I’m not saying that Disney’s acquisition of all of the Lucas assets is the worst thing to happen in the history of mankind, but it is definitely in the top 10.
One of the lesser publicised side-effects of the merger was the neutering of one of the best video game developers in Lucasarts - a company who, over the years, had made some absolute bangers and genre defining classics (I'll be focusing on the Star Wars side of things here, but let me just add two words at the start: Grim Fandango).
Then Disney came in and, as they do, ruined everything for everyone. In one of the worst moves you could possibly make Disney gave Electronic Arts exclusive rights to the Star Wars video game franchise. FOR TEN YEARS!
EA are a company that could be described, if one were being incredibly generous, as sketchy. At worst they’re downright evil and, most of the time, borderline incompetent. If you take a look at their Wikipedia page the section for “criticism and controversy” makes up nearly half of the page. Whenever EA announces the acquisition of something the refrain is always well that was good while it lasted.
And Disney thought it was a good idea to hand exclusive rights to the Star Wars franchise over to them.
What have EA done with those exclusive rights in the last five years? They’ve made three and a half games. That’s it.
They made the controversial Battlefront, which was criticised for infuriating gameplay, complete lack of a single player campaign and a general feeling of being rushed.
They made Battlefront II, which is an absolute clusterfuck of problems in general but worst of all sparked an industry-wide outrage when their business model was literally “pay to win”. People could pay more money to unlock things in the game that would give them an advantage over other players. The more you spent the better your character would become. EA seemed genuinely shocked when there was a massive backlash over this.
The Old Republic was EA’s attempt at an MMO to compete with World of Warcraft. Whilst the game is actually rather fun and I enjoyed my time with it, there ain’t nothing competing with WoW.
Finally there’s Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes, a mobile game where you pay money to make little meters go up. You may think I'm being flippant, but that's pretty much what you do.
That’s it. That’s all EA could manage with their exclusive rights to the Star Wars franchise. Bland cash grabs that they thought they could sell because they stuck a picture of Darth Vader on the box. This isn’t even mentioning the games they’ve cancelled because EA executives wouldn’t know a good product if it bit them in the arse.
Star Wars Ragtag looked very promising, revolving around a group of smugglers and ne’er-do-wells in the grimy underworld of Hutt cartels. It was basically a Star Wars take on the incredibly popular Uncharted series, which a lot of people agreed sounded pretty fucking awesome. The game was being developed by a bunch of Uncharted staff and written by one of the chief writers of Uncharted. EA then cancelled it because it looked too much like Uncharted. Go figure.
Then there was the ill-fated Star Wars 1313, the cancellation of which was pretty much EA’s first decision with their now exclusive access. 1313 looked amazing, you should really check it out. I can’t do it justice in the limited space I have here. But the carpet-strollers ruined that, as they tend to do with everything. The word around the campfire is that the executives were incredulous that there was a Star Wars game being developed that didn’t have any Jedi in it and axed the whole project (even though some of the best games have been Star Wars games without Jedi, which is what I’m about to get to).
And so thanks to one merciless corporate juggernaut handing exclusive rights to an incompetent corporate juggernaut we don’t get good Star Wars games any more.
And they used to be so, so good.
Yes there was some dross in there as well, the lows were quite low, but they got it right more often than not and when they did, good lord did they do it well.
And so in memoria of a time before Disney fucked everything, here are some of my favourite Star Wars games from before the dark times. Before the Empire.
Knights of the Old Republic
Made by BioWare, who know how to make an RPG better than anyone outside of Black Isle, KOTOR is an absolute classic. Set thousands of years before the events of the movies, this freedom of setting allowed BioWare to really explore the idea of what a Jedi is. It’s a belter of a game about the two sides of the Force, betrayal, love, duty, honour - all of those chivalric concepts that the films hinted at but didn’t have the space to explore. KOTOR and its sequel are two of the best games of all time, let alone best Star Wars games, and they remain as good now as they have ever been.
What if DOOM was in the Star Wars universe? This game introduced us to one of the classic characters in Kyle Katarn and was an FPS that did something that EA would never have the balls to do - it was a Star Wars game without any Jedi in it. You were a Rebel commando running and gunning, waging war against the Empire on the small scale, just another cog in the machine, trying to make the galaxy a better place. EA could learn a lot from Dark Forces - you make a good game first, then you sprinkle the Star Wars on top.
For all that I’ve been railing about the idea of people not wanting games without Jedi in them, one of the best was exactly that. This is the sequel to Dark Forces and asks, and answers, the question “what if Kyle Katarn were actually a Jedi?”. It is bloody amazing and was a cornerstone of my teenage years. It hasn’t aged well at all, but you need to understand what it was at the time - something totally unprecedented. You were actually a goddamn Jedi Knight. You could use a lightsaber in a functional fashion - there was actual swordplay and dueling. You could use the Force, and not just the old push and pull, you had a full array of powers. You could be a Jedi or you could turn to the Dark Side. And what made it so great was that the Dark Side option was exactly what it should be. Playing a Dark Side character made the game a lot easier - their Force powers were all about killing whereas the Light Side was more defensive. It was actually seductive, but the cost was great. This game was so well executed that it hurts to see what Star Wars has become in the present day.
It also had full motion video cutscenes. They actually shot a mini-movie for this game and in a time when all we had were the three original movies, this was a really big deal.
Jedi Outcast aka Jedi Knight II aka Dark Forces III yes it’s confusing.
Everything I said about the above, but better. I’ll say just one thing about this - The Pit. If you get it, great. If you don’t then you’re missing out on a lot.
A direct tie-in to Attack of the Clones, this was actually an incredibly fun third-person shooter. Ever since The Empire Strikes Back fans have wanted to play as Boba Fett, the best character in Star Wars (you’re free to disagree, but you’d be wrong). This was the next best thing. You got to be Jango Fett and it was a rich and rewarding experience. Shooting, looting, taking in bounties - “just a simple man trying to make his way in the universe”. This was a hoot. And oh yeah, even though it was set during the height of the Jedi, you didn’t play as a Jedi. And people liked it. A lot. But according to EA that’s impossible.
Episode I: Podracer
You know that big racing sequence in The Phantom Menace that everyone hated? Well they made an entire game out of that. And you know what? It was fucking awesome. This is a deceptively good game, one of the better racing games out there. While podracing might not have translated to screen in the way George Lucas wanted it to, goddamn did it do well as a game.
Also known as Supremacy depending on your region. This was basically a spreadsheet that made Star Wars sounds. And I loved it more than anything. I’ve clocked more hours in this than any other Star Wars game, and all you do is give orders to people and have text telling you what happened. I know of only two other people who have enjoyed this but the Rebellion fans are out there. There are dozens of us, dozens! Empire at War was the spiritual successor to this but that failed in so many way. Ironically the only good thing about Empire at War, the space combat, was the only bad thing about Rebellion. I live in hope that someone would live the dream and combine the two.
The X-Wing Series
I’ll lump all of these in together. I think Star Wars gaming peaked with these flight simulators. I used my pocket money to buy a joystick so I could really get into the experience of being a fighter pilot in the Star Wars universe. These make me more nostalgic for my youth than pretty much anything else.
X-Wing was all about the mission statement of “what if you could fly those starships from the movies?” Well it turned out that it was a lot of fun. Being on a mission, having to take down an objective, honest-to-god dogfighting, this was a bloody thrill a minute.
TIE Fighter ramped it up to another level. There was a story to it, missions had purpose and were part of a larger narrative. Oh yeah, you were also the bad guy. You were an Imperial TIE pilot. This explored what it was like to be part of the Empire and gave us a look at what it would feel like to be a part of that world, where the Rebels were terrorists that needed to be stopped. Where you were making the galaxy safer by destroying these insurgents. It was all about “a certain point of view”. And TIEs are just cooler.
X-Wing vs TIE Fighter was essentially just a mission pack for both of the previous games and that was OK. We wanted that. It was more of the same, but when you really like the same then more of it is never a bad thing.
Last of all was X-Wing: Alliance. While not the strongest in the series it is still a classic in its own right. Again, more of the same, but this was the counterpoint to TIE Fighter. It showed what it was like to be a bit player in the Star Wars universe during the Empire. You were “Ace” Azzameen, the youngest sibling in a family that ran a refueling station. That’s it. No great destiny, you were just guy. Then you discover that your father was secretly helping the Rebels and the Empire kills off the majority of your family. You actually had an invested emotional reason to join the Rebellion. And that felt great. There are some downsides to the game - Ace’s tendency to be at every major conflict in the lore, right up to piloting the Millenium Falcon on the second Death Star run being the worst example. Although it was pretty damn cool to do a Death Star run so I guess I just contradicted myself. Some of the missions were deliberately tedious to make the game seem longer. Your brother was mysteriously Scottish for a reason that was never explained. It had all that against it, but it had so much going for it. I would dearly love an HD remake of this.
Oh yeah, and no Jedi to be seen. But those games aren’t good right?
So thanks Disney. Instead of doling out the license to people with passion, you gave an exclusive contract to a company that has a reputation for being awful. And you locked it in for ten years. Do you hate Star Wars? Is that it? You want to see it die? Because that’s the vibe I’m getting. You want to kill it off. Between this and The Last Jedi, I can’t think of any other reason for your decisions regarding this brand.