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    A Trip Through Memory Hyperspace

    It isn't like dusting crops you know…

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    1977 changed the face of movies when a small fantasy adventure set in a galaxy far, far away hit the cinema screens. Another red-letter year when it comes to Star Wars is 1983. Not just because of Return of the Jedi, which came out that year, but also because that was the year that Atari released the Star Wars arcade game. Of course, being behind the times as always, I didn't get to play the machine until two years later on a day trip to Littlehampton of all places (it made such an impact that we went back the following summer as well). That one game changed everything. The wireframe graphics were simple, but the sound effects were taken from the film, along with samples of the dialogue. It was a large sit down cabinet that made you feel like you were in an X-Wing, and the gameplay was pitched perfectly, so that you would just about scrape through on the easy level, before you were thrown into the deep end. It was astounding, for five or so minutes, I was flying an X Wing, really I was, with TIE fighters swooping all around, Darth Vader's TIE Advanced constantly dogging me, before diving into the Death Star Trench, dodging the turbolasers, until that final moment, with Obi-Wan's voice whispering to me, "Use the Force!" With the triumphal fanfare accompanying my escape, I fell in love, and an obsession was born.

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    From that moment on, I was on a quest to find the perfect Star Wars experience to be had with my joystick in my hands (no, that isn't a euphemism). It would be a good few years before I would find it, but the first step on the way would be through my humble Speccy. It was that very same arcade game that I sought out first of all, although given the speccy's 8-bit limitations, I didn't hold out much hope. But surprisingly it worked. Somehow, they replicated the gameplay almost exactly. So the sit down arcade cabinet was gone, so the speech was gone, and the music sounded almost laughable when translated into various permutations of BEEP, and the action slowed down when there were a few too many TIE fighters on the screen, but in almost every other respect it recreated that arcade experience perfectly. And this time, I got past the easy level, and truly showed my worth as an X Wing pilot. Buoyed by this early success, I quickly bought Empire Strikes Back, which is where the programmers bit off more than the speccy could chew. It was another vector graphic based shoot-'em-up, with AT-AT's to entangle, asteroids to fly through, and Imperial forces to defeat. Except the thing was nigh on unplayable. The slowdown was horrible, and hitting a target was more a matter of luck than skill. The Star Wars experience on the Speccy came to an ignominious end with Return Of The Jedi, which was an 3D isometric scrolling shoot-'em-up. Do you know how many 3D isometric scrolling shoot-'em-ups there were for the speccy? The presence of an Ewok or two does not a Star Wars game make. I was left searching for Star Wars clones, games that brought the same feel, but without the John Williams soundtrack, and I actually found one, which to this day remains my favourite Spectrum game of all time, Starglider. You were a sole defender who had to save a planet from the evil Egron invaders, a 3D vector graphics game just like the first Star Wars, but in full colour, and with a variety of missions, and even refuelling. It was awesome, so good that you could see it every week on ITV's Get Fresh. For a long while, that was more Star Wars than Star Wars for me.

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    And then came the fallow years. The Star Wars games had all migrated to console-dom, and instead of a SNES, I remained committed to computers. There never was a Star Wars game on the Amiga, and I had to get my Flight Sim mayhem kicks from Gunship 2000. There was a brief return to the Star Wars Arcade experience in 1993, when a 3D shaded graphics arcade game made its debut at the Trocadero in Leicester Square. I'd pop down during the odd free moment from lectures, but it was four months before I got a vacant seat. £1.50 and I was stardust before the first wave of TIE fighters was past…

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    It was around that time that someone realised that PCs could be more than just business machines. There were hours of faffing around with BAT files and Config.sys files just to squeeze enough base memory out to get a DOS game to work, and then you had to worry whether your Gravis Soundcard was compatible, and keep on dreaming of one day owning a Soundblaster. VGA graphics were dreamy, and it almost seemed a heresy to plug a joystick in. A friend of mine in university had himself a 386, and one day he unveiled a collection of floppy discs, six in all. Spread across them was an ARJ file. It took half an hour to unpack as his floppy drive chugged away, and installation took a while longer. Then he turned on his speakers, launched a BAT file, and John Williams music began to play, and a yellow scrolly appeared. From that moment, I made it my life's mission to buy a PC, and with it came the Golden Age of Star Wars gaming.

    I have bought X-Wing three times in all, once on floppies for my 486, once on CD-ROM for my Pentium, and when I realised that configuring DOS games was nowhere near as much fun, or as easy for Windows 98 as it was for 3.11, I bought it again in Window flavour. That final version was amazing. The gameplay was just the same, but the MIDI music had been replaced with John Williams' orchestral score taken from the films, and the graphics had been updated from the simple polygons of yore to take advantage of proper 3D cards. The game was simple in concept, a Space Flight Sim where you hopped in an X-Wing, Y-Wing or A-Wing and joined the rebellion against the Empire. You'd fly missions of increasing complexity and difficulty, against TIE Fighters, Interceptors, Frigates and Star Destroyers, until you found yourself transferred to Yavin, where a certain Death Star was heading. It was a proper flight sim too; you created a pilot and built a career, earning medals and glory. You could record your missions and watch them played back. There were training missions to practice on, space obstacle courses to time yourself on, and later add on packs that saw you try to escape from the Empire following the Death Star mission, as well as flying the B-Wing. The one difference was the manual. It was twelve pages, as opposed to twelve volumes for most of Microprose's output. The controls were simple, and you could map most of them onto your joystick, if you had enough buttons.

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    But X-Wing hasn't aged well. The last time I played it, I gave up halfway through, as now the missions seemed too scripted, as if I were on rails being guided through the game. Also the lack of variety in the missions is far more telling now. But nevertheless, it was my template for what I looked for in Star Wars gaming. It's no surprise that I was soon the owner of Tie Fighter and its various add-ons. This time you got to fly for the bad guys, hunting down rebel scum. You got your missions from characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn, the Emperor, and Darth Vader himself. There was a greater variety in missions, even a secret society to join that would let you fly even more dangerous and rewarding jaunts, and it was all so much bigger and better developed than X-Wing. Of course it took me a few tries before I broke the habit of shooting at my wingmen, and the early missions, where you flew the TIE Fighter and Interceptor were more luck than skill, with unshielded tin cans not even holding up to glancing shots. I also missed the warble of an R2 unit sitting behind me.
    By far the most disappointing of the X-Wing games was X-Wing versus Tie Fighter, although that was primarily an online multiplayer game. I don't like online multiplayer games. I'd rather have my opponent in the room so I can get a good look at his face as I kick his arse. X-Wing versus Tie Fighter did have a single player mode, and it also showed off the latest in graphics and sound technology, but it was a thin experience that makes it my least played of the flight sims.

    But there are more genres than just flight sims, and Star Wars has dabbled in several of them. My gaming days are past me, hence the retro taint of this article, but even if my will, and my PC had remained close to the cutting edge, I doubt I would ever have played Knights Of The Old Republic, given how I feel about online gaming. Galactic Battlegrounds and Galaxies also both came out after I gave up the gaming bug. But I did have a go or two at Rebel Assault on my friend's Playstation, which wasn't as much fun as Tekken we both found. My biggest problem with gaming, although not the reason I stopped, is motion sickness. Doom made me throw up, so as you can guess, it's the rare first person shooter I can play without getting nauseous. But when I heard that you could swing a lightsaber around and take on evil Force users like the Jedi of old, I just had to get Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. I'd missed out on Dark Forces because of that lack of lightsaber, but I certainly made up for it with the sequel. It was fun I had to take in small doses, having to pause whenever my stomach got queasy, but it was worth it, a fun FPS with an added dose of Star Wars magic. It was like many other such games, levels to explore, missions to complete, weapons, health packs, ammunition to find, and you got to choose what Force skills to develop, so you could unleash them on your opponents, "these aren't the frags you're looking for". But in several ways, Jedi Knight felt like any other FPS with a Jedi Cloak. Strip away the music and copyrightable graphics and sound effects, and you could have been playing any FPS, magic instead of the Force, a simple sword instead of a lightsaber. It was fun, but it wasn't that definitive Star Wars experience.

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    The same was true for Force Commander, on the surface just what many a Star Wars fan would have been waiting for, a Realtime Strategy Game set in the Star Wars universe. After all, who wouldn't want to pilot an AT-AT, or more importantly shoot some Ewoks. Space sims are all well and good, but for ground combat you need a little perspective. By this time the RTS had grown up and put on a little 3D weight. It was no longer the miniature effects of Command and Conquer, but something more tangible and pleasing to the eye, 3D models that could be rotated around, world design that was more than just arid scraps of tundra or desert, and all of it coated with a wonderfully pleasing Star Wars veneer. The sound effects, the music, the story was all vintage Star Wars, and the game offered something of a revolution too. It did away with the pesky resource gathering and manufacturing side of things, and concentrated on the strategy and combat side of things. It had its flaws of course, the fancy variable perspective thing got confusing really quick, and it was far easier to just pick one viewpoint and stick with it. Also the perennial RTS solution of the Tank Rush was all too simple in this game. The same problem with Dark Forces also became obvious here. This was really an RTS in Star Wars clothing, and the story, while well scripted, didn't do enough to alter the fact. Also it led you on a strict path from Empire to Rebel loyalties, where I would have preferred to play the game through from both viewpoints. While the obvious Star Wars locations like Tatooine and Endor added to the atmosphere, with missions relating to events in the films, when the game got creative and ventured into different worlds, it really could have been any random RTS game. Still it was fun.

    Around this time, the prequels came out, and naturally gaming took every advantage that the new stories offered. There were two PC games to accompany the Phantom Menace, and I sampled both of them. They suffered from the usual problem with movie tie-ins, that of coming out to a strict deadline. In situations like that, playtesting is a luxury, not a standard part of the process, and the resulting games were… flawed. Countless patches later, I eventually managed to get some enjoyment out of them, but the damage had been done. By far the better of the two was Podracer. Based on what many considered the best bit of the first film, it was also the most pedestrian, if such a word can be used for a game where you race at just under the speed of sound. Thousands of Phantom Menace DVDs were bookmarked at a certain point in the film as reference discs, and the chance to recreate the experience with joystick in hand was one that many would have relished. And the feeling is most certainly there in Podracer, the massive engines, the blurring speed, and the fantastic racecourses spread across the galaxy. The music, world design and characters are all pure Star Wars, and the feeling of the movie is most definitely there. For about a minute until you realise that it's only another racing game, and not too special a one at that. It wasn't too long before I was back on Colin McRae.

    The second one was the actual game of the movie, a 3D action adventure which took you through the events of the film, with carefully animated cut-scenes and a couple of interesting diversions, playing various of the protagonists from the film. By far the best bits were as Obi-Wan or Qui-Gon, after all when you have the Force at your command, and a lightsaber to dismantle droids with (Roger, roger), there is a degree of relish. It also helps that you no longer have to make the sound effects yourself when you pretend to swing a saber around. But by God this was a nasty install. I must have gone through ten different patches before it deigned to work, and even then it was prone to glitching and occasional bluescreening. Save often was the mantra with this game, and combined the narrative disappointment of the film itself, getting through it was a chore that I never repeated. Besides, it's a matter of shame to actually be forced to play, however briefly, as Jar Jar Binks.

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    I've gotten ahead of myself, as actually I had found my ideal Star Wars Experience prior to the last few games. I was just trying to recreate the feeling, and failing miserably. You've probably already guessed what it is, but the one game that took me right back to the movies, that had me hooked to the PC screen with a silly grin on my face, was X-Wing Alliance. Oh what a peach of a game! They took everything they knew about Space Combat Flight Sims and packed it into one game. The gameplay was spot on, the ship designs were brilliant, the sound effects, the music, and the world designs all channelled the films perfectly. It was the pinnacle of the X-Wing series. But what was new, what was so unique about this game was that for the first time, the script, a) didn't feel like an afterthought, or b) never made you feel like you were on rails. Instead, you got a proper story, proper characters, a whole history and a world that felt surprisingly real. It was the typical tale of a rebellion. You play the youngest son of the Azzameen family, owners of a shipping company trying to make a profit in a perilous galaxy. Your rivals are the Viraxo, and you start the game flying cargo for your uncle, fending off pirates and your greedy competitors. But then the Empire get involved, take sides and decide to liquidate your assets. You go on the run and wind up joining the rebellion, with only your trusty droid Emkay at your side, and a battered freighter to call home. Of course you wind up flying missions for the rebels… well I don't want to spoil it for you, but let me put it this way. You know that Lando had the Millennium Falcon at Endor? Well he's more a businessman than a pilot. So who do you think was sitting at the controls when it dove into the second Death Star? With the level of detail in this game, the sheer richness of the world, it was more an immersive environment than a passing diversion. Simple things like letters from home, words of encouragement from your droid, mementos hanging on your walls, all added to something that was more than just a game, it was a fourth Star Wars movie, and I got to be the star! This was what I had been looking for since that day back in Littlehampton when I put twenty pence into a cabinet, and experienced the thrill of monochrome wireframe graphics and a couple seconds of digitised speech from Alec Guinness. This was the perfect Star Wars experience, and I was controlling it. My search truly ended when I blew up the second Death Star over Endor, my heart wasn't in it with any following dalliances, but when it comes to Star Wars games, X-Wing Alliance remains my one true love.

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