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Super Return of the Jedi

While there have been plenty of video games based on Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back oddly enough Return of the Jedi has seen few adaptations, making Super Return of the Jedi all the more distinct. Aside from the pretty cool arcade game and a few obscure PC games the final chapter in the original trilogy has gone largely unfettered by game developers. As the last of JVC/Lucas Arts seminal action games Return of the Jedi is probably the all-round best of the three as it leans more towards Super Star Wars in terms of balance while also including passwords to save progress. This was an excellent conclusion for the series and makes up for the punishing difficulty of Empire Strikes Back.

For the most part gameplay is largely the same with some small changes to vary up the playing style of each character. Luke no longer has a blaster and exclusively relies on his lightsaber. The list of force powers has been reduced to just five but they are far more engaging and with more frequent force refills lying about you can afford to be a little wasteful in their use. Han and Chewbacca are largely unchanged but then again they didn’t need any tweaks.

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The cast of playable characters has been expanded to 5 with the addition of Leia and Wickett. Love or hate the Ewoks but Wickett is a pretty cool addition to the cast. Wickett is only playable on the Endor and is well suited to the jungle environment. His arrows aren’t very strong but can be used as makeshift ladders to explore the game’s more wide open levels for secrets. Princess Leia is the most interesting playable character as her outfit and weapons change three times during the course of the adventure. The initial bounty hunter disguise comes equipped with a striking staff that can also be used to block attacks and for a spinning attack. The ever popular slave outfit sees her using a whip not unlike a certain Belmont family. By the end of the game she’ll don camo gear and a blaster like Han and Chewie.

What makes the character so interesting this time around is the change in level design. While there are plenty of straightforward action levels like before there are a smattering of open ended levels with more than one path to the exit as well as stages that are combat focused in densely packed areas. Who you’ll choose will have a significant impact on the difficulty; both Han and Chewie need to upgrade their blasters to become more effective while Luke is always a bad ass from the get go. Yet long range attacks make some of the more difficult stages and bosses trivial. It is that kind of balance that makes playing around with everyone much more of a strategic choice and integral part of the game.

It isn’t a stretch to say that Empire Strikes Back’s brutal difficulty might have turned off some fans of the series and ROTJ goes a long way toward rectifying that. The level design does away with cheap elements such as life draining structures and turrets that pop up out of nowhere. Life restoring hearts are in greater supply and if you are playing as Luke Force healing is always available. Collecting 100 emblems will award extra lives and choosing the right character for a given level will make things much easier. In some respects the game might be too forgiving as I had little trouble breezing through the majority of the levels but that might simply come from my familiarity with the prior games as a whole.

That isn’t to say the game still won’t kick your ass though. Boss battles in particular are still long drawn out affairs with some of the early encounters being far more difficult than necessary (the first boss you encounter is a big what the f___ in terms of difficulty spikes). Emperor Palpatine in particular is one of the cheapest final bosses in any game and was the source of much controller slamming frustration on my part. Some of the larger levels can be confusing as to where to go and more than likely you’ll suffer a few cheap deaths trying to double back to see if you missed something. However I’ll gladly take these mild moments of frustration over anything I dealt with in ESB any day of the week.

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Super Return of the Jedi, like its predecessors is an exceptionally pretty game and even more so than its prequels. As a late SNES release it stands up favorably to similar titles in the genre with remarkably detailed backgrounds and smooth character animation. The scrolling is often 3-5 layers deep with plenty of foreground objects that add that extra layer of touch that make the environments come to life. Return of the Jedi benefits from more varied locales than Empire Strikes Back so you’ll never spend too much time on one planet before moving on to the next in following the movie’s plot. The Mode 7 vehicle stages make their return and are just as lovely although the game’s final two levels are a confusing mess. The only bad mark on the game’s presentation is the rampant slowdown on some of the game’s more hectic levels; they really should have used more restraint as it gets pretty bad at times.

John Williams sweeping score has once again been recreated extremely well and goes along well with the original compositions created specifically for this game. The repetitive digital voices of ESB have been replaced by a few of the more iconic sounds from the film such as Jabba’s chuckle and Wicket’s Niichaa! Shout. The sound effects are especially crisp and don’t suffer from the usual muffle effect present in many SNES games.

Return of the Jedi might be the least popular of the original trilogy but as a game it is far and away the best in the series. There’s something for everyone here even if you aren’t a Star Wars fan making it one of the best action games for the system.

8-out-of-101

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Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer

When the Star Wars: Episode One video game adaptations were announced I’ll admit, I was disappointed that the N64 would be “saddled” with just a pod racing game, especially in light of the PlayStation receiving the action game I thought I was looking for. The Nintendo 64 sure as hell did not need another racing game and even one based on arguably the best segment in the Phantom Menace elicited no excitement on my part. But after seeing how the Phantom Menace on PS One turned out maybe a pod racing game wasn’t so bad after all. Episode One Racer is a solid racing game that manages to recapture some of the thrills of the movie but isn’t entirely successful in that regard. While flawed it is still far better than the majority of the racing games on the system.

The game’s tournament mode is less of a contest to see who is the best and more of an outlet for gambling. Obviously coming in first will reward the most cash but you can also take a gamble and bet double or nothing or winner takes all to earn even more cash. Your earnings will be spent upgrading the various aspects of your craft which all have a tangible impact on performance. There are even a few options to purchase new gear; if the shop is too expensive you can always visit the junkyard. Sure the parts aren’t the greatest but if you completely suck at the game you can still buy welfare upgrades. With 3 divisions and plenty of excellently designed tracks within each you’ll have plenty of chances to rack up the money needed to eventually unlock the game’s hidden pilots like Sebulba and access the last four truly great tracks.

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The dual turbine engines give the pod racers a unique feel separate from other racing games for the most part. The closest comparison would be Wipeout except the controls here are tighter for the most part and the game isn’t as punishing. The sense of speed is truly incredible and recaptures the visceral thrill of the film perfectly except you are behind the controls. The game is very user friendly so newcomers can pick it up and win a few races before it starts to get real. I like the feel of the controls for the most part but at the game’s highest levels it can’t keep up with the speed. Even with the best upgrades I still found myself basically being rag dolled around corners and such. All of the available pilots have their stats and specialties that can possibly give them an advantage on certain tracks provided you know how to adjust.

What kind of ruins the game is the relative ease with which you can plow through the majority of its content. Anakin is an above average pod racer whose beginning stats dwarf nearly every other competitors by a wide margin. With him in the cockpit you have room for errors as crashing and burning poses little drawback since you can easily catch up by the final lap. It isn’t until the game’s final circuits that the difficulty ramps up significantly and that comes more from confusing track design than anything else. For even the most casual of racing fans most of the game’s content can be unlocked within a few hours, killing its longevity.

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Visually the game is incredibly pretty and perfectly recaptures the speed and visceral sense of danger presented in the movie. Each of the game’s numerous planets has its own track with varying weather and terrain that really heightens the visual presentation. In the film the lone race took place on Tatooine yet the game manages to create tracks that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the movie through clever art design. These worlds feel alive as there are trams and other flying ships taking off and flying within the backgrounds; a cool touch. The draw distance is pretty far with pop-in hidden through constant tunnels, hills and turns. The game makes use of the Ram expansion for a high resolution mode and thankfully the frame rate does not take too big of a hit, with the game still playable even by today’s standards.

Sound is the one area that I found lacking. The music as you race is so muted it is almost non-existent with the focus squarely put on the engine sounds and various taunts and exclamations from rival racers. These sound effects and voice clips are sharp and do mimic the film but don’t make up for the sound track barely even being there. It is only during the final lap that music picks up in tempo to add some tension to the race. This is a huge blow and comes across as uncharacteristic; nearly every Star Wars game has had an incredible score so to see this aspect of the game seemingly half assed is weird.

The games accessibility may turn off racing veterans however there is still a wealth of content to explore and unlock in what is undoubtedly the best game based off the movie. It doesn’t hit all of its marks and is a better single player game than multiplayer but it is certainly worth your time.

7-out-of-10-1

 

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Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Once Super Star Wars was released everyone knew it was a question of when and not if they would produce a sequel. The Empire Strikes Back has gone on to become the most beloved film in the original trilogy and I’m sure many expected the same of the game. It lives up to expectations in some respects and fixes a few of its predecessor’s flaws but at the same time has issues of its own that mar the experience.

Where the first game took certain liberties when following the plot of the film Super Empire Strikes Back is a more faithful adaptation to an insane degree.   You still begin the movie as Luke Skywalker and the rebels on Hoth but will eventually visit Yoda on Dagobah and finally Cloud City on Bespin for the conclusion. Because of its strict adherence to the movie’s events you can no longer freely select a character for each level and must play them as the game dictates.

Thankfully more has been done to make each hero unique. All characters can double jump which helps tremendously with the frequent platforming. Both Han Solo and Chewbacca start off at blaster level two while Luke has to work his way up from a petty laser. Luke begins the game with his lightsaber this time around and can freely switch between it and his blaster. Han has a defensive roll instead of a slide like Luke. Chewbacca has a spinning clothesline that makes him temporarily invincible while Han has an exhaustible supply of grenades. Once Luke reaches Dagobah you’ll have access to a range of force powers with most of them being indispensable. Healing, Levitation, slowing time, you can even turn invisible and avoid enemies briefly which is a god send at times. These are governed by a separate force meter that is replenished by items at a decent clip.

Aside from the changes in character abilities this is pretty similar to the first game. This is still primarily a run and gun platformer broken up occasionally by vehicle based levels. There is no time limit this time and passwords will record progress. Power-ups are in shorter supply this time around and hearts restore less health which has a massive effect on the game’s difficulty. The snowspeeder and X-Wing levels are mild fun but dated; once you’ve used a tow cable to destroy an AT-AT in 3D at 60fps it’s hard to go back to choppy Mode 7. For its time though these stages were as close as you could get to the film.

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Even more so than its predecessor the Empire Strikes Back is an incredibly difficult game, and one of the hardest SNES games in my opinion. You rarely get a moment’s respite from the infinite horde of enemies and honestly it is more aggravating than a welcome challenge, especially when even the debris from fallen enemies can damage you. The platforming segments are made all the more frustrating by respawning enemies and the threat of being frozen or pushed off a ledge. The game is heavily balanced toward Luke since the lightsaber is more effective in many situations. Blaster power-ups are in rare supply so both Han and Chewbacca feel underpowered for long stretches. As Luke once you gain your force powers it becomes easier since you can heal and save yourself from a pit with levitation. .

Despite the improvements in control the extreme difficulty is mostly a result of bad design choices. On nearly every level there are hazards that sprout from the ground and can sap your health in seconds. This is especially bad on Hoth, which comprises a third of the game. Whoever placed so many ice crystals in every stage needs to be shot. Boss battles are drawn out since you need to dismantle many of the larger metal contraptions in sections before you can actually inflict damage. Figuring out how to do that will result in many wasted lives as it isn’t always apparent where you need to hit. Trial and error is natural for progression but here it doesn’t feel as rewarding.

Had the difficulty been more manageable than the pacing problems with the game could be overlooked. A significant portion of the game takes place on Hoth where the majority of the frustrations with the game will occur. Granted I realize the developers were hamstrung by the movie’s plot and to their credit they do a good job of varying up the levels somewhat but you’ll grow tired of the constant ice stages. There was really no need to spend a few levels leaving the rebel base with Luke only to have to do the same thing with Han Solo directly after. Smaller scenes from the film form the basis for certain levels such as Chewbacca’s search for C3PO in the furnace room. That’s all well and good but these stages are gruelingly long. Overall there are about 20 or 21 stages in the game when that could easily have been cut in half. At least there are passwords to chart your progress but I reason most won’t have it in them to finish the game.

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Super Star Wars was already a brilliant game visually and ESB easily surpasses it. There is far more detail in the game’s backgrounds than before and despite spending multiple stages in each of the three planets (Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin) the artists have done a good job of varying the environments. As a result of the film’s plot you’ll face more mechanical bosses this time around than oversized beasts which does hurt the game as they feel repetitive despite their unique designs. The Mode 7 vehicle levels of the first game have returned and are more visually spectacular if you can believe it. Hoth’s surface has rolling hills and peaks and you can fly above or below the clouds of Bespin. The only lackluster one in the bunch is the first person dogfight in the Millenium Falcon which simply isn’t as inspired as the other two.

The sweeping soundtrack of the film has been expertly carried over to the SNES and is simply astounding in its clarity. Hearing the Imperial March at the title screen in all its glory is still impressive today. The sound effects have seen a similar increase in fidelity and there is a noted increase in the amount of sampled speech.

In some respects this is a better game than Super Star Wars. But because of the myriad number of smaller issues that add up to create an extremely frustrating experience I would still recommend that game over this.  Super Empire Strikes Back is still a good game but you need to know what you are in for when picking it up.

 

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Shadows of the Empire

The Star Wars franchise has always enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Nintendo consoles, dating as far back as the NES.  The Star Wars trilogy of platformers on the SNES were all high quality games so it came as no surprise when LucasArts announced a new game in the series for the unreleased N64.  Heads turned however when it when it was announced as a prequel that takes place in between the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  This was the first major project in the Star Wars timeline outside of the novels since ROTJ, with the game serving as the spearhead of a multimedia blitz, and while decent fails to live up to its potential.

Star Wars: Shadow of the Empire was released in December 1996 for North America, one of only 8 games available for the system that Christmas.   You star as Dash Rendar, a Han Soloish smuggler and mercenary as he runs afoul of Prince Xizor and his Black Sun syndicate as they makes moves to replace Vader as the Emperor’s right hand.  Many of the events in Shadows of the Empire weave in and out of the important moments of the 2 films only told from Dash’s perspective.  For the most part they coincide cleanly but there are a few contradictions.   Shadows of the Empire was certainly an ambitious project and at its best moments lives up to its promises of action heavy adventure.  However the entire experience is brought down by problems that could have, no should have been stamped out prior to its release.

Through 10 levels you are taken on a rollercoaster ride of set pieces, many of which are lifted from the films.  The opening level revisits the Battle of Hoth, and as the first truly 3d representation sets the bar high.   Roping At-AT’s never gets old, don’t let anyone lie to you.  3 more vehicle levels round out the package, riding Speeder Bikes in Mos Eisley and Beggar’s Canyon, and piloting the Outrider to destroy Xizor’s Skyhook palace.  These levels largely escape many of the game’s control issues but I’ll get to that soon enough.  The rest of the levels consist of third person (or optional first person) segments as you explore the levels to complete objectives and defeat bosses.  These should have been the highlight of the game; instead they are where the game’s flaws are most prevalent.

The most glaring flaw is the controls.  The best third person games all give a sense of weight to your character.  Mario, Sonic, the list goes on.  Dash Rendar is floaty, unresponsive, and all around slippery.  The 4 camera options are serviceable at best, with first person the most “workable”.  Unfortunately there are many platforming sequences and judging distances when you can’t see your own feet is a nightmare, forcing you to switch back and forth.  The best way to describe the third view is that the camera is stuck to your back, and it gives a feeling of sliding through the environments rather than moving through them The movie angle option is exceedingly stupid; who the hell wants to try to control the game with the camera switching every few steps with your controls following suit?  This was an early symptom of developers experimenting in the move to 3d and I’m glad no one else followed suit.

Beyond the controls the levels are pretty poor.  When the game has you participating in events from the movies everything is fine, such as the Battle of Hoth or fighting Bobba Fett.  It’s the original levels that suffer from too much ambition.  The levels are massive but also empty with far too many long stretches with no enemies to fight and few items to pick up.  To increase the scope without creating new assets they simply recycled the same geometry, so you’ll end up seeing the exact same corridors and caves as many as 7-8 times in the same level.  Most of the boss fights can be beaten by circle strafing but good luck accomplishing that with the terrible controls.  The challenge points you can find are well hidden and unlock cheats depending on the difficulty level; that’s about the only reason to explore the stages.

For its time Shadows of the Empire was pretty amazing graphically.  The scale is impressive and everything is detailed to a level few games attempted back then if slightly blurry.  They are just good enough to envelop you in whatever scenario the game throws at you if highly repetitive but there are some standouts.  Sequences such as leaping from train to train in the Ord Mantell junkyard are exactly what we were promised and deliver in spades, graphically and aurally.  Speaking of the music, it’s excellent.  The N64 was highly criticized (and rightly so) because of its lack of sound chip and most games showed this flaw with terrible, terrible music.  Lucas Arts managed to squeeze lots of digitized music into the game, with new music by Joel McNeely blending with the familiar John Williams score from the movie.  The strong compositions are let down by the fact that each track isn’t long and loops heavily.  But it’s a far cry from the piss poor music of Pilotwings 64 that’s for sure.

Maybe if the first level had not set the bar so high the rest of the game would not stand out for its mediocrity.   But that would not change the fact that Shadows of the Empire does not live up to the hype.  Allegedly Shigeru Miyamoto sent a list of fixes to Lucas Arts which they only half implemented.  Whether this is true or false the fact remains that Lucas Arts could have and should have done better.

 


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Super Star Wars

It was only a matter of time before George Lucas would bring his Star Wars licensing monster to the 16-bit consoles and the SNES was the lucky recipient of the onslaught.  Super Star Wars was the first, naturally, and would set the tone for the ones to follow.  Considered one of the best games in the series it still holds up to this day aside from some nicks and bruises.

Super Star Wars was released in 1992 by JVC.  Generally following the plot of the movie with concessions made for gameplay reasons, it hits on all of the major plot points and uses its rich source material to create an action packed thrill ride.  This could easily have gone the way of many Acclaim movie bombs but kudos to LucasArts for taking the time to make an excellent product.

Luke is armed with a blaster that can be upgraded up to 4 times with the Lightsaber coming in a bit later.  Comparing the two, the blaster is far more useful because of its range; with the Lightsaber hit tracking is incredibly iffy.  There is extensive platforming to break up the stop and go action and thankfully the controls are able to get the job done for the most part.  A Star Wars game would not be complete without vehicles and the SNES Mode 7 is put to work in 3 of the levels as you control a Land Speeder and X-Wing.

Across 11 levels you’ll revisit the best moments from the movie.  From the dusty sand dunes of Tatooine, the busy streets of Mos Eisley, and even the Death Star Trench run.  When you break it down the Star Wars movie took place in only two places for the most part and that would be boring so instead they were broken down into multiple stages.  Prior to the N64 games this was the best way to experience piloting a Land Speeder or stepping into Luke’s shoes to make that fateful shot in the Death Star.  Some of the later stages allow you to control Han Solo or Chewbacca, each with their own attributes and weapons.  This was almost the complete package.

And that is because of its two biggest flaws: the controls and the ridiculous challenge.  For the most part Luke is nimble and reacts almost instantly to commands but that falls apart anytime you hit the jump button.  You have two jumps, a short hop and a higher flip but making Luke perform either of the two is infuriating.  You can still control his descent but his body flails around so much it’s near pointless.  This makes all of the platforming a nightmare, with every leap possibly causing you to lose nearly 10 minutes of progress.  Backtracking is the last thing you want to do because the enemies are relentless with infinitely respawning enemies and plenty of cheap hits to go around. I can guarantee you’ll enter most boss battles with less than optimal health.   As long as this game is it’s a crime not to have any kind of battery backup or passwords.  At least LucasArts fixed this flaw with the sequels.

These flaws aren’t enough to completely knock the game off the hit list however.  The core action is accomplished pretty well and if you have even the slightest interest in the Star Wars universe there is no reason to miss out on one hot platformer.  This was an excellent foundation for the sequels to come.

 

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