The first Star Wars video game, released in 1982, was an Empire Strikes Back cartridge for Atari 2600. The idea was to pilot a rudimentary snowspeeder composed of six pixels across a few hundred or so more pixels of various shades of blue meant to represent the ice planet Hoth. The objective was straightforward: Defend the rebel base long enough to let your transport ships escape. The encroaching enemy was another blob of pixels, dark gray but with legs—the ominous AT-AT, or All Terrain Armored Transport, as those in the know knew. Simple as it was, everyone loved Empire on the 2600. Somehow, the same scenario played over and over again entertained for hours. We played it daily after school, while making triangular ham-and-cheese toasties on the Snackster, and holding impromptu salons on all things Star Wars: Of course Han shot Greedo first; Darth Vader’s telekinetic force-choke is totally getting stronger; and yeah, there should be, like, a whole army of Bossks in Episode VI.
The following year brought the yoke-controlled arcade classic Star Wars, a machine still extant in a few lonely arcades around the country. (Lonely yet not unloved: It was only this past May that Brandon Erickson played the standup Star Wars for a record-setting 54 hours straight at Ground Kontrol arcade in Portland.) In the two decades since, there have been at least 144 Star Wars games for computers and home consoles, most of which were dutifully dull, characterless iterations of basic game archetypes with a Star Wars veneer or role-playing excursions into the arcana of both trilogies. The exception was last year’s breakthrough—Star Wars: Battlefront, a game in which one of the high points again allows you to get in the cockpit of a snowspeeder and guard Hoth against the AT-ATs, although this time around they are rendered in crisp detail and set against a glinting landscape of icy peaks covered with active little rebel soldiers and stormtroopers fighting it out over turret emplacements and snowbound trenches.
Battlefront is what’s called a team-based shooter, where you play as one pair of boots in a much larger army. It looks more complicated than it really is, with as many as 500 virtual soldiers in a given battle, manning bunkers, flying rebel X-wings or Imperial TIE fighters, laying siege with AT-ATs, or attacking enemy bases. Most of them are controlled by the computer, but with online multiplayer you can fight up to 32 real people. Either way, the game feels dense, like a good facsimile of a real battle with surges and multipronged tactics and strategic turning points—sometimes engineered by your own heroic efforts or by issuing well-placed commands to your fellow troops.
All this makes for some real absorbing time in front of the TV. Star Wars: Battlefront is a descendant of Battlefield 1942, the original first-person entry into grandly staged Manichaean warfare from our very own planet. LucasArts didn’t just take that template and improve the graphics, they finally had the basic insight that the ultimate Star Wars video game would be the one that honors the spirit of the original action figures. Because Battlefront‘s achievement is that it realizes the visions we had in our heads when arranging our toys into epic showdowns out in the grass on Saturday afternoons. And whereas only die-hard Star Wars fans would want to spend 14 hours at a time living out fan fiction by role-playing Jedis on some massively multiplayer online server, everyone who ever loved Star Wars wouldn’t mind jumping on a tauntaun and running down the hill to defend the shield generator.
With its expansive campaigns, Battlefront also continues the action-figure fetishization of the Star Wars paracosm, or alternative universe. As kids, more important than the plain vanilla stormtroopers were the ancillary, but more sinisterly detailed Imperial pilots and scouts, or the snowtrooper with his long, white trench coat and heavy weather gear. In Battlefront, you can play as all of those characters and more. And you can rotate often between them, just like in the backyard, when you might have your rebel commando sliding down the fishing-wire zip line from the tree stump to the pile of dirt where the Empire is hiding out, and—damn, he gets shot by the TIE X-1—but aw shit now you have Chewie in hand, and he’s gonna take care of business . . .
Beyond re-kindling the backyard love of Star Wars, Battlefront also reinforces the superiority of the original films over the misguided prequels. The game allows you to play in both realms, and, not surprisingly, the prequel levels are relative bores, populated as they are by the lifeless characters from those films. Dramatically illustrating this is the character menu when fighting against the Republic, where you have to choose from five identical droids. Contrast that with the Wookies and TIE fighters of the Episode IV era, and the choice is obvious.
This is a point neglected by so many film critics who never made it past the prequels’ wooden screenplays. Yes, the dialogue was retarded, but even worse were the characters voicing that dialogue. Think about the originals: Some prop guys put a dome on a trash can and painted it with blue stripes. Voila: R2-D2. Then they poked around wardrobe, glued some horsehair on a big, tall dude, attached a bandoleer, and there you have Chewbacca. These were some of the most memorable characters of all time: simply conceived and basically cost-free. Along comes Episode I, in which George Lucas spent who knows how many millions of dollars generating complete CGI creatures so leaden that no one remembers their names. The exception is Jar Jar Binks, who is widely remembered—as perhaps the most annoying character in movie history.
Lucas often says he felt limited by technology when making the original Star Wars movies. It now seems that limitation was Lucas’ accidental muse the first time around. Then, the excitement hinged on anticipation. Intense set pieces were sparingly applied, and the meanwhiles were filled with tantalizing details: an Imperial shuttle folding its wings; Boba Fett stepping in and out of the shadows; an AT-AT first glimpsed not directly, but in grainy black-and-white through the rebel’s viewfinders. It was a Star Wars realm that unfolded in hints, and in retrospect we should be thankful that Lucas couldn’t afford to create an army of Bossks, because then Bossk wouldn’t have felt so important to us. (Although I can’t resist the thought that a compromise may have worked, like, say, a small squad of Bossks.) Same with the Wookies, whose long-anticipated en masse appearance in Episode III was predictably disappointing, underscoring the artistic paradox that there is such a thing as too much freedom. And although Episode III was a huge advance over the other two prequels, it was still a wildly overwrought, computer-generated mess stitched together by the flimsiest of drama—a run-of-the mill video game, essentially, with the usual throwaway “cinematic cut scenes” that plague today’s games.
Battlefront‘s departure from that mode is probably what made it the best-selling Star Wars video game to date. That and its synergistic mojo from a simultaneous box-set reissue of the original trilogy. Because, despite all the hype surrounding the prequels, a recent fan poll of favorite Star Wars characters had all of the Top 10 coming from the originals except for Anakin Skywalker, and he was number nine. Likewise, on Battlefront online and in the forums, nothing beats the basic appeal of good old Hoth. If it was annoying, after all, that Naboo’s digitally perfect marble columns looked just like a movie version of Myst, why would you want to import that back to your Xbox? This is why the most anticipated additions to Star Wars: Battlefront II, due out this fall, are not new lava levels from Episode III, but the Death Star and Princess Leia’s blockade runner from the opening of Episode IV. Now if they could just include that squad of Bossks.
Bossk: A reptilian humanoid bounty hunter, originally from Trandosha.
X-Wing: Incom’s T-65 starfighter, the rugged symbol of the rebellion.
TIE Fighter: Single-seat Imperial starfighter (lacks hyperdrive).
Massively Multiplayer: Online gaming environment where thousands of players participate in real time.
Tauntaun: Sure-footed snow lizard on Hoth, used by rebels for transport.
TIE X-1: Darth Vader’s customized ship with the sleek angular wings.
Wookie: Chewbacca, et al.