I’m not exactly sure why that was, and that despite the technical advances displayed with other Atari properties including RotJ, Empire used the same hardware that 83’s Star Wars did creating another vector-based shooter. At the same time, given that Atari’s finances weren’t exactly flying high after the crash of the console market in North America, it’s probably a reason why they recycled what they did.
Atari was also a bit behind with their arcade adaptations (an Empire Strikes Back title by Parker Brothers made it to the Atari 2600 and the Intellvision in ’82). Star Wars’ arcade game came out in ’83, though to be fair, the technology behind both that and Empire likely wasn’t around in 1977 when the movie arrived in theaters. But it’s also a testament to Star Wars’ wild popularity that Atari’s licenses were still a sure bet years afterward.
Empire was also touted as a conversion kit for existing Star Wars cabs which a switch of marquee and hardware guts would equal a new game. It was a common practice meant to try and lower costs for arcade owners by recycling the cabinets, though understandably, manufacturers also wanted the owners to buy entirely new cabinets if they could.
As a result, the controls were pretty much a carbon copy of Star Wars’ with its dual-grip controls and on-rail sequences. Players did the same thing as in Star Wars — shoot down as many targets as possible, blast oncoming fireballs, and try to survive as long as you can. One interesting difference was that you started off with only four shield units as opposed to having eight in Star Wars.
The gameplay was split into different “waves” which consisted of four phases each — destroying “probots” (the Imperial probes) on the surface of Hoth, destroying AT-ATs and AT-STs, destroying TIE fighters from the Millennium Falcon, and flying through the asteroid field.
In some ways, this was a tougher game than Star Wars. Players could pick between three different difficulty levels like in the other two Star Wars games. In addition to that, there was also an option to get in-game instructions on what you should be doing prior to the action starting up which was pretty novel as opposed to just leaving it to the attract mode.
Destroying Imperial probes on the surface of Hoth consisted of shooting down as many as possible. They would also send transmissions that you could actually shoot down to buy more time with which to destroy more probes for a higher score as you flew across the surface. This part could be pretty hectic — even on Easy, the probes sprout and transmit like crazy, although they won’t shoot at you as often.
The game also introduced an interesting bonus objective with each phase. As you met the target quota for each (such as destroying so many probes), you would get a letter that, over the course of the game (and if you met the conditions), would spell out JEDI. This didn’t give you access to the Force, but if you got one of the letters, it acted as a score multiplier in the phase you were in. Completing JEDI also allowed you to pick up at the wave you died on as a form of continue. It also put a nice chevron symbol next to your name if you made it onto the daily scoreboard to toast your shooting skills.
Next up, it’s time to take down AT-ATs by shooting at a red rectangle on their heads (the same with AT-STs) which is easier said than done. You also have four tow-lines that you can shoot at AT-ATs’ legs to bring them down in one go if you aim it right. This part isn’t so much on rails as it is relentless pushing you forward but with enough freedom to maneuver left and right to get out of the way of enemy fire and line up shots. After all the shield generators are eventually destroyed (which you can only delay by destroying more enemies), it’s time to head into space!
Aboard the Millennium Falcon, you’ll be shooting TIE fighters. Destroy enough of them, and it’s time to avoid asteroids. Fortunately, the asteroid field isn’t that long a sequence because you can’t destroy any of the rocks coming at you. Hopefully you still have enough shields to absorb one or two “accidents”. Surviving that, players get a bonus depending on their difficulty level with Vader’s line-drawn visage looking back a them. They also get an idea of how many letters in JEDI they were able to get right before it restarts the whole thing over again with a new, tougher wave.
Like the previous games, Empire was ported to a large variety of platforms at the time ranging from the BBC Micro to the ZX Spectrum, though didn’t seem to get as much attention as Star Wars did in the arcade. Even after so many years, the Star Wars cab was still incredibly popular and arcade owners apparently didn’t convert many of those over. It also seemed to suffer a bit of being “more of the same” despite featuring more of John Williams’ score such as the epic track playing during the asteroid chase, lines straight from the movie such as the Emperor saying that “He could destroy us” in reference to Luke, and a batch of new challenges. Despite that, it wasn’t a “bad” game that players avoided. Like the Rebels that Vader was on the hunt for, and for quite a few players itching to find it, it proved to be just as elusive.