Seven Star Wars films. Decades of classic games. We picked the best games, and attached them to the films they most closely represent.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
The Film: A perfectly distilled dash of adventure, Star Wars didn’t so much reference classic sci-fi, war, and western films as it stole directly from them, smiling the whole way. The most thrilling part was the climax, a World War II dogfight-inspired spaceship battle ending with a trench run through the seemingly-invincible Death Star.
The Game: The 1983 Star Wars arcade machine was a simple, beautiful, and fun as hell. You fly an X-wing through the battle of Yavin, first fighting off the Imperial TIE fighters, then barreling down the trenches. The wire-frame graphics were sufficient to convey all that was needed, and the game plays quickly and responsively. Even today it feels like a timeless experience, a simple video game capturing the magic of a monumental action scene — see if you can find it at a local retro arcade.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The Film: How could the franchise continue after the wild success of the 1977 debut? Star Wars’ answer was to go bigger, yes, but also deeper and darker, with a closer focus on the terrifying power of the Galactic Empire, particularly its avatar, Darth Vader. And that meant humanizing the villain, with an ending suggesting that he wasn’t evil incarnate, but a corrupted hero.
The Game: Star Wars: TIE Fighter shares a concept with the 1983 arcade machine — you fly Star Wars spaceships into battle — but it’s a slower, more tactical space sim, with long, multi-part engagements as part of an epic campaign, which starts after Empire’s Battle of Hoth. The combat is good, but what made TIE Fighter special was that you played the part of an Imperial pilot in the eggshell TIE fighter, defending order through the galaxy, stopping the Rebel scum from spreading war and chaos. Continuing play leads to Imperial infighting, secret, powerful TIE Advanced fighters, and the Vader of the Expanded Universe, Admiral Thrawn.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
The Film: The grand capstone to the original trilogy, Jedi tried to do what its predecessors did, only bigger, better, and with more adorable, murderous teddy bears. While Jedi botched the execution slightly, it still served as a glorious celebration of all things Star Wars, with a final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader determining the fate of the galaxy.
The Game: The big issue facing Star Wars games as time went on was: how could they do good lightsaber combat? The glowing swords, initially little more than symbols, came to dominate Star Wars’ conflicts in the fifth and sixth episodes. Yet it took games decades to break through.
That success? 1997’s Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II — or just Jedi Knight, to make it clear. What started as a first-person shooter shifted gears after a couple levels when the main character grabbed a lightsaber and discovered the Force. Suddenly, Jedi Knight was part-RPG, developing force powers with a lightsaber duel system attached. The key element: the switch to 3D, polygonal graphics, which allowed for better movement of bodies through physical spaces, and the magic swords that hit those bodies. It got better over time, with sequels Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy improving on the formula. But Jedi Knight was special, a hyperspace jump forward in Star Wars game design.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The Film: In an ideal universe, the prequel trilogy would have been a joyous return to the Star Wars universe, set far enough in the back that it could tell new stories while engaging with the original’s themes and referring to iconic moments. Instead, well, Darth Maul was cool.
The Game: The prequel trilogy shifted the focus of LucasArts so that they could only make games about the prequels. This turned out to be nearly as much of a disaster as the films themselves, as the creativity from mid-1990s games like TIE Fighter and Jedi Knight turned into, uh, Super Bombad Racer.
The light at the end of the tunnel for Star Wars game fans was Knights of the Old Republic, a 2003 prequel game set thousands of years back in Star Wars history … in a galaxy that still looked very similar to the one in the films, but could do whatever it wanted with the plot. KOTOR set about telling a grand, iconic story of Jedi corruption and galactic superweapons.
KOTOR could have easily just seemed like a set of disjoined references, much like the movies of the prequel trilogy, but it was built on a strong, D&D-based role-playing system. That helped make it a mechanically solid game, but it was also the transition point for legendary RPG developers BioWare in making companion-based, speech-heavy games.
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
The Film: You know, I’ve tried to talk positively about all of these, but I just can’t with Clones. It’s awful. It’s like watching a really boring friend play a video game that seems cool but you have no idea how anything works, there’s just a lot of jumping and exploding.
The Game: In an alternate universe, the prequel trilogy consists of three strong films, which build up a huge, tragic setting, where the Clone Wars break generations of peace and force an entirely new, violent way of dealing with evil. That’s the alternate universe that Star Wars: Republic Commando came from.
A squad-based first-person shooter with relatively simple tactics and shooting, Republic Commando doesn’t lend itself to easy description as a great game. But it’s a game that knows itself and exactly what it is, and uses the Star Wars setting so well that the Clone Wars make sense in a way they never did in the films.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
The Film: Finally, the prequels live up to their promise! Well, not really, it’s still an incoherent mess, but at least it lacks the total embarrassments of Episode I’s Jar-Jar Binks and Episode II’s attempts at romantic dialogue. That said, there are strong action sequences combined with a decent connection to the tone of the original trilogy, and the deliberately tragic ending leads to a questioning of prophecy, Jedi competence, and the wisdom of the Force. With a little tweaking, Sith could have been great.
The Game: Knights of the Old Republic II was shoved out on a tight deadline a mere year after its predecessor, as part of EA’s misguided attempt to turn every franchise yearly like its sports games. And it was largely broken, with entire sections of the game simply removed, and almost all of the plot left off the ending. But after nearly a decade of work, fans put together a “Restored Content Mod” that brought back much of the deleted story, and suddenly KOTOR II made sense.
What was revealed was a genius deconstruction of Star Wars’ core mythology, with not the Jedi or the Sith put on trial, but the entire concept of good and evil as manifested through the Force. This was supported by the systems of the first KOTOR being expanded into bigger and better manifestations, capturing the seductive power of being a Jedi and critiquing the aristocratic culture of magical chosen ones. It’s both clever and awesome.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
The Film: If there’s one lesson Disney learned from the reaction to the prequels, it’s that fans wanted symbolic homages to the original trilogy more than literal ones. Hence the marketing campaign for The Force Awakens, which has aggressively taken visual and aural cues from the original trilogy and mixed them into a form both comforting and exciting.
The Game: No game was a more unabashedly loving homage to the first three Star Wars films than LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (these days you can usually only find it packaged with the prequel trilogy’s LEGO Star Wars, which is fine). This was a game that announced from its very start “you love Star Wars, we love Star Wars, let’s play with it!” It used goofy dialogue-free cut-scenes to poke gentle fun at the source material, like Vader telling Luke he’s his father by waving a picture of LEGO Amidala. But it also built strong levels off of iconic moments in the better Star Wars trilogy. After the prequels, in 2006, the cheerful back-to-basics of the LEGO Star Wars II was a breath of fresh air. The Force Awakens should be so lucky.