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Star Wars by Atari - Classic Arcade Games Played & Reviewed

Updated on September 22, 2013

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Star Wars Arcade Flyer
Star Wars Arcade Flyer

Anyone growing up as a kid in the late 70's and early 80's will remember the huge impact that George Lucas' space opera Star Wars had on the world. Never before had a film captured the public imagination in such a way, bringing science fiction into the mainstream with its story of good versus evil in a far (far) away galaxy. Every young boy, myself included, wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, and had to have the latest Star Wars toys and clothing. George Lucas somehow knew this would happen, and made sure he had possession of the merchandising rights, not the studio, something that was previosly seen as "just T-shirts" and not a big deal.

Atari cottoned on to the impact that Star Wars was making on its game playing demographic, and decided to release an arcade cabinet based on the first Star Wars film. These days every action film released will have a console based game to accompany it, but back in1983 this was relatively rare, and so Star Wars effectively became one of the world's first video games based on a movie.

And despite all the odds, and the technical challenges of converting such a complex movie into an arcade machine, Atari managed just that, and in the process created one of the most playable and fondly remembered arcade games of all time.

Star Wars Upright Cabinet
Star Wars Upright Cabinet
Star Wars Cockpit Cabinet
Star Wars Cockpit Cabinet

Star Wars Cabinets

Atari took their time with this game, and wanted to make sure the cabinet was evocative of the movie as possible, making it both graphically and aurally representative of the movie. To this end, the cabinet side art fand marquee features detailed images from the movies, including Darth Vader, the X-Wing and Tie Fighter ships, and the classic Star Wars logo.

The sound created by the cabinet in "attract" mode included a rousing multi-channel rendition of John Williams Star Wars theme, as well as voice samples from the movie, quoting classic lines from Obi-Wan and Luke. To add to the allure, the controls were not just any old joysticks and buttons, but a dedicated flight yoke that could have come directly out of Luke's X-Wing, with twin trigger buttons on the handles.

To any Star Wars fan it was a physical impossibility to walk past this cabinet.

If the standard upright cabinet were not enticing enough, the sit down cockpit version would definitely have fans dribbling with excitement, and it is difficult to describe the feeling of actually sitting in one. Let's just say it was the closest thing to being Luke Skywalker without actually being Mark Hamill. The cabinet just increased the feeling of being immersed in the movie, totally surrounded by the familiar Star Wars sights and sounds.

When it comes the the actual display, the game featured multi-coloured vector graphics, the same technology used in the earlier Atari hit Asteroids. Vector displays differ from the more common "raster" graphics seen in modern screens, as they fire a stream of electrons directly at the surface of the screen to draw distinctive shapes, rather than building the shape by turning on and off individual screen pixels in horizontal scanlines. This gives the game a very distinctive look, with all the characters on screen being built up from wire frame 3D images rather than solid blocks of colour.

So it looks and sounds great, but what is it like to play Star Wars?

Star Wars Arcade - First Wave
Star Wars Arcade - First Wave
Star Wars Arcade - Trench Run
Star Wars Arcade - Trench Run

Star Wars Arcade Gameplay

Players start the game by selecting a difficulty level, by shooting one of 3 death stars on the opening screen. Your view is from the cockpit of the x-wing, with lasers from the wing tips visible around the display, looking out into space.

The first section of the game begins with you racing towards the Death Star in the distance, and fighting waves of attacking Tie Fighters. Your ship is "on rails", and moving the flight yoke will move the target sight accordingly to track and shoot down the enemy ships. The Tie Fighters are armed with missiles that appear as glowing stars which grow bigger the closer they are, which can either be dodged or shot down using your lasers. Being hit causes your shield to lose power, with your shield being able to take 5 direct hits before leaving you completely exposed.

If you survive the first wave, you will reach the surface of the Death Star, and need to fly between rows of laser turrets that can be destroyed by shooting the top of the tower. As well as the risk of striking the towers, they also fire missiles which need to be dodged or destroyed. Hit a tower and you will use up a piece of shield, as well as knocking your ship momentarily sideways.

Star Wars Arcade World Record

The current holder of the highest score on an original Star Wars arcade cabinet is David Palmer, with a score of 31,660,314 recorded in 1986.

The final wave is the ultimate - the Death Star trench run. Your ship is dropped in at the end of the trench, which has gun ports on either side firing missiles at you as fly along it. The trench features a number of obstacles in the form of gantries which cross it, requiring you to fly under or over the gantry in order to avoid collision. These gantries can be placed in very tricky formations, requiring you to fly under one and then immediately over another all the while taking out gun ports and avoiding incoming missiles.

If you can make it to the end of the trench run with your shields intact, the gun turrets thin out and you can see the approaching exhaust port in the base of the trench, which you need to fire into in order to destroy the Death Star. Miss the port, and you repeat the trench run, but if you hit it you are presented with one of the most iconic sights in video gaming - the explosion of the Death Star. This is something that every Star Wars fan must experience, it really is that good.

Before you even have a chance to land your X-Wing and get a hug from Chewbacca, you are taken back to the first wave, this time with angrier Tie Fighters and more missiles to avoid.

Star Wars Home Conversions

Given the power of the arcade machine created by Atari, the difficult to replicate vector display, and comprehensive use of speech sampled from the movie, this was never going to be an easy game to create on home hardware at the time.

The game was however converted by Atari for it's home consoles and computers, including the 2600 and 5200 machines, with varying levels of success. The 2600 version really struggled to match the look of the arcade game given the limited display abilities of Atari's first console, and remains impressive as a programming exercise if not a game. The 5200 version has greatly improved graphics, but gameplay is disappointing and not a patch on the arcade version.

A version was released on the Colecovision, which whilst having some great graphics, like the Atari 5200 it suffered from gameplay issues, mainly due to the controls not being able to effectively replicate the flight yoke of the original.

Star Wars had more success with home computer releases, including the Acorn Electron and BBC Micro in the UK, which were a lot more playable than the console versions. The very best conversion was (in my opinion) for the PC, an excellent DOS reproduction with great graphics and mouse driven cross-hairs that much better replicated the controls of the original arcade cabinet.


Finding a Star Wars Cabinet Today

For anyone wanting to buy an original cabinet, you will need both luck and some very deep pockets. Anything Star Wars related in hugely collectable, and due to the popularity of these cabinets in the arcades, they were all very well used. To complicate matters the rare vector screens and custom controls make them very difficult to repair. Finding one in mint condition today will be extremely hard and when you do, extremely expensive. Upright cabinets will start at around £2,000 / $3,000 depending on condition, and cockpit style cabinets even more.

Very few arcades will have a version of this cabinet still working due to the value of the games, and most will have been snapped up by private collectors.

Your best chance of seeing one today is as part of a museum tour such as "Game On" which featured all the old cabinets, and allowed you to play them as well. This tour has been travelling the world since 2002, and is still going strong. I played in a Star Wars cockpit machine when the tour visited the UK in 2007.

If anyone out there has one for sale, please let me know!

Final Thoughts

Looking at the game today it will not compare well with either the graphical ability or gameplay of modern consoles, and the youngest generation of gamers would probably not understand what all the fuss was about.

If however, like me, you grew up with this film, the game was a fantastic childhood memory, a game which recreated the excitement of a unique movie that forever changed the film industry.

Playing this game today brings it all flooding back, it's 1983 and I am Luke Skywalker.

Have you played on an original Star Wars Arcade cabinet?

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    • Jacobb9205 profile image

      Jacob Barnard 2 years ago from Gloucestershire

      That's so awesome never knew they had a classic star wars game!

    • RolyRetro profile image
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      RolyRetro 3 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      I'd cycle 8 Miles to play Star Wars arcade today, no problem!

    • profile image

      Tim 3 years ago

      One of the best arcade games ever made. We never had one in my hometown, i had to wait for my yearly holiday in Great Yarmouth to play it, or cycle 8 miles to an arcade in Tamworth on a saturday morning!

    • RolyRetro profile image
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      RolyRetro 3 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      I think you will find the 80's were better, at least for Star Wars fans :)

    • profile image

      ste 3 years ago from westmids uk

      glad i found this page... even though i have never played the cockpit or stand up i think the mame emulator is good and would very much like to play the real thing. the arcades of my youth were all neo geo and street fighters long live the 90s they were the best years ever but wish i was around when star wars was there

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 3 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      If I had the space I'd pay £2k for a stand up Star Wars cabinet :(

    • profile image

      Jase Disgrace 3 years ago

      No you're not!

    • profile image

      Captain Bedderz 3 years ago

      I'm about to sell one for £2000 a stand up star wars original!! ;-)

    • profile image

      Jase Disgrace 3 years ago

      I'm about to steal one from a friend of mine who is relocating. He has no idea that he ain't gonna get it back. Bwahahahahaha!

    • profile image

      Captain Bedderz 3 years ago

      I Have a stand up original, love it, my pride & joy, id have bought the cockpit but couldn't get it in the house! ive owned it for 10 years, works great, hi score 2million......31 million jesus!!

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 4 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      Unfortunately living in UK we don't have any arcades left, apart from the occasional dance machine at a bowling alley. My wife might notice if I travel to New York for a game!

      Cheers

      Roly

    • profile image

      Brady 4 years ago

      The first time I played the game was actually as an easter egg inside one of the rogue squadron video games for the game cube. It was really fun, but it's nothing like the cabinet version, which I managed to find @ the museum of play in Rochester, NY. If you haven't been there, you gotta check out their arcade section, it's awesome!

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 4 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      I used to play at my local youth club, every Tuesday night, wish I was 13 again and could still go there!

      Roly

    • profile image

      spockranger@googlemail.com 4 years ago

      Coffee bar at Art College, bacon rolls, perfect. Gameplay is all.

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 4 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      I'd love to rescue one of these old games from an arcade, but there are none left in the UK, so unless I can get over to the US any time soon...

    • Geekdom profile image

      Geekdom 4 years ago

      I put way to many quarters into this game as a kid and quoted way to many Star Wars lines than anybody should while playing.

      I have actually found this game in lots of old arcades and it tends to be one of the few that is still working. The other games like Rampage and Double Dragon have the joysticks or buttons broken.

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 5 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      Still some to be found on ebay, but you better get saving!

      Roly

    • RetroBrothers profile image

      Martin Allan 5 years ago from Sunny Scotland

      Nice write up on an awesome cabinet.

      The full cockpit cabinet was brilliant back in the day - really groundbreaking.

      The sterio sound, the digitized speech, the fast moving vectors....

      I would LOVE one of these now.

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 5 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      Thanks for the comment Will, this is the reason I think retro gaming is so popular, people want to relive thise childhood memories of games they grew up with.

      Cheers

      Roly

    • profile image

      Will Adams 5 years ago

      I remember spending my lunch money all the time on the sit down cabinet.

      We went on a school trip and we found a cabinet and pretty much spent the whole day throwing money at it again and again and again!

      Fantastic memories.

    • barry1001 profile image

      barry1001 5 years ago from North Wales

      As a child, I always wanted a lightsabre.

      I was gutted that I never got one.

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 5 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      Great game Tonyx35, and the Tie Fighter sequel. A few years later I also got into the Rogue Squadron series on N64 and Gamecube - the best dogfighting games, and you could also bring down an AT AT Walker with a Snowspeeder cable!

      We need an equivalent Star Wars game for XBox...

      Cheers, Roly

    • Tonyx35 profile image

      J Antonio Marcelino 5 years ago from Illinois, USA

      I spent a Massive amount of quarters on this arcade game. Back in my younger days I would play it at a shopping mall where I used to live. I felt so lucky that they had the cockpit cabinet version of the game. The sound was also good for the time. I've never played the "stand up" version at all. Didn't even know they existed.

      I moved on to X-Wing for the PC after this. Nice one, RolyRetro.

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 5 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      @thranax glad you liked it, great to get such positive feedback from a Hubpage veteran!

      Roly

    • RolyRetro profile image
      Author

      RolyRetro 5 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      @fatfreedyscat thanks for sharing, I just wish I had access to one of these games today. I will have to make do with an emulator until then

      Cheers

      Roly

    • thranax profile image

      Andrew 5 years ago from Rep Boston MA

      Awesome, simply awesome.

      ~thranax~

    • FatFreddysCat profile image

      Keith Abt 5 years ago from The Garden State

      I remember this game fondly. As a young video game geek and a Star Wars fanatic it was irresistible. The movie theater in my town had one in its game room and whenever I went to the movies I always made sure I had a few quarters in my pocket so I could run in there and play a few rounds before my film started.

      The graphics may look primitive today compared to what current video game technology is capable of, but at the time this game was the absolute top of the line. Thanks for the memories!!