPG was a runaway success, and they continued producing Star Wars content until 1999. But their influence would be felt far beyond that year because the early success of this game led to the Lucasfilm plans to create a new generation of fans.
4. The Dream of the 90’s
Heading towards the 1990s, big things were happening for Star Wars. First of all, the success of the NES had brought the home video game industry back to life. And we were starting to get more Star Wars games, including a disappointing adaptation of A New Hope for NES in 1991.
However, the bigger moves were happening behind the scenes. Based on the success of the West End Games Star Wars RPGs, they began a major plan to expand the Star Wars canon through new comics, games, and books.
Using RPG material for background research, Timothy Zahn kicked off the Star Wars Expanded Universe with his Heir to the Empire book. Before the Star Wars prequels came out, the Expanded Universe was the only way to learn more about Star Wars canon. And pretty soon, video games did their own part to expand the Star Wars canon.
5. The Impact of Shadows of the Empire
In the 1990s, Star Wars games were mostly just adaptations of the original trilogy, however, the expansion of the canon was slowly being made. For example, X-Wing gave us a better look at the Rebellion gathering strength before the events of A New Hope. And Dark Forces built an entire epic story around the man (yes, it was a man back then) who stole the Death Star plans for the Rebels.
It should be noted that in 1992, we had gotten VHS letterboxed transfers of the high-quality Star Wars LaserDiscs. Nearly a decade after Return of the Jedi came out, we now had affordable, high-quality home copies of Star Wars on VHS. This helped to create a newer, younger generation of fans who never saw the movies when they first came out.
To really bring everything together, Lucasfilm wanted to create a multimedia crossover event, and this eventually became Shadows of the Empire. Shadows of the Empire had a book, a toy line, comics, a soundtrack, and a video game. Rather than simply adapting the book, the video game gave us a closer look at a new character introduced in the novel: Dash Rendar.
6. KOTOR Blows Us All Away
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a weird time to be a Star Wars fan. We finally had new movies, but they were a serious disappointment to many fans of the original trilogy. There were now more comics and novels and toys than ever before, but after The Phantom Menace came out, fans were understandably concerned about the future of the franchise.
That was part of why Knights of the Old Republic blew us all away in 2003. This game introduced insanely popular new characters and stories, all while perfectly tying in events and locations from the Tales of the Jedi comics. This game ended up raising the bar, both in terms of what players wanted from a Star Wars game and what developers realized they could do with the license.
And KOTOR’s system was built on the newer Star Wars RPG by Wizards of the Coast. KOTOR ended up causing countless players to explore this RPG and begin crafting Star Wars stories that were far, far more entertaining than the prequels.
7. Force Unleashed: A Big Swing
We were still getting Star Wars games that expanded the lore and canon of the universe, but many (like Starfighter and Jedi Starfighter) were tied to the prequels. And we were also seeing the first attempts at telling better stories in a post-prequel era with Battlefront and Battlefront II, which gave us prequel-era characters and events inspired partially by the success of the original, 2D Clone Wars cartoon.
Republic Commando also gave us a killer story revolving around Clone Troopers. In retrospect, this was the beginning of creators partially rehabilitating the prequels by showing it was possible to grow cool characters and narratives in the heavily fertilized soil of those crappy movies.
Still, there were fans that cried for a canon-heavy dive into the world of the Original Trilogy. That was part of why Force Unleashed was so popular. In addition to being a genuinely good game with great acting, this title gave us juicy info about Darth Vader’s past and his motivations, and we even got a great story about the foundation of the Rebel Alliance.
8. The Death Of the Old Canon
It wasn’t exactly Order 66. But in 2014, Lucasfilm Limited broke fans’ hearts by declaring that pretty much all Expanded Universe content before then was no longer canon.
To some fans, this didn’t really matter. After all, a fun game is fun whether or not it has an official seal from Lucasfilm. But considering that these games had been expanding Star Wars canon for over two decades, this still came across as a major disappointment.
Since then, we have had various movies, TV shows, and even new books, comics, and games expanding the canon in new ways. But if you’ve been disappointed by Star Wars in recent years, it’s tough not to look back at these older games with better stories in a bittersweet way.
9. A New Hope?
The canon is dead. Long live the canon!
The Expanded Universe was pruned specifically so new creators could tell new, Disney-approved stories. And this has led to a new generation of games intended to expand canon for a new generation of fans.
Titles like Star Wars: Squadrons, Battlefront II, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order have given us new characters and stories. And to their credit, these games’ stories are usually better than what we got with the Sequel Trilogy (though that is a low bar to clear).
However, given the sheer volume of awesome Star Wars games released in the 1990s and 2000s, many old school fans feel these new titles haven’t quite lived up to the legacy of those earlier games. With a bit of time, luck, and perhaps The Force, maybe that will eventually change.