Star Wars by Atari - Classic Arcade Games Played & Reviewed
Rate Star Wars Arcade
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 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 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!
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.