In 1980, George Lucas’ Star Wars would get its second film, The Empire Strikes Back, which many fans would write up as the best film in the original trilogy. It had everything – action, good guys clinging to the edge, nefarious villainy, betrayals, and surprising secrets. And in 1982, Parker Brothers would give the world its first Star Wars game based on the movie.
In looking back on the history for this game, I found an article on Videogames Magazine’s site featuring an interview with one of the two people responsible for making it, Rex Bradford. Back then, as Bradford recalls:
“Sam Kjellman got picked to be the game’s designer, and me its programmer, something of a far cry from 100-plus game development staffs these days.”
The two men did everything wearing multiple hats. Design, special effects, the algorithms needed to work them, and trying to fit all of that work on a system that only had 4kB of ROM. They even broke down the hardware to take pictures of the graphics chip to check out the circuit diagram and see how it worked.
The game, like many other licensed titles of the day, didn’t focus on the entire movie as titles today can afford to do. Instead, Bradford and Kjellman focused on the thrilling Snowspeeder battle on the frozen surface of Hoth against the Empire’s gigantic walkers. Players would fly their speeder along a 2D, side scrolling screen to hunt down the Empire’s AT-AT walkers. You’d need to riddle them with lasers to destroy them, or hit the flashing “weak point” to blow them to smithereens with a lucky shot.
You were also under pressure to keep them from reaching the rebel base for as long as you can while racking up the points. And as you wrecked more walkers, others would come in to replace them marching faster and faster. The walkers would also fight back to keep you on your toes. Trying not to crash into the walkers was also a plus.
The game even had a “radar” feature on the bottom of the screen showing the locations of the walkers and your position which was amazing at the time. It also had sound effects (which were put in towards the end, according to Bradford, and helped sell marketing on the actual game). The Force would also occasionally come into play turning your ship into a multicolored, flashing vessel of invincibility for a few moments. Tough stuff, but also quite successful especially if you had played Defender and liked Star Wars. Though, instead of rescuing people and blasting aliens, you were tearing up multi-story war machines.
Parker Brothers packaged their games in silvery boxes with a splash of art on the front, though nothing quite as great as some of the stuff that Atari put on their own boxes like the scene for Missile Commander. Even the cartridges stood out. Instead of square sandwiches that you plugged into the Atari 2600, Parker Brothers’ games had streamlined and angled sides with a tilted panel at the front for the name of the game.
Though Parker Brothers’ marketing had been initially underwhelmed by the game when it was without sound effects, they did a pretty good job in laying out the ad below with some nice art. If you notice, even the “screenshots” are actually drawn in. Empire was an amazingly good movie tie-in game, one of the earliest and a first for Star Wars. Parker Brothers would also follow it up with other Star Wars games and after what happened with E.T., fans were probably too happy to be able put that tie-in far, far away in their thoughts.