It’s 1983 and The Return of the Jedi was in theaters. At this point, there was no question about the success of George Lucas’ story of a galaxy far, far away — it had become a merchandizing and licensing empire and a lot of people wanted a piece of it. That included Atari.
The year was also significant because it’s generally considered the start of the ‘Great Video Game Crash’ that had also brought the fortunes of Atari low and devastated the console market in North America. It paved the way a few years later for Nintendo to try and pick up the pieces after enjoying runaway success in Japan as consoles in the West began piling up in clearance aisles.
Arcades had also felt the pinch, though it can be argued that they survived better than their home-based cousins did. They were still magical places whose audience could get a taste of the cutting edge that no console at the time could yet effectively recreate. Let’s face it — Pac Man in the arcade had nothing to fear from Atari’s home iteration.
And that’s one of the reasons people kept coming back. One or two cabinets with the right games could compliment any public space from supermarkets to bars while a full arcade was a feast of sight and sound. And what better license to add to that than a movie that did the same thing in theaters.
Atari’s Star Wars is a vector-based game meaning that its graphics used primitive renders — in this case, colored lines — to create its visuals. It’s an approach Atari had used in a number of games like Battlezone in 1980 which had players pilot a tank and shoot wireframe targets in a virtual battlefield or 1981’s Red Baron.
Hardware-wise, the board that Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back would both use was unique to those games. The board sported dual 8-bit 6809 CPUs from Motorola (which was a hop up from MOS’ 6502) and the Pot Keyboard Integrated Circuit (POKEY for short) which was designed by Atari’s Doug Neubauer with iterations used in a variety of products from PCs like the Atari 800 with models for dual or quad configurations used in arcade machines. The one for Star Wars used four POKEYs to generate as many voice samples as possible.
Players fought the Empire in first-person view from the cockpit of an X-Wing (sans dashboard) with the four laser tips of its wings poking out from the left and right sides of the screen. It was a rail-shooter where the player was automatically led along an invisible path while they were free to aim and shoot at targets coming into view as they took part in the assault on the Empire’s Death Star.
If you wanted to get into the thick of things immediately, the game also allowed you to pick which difficulty you wanted to start at. Easy started players at Wave 1 while Medium threw them right into Wave 3 and the additional challenges that entailed.
Waves were generally broken up into three phases: the fight against TIEs in space, the attack on the surface of the Death Star, and the Trench Run at the end. On Easy, however, players went straight from space to the Trench Run.
As each wave is completed, the game threw new obstacles in your way. TIEs become more aggressive, you’re forced to survive on the surface against bunkers and, later, towers. And the Trench Run is made even trickier with catwalks and even more aggressive turrets blasting away at would be rebel scum.
Fortunately, your X-Wing has one or two advantages. For one, it has a deflector shield that can absorb eight hits before disappearing and gets a small patch job if it’s damaged after each wave. Although the game is on rails, during the attack on the surface and through the trench, players can guide the X-Wing just enough to avoid towers on the surface, get a bit closer to the bunkers, and avoid catwalks in the trench. Through it all, you can shoot the “fireballs” that are fired by TIEs, bunkers, and towers, and trench guns. After shooting the exhaust port, players are greeted with the Death Star’s well deserved demise.
Quite a variety of voice samples made it into the game spouting famous lines from the film such as Luke saying “Red 5 standing by” when the difficulty select screen comes up after starting, Vader telling his TIEs to maintain formation when he suddenly shows up, and Han yelling “You’re all clear kid!” when you reach the exhaust port. The sound effects, such as TIEs roaring by, and vector effects showing things such as exploding TIEs and pieces flying in all directions alongside John Williams’ score sampled into the game’s electronics provided plenty of atmosphere.
The cabinet’s “joystick” was a kind of flight steering “wheel” that consisted of two grips with triggers. It was also the same kind of control used for Atari’s extremely short-lived foray into laser discs with Firefox which had also come out in the same year as their Star Wars adaptation.
Ports of the game covered a huge spectrum of hardware from the Atari 2600 (for which 1983 wasn’t quite its best year) to the Amiga years later showing that even though Atari’s future seemed to be on the rocks then, Star Wars’ arcade debut provided fans with an amazing experience regardless of what was going on behind the scenes. In this instance, the Force might well have been with them.