As long as the games were fun, it doesn’t matter to me whether they’re on a console or a PC. At the same time, there were always reasons why one platform had what I wanted versus another for a wide variety of reasons ranging from mods (dem Doom wads) to different play experiences (JRPGs or arcade favorites). Even today, that still holds true for me. It also makes it tough when a game is released in a cross-platform format bringing up new questions on what I want to play it on.
Factor 5’s Rogue Squadron 3D, which came out in 1998 for the N64, also came out on Windows though you could only play it if you had one of those newfangled 3D accelerators — which I didn’t. So it was off to Nintendo’s 3D wunderconsole.
Factor 5’s start was based on a lucky break, but not the kind that companies such as Origin Systems with Richard Garriott’s Ultima were known for. Factor 5, according to Brad Shoemaker in his retrospective on the series, caught their first break by trying to create a homebrew clone of Irem’s arcade classic, R-Type. A lawsuit was served — but so was an offer to do the conversion. The rest was history.
Factor 5 eventually hooked up with LucasArts and were given the chance to do their own Star Wars game. Shadows of the Empire, in 1996, had proven to be a decent hit for LucasArts, and Factor 5’s resume by then had included work on games such as Indiana Jones’ Greatest Adventures on the SNES. But LucasArts wasn’t interested in another game that pulled from the films — Shadows of the Empire was an entirely new story that took place against the backdrop of the universe set up by Lucas and his movies.
The answer, it turned out, was in Dark Horse’s Rogue Squadron comics which began running in 1995 and on through 1998. These told the story of Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron, heroes of the Rebel Alliance who led the charge in the Battle of Yavin. Covering the years after that climax, the comics expanded on the original material, and it was something that fit right in with what Factor 5 wanted to do next.
The initial E3 demo was literally smoke and mirrors — it was essentially a “tech demo” showing off scripted TIEs creating “the illusion” of combat. But it wowed those that saw it and paved the way forward. The team also wanted to use the N64’s memory expansion as an option to increase the resolution of the game, something that Iguana Entertainment’s Turok 2 was already doing. It was interesting to learn that Nintendo was a little hesitant to let them do that — they wanted the memory pack reserved for other peripherals.
Another interesting piece of history about the game concerned the sound effects. LucasFilm, at the time, were very protective about lending materials from their fabled archives to anyone outside of their company. The sounds they handed over to Factor 5 were apparently downsampled to a miserable 22 khz. Effects “listed from VHS tapes of the original movies for a previous project actually sounded better than the clips provided by LucasFilm.”
The final result, however, was amazing stuff. After being used to the complexities of X-Wing and TIE Fighter, it was refreshing fun in its own way especially in an action filled, arcade perspective with plenty of its own challenges. For a console based space sim, it didn’t do a half bad job. Factor 5 had even hidden a ship in the game from the first film of upcoming prequel series, The Phantom Menace, which was the Naboo fighter. Buried deep in the code along with a host of unlockables, it expanded on the age old concept of cramming in secret extras, foreshadowing the kind of goodies many later console titles would save for persistent players.
It didn’t have energy management or the kind of mission and control complexity that the PC versions did for reasons that included interface limitations, but at the same time, it really didn’t need them. I spent hours and hours blasting Imperials in missions for the Rebel Alliance just fine, only without having to line up quarters along the edge of the screen for my next turn. It also had a sequel, though it would only be for the GameCube, that was something like a quantum leap over the first game in terms of nearly everything.
The ad above also has a slice of the hardware race raging in the late 90s. Screenshots from the PC version are shown off while also boasting the benefits of having a 3D card. In this case, a Diamond Monster Fusion 3D card based on 3DFX’s Voodoo Banshee. No one could have predicted at the time, in ’98, that 3DFX would be bought up by rival Nvidia two years later in 2000 to avoid bankruptcy.
Rogue Squadron was an incredible game that did very well on the N64 though had a more muted response on the PC for reasons easily revealed by its long history with elaborate space sims. After all, Volition’s Freespace had already come out earlier the same year. Yet Rogue Squadron still had the kind of thrilling punch that put it on the map for the N64 — something that more than a few gamers enjoyed without the need for a 3D card.