With its dogfighting space battles, lightsaber duels and narrow escapes, George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars seemed like a natural for the video arcades. It took years to get the license, but Atari’s version of Star Wars finally arrived in 1983, the same year Return of the Jedi hit cinemas.
Filled with fast-moving, colour vector graphics, Star Wars placed gamers right in the cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter for a re-creation of the film’s climactic assault on the Death Star.
Seen from a first-person view, the action began out in space as Luke and his Rebel cohorts closed in on the space station. Imperial TIE fighters – including Darth Vader’s own advanced fighter – clogged Luke’s path, swarming around the Rebel wing and launching powerful fireballs.
Each hit from an enemy blast knocked your X-Wing’s shields down a notch, and once they were gone, the next blast ended the game.
Using the game’s unique two-handed steering yoke with trigger and thumb buttons, your duty was to target the fighters and their fireballs, protecting your ship and opening the way for an assault on the Death Star itself.
“Gold Leader, this is Red 5. I’m going in!”
After the TIE fighter stage, Luke’s X-Wing dove toward the Death Star, where the players encountered several bunkers and laser towers.
The fireballs kept coming from any bunkers you failed to explode, and for an added challenge, you could shoot the vulnerable tops of the tall towers.
The game’s third stage took players in for the final run on the Death Star’s lone weak spot, a tiny thermal exhaust port at the end of a long trench. As you piloted the X-Wing down the trench, wall-mounted laser cannons launched more fireballs in your direction, and in later levels, barriers had to be flown around.
If your piloting skills were up to the task, the exhaust port would eventually appear, and a well-timed proton torpedo launch would set off a chain reaction, wasting the Death Star in a brilliant explosion. If you missed the port, a shield level would be lost, and the trench would have to be re-navigated.
“Yahoo! You’re all clear, kid!”
The movie may have been six years old, but Star Wars mania was still at a fever pitch in 1983. Fans jumped at the chance to take Luke Skywalker’s place, and Atari’s Star Wars put them right into the movie, complete with sampled dialogue and re-creations of the film’s musical score.
The game was an absolute smash, dominating 1983 arcades almost as thoroughly as the film dominated 1977 cinemas.
Getting a bit out of sequence, Atari decided to adapt Return of the Jedi, the third film in the original trilogy, as its next arcade project.
The new game was a complete shift from Star Wars in graphics and gameplay, taking players on a third-person adventure both on and above the forest moon of Endor.
Released in 1985, The Empire Strikes Back was a return to the look and feel of the first Star Wars game.
The new title had the same great graphics, controls, gameplay and sampled movie dialogue of the original Star Wars arcade game, but it didn’t have the same good timing.
The infamous arcade market crash hit in 1984, and The Empire Strikes Back was one of its many victims.
It took nearly a decade, but the franchise finally returned to the coin-operated world in 1993’s Star Wars Arcade, and the Force was once again strong with arcade owners everywhere.