There is a long and beautiful history between video games and the Star Wars universe. Some of us grew up having played the games without having seen the movies — that’s how far the LucasArts world tapped its way to the heart of interactive culture. Some of the earliest spin-off titles were real disasters, as late ‘80s games were prone to being, given that making the story of the original trilogy into a bunch of platforming shooters couldn’t really tap into the magic of what made Star Wars great. But in 1995, one game got released that would not only change the way Star Wars stories in the extended universe were told, but also changed the way all shooter video games would be developed for the next decade. That game is Dark Forces. But to properly tell its story, we first need to discuss its sequel.
Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight came out in 1997. It features full-motion video cut scenes, third-person optional camera angles, online multiplayer, and a character action-packed with force powers and a light saber. It remains one of the greatest first person Star Wars games of all time, and even features a level set in a falling spaceship where you have to avoid moving debris as you make your way from end of the ship to the other. If you’re looking for an older game to revisit, this one is just a blast-er. So many of these features are lacking in the original, and that solidifies its importance.
Dark Forces focuses on Kyle Katarn — a mercenary who has worked alongside the Empire, but has just shifted his shaky allegiance to the Rebellion because of a new “Dark Trooper Project” that is making flying Robocop monsters that shoot rockets and would easily take over the universe. It’s not the strongest narrative, but turns out that was enough to make a huge dent.
Dark Forces was originally panned for being a clone of Doom, and that’s not an easy comparison to shake. The movement goes at the same rate, the engine Jedi was very similar to id Tech 1, and some elements — including the way it used ammunition — seemed directly lifted from the original Doom… which beat Dark Forces to market by two years. But the differences between the two titles wound up changing the market.
Dark Forces is the first FPS to allow for multiple levels of gameworld design, as well as the ability to look up and down — things we take for granted now. Also, DF inserted story cutscenes between missions, which not only built an evolving narrative into the game (which Doom has always lacked) but also allowed for overtly complex level and puzzle design informed by these narrative bursts. Obtaining keys and other items would never be the solution to a puzzle by themselves, but applying complex logic to multilevel bases (with various level completion objectives) would become the foundation upon which games like Goldeneye 007 would build themselves.
Add in some traditional LucasArts humor, and you’ve got a title that stands the test of time.
The game also introduces ducking, swimming, night vision, ice boots, and a host of other interactions with the environment, along with weapons that had multiple uses/modes and the ability to toss grenades — all of which are now mainstays of modern shooter culture. It boasted fully interactive environments, including moving platforms and rivers that ebb and flow, at a point where no one else was thinking on this level.
Dark Forces, which you can get for $1.75 on Steam right now, isn’t the easiest game to revisit — I got stuck in an elevator for a while — but the moment you’re dropped in Jabba’s pits without weapons and have to take on a group of Kell Dragons will still shock you to your core. We owe Dark Forces a great debt, and it should be treated with the same historic awe as its Martian demonic predecessor.
Also, you can punch dudes like this. Look out, jerk.