Feature

The Lightsaber – Looking Back At A Star Wars Icon In Video Games

by Matt Akers on Aug 21, 2013 at 01:07 PM

This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster – an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. – Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

 

It all started on May 25, 1977, when the box-office release of Star Wars sent adolescent star dreamers across the globe into a frenzy of science-fiction imaginings. Straight from the mind of filmmaker George Lucas, Star Wars gifted the world with an overwhelming degree of inexpressible awesomeness – space battles, aliens, bounty hunters, the Force, Jedi, and, of course, Darth Vader. But even among the most inspired concepts introduced in Lucas’ epic space opera, there is one that starkly marks Star Wars as an iconic and internationally recognizable phenomenon: the lightsaber. 

George Lucas wasn’t the first writer to use light swords in a story, but he did so in a way that made them legendary. Our on-screen introduction to lightsaber combat – a duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader aboard the Death Star – would probably seem lackluster to a Star Wars newcomer in 2013. Two largely unknown characters waving primitively animated blades around for two minutes doesn’t exactly hold up to modern standards of entertainment. The idea of the lightsaber, though, and its evolution throughout future Star Wars films, would eventually make for some of the most spectacular combat scenes in cinema. 

From Big Screen to Console

Seeing Luke or Yoda brandish laser swords on screen is superb, no doubt, but wielding your own – that’s the dream. Unfortunately, modern science has been slow on getting us to that point. 

Taking matters into its own hands, Parker Brothers gave the world a virtual means of using lightsabers in 1983 with Star Wars: Jedi Arena. Released for the Atari 2600, played using an Atari paddle, Jedi Arena pits two lightsaber-wielding players directly against one another – one red, one blue. The goal of the game is to deflect laser bolts toward your opponent by moving left and right. As you can see in the screenshot below, the premise is little more than a glorified Pong. 

In the early ‘90s, advancing video game technology allowed developers to be more ambitious with their lightsaber implementation. Star Wars, a 1991 NES platformer based on the original Star Wars film, casts players as Luke Skywalker as he hacks through enemies using his father’s lightsaber, which as we know, was given to him by Obi-Wan Kenobi. How he was skilled enough with the Force to effectively wield a lightsaber at that point in the timeline is beyond me, but one didn’t question the opportunity to use a lightsaber in 1991.

The next couple of years saw an increasingly steady stream of official Star Wars games featuring lightsabers, many of them based on the side-scrolling formula of the 1991 NES game. The Empire Strikes Back was released for NES in 1992, and all three Star Wars films had been made into SNES games by 1994. The titles in these series, though perhaps nondescript to the modern eye, were worlds above Jedi Arena in terms of recreating Lucas’s cinematic Star Wars experience. Not only were Force powers introduced, but players were given the chance to face-off with other lightsaber-wielding opponents who were at least somewhat reminiscent of their movie counterparts. 

On page two: Lightsabers in 3D. 

Lightsabers in the Third Dimension

1997 was an interesting year for the lightsaber. In March, LucasArts released Star Wars: Yoda Stories for PC, a rather simple adventure puzzle game that covers Luke’s training period with Yoda between episodes V and VI. Yoda Stories was light on story, but its RPG-like qualities were unique for the Star Wars franchise up to that point. It was one of the earliest games to include a lightsaber in an inventory management system.

In October, the lightsaber appeared in two back-to-back 3D titles. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II tells the story of Kyle Katarn, a former Imperial officer who eventually embraces the way of the Jedi. To this day he remains a fan favorite of the expanded Star Wars universe, and it’s no wonder why. Dark Forces II, a first-person shooter for PC, was widely praised by game critics for its blend of puzzles and gameplay with an emphasis on lightsaber control. Perhaps even more significant is that Dark Forces II is one of the first video games in which players could truly use the lightsaber as the tool it was meant to be, lighting their way through dark passageways, slicing through obstacles, and deflecting blaster fire. 

Later that month, LucasArts released another Star Wars game that was, by most accounts, far less impressive. Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi is a traditional one-on-one fighting game for PlayStation that mistakenly treats the lightsaber like a cheap melee object. A handful of playable characters can use the weapon – notably Luke and Darth Vader – but instead of burning through enemies as they should, they simply swat at them annoyingly as if wielding a child-friendly bug zapper. There are fans who still hold a grudge on this matter.

As the world drifted towards Y2K and a time long dreamed about by sci-fi thinkers, the lightsaber continued to have a mixed relationship with video games. Star Wars Trilogy Arcade, a 3D rail shooter released in 1998, didn’t do much to change that fact, but it did provide a then-unique opportunity to use a 3D lightsaber in first-person mode using an arcade joystick. In 1998, that was probably the closest players had gotten to real lightsaber simulation. 

The following years saw a turn of events that would change the Star Wars image forever – three new films. Not only were fans anxious to see what George Lucas had in mind for his movies, there was also the question of what LucasArts might do with the new material.

The Turn of the Century – New Films, New Games

Lucas hadn’t directed a Star Wars film in over two decades, but he took the seat once again for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 1999. The Phantom Menace was met with mediocre critical reviews, and many fans found it underwhelming, especially considering Hollywood’s lengthy Star Wars hiatus. One thing about the film was certain, though – in the 16 years since Return of the Jedi, CGI technology had done wonders for the potential of lightsaber combat. To this day, the battle between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul, set to John Williams’ hair-raising “Duel of the Fates,” is among the best lightsaber encounters in Star Wars. 

Game developers quickly took note. LucasArts released Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace for PC and PlayStation in 1999, which was a third-party action title that closely followed the plot of Lucas’ film. The last film-to-game translation fans had played was Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi from 1994, so The Phantom Menace was a welcome upgrade. The game lets players take on the role of both Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon and eventually face off against Darth Maul in true-form cinematic fashion.

Then came along Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles, a game that in many ways was the first to really give priority to the lightsaber. Released in 2000 for PlayStation and Dreamcast, Jedi Power Battles told the Episode I story through the eyes of Jedi like Qui-Gon Jin, Mace Windu, and Plo Koon. Notable features of the game include the most combo-based lightsaber system up to that point and a point-based co-op mode that still holds up well to modern replayability standards. 

One notable criticism of The Phantom Menace is that it doesn’t clearly define a protagonist. In an effort to help fill that narrative void, LucasArts released Star Wars: Obi-Wan for Xbox in 2001. While Obi-Wan isn’t considered a particularly good game by critics, it implements lightsaber combat in a way that was innovative in 2001. Players swing their Jedi light blade with the right analog stick, thumbing in various directions for specific attacks. There is even the option to throw your lightsaber by clicking the thumbstick, which was a relatively new concept at the time.  

On page three: Game developers take the lightsaber to the next level.

Customization and Classes

By the time Raven Software’s Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy titles rolled around in 2002/3, finding creative ways to use lightsabers in a game was getting tough. We’d seen first-person, third-person, Force power combos, cinematic duels, sword throwing, and generally anything that a game developer could imagine someone doing with a lightsaber. What else could there be?

Enter BioWare. Known for widely praised western RPG franchises like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, BioWare was in prime position in the early 2000s to capitalize on the rich Star Wars lore. That’s exactly what they did with Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars RPG released for Xbox and PC in 2003 set 4,000 years before the Galactic Empire era. Entire articles have been written on KOTOR’s acclaim, but suffice to say that BioWare made the lightsaber feel valuable again. Players spend the first few hours of the game using only blasters and standard melee weapons, so that when lightsabers do finally become available, their power is appreciated. What really makes KOTOR’s lightsabers remarkable, though, is the degree of customization the game offers. After a certain point in the story, both single- and double-bladed lightsabers can be found scattered throughout the galaxy, each one equipped with three crystal slots – one for color and two for blade enhancements. Players can then loot crystals from caves and fallen enemies and attach them to their lightsabers via a workbench. Colors include blue, green, yellow, red, and violet. KOTOR 2, developed by Obsidian and released a year later, offers additional colors like cyan and silver. 

Where KOTOR highlighted the lightsaber’s strength in small-scale fights, Star Wars: Battlefront II demonstrated the weapon’s impact in warfare. After completing specific combat or resource objectives, players are given temporary control over certain faction-specific heroes like Yoda and Darth Sidious. These playable classes are easily the most enjoyable in the game, and give us a taste of what being a Jedi might be like in a chaotic battle. Battlefront II was released in 2005 for Xbox, PS2, PSP, and PC. 

Star Wars Galaxies for PC, after a major overhaul in 2005, offered both lightsaber customization and detailed class choices by allowing players to start with the Jedi profession. The lightsaber, and Star Wars for that matter, had largely been ignored by the MMO genre up to this point, but Galaxies made sure to provide plenty of options for Jedi when it came to their iconic weapon. Jedi players could collect schematics and materials, construct their own personal lightsabers, and use them in combat while taking on one of seven martial styles. 

Next Age Star Wars

The past five years have seen a number of Star Wars games that take full advantage of current-generation consoles and computers. When Darth Vader and Yoda made guest appearances in Namco’s Soulcaliber IV in 2008, they looked more handsome than ever, lightsabers included. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which came out a few months later for nearly all current-gen systems, expanded lightsaber and Force power combat to unprecedented levels, and its sequel proudly followed. Never before had we seen a character pull down a Star Destroyer with the Force while simultaneously fighting off TIE Fighters. Star Wars: The Old Republic, a PC MMORPG released by BioWare and EA in 2011, offers similar customization levels and classes to Star Wars Galaxies, but more beautifully. The Clone Wars – Lightsaber Duels made the dreams of living-room Jedi come true by giving them Wii Remote lightsaber simulation. Kinect Star Wars built upon that concept in 2012. These games, while certainly not perfect, represent more than 30 years of experimenting, tweaking, failing, and succeeding from hardworking developers all over the world. 

So what comes next? More Star Wars, of course. Following the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney last year, J.J. Abrams will take on directorial duties for a third Star Wars trilogy, expected to debut in 2015 with Episode VII. We don’t know nearly enough about the film to make any serious judgment calls just yet, but we do know that the next generation of gaming consoles are coming out in November. We also know that commercial VR technology is gaining popularity with the Oculus Rift. Will game developers take advantage of these opportunities and help the lightsaber fulfill its destiny as the most iconic sci-fi weapon of all time? The six year-old Jedi inside of me, inside of all of us, can only hope so.

I’d like to thank Brett Elston for his article, “Evolution of the Lightsaber,” and Rus McLaughlin for his piece, “IGN Presents the History of Star Wars Games.” Both texts provided valuable inspiration for this feature.