Reach out with your feelings and understand: There is an astonishing amount of Star Wars crap in the world. Twitter whingers bemoan the onslaught of lightsaber-adjacent marketing and product tie-ins as the result of Disney’s takeover of the series. Clear-eyed millennials and grudge-holding Gen Xers instead shoot first at George Lucas and Episode I—The Phantom Menace, widely considered (with good cause) to be the modern mold for gluttonous media property promotion. (It’s hard not to blame the ocean of Kylo Ren nesting dolls and Darth Vader Halloween shirts at Target on the diesel engine of commerce that gave us the Jar Jar Binks candy tongue lollipop.)
Clear your head, though, young Jedi. It’s always been like this. Since the moment people became obsessed with Star Wars at the tail end of 1977, there’s been a seemingly endless salvo of books, comics, toys, toilet paper dispensers, ice cube trays, and underpants emblazoned with Princess Leia buns and Chewbacca bandoliers. George Lucas’ most visionary move wasn’t conceiving of a hippified hero’s journey; it was convincing 20th Century Fox to let him keep the merchandising and licensing rights to the series. He made $20 billion on Star Wars goods before selling the whole shebang to Disney. That’s a lot of R2-D2 figures.
Star Wars took a while to get to video games—surprising, given that its ascendance coincided with the first major gaming boom. There were no games set in a galaxy far away until 1982, nearing the end of the series’ first theatrical reign, when Parker Brothers released The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600. But once established, developers quickly made up for lost time: Since then, there have been well over 100 Star Wars games. Of those, there are 25 adapting the original and prequel trilogies—not including variants of those games made for different machines, and excluding the enormously popular Lego Star Wars games, which cover similar narrative ground. These titles, and all their various oddball spinoffs, have been crafted by scores of developers and publishers, from Atari to Sega to Lucas’ own now defunct development house LucasArts. There are entire subseries existing within this structure, with their own characters filling out the two separate Star Wars Expanded Universe continuities created pre- and post-Disney. Really, there’s no genre that Star Wars hasn’t touched: Role-playing games, first-person shooters, platformers, educational simulators, etc. There’s a kart racer! A super bombad kart racer. “Star Wars video game” is almost a genre unto itself.
And yet, in the soup of Star Wars memorabilia and tchotchkes, these dozens of games still feel distinctive and knowable. Like the movies that spawned them, there are more of them than you think there are, and the majority of them are pretty bad. (The Ewok movies with Wilfred Brimley exist, whether you want them to or not. So do Electronic Arts and DICE’s Star Wars: Battlefront titles.) Even at their worst, though, there’s nothing else like them, a bizarre collection of tropes, cliches, and shallow archetypes made mystical by idiosyncratic worldbuilding and implied history. Episode II—Attack Of The Clones may be an appalling movie, but it’s also unforgettable. At their absolute best, Star Wars video games are just as transcendent and singular as the films, distilling cathartic emotional insight out of incomparable pulp spectacle. And, just as the Star Wars filmography has its Star Wars Holiday Special skeletons lurking in the closet, there are some truly freaking bizarre games hanging in there, too. Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing is just a hint of how odd it can get.
There’s no need to pile on to the mountains of internet bellyaching that now surround the prequel trilogy, but those films’ failures illustrate what makes Star Wars work: Character. Special effects, lore, and an aesthetic alternately spare and lusciously charred are ingredients, but they’re not the meal. No, Star Wars lives and dies by how much it embraces character. All the briefly glimpsed bounty hunters and dope-ass alphabetically defined spaceships in the world don’t mean a damn thing if they’re not surrounding people with souls and goals. Episode III—Revenge Of The Sith isn’t bad because it’s a billion years long and tonally inconsistent. It’s bad because the only person in it acting like a human being with actual human desires and needs is Emperor Palpatine. Our heroes, both surviving and fallen, behave like weird, wooden aliens. (Every time Jimmy Smits opens his mouth, I find myself involuntarily muttering, “Narc.”)
Released just two years before Revenge Of The Sith, role-playing game Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic is everything that movie isn’t: Soulful, thrilling, warm, scary, silly but never corny, fun, and deeply human. Made by BioWare, a then-rising studio that had earned its reputation crafting Dungeons & Dragons PC role-playing games with impressive scripts, Knights Of The Old Republic was a profoundly ambitious game, period, let alone as an entry in the Star Wars canon. Set millennia before the films, during the height of the conflict between the altruistic Jedi warrior monks and their foils, the power-hungry Sith, it let you create your own character, who was then immediately thrust into the conflict and forced to decide which side to take.
If you want to be a Jedi knight who teeters on the edge of morality, you can do that. If you want to be a red lightsaber-wielding asshole cheating refugees out of their last credits—but who still decides to help a lost Jawa get home from time to time—you can do that, too. As you fight your way across the galaxy, you team up with a whole host of lost souls that at first blush seem blandly archetypal, but reveal themselves to be appealingly (if simply) nuanced. Carth Onasi comes off as the brash hero, but turns out to be as needy as he is noble. Bastilla Shan, the Jedi master helping you uncover the mythic source of the Sith Lord Darth Malak’s unstoppable space fleet, is both gifted and hyper competent, but also self-conscious about her role in the conflict. And then there’s HK-47, the droid who wants to kill everyone, and you love him for it.
All of those characters, in addition to the myriad crooks, dignitaries, farmers, hermits, and mercenaries you meet along the way, react to and change based on the choices you make throughout. And though your influence on the story is limited—there are ultimately only two real endings, with slight variations on each—the opportunity to directly participate in the Star Wars world in a way that feels both deeply familiar and different from what you’ve see on the big screen enhances the entire experience. What you’re doing in Knights Of The Old Republic isn’t demonstrably different than what you did in BioWare’s other games of the era, or the Mass Effect games that Knights director/writer Casey Hudson conceived in its wake. You bounce from small explorable territory to small explorable territory, get in fights while using skills based on your chosen character type, and participate in lengthy dialogues with people who need some help. The simplicity of the setup only emphasizes how excellent the writing supporting it is, as well as the pitch-perfect rendering of the Star Wars universe. Every dank pit, aged temple, and carbon-scored spaceship feels utterly authentic.
The breadth of that authenticity is also what makes Knights Of The Old Republic the undefeated champion of Star Wars video games. There are others that best it in terms of technical excellence, pure action, and even spectacle. The leaden spaceship shooting sequences in KOTOR can’t match the thrilling, arcade-style dogfights in Rogue Leader on Nintendo Gamecube, or the gripping drama of PC flight sim X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter. Watching your handcrafted Jedi repeatedly flip in place as she whittles away the hit points on a Tusken Raider is never as delectably tactile as slicing into a Stormtrooper in Respawn’s shockingly excellent Jedi: Fallen Order. And while there are rogues and scalawags in Knights Of The Old Republic, none are as appealingly scuzzy and well-developed as Kyle Katarn, the Rebellion-employed merc-cum-Jedi starring in the Dark Forces and Jedi Knight games. But that’s the thing: All of these games let you play in just one corner, a single aspect, of the broader Star Wars experience. Knights Of The Old Republic lets you take your first steps into that much larger world, engaging the whole Star Wars universe and its range of experiences, and grounding it all in an absorbing cast and a killer plot with one of the greatest twists in gaming history at its core.
If there’s a tragedy to Knights Of The Old Republic, it’s that the game’s never been topped, even by its successors. Knights Of The Old Republic II—The Sith Lords, developed and released by the studio Obsidian in just over a single, rushed year of development, took the series in a daringly amoral direction, letting you not just turn you entire party into Force-wielding powerhouses, but also questioning the benefits of aligning with either Sith or Jedi in the process. The plotting, writing, and technical execution of the game reflected the truncated development time, though, resulting in a game that was literally half-baked. (Intrepid fans ultimately took unfinished elements of the game and fleshed them out for a “complete” release in 2012; it’s pretty neat.) Meanwhile, The Old Republic, the massively multiplayer online game that’s been operating for the past seven years in this same portion of conceptual territory, was billed by BioWare and owner Electronic Arts as “KOTOR 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 on and on.” The game is excellent, and highly playable even for people that want to purely enjoy the story, rather than playing as part of a community. But the necessities of the MMO format inevitably sacrifice the clarity and focus that make the original Knights Of The Old Republic so enjoyable. It’s hard to feel caught up in the galactic drama when you have to spend 40 minutes navigating a list of chores in the overwhelming hub space stations you inevitably get funneled into.
There’s a logic behind the second Star Wars movie being the first one to be adapted into a video game, rather than the original flick. The Empire Strikes Back and its many iconic set pieces are a much better fit for the kinetic action that typifies the most immediately appealing games. When you take Episode IV—A New Hope and try to figure out how to transform it into an action game, it immediately falls apart. What’s your dramatic opening level going to be? A squeamish robot shuffling his way to an escape pod, desperately wondering why his spacefaring creator didn’t give him more functional arms? An old man grunting at nomads until they stop beating up some blonde kid? The movie that started it all may end with one of the greatest action scenes of all time—hence why it eventually made for a rad as hell Atari arcade game all on its lonesome in 1983—but the rest of the action is almost entirely defined by narrow escapes rather than enervating conflict. The Empire Strikes Back, meanwhile, opens with Luke Skywalker getting assaulted by the abominable snowman, who he then violently dismembers with a sword of humming plasma. That is, as they say, some serious video game shit.
Empire is comprised almost entirely of dramatic beats ready-made for video game adaptation. The Millennium Falcon flying through asteroid fields and into the maw of a gargantuan space worm. Luke’s swampy, spiritual CrossFit training with Yoda on Dagobah. Desperate shootouts and saber duels in Cloud City. And the grandaddy of them all, the snow speeder battle against the empire’s hulking quadrupedal AT-AT tanks on the ice planet Hoth. That snowy clash is equal parts gripping character struggle and mechanical sci-fi dynamism. Luke flies a dustpan-shaped fighter jet against a municipal building-sized tank, but he’s also only just recovered from his monster beating, to say nothing of having been ordered by the ghost of his mentor to seek out a master to teach him to be a true Jedi. The drama!
When Rex Bradford made the first Star Wars game ever on Atari 2600, he rendered that Hoth battle in uncomplicated, impressionistic hues that maintained the sense of scale and speed that made it so powerful in the first place. There wasn’t much to it, but there was a tacit understanding of the velocity and stakes that made the scene an indelible part of the pop landscape for decades. Which is to say, it got right everything LucasArts got profoundly wrong ten years later in The Empire Strikes Back on NES.
The game looks and sounds like a perfect era-appropriate adaptation. Luke runs and jumps through obstacle and enemy-strewn stages on Hoth, Dagobah, and Cloud City, slicing wampas (the aforementioned snow monsters) with his lightsaber, blasting imperial droids with his laser pistol, and learning Force abilities that let him levitate or deflect incoming fire. Between these exploratory action stages are sections where you pilot vehicles, including a recreation of that classic snowspeeder scene. The comparatively ancient Atari 2600 hardware capably captured the momentum of Empire’s action. This NES version is a miserable labor that drains any sense of urgency and fun out of its scenes with punishing difficulty, jerky movement, and one of the most unpleasant aural landscapes in video game history.
From the outset, Luke stumbles around on foot, leaping off ice floes he barely seems to connect with in stuttering flips, and riding around a squeaking tauntaun (the lizard-kangaroo hybrid beasts of burden from the movie) while trying to force-feed it slime to keep it alive. When you finally run into enemies, a bleeping recreation of a John Williams fanfare bleats out before fading into silence, the only sounds remaining being the repetitive noises of the enemies and endless blaster fire as you whittle away probe droids’ health with agonizing lethargy. Get touched once and you’re more or less finished, so the infinitesimal reach of your lightsaber renders it useless. Don’t bother with Force powers, either, as the energy meter they rely on depletes so fast that the lot of them are useless; levitating on Dagobah will most likely land you in a swamp for an instant death. Flying a ship like your snowspeeder is no better, since the crafts move like paper airplanes coated with instant oatmeal. Every exciting vision of the movie is reduced to a miserable, pounding mix of crumbling noise and belabored movement. At least you get to hear Darth Vader insult you when you die, and you can finish the game in about 30 minutes if you master its noxious rhythm.
Empire on NES isn’t alone in the Star Wars archive of terrible, rote action games. There are five adaptations of The Phantom Menace alone, and none of them rise far above this particular low bar. What makes Empire NES so much more offensive than limp brawlers like Jedi Power Battles on Dreamcast or the insomnia-curing Obi-Wan on the original Xbox is that those, and most other basic Star Wars games, at least reflect a kernel of understanding of what made the source material appealing. The LucasArts team that made Empire Strikes Back not only made a nauseatingly incompetent action game, they made one that feels as though it’s intentionally trying to create something that has the opposite energy of its inspiration. There’s no drama, no excitement, not even a sugary aesthetic rush in seeing these scenes rendered in the NES’s distinctive 25-color palette.
The Empire Strikes Back NES is doubly angering since the same studio (albeit with a slightly different design and programming crew) had turned in an excellent—if difficult and inauthentic—adaptation of A New Hope just a year before. LucasArts’ Star Wars NES game has a similar split between character-based side view and vehicular action, but a superior sense of speed, and a much broader representation of character. Luke moves from locale to locale gathering together the principal cast—Obi-Wan Kenobi is in a cave, Han Solo is in Mos Eisley, Leia Organa in a Death Star cell, etc.—and trying to survive to the end of each stage. The universe’s most powerful farmboy might not have spent time in the movie repeatedly shooting Mandalorians, and Princess Leia didn’t spend a lot of time flying up anti-grav elevator shafts. But the game at least captures the fun of imperiled flight from danger that’s built into its source material.
Jon Knoles, one of the artists who worked on both NES adaptations, went on to make a number of original Star Wars titles that were flawed but admirable in their ambition, just like Star Wars NES. His most famous work, Shadows Of The Empire for the Nintendo 64, went a long way towards making amends for The Empire Strikes Back NES with its excellent rendition of the Hoth battle. Knoles is also responsible for the creation of Dash Rendar, the Velveeta imitation cheese of Han Solo knockoffs; Dash’s corniness isn’t Knoles’ fault, though. As he once explained to me in a making-of interview, it’s all George’s fault.
Corniness isn’t necessarily a killing blow for Star Wars. We all love the cantina in Mos Eisley, but there’s a wolf man drinking a Roy Rogers in there that Lon Chaney Jr. would have snorted at. The Ewok celebration at the end of Return Of The Jedi? The real one, where they’re chanting “yub nub” repeatedly? That is high fructose corny. In both cases, though, our principal characters uplift the hackneyed scenery with real emotion, and by reminding us how much we care about them. Luke Skywalker is unnerved when the guy with a butt on his face and his friend threaten to kill him, cheeseball wolf man or not. Han, Leia, and the assembled rebel pilots don’t really mind a bunch of wee bears dropping yub nub bars; they’ve earned a party, however modest, after killing Emperor Palpatine and his primary fleet.
It’s when Star Wars engages in sillytime antics free of meaningful character or context that things get tricky. Hence why the elastic CGI and mawkish alien singing of “Jedi Rocks” in the special edition version of Return Of The Jedi is so alienating. Same for The Star Wars Holiday Special: That variety show is excruciating to watch not just because it’s bad, but because it’s so inexplicably bizarre. Elderly Wookiees watch softcore pornography while their young heirs almost die repeatedly just feet away. Bea Arthur cabarets her way through last call at the Mos Eisley cantina while seductively caressing a rodent of unusual size. Goofy-party Star Wars is, first and foremost, preposterous. Which is really the only word to describe Kinect Star Wars.
On a purely mercenary level, you can kind of see how it would have made sense. Microsoft’s then relatively new Kinect motion sensing camera could easily detect people making intense hand gestures, just like Yoda does when lifting a spaceship out of a bog. On a platform where Fruit Ninja reigned supreme, the idea that people might respond to lightsaber action makes a certain degree of sense. The idea is sound. Kinect Star Wars is not.
Broken up into four small games, there are two that focus on doing Jedi nonsense, largely by waving your arms in the air. Duels Of Fate and Jedi Destiny: Dark Side Rising are ostensibly what you’d expect: Guided tours through familiar settings from the movies (primarily focusing on the prequel trilogy, when there were more than a handful of Jedi still rolling around). As with most Kinect games, though, waving your arms around in front of a TV to nominally make things happen in a game is an inherently weightless experience. Even when you’re not trying to push over droids, more ostensibly engaging activities like pod-racing still feel strange and airless. Everything in Star Wars, especially in regards to using the Force, requires an established emotional and physical gravity to make what’s happening in the story enchanting. Kinect Star Wars fails to provide it.
When paired with Rancor Rampage, the game’s third mode—where you play as one of Return Of The Jedi’s giant, pig-man-eating monsters, and just sort of swing your arms to wreck things—it seems like Kinect Star Wars exists for no other reason than to remind you of cooler media. (While also making a goddamn fool of yourself, to boot.) And that’s before you get to Galactic Dance-off, the game’s fourth, and most famous mode.
Forget Jefferson Starship rocking out in Holiday Special. Put Greg Proops ooh-ing and ahh-ing as an alien race announcer in The Phantom Menace to the side. No other piece of Star Wars ephemera parties like Galactic Dance-off. Stormtroopers DJ in hot clubs that look like MTV’s The Grind retrofitted with discarded Cloud City set dressing. Boba Fett grabs his crotch mid-bounce with such conviction that even Michael Jackson would have told him to tone it down. Emperor Palpatine jives it out to a song called “Ghost’N’Stuff.” And in order to play the game, you must dance alongside them. You must dance the Sprinkler while Han Solo sings, “I’m so happy the carbonite is gone/I’m moving on/ I’m so happy that it’s over now/The pain is gone.” (That’s sung to the tune of Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo,” mind you.) Kinect Star Wars is so ludicrous that it’s impossible to hate. Like Ron Burgundy discovering his dog has eaten an entire wheel of cheese, you’re not even angry; you’re just impressed.
And yet, even here, there’s a mercenary misguided logic at play. Ubisoft’s Just Dance had become such a hit on Nintendo’s motion-sensing Wii by 2012 that multiple developers and publishers were trying to capitalize on the craze— including Microsoft itself, with Guitar Hero creator Harmonix’s Dance Central. The kids like the dance games. The kids like the Star Wars. “Why not try to chocolate and peanut butter this thing?” reads the imagined market-study memo funneling funds to this project. That wasn’t too far off according to people who actually worked on the songs for the game: Jesse Harlin, a Lucasfilm music supervisor working on Galactic Dance-off, told Intelligencer in 2018 that the idea was indeed to capitalize on the dancing game boom with a parody game. The end result ultimately didn’t feel parodic, though: Just weird. “It didn’t seem like parody to me; it didn’t seem like it went far enough,” explained Harlin. “It just changed the word boogie to Wookiee, that’s not parody. That’s like find-and-replace in a Word doc.”
Yet Galactic Dance-off could have been even weirder than it actually was. Kevin Afflack, the Flash Shack Studios producer who actually arranged these songs, revealed that that all of these tunes were supposed to be sung in Huttese, the imaginary language favored by slug gangsters and Star Wars ne’er do wells. He explained in that same Intelligencer article that while they dodged the Huttese bullet—the word “poodoo” certainly wouldn’t have helped—the English lyrics all still had to fit Star Wars canon. Harlin and Afflack both thought people were too hard on it, especially since the whole dance-off is presented as a goof by C-3PO in the context of the game. But what did anyone at Lucasfilm, Microsoft, or Terminal Reality expect? The gymnastics undergone to make this game fit with that canon reflects such a fundamental misunderstanding of why people would want a dance game, or anything related to Star Wars that it seems impossible someone wouldn’t have said, “You know… maybe we shouldn’t make this.” Why would anyone spend so much money to make something so dizzingly stupid and frivolous that it couldn’t satisfy anyone?
Before the first movie redefined what financial success meant for movies, 20th Century Fox already thought George Lucas was making something too corny, weird, and expensive to possibly be successful. And while rough cuts of the movie likely would have failed at the box office, the version edited by Marcia Lucas was precisely corny, weird, and expensive enough to fuel a cultural phenomenon that continues to grow nearly half a century later. Making weird, risky things that don’t seem to be for anyone, whether they be video games, movies, or something else entirely, is a crucial part of Star Wars’ survival. Most of the time that means making something that isn’t very good, like Kinect Star Wars. When it does work, though, you end up with something so luminous it outshines the sea of crude matter emblazoned with the Star Wars name.