7 great Star Wars video games and what Disney can learn from them

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Sep 25, 2015, 12:15 PM EDT

It's been 32 long years since we last saw our heroes on the big screen in Return of the Jedi. But on Dec. 18, one of the most famous franchises -- if not THE most famous franchise -- in movie history is returning to theaters in the much-anticipated next chapter of their story with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Over the next 20 weeks, we will celebrate the franchise by looking back and ranking the best, the worst, the weirdest and the most amusing moments in Star Wars history.

What makes a good Star Wars game? Since Atari's The Empire Strikes Back debuted in 1982, there have been more than 100 videogames associated with the license across every platform. But for every Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader, there’s a Kinect Star Wars (egads). Not even longtime custodians of the brand LucasArts hit it out of the Senate every time. 

With two new films in the saga and three anthology films due out over the next few years, Disney Interactive Arts and others are picking up where the now defunct LucasArts left off by adapting the new adventures to gaming format .As Yoda might say, to understand the future, into the past you must look. If the previews are any indication of things to come, the future of Star Wars videogames looks promising. But true to franchise form, there have been enough missteps in previous titles to justify my cautious optimism. So let's focus on the better moments in Star Wars gaming history and what Disney can learn from them.

The Force Unleashed

The Force Unleashed is a 2008 action-adventure game that, with a few gameplay issues aside -- like that tedious quick-time “pulling down the Star Destroyer” scene -- was actually great fun. I played it on the PS3, and I felt the power of the Dark Side. It tasted like cookies.

The plot is even more compelling. Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice (born Galen Marek) is tasked to bring down the Emperor. The Apprentice’s actions have far-reaching consequences, so far in fact that they reach right into Star Wars: A New Hope. Impressive. 

Shout-out to the motion-capture team who captured Sam Witwer’s wonderful performance.

What Disney can learn: Bring the poignancy. 

Star Wars was filled with bittersweet moments, such as the time when Luke realized he was stuck on the moisture farm, looking wistfully out onto the binary-starred horizon that he would never reach. The Force Unleashed also pulled at the heartstrings: Galen, who watched Darth Vader kill his father, was forced to become the Sith’s apprentice. 

But with each mission, he begins to feel less certain about the Dark Side and the havoc he wreaks. Soon, we start to deeply sympathize with the apprentice, who is less in control of his destiny than any other character in the Star Wars universe. Excellent stuff.

Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2

Despite lackluster graphics, Knights of the Old Republic, an RPG, was one of the best games I’ve ever played. The adventure was set 4000 years before Star Wars and took us to the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Cast as an amnesiac, we have to rescue the Jedi Bastila Shan, who has the ability of Battle Meditation, which can positively affect entire armies. Of course, the Sith want her, too. Ultimately, we learn to become a Jedi ... and uncover our true origin.

Along the way, we meet travelers, each with their own abilities (and in the case of HK-47, some of the snappiest dialogue in game history) and take them on board as part of our team. Depending on the good/evil choices we make during the game, we can have either a happy ending as a creepy Sith Lord or a happier ending as an uncreepy Jedi. 

As for KOTOR 2, we play an exiled Jedi in a world where Jedi are being hunted. It's up to us to battle the Sith and save the day (or become the new Dark Lord). The ending was famously poor. But the journey is remarkable. These days, KOTOR 2 can be found on Steam along with the restored content mod that puts back in much of the content missing from the commercial release.  

What Disney can learn: Focus on the storytelling. And don't rush it.

Actually, Disney should hold fast to two important lessons that the two KOTORs have to teach us. 

1) KOTOR and KOTOR 2 have superb storytelling, not only with the plot of the games but also with the overarching Star Wars universe: In KOTOR 2, we learn about the nature of the Force (and no, it’s not midichlorians). That’s something not even the six movies have ventured to talk about. 

2) Don’t rush releases. That’s what happened to KOTOR 2, and that’s why it never received the accolades it deserved (like Chewbacca at the end of A New Hope -- oh, snap). KOTOR 2 might have been better than the first game, had it been given time to be completed.   

LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga

The first tie-in LEGO game Traveller’s Tales released was  LEGO Star Wars in 2005, setting the mood (and gamers’ appetites) for irreverent yet faithful block-based bashing for years to come. Titles include LEGO The Lord of the Rings, LEGO Marvel Superheroes and LEGO Indiana Jones (my favorite: LEGO Batman 2). 

But you should ignore LEGO Star Wars in favor of LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, the 2007 platformer that allows players to re-enact scenes from all six movies in the Star Wars saga; LEGO Star Wars only gives us gameplay from the first three movies. But as with every LEGO game, instead of killing enemies, we get to break them down into their component LEGO parts with a satisfying “crish” sound. 

Meanwhile, there are doors we can’t enter, special bricks and canisters we can’t reach and puzzles we just can’t solve -- on the first playthrough. But after you complete the main game, you unlock and play as other characters that, to mix a metaphor, go where you couldn’t go before. 

What Disney can learn: Appeal to all ages and have fun.

The LEGO Star Wars games (and the adorable LEGO Star Wars movies) are genuine fun for players young and old — just like the movies. And there's nothing like a game that you can enjoy with your children as well as your parents. The LEGO games (all of them) fit the bill. 

Also, sometimes Star Wars is at its best when it doesn’t take itself seriously and has fun with its source material — as thousands of YouTube videos (and Robot Chicken skits) can also attest. 

LEGO Blackstar Warrior. That’s all I’m saying.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

No, not Knights of the Old Republic. That was the RPG. This is the MMORPG, with a current user base of around 1 million players. 

Set 300 years after KOTOR 2, the game takes place in a dark time for the Jedi. The Sith have sacked the planet of Coruscant — including the Jedi Temple — and the Jedi have been sent packing to their home planet of Tython. Will they have their, um, revenge?

Unlike other MMOs, The Old Republic has a great deal of single-player content, so you can play with as many people as you want or ignore them in favor of your own quest line. 

Plus, The Old Republic introduced gay characters in the Star Wars universe even before the movies have (to be fair, author Karen Traviss beat TOR to it in 2008).

What Disney can learn: Give us freedom of choice. 

Star Wars fans adore the galaxy far, far away. And although they like spending time with other Star Wars fans, they may want to go solo (<—see what I did there?). The Old Republic is the MMO for people who don’t like MMOs. 

Disney brings out an expansion, The Knights of the Fallen Empire, in October. One of the biggest criticisms about TOR is that there wasn’t enough single-player content. This will give players more grist to chew on … and more story to drive. Especially if you like your stories freaky

By continuing to expand the single-player experience, Disney can let us interact with the world of The Old Republic and kill our friends at the same time. 

Disney, take note: The ability to kill our friends is what we really want out of a multiplayer game.

Star Wars: Battlefront

The upcoming action-shooter Battlefront is a reboot of the 2004 game, which had one sequel in 2005. Although Battlefront was a well-regarded game, particularly those who like the shootier side of the Force, the October 2015 version will have more sophisticated graphics and gameplay. 

With action on all sides, plus up and down, you’re going to need the hair-trigger reflexes of Han Solo to survive Endor, Hoth, Tatooine—especially because the force is not with you: Neither of the two characters you have to choose from, a Rebel or a stormtrooper, has Force abilities. 

What Disney can learn: Bring the saga.

Battlefront doesn’t just reward leet sniping skills. According to Patrick Bach, general manager of Dice, the game rewards exploration, everything from the terrain of its 12 multiplayer maps to the weaknesses of our many enemies. Plus, Battlefront will be expanding knowledge of the Star Wars universe by opening up the mentioned-in-passing planet Sullust.

If Disney can continue to expand the Star Wars universe, there will be a great deal more for us to explore—which is awesome, because when it comes to the Star Wars universe, less is not more.

Lucky for me, Disney read my mind: The company will be bringing this expansion to the real world, when Disney adds Star Wars-themed parks to Disneyland and Disneyworld.


Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

We met mercenary Kyle Katarn in the 1996 Doom-like Star Wars: Dark Forces. But in the 1997 FPS sequel, Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, Kyle is on the Jedi path. Our Force powers come in light, dark, or neutral, whatever we choose. And if we choose to rip a weapon from our enemy’s hands, we can do that, too. Also, we get a lightsaber. Everything is better with lightsabers.

Although the game is 18 years old, its lifespan has been extended thanks to many, many mods, which make it, well, not state of the art, but old-school watchable. 

What Disney can learn: Give us worlds to explore and sweet Jedi powers.

Yes, the Half-Life games are the gold standard of level design. But Dark Forces II had some top-notch levels in its day. From cavernous spaces to tight crawls, we were led through the game through such obvious choices as key quests and such not-obvious guides as sound and light. Something I loved: When DFII was too dark, we have to whip out our lightsabers to light the way. Yes, even lighting is better with lightsabers.

Plus, the game gives players some freedom of choice. To get from Point a to Point B,  we could crawl through tunnels or say, “To hell with you, tunnels,” and Force jump over a wall. 

Speaking of Force jump, I frequently jumped and found energy cells and other helpful loot. I love a game that rewards me for using the Force.

Star Wars: TIE Fighter

LucasArt’s venerable space combat sims are the stuff of legend. You saw the Battle of Yavin? I was there. The original X-Wing space sim was a series of tightly scripted missions wrapped up in a compelling story. Of the X-Wing games, the 1994 TIE Fighter was the greatest (and winner of several Best Games Of All Time awards). It put us in the cockpit of an Imperial TIE fighter, hunting down Rebels like womp rats. Yee-haw.

There were other follow-ons: X-Wing Alliance (fly inside the second Deathstar) and the ahead-of-its-time X-Wing vs TIE Fighter (two-to-eight-player multiplayer space combat; Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen are only just catching up 18 years later). But TIE Fighter is the pinnacle of the series.

What Disney can learn: Make us think.

Featuring multiple and sometimes conflicting mission objectives, TIE Fighter threw a spanner in the works by having you report to a regular Imperial navy officer but also secretly work for the Emperor, because Palpatine Force-choked the word “simple” right out of the dictionary. Missions had you juggling multiple objectives in different directions, requiring you to master control of your wingmen, maintain situational awareness and balance your shield energy if you were to achieve complete success.

It was a game that had us juggling multiple balls at once. We were made better for it -- if we survived, that is.

Another thing Disney can learn: Make another X-Wing game, Disney! Do you not notice there is a resurgence in space sims


That's our list! What do you think of our choices? What are some of your favorite mooments in Star Wars gaming history? Let us know in the comments!

Previously in 20 Weeks of Star Wars ...

Star Wars done right: The 15 best episodes of The Clone Wars

From the V-Wing to the Millennium Falcon: 50 of the best Star Wars vehicles, ranked

10 of the weirdest Star Wars tie-in products ever made

Silent but deadly: The best Star Wars characters with no dialogue that deserve their own spinoff.

The top 15 musical moments from Star Wars movies and TV shows

9 Ways George Lucas nerfed Return of the Jedi

The best Star Wars stunt scenes ranked by a professional stuntwoman