Let us now speak of old, old games, and praise their pixilated pleasures.
In 1995, LucasArts released “Dark Forces,” a “Doom”-style first-person shooter set in the “Star Wars” universe. You played Kyle Katarn, a roguish Han Solo type who had to stop the Empire from building an army of robot soldiers. These weapons were so fierce, so powerful and so vital to the Empire’s future that they were built in an automated facility that one guy could infiltrate and blow up. Oh — sorry; spoilers.
To modern eyes, the game almost hurts to look at. There were two or three sprites for the basic enemies, and they all spouted lines from the movies. Stop, Rebel Scum! You’re in violation of Imperial Law! The sound of your blaster gave you a headache, and the music was like listening to mice with kazoos. It was wonderful.
Better than “Doom,” which had come out the year before? No. But where “Doom” had horror, LucasArt’s version had, well, the force of the entire franchise behind it, and for the first time you could run through the immense gray spaces of the bases and the outposts and do some derring-do. Yes, there were flight simulators that let you pilot a TIE Fighter or X-wing, but those were glorified arcade games. You could inhabit the world of “Star Wars” in “Dork Forces.”
Sorry, “Dark Forces.” Yes, all this sounds nerdy. It was. You didn’t care, and you hoped there would be a sequel. It took two years, but it was worth it: The next game, “Dark Forces 2,” looked 10 times better, had a symphonic score, live-action cut-scenes, and an actual moral component. You could be good. You could work your way to the Dark Side by not taking civilian casualties into account. You had Force powers; you could wield lightsabers, although the keyboard-mashing required to fence was less satisfying than throwing grenades.
It had the best level I’ve ever played in a video game, period. You’re on the Sulan Star, a freighter in low orbit. It loses its power and starts to tumble to the ground. You have to run for the exit through revolving rooms, dodging loose objects and panicked droids. For once the games had not only reproduced the world of movies, but added something that movies could never achieve.
Compared with today’s games, they look like Etch-a-Sketch drawings. You can dip in and out of the “Star Wars” universe in many adventures now, and of course you can play knowing they’ll only get better-looking and more engrossing as the sequels expand the story. (Assuming the sequels don’t Bink the joint up.) In the ’90s, though, “Star Wars” was done; like “Star Trek” after its cancellation, it lived in books and comics with no hope of a new movie. The games brought the movie back to life for a while, and they did something the movies could never do.
They gave you carpal tunnel syndrome. But it was worth it.