“Here,” dad said, swiveling to the opposite end of his elbow-shaped desk and grabbing a booklet, “you’ll need to read this before I let you play.” It was the instruction manual for LucasArts’ Star Wars: X-Wing, a complicated space sim that was loaded to the gills with commands. In those days, a joystick was a fixture of PC gaming. When LucasArts combined it with an array of keyboard controls to manage your fighter’s energy, throttle, and targets, they allowed Star Wars to become so much bigger than I ever imagined it could be while the films worked so hard to make it smaller.
Once the industry’s golden standard for quality, innovative games, LucasArts fell off with the release of the prequel trilogy and never recovered its glory. Sure, they did great things with Star Wars, but they had some other clever ideas, too. These were the games that played an incredible role in my appreciation of video gaming and cemented my love for PC gaming altogether.
Star Wars: X-Wing (PC, 1993)
When my dad bought this game, we didn’t even own an IBM-compatible PC, so many new games releasing for Windows were out of the question. On good word, he bought this game and borrowed time from a few neighbors. It wasn’t long afterward that we had a Packard Bell all our own and a half-dozen games to go along with it, including the original Master of Orion.
I’d watched my dad play for months, but when it came time to grab the joystick and oriented myself to its myriad of buttons, I was hopelessly lost. This was the first PC game I’d ever really played and, combined with my dreadful eye-hand coordination, left me nervously jerking the stick around struggling to remember my keyboard controls while trying to surf through the gates of the game’s training simulator . I’d usually end up lost underneath the platforms, completely unable to understand where things were happening and why. I didn’t fare well on the proving grounds, but at night, I would dream of being that hotshot Rebel Alliance fighter, mastering the ins and outs of my own spacecraft, so much so that I spent a lot of my youth dreaming of becoming a fighter pilot. (Lousy academic performance and a few roller coaster rides took care of that dream.)
In time, I got coordinated and sailing through those training gates while turrets took potshots at me was a piece of cake. I was soon taking on complex missions to cripple the Empire’s supply lines, escort refugees, protect diplomats and defeat imposing Star Destroyers component by component. As I graduated from simulation jockey into full tours of duty, my dress uniform filled with medallions and ribbons. Playing this game, I felt like I was fighting for a real cause in sophisticated intergalactic situations. There simply wasn’t anything on the Super Nintendo that came anything close to being like this. There’s a reason why my favorite episode of Nickelodeon’s Doug is “Doug’s Lost Weekend” because it satirizes an addiction to a game like X-Wing and its sequels (or Wing Commander, if you’re one of those people).
Star Wars: TIE Fighter (PC, 1994)
While TIE Fighter featured only a few minor wrinkles to how X-Wing played, such as rendered ships in the HUD to determine orientation, where it lacked in innovative gameplay ideas, it more than made up for with an incredible narrative that had you playing for the bad guys under the watchful eyes of Vader and Palpatine. While X-Wing’s story emphasized the importance of working with your squadron and raking up as many small victories as possible, TIE Fighter commanded absolute loyalty as you performed more mundane tasks for the Empire that escalated quickly. Your first missions forced you into the fragile, unshielded hull of the Empire’s mainstay, the TIE Fighter, and working up to some incredibly powerful vehicles of destruction (although, arguably, a bit too powerful by the time you reached the expansions with boats filled with far too many missiles). Betrayals, construction campaigns, and secret weapons galore, TIE Fighter had it all. In fact, should you prove your loyalty to the Emperor by completing special objectives in each mission, you’re even granted access to Palpatine’s Secret Order, complete with ceremonies.
One of TIE Fighter‘s best assets may have actually not been in the game at all. Long before strategy guides became mere point-to-point walkthroughs with large red arrows and spreadsheets full of data, LucasArts wrote them as novels. Many a Wing Commander fan complained to me over the years that X-Wing and TIE Fighter‘s narratives were paper thin and your character was unimpressive because it was a null beast with no real part in the story. The cutscenes only highlight events that happen elsewhere in the galaxy, perhaps as a result of your actions, but never show you as a player in any action. That was fine for me since I filled the role with my imagination pretty well, but I could see where their complaints lie. In TIE Fighter‘s strategy guide, both the mission walkthroughs and the interstitial pieces of the narrative, portraying you as a pilot named Marek, were written completely in prose. It was a thick book and from time to time, I survey online resellers, hoping to pick up a copy.
Full Throttle (PC, 1995)
While dad had played Loom (beating it in an evening), I was a stranger to LucasArts’ non-Star Wars adventure games. Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island? All of that was lost on me, but when the demo for Tim Schafer’s “Heavy Metal Adventure” Full Throttle debuted, it took my heart and mind. In a futuristic world where motorcycle culture has taken over, the gravelly-voiced Ben and the Polecats gang are offered to escort Malcolm Corley, the head of Corley Motors (in turn, the universe’s Harley-Davidson) to the annual shareholders’ meeting. When Ben refuses, he’s beaten up and thrown in the dumpster while Corley’s assistant Adrian Ripburger – voiced by Mark Hamill, pulling a somber Joker here – has dastardly plans in store for his boss. Left behind, Ben must now figure out what’s happened to his gang and save the day.
Sporting a universe unlike anything I’ve ever seen, Full Throttle put Tim Schafer on my map for sure. The game wasn’t just memorable, it was funny, looked fantastic, and aside from being extremely brief, is to this day my favorite adventure game ever. Attempts to resuscitate the series for another adventure game were met with failure, which keeps the track record clean despite being the only game of its kind since it released nearly twenty years ago. Also: The Gone Jackals’ soundtrack is pretty amazing.
Star Wars: Dark Forces (PC, 1995)
“Doom meets Star Wars” was a pretty exciting phrase when Dark Forces was announced in 1994, more for the Star Wars than the ultra-violent, shield-my-eyes-far-too-fragile Doom. Putting more than a few twists on the first-person shooter, such as being able to look up and down or missions that had discrete phases and goals, Dark Forces cast you as the gruff Kyle Katarn, a mercenary for hire that’s up for some mad skrilla if he can capture those Death Star plans. As it turns out, the Empire is creating an army of fearsome mechanic soldiers called Dark Troopers and after sifting through the remains of a rebel base that had been decimated by these new terrors, you’re tasked with taking down the entire Dark Trooper operation, component by component.
As a kid, those Dark Troopers scared the hell out of me. The first one descends from a lift in the mines of Gromas and charges at you with a large blade, shrieking the whole way. The notion of having to battle one of them actually kept me from advancing very far in the game without cheat codes. (I did beat the game legitimately, but many years later.) While some whined that the game lacked a lightsaber, the fact that Kyle Katarn, at least in this game, was an ordinary dude with access to some interesting firepower again worked to make Star Wars this much bigger thing. Ordinary, but not boring, you tackled mainstays of Star Wars as if you were there yourself. The game also featured a number of complex puzzles as well, which fit appropriately considering the context they were deployed in. I honestly wish we had a Dark Forces remake more than any Dark Forces product that would follow…