Thursday, September 18, 2008

Unleashing LucasArts' Force: Star Wars and beyond

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is released this week and seems likely to be one of the year’s top-selling titles, if the demo’s anything to go by: it was downloaded 2.3 million times in the first two weeks or so. The game is available for every platform (though there are significant differences between them), which is just as well as it covers a missing part of the Star Wars story, the gap between the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which marked the birth both the Empire and Darth Vader, and the beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope (aka the original Star Wars movie).

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Lego Star WarsIt’s on my wishlist, but as always I’m waiting till the furore dies down before getting a copy and deciding whether it deserves better than the rather average review scores it’s been receiving. Although I did admit to preferring Indiana Jones, that doesn’t mean that me and my co-author aren’t huge Star Wars fans, and a glance at the index of the Rough Guide to Videogames turns up no fewer than eight entries. Of these, Lego Star Wars is covered as a canon entry, with shorter writeups of several other games, but we also delve further into the background with a piece on LucasArts, the developer and publisher behind The Force Unleashed. It’s just one of the articles in The Players, a section of the book covering individual creators, companies and characters who’ve had an impact on videogames history. Here’s an edited-down excerpt.

George Lucas’s filmmaking empire entered the games business in 1982, with a project looking into the capabilities of Atari’s computers, presumably with an eye to the potential afforded by the success of the first two Star Wars movies and more recent Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lucasfilm Games, as it was then known, wouldn’t make its own Star Wars game for many years; perhaps not so surprising, considering the catastrophe that was the E.T. game. In subsequent years, as Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries remained at the forefront of video, sound and special effects technology, games would become a vital, and lucrative, movie marketing tool. Back in the early 1980s, though, Lucasfilm licensed Atari and others to produce arcade and home computer games based on its film franchises.

Monkey Island 2After a couple of unmemorable titles for Atari in 1984, Lucasfilm Games established itself at the head of a new genre – the graphical adventure game. This was spearheaded by self-published titles like Ron Gilbert’s Maniac Mansion (1987), a point-and-click comedy-horror game for the home computers of the time, which inspired a three-season-long TV show (plus a 1993 sequel, Day of the Tentacle). Gilbert went on to produce the groundbreaking The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), followed by Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (see picture – this is a Canon title in the Rough Guide; PC, Mac, 1991).

Grim FandangoThe first actual Lucasfilm spinoff would stick with the genre, with the point-and-click Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, followed in 1992 by Hal Barwood’s Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, an original premise with such a great script that it sparked rumours of a film spinoff. The company’s last great adventure title was 1998’s Grim Fandango for the PC (another Canon title; see picture), after which the genre appeared to fade away with the arrival of 3D. At that point LucasArts’ focus was taken up with the prequel trilogy of Star Wars movies, beginning in 1999 with the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Although the company had developed a side-scrolling platformer for the NES based on A New Hope, the franchise was then – as it is now – licensed to a number of other companies, resulting in games of varying quality. Until 2001, by far the most highly regarded was the outstanding X-Wing series for the PC (1993 onwards; see picture), developed by the same team (Larry Holland’s Totally Games) responsible for LucasArt’s excellent World War II air combat sims for PC.

No matter that the Star Wars prequels disappointed many hardcore fans, for a while the world went Star Wars crazy anyway and LucasArts put out a slew of games on the back of the films, ranging from the dismal Obi-Wan (Xbox, 2001) to the superb Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader (GC, 2001). Then, in 2004, a company shakeup meant redundancies and a number of cancelled projects; highlights from other developers included BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic RPG (Xbox, 2003) and Star Wars: Battlefront 2 by Pandemic (PS2, Xbox, 2005).

As a publisher LucasArts has successfully straddled various genres, from the realistic shooter Mercenaries (Pandemic Studios, 2005) to the Lego Star Wars games (Traveller’s Tales, 2005), though the Star Wars brand is probably enough in itself to have carved out a prominent place in videogames history. All the more interesting, then, that as a developer, the LucasArts name is still, for many, synonymous with classic adventure games of the 1980s and 90s.

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