In 1983, Return of the Jedi brought the original Star Wars trilogy to a close. It also meant that the string of licensed arcade games by Atari would also get its own sendoff. Atari kept up with the movies with three innovative arcade stand-ups (or sit-downs depending on which cab was used), but with the third one based on RotJ, they wanted it to go out in a big way, too.
Atari’s RotJ was released in 1984 which wasn’t a banner year for the company or for video games in general, at least in North America where the market for game consoles had seemingly crashed overnight. Towards the end of ’83 rippling out into ’84, companies like Atari scrambled to find their footing. Even arcades felt the pinch but would largely survive to wow audiences with flashy, new, state-of-the-art cabs from the likes of Taito, Konami, Midway, and Capcom.
For now, however, Atari still held onto some of its magic and RotJ did its best to make it stay that way in the arcade. While their adaptations of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were first-person, vector-based rail shooters pitting players against TIE fighters, gun towers on the surface of the Death Star, the Trench Run, and AT-ATs on Hoth, RotJ became an isometric, raster-based and voice sampled obstacle course with scenes inspired by the film. Wireframe graphics were replaced with colorful pixel art accompanied by digitized music from the movie.
Atari’s approach to hardware was similar to a few others (like Taito) at the time in the arcades with a potpourri of boards that they would try to get to run as many games as possible before having to engineer something entirely new. The board that ran Return of the Jedi wasn’t “new” in the sense that it was bleeding edge, but according to the great archive over at System 16, would prove versatile enough to run Tetris years later in 1988. To be fair, though, Tetris wasn’t something that might demand much in the way of hardware the way SNK’s P.O.W. Prisoners of War might.
One interesting note is that the brains behind the board, the 6502, wasn’t a Motorola part although the engineers that worked on it for MOS Technology had also done work with Motorola’s 6800. The 6502 would also play another part in Atari’s lineup, notably as the System 1’s sound CPU for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
RotJ would use the selectable difficulty menu that Atari’s Star Wars series had been using since the first game allowing players to pick how tough they wanted the challenge to be. Instead of simply sticking to throwing more enemies at players, the difficulty levels would introduce new “scenes”, too.
Graphically, the game looked great at the time — familiar characters (like C3PO and the Ewoks) along with scenes (the race through the forest of Endor, the attack on the Imperial Fleet) were there along with digitized samples of lines straight from the film similar to what Atari had done with the previous games although to a much greater extent. Players would hear samples of the Ewok’s celebratory end theme along with other bits and pieces of John Williams’ score, Calrissian’s “Here goes nothing!” right before diving into the Death Star’s bowels, Darth Vader telling his men to leave the Rebels to him, and Chewbacca’s roar as he pilots an AT-ST up a path to the shield generator while trying not to get tripped up by rolling logs.
Gameplay was another story. As nice as the presentation was, everything else left a bit to be desired starting with Endor.
In that “scene”, players take on the role of Princess Leia as she races through the forest to finish at the Ewok village along an isometric track. Along with the trees, Imperial speeders will also try to stop her which she can bump to the side into obstacles or shoot them. For their part, they’ll try and shoot her but won’t try to ram her into the foliage. She can also try to fly through Ewok traps like rope tethers and logs to shake off any pursuit for points.
In an effort to simulate the feeling of controlling a speeder, Atari made the controls for it twitchy as all hell. There was no happy medium between zero and smashing into a tree which can happen a second after you respawn if you move the ‘stick in the wrong direction too soon. On the plus side, if you hug the right side of the track and move every so often to get out of the way of the stumps that pop up there, and hung far enough back to keep enemy speeders from shooting you, you could almost always get away with doing almost nothing in this section. At least on Easy.
At higher difficulties, new challenges included giant logs that you could fly through to Ewok hang gliders dropping rocks that you had to fly in between to avoid getting smashed (they’re aiming for the bad guys…really). You could also pilot an AT-ST with Chewie but for a giant walker, it glides across the screen as if it’s a ballerina. You can also adjust the turret to narrow the arc of fire so it doesn’t shoot over logs that get too close to its legs which is a nice idea in a better game. Occasionally, it will also “split-wave” to Lando in the Millennium Falcon escorted by X-Wings as they fight off enemy TIE Interceptors. Once Chewie makes it to the shield bunker, it explodes and cuts right back to Lando as he flies into the Death Star to blow up the core.
Lando’s flight through the Death Star has him avoiding barriers and trying to bump TIE Interceptors into the walls while trying not to get shot in the process. When he gets to the core, one shot is all it takes and it’s time to fly back through the level in reverse. Moving the stick left or right moves the Falcon left or right, but it can get a bit confusing because pushing up on the stick accelerates the Falcon (and moves it closer to the oncoming edge of the screen giving you less time to predict the barriers) and pulling back slows it down. When the Falcon was flying from the bottom towards the top of the screen, pulling back also went hand-in-hand with bringing it closer to the bottom edge of the screen.
When the level is flipped and it’s time to escape, it can be a bit too easy think that pushing up will move the Falcon back to the trailing edge of the screen when it throws Lando forward into a pipe instead ending the level. Making it through, however, rewards the player with the Death Star’s big boom before beginning the whole thing again at the next difficulty level.
The game was also ported to a large swath of platforms ranging from the Atari ST and the Amiga to the ZX Spectrum. A few of these looked better than the arcade version did, notably the Amiga, particularly the Death Star’s guts, and even seemed to play a bit better, too, though they didn’t have all of the sounds from the arcade version.
RotJ in the arcade sounded and looked great but it left a bit to be desired by this arcade fan. Although memorization helped since the obstacles were pretty much set in stone, death could also be too often swift enough to keep some from coming back when other arcade titles did a better job in scaling up more mileage for your quarters. I’d often find myself gravitating back to ye olde vector-based Star Wars instead for more fun if the arcade still had one of them lying around. Still, Atari’s tie-in was an impressive, technical tour-de-force and demonstrated where they were going with their later titles including Indy. Atari’s consoles may have been crushed by the crash, but efforts like RotJ reminded everyone that they were still in the game.