Has it really been almost four years since I last wrote about a Star Wars game? You'd think with the sheer amount of them that I'd be swinging lightsabers or choking a giant mafia slug to death every other week, but somehow it's been four long years since I visited a galaxy far, far away. Well, that changes today as I gird my midichlorians and dive headlong into Atari's 1984 arcade use-the-Force-em-up Return of the Jedi!
It was a tight fit, but they just about managed to squeeze the title onto the screen, so that's a good start.
Return of the Jedi, then. Star Wars Episode 6, the third film in the series to be released, an epic tale of teddy-bear guerilla warfare and man's ability to redeem his soul thanks to the power of a son's love. There are lasers, things get smashed with logs and the good guys fight the same final boss as they did in the first film. It's all pretty great, even if the Ewoks drag things down a little. We all know the film, and I'm sure many of us love it dearly, so I bet you're all terribly excited to see how the movie was converted into an exciting, coin-guzzling arcade experience.
Before we get into that, I have to select a difficulty level. The Death Star acts as the cursor, and it's a pretty goddamn impressive cursor to have. Does this make Return of the Jedi the only videogame where the player gets to directly pilot the Death Star? I bet you can move the Death Star about in one of the Star Wars strategy games, but I've never played those. As I have established in other articles, I have all the strategic planning skills of a hungry chimp in a banana warehouse.
A large spaceship floats into view. I think it's a Super Star Destroyer. Time was, I would have been able to tell you its exact name and a host of technical details - crew capacity, fuel efficiency, precise location of the public restrooms, that kind of thing - but over the years all the Star Wars minutiae that was packed into my childhood brain has melted away like tears in the rain. Big, nerdy tears. I'm going to count that as personal growth.
The soundtrack to this small scene is a voice sample of Darth Vader saying "leave them to me, I will deal with them myself." As you can imagine, a digital voice sample from a 1984 videogame does not possess a great deal of fidelity to the source recording, but on the plus side it really does sound like the voice of someone who is more machine now than man.
Here we are at the beginning of stage one, (ignore that it says "level 3" up there, that's the difficulty level,) and to the surprise of no-one this Return of the Jedi game starts with the movie's iconic speeder bike chase through the dense forests of Endor. It's up to Leia to hop on one of these speeder bikes and chase down the Imperial scouts in order to kill them before they can tell anyone that she's here. She's not the "wait in the castle" type of princess, our Leia.
The chase itself takes the form of an isometric scrolling shoot-out that feels like it was inspired at least in part by Sega's Zaxxon, although without that game's ability to change your altitude. You manoeuvre Leia's bike through the woods as the screen scrolls by at a fair old clip, doing your best to not crash into anything because at these speeds a collision is understandably fatal. Unless you crash into the Imperial scouts, that is - that's fine, and even recommended because it sends them careening around the screen and hopefully straight into a tree.
Yeah, like that one at the bottom of the screen. Flying towards a tree only to veer away at the last second, causing the stormtrooper chasing you to slam into said tree and explode, is a risky yet deeply satisfying way to eliminate the enemies of the Rebellion, but just like in the movies the stormtroopers are more of a nuisance than a real threat. Sure, they'll shoot you down if you let them get right behind you for a couple of seconds, but your more pressing concerns are not smearing yourself all over a hardy Endorian oak and keeping an eye out for the natives.
Yes, there are Ewoks. Cuddly, deadly Ewoks, unafraid to resort to extreme measures in order to keep their home free of the human pestilence. They make no distinctions between good guys and bad guys, either, and their traps are equally deadly to all. Here, they saw the speeder bikes coming and pushed two logs together. I crashed into them and Leia died. Just to hammer home the point, Atari were thorough enough to include a little animation of Leia being thrown from the bike and landing in a crumpled heap on the forest floor, which was nice of them.
Here, an Ewok bombards the path with boulders from his hang-glider. Quite how the Ewoks managed to make something aerodynamically stable enough to carry a pilot and three tons of rocks out of twigs and tree bark is one of the great mysteries of the Star Wars universe, and like all Star Wars mysteries the answer is probably something to do with that particular Ewok being "Force-sensitive". Actually, given the vastness of the Star Wars expanded universe there's around a seventy percent chance that particular Ewok is secretly an undercover Jedi working for the rebellion who helped steal the original Death Star plans and is totally best buddies with Boba Fett, they hang out all the time, drinking blue milk and playing holo-chess, honestly.
The Ewoks' traps can be made to work in your favour, however. They're only triggered when someone drives through them, so if you keep to the top of the screen with the stormtroopers behind you then you're more likely to set off the traps and avoid them, leaving the stormtroopers to crash into them. Of course, being at the top of the screen means you've got less time to react to the obstacles ahead, making the game that much more difficult. It's a decent bit of risk-and-reward gameplay, but if it's all a bit too dicey for you then you can always lure the stormtroopers up the screen and then suddenly drop back behind them and shoot them with your speeder bike's laser cannon. Sorry, did I not mention that your speeder bike has a laser cannon? Well, it does. It makes short work of stormtroopers, but to use it you have to get behind them and line up your shot and press fire and blah blah blah, why go through all that rigmarole when you can let Mother Nature eliminate your enemies? It's about time she gave something back.
After a few minutes of speeder biking, Leia arrives at the Ewok village where C-3PO assures us that the Ewoks no longer want to murder us now that we're "part of the tribe." The Ewoks represent the most stunning turnaround from "potential devourers of human flesh" to "fuzzy animal sidekicks" since mankind domesticated the dog, but I'm all for it if it means they're not trying to smash me to death with bits of tree.
The second stage, and Chewbacca has crammed himself into a stolen AT-ST walker that is clearly too small to hold him. It's hard to not to imagine the whole scenario as Chewie wearing one of those costumes that make you look like you're riding a dinosaur or an ostrich or what-have-you. It can't be comfortable for the Freak from Kashyyyk, but Chewie's not a complainer and with a "well, what can you do?" shrug of his shoulders he sets off on his mission.
That mission is to walk forwards for a while without exploding, a task that's much more difficult than it sounds thanks to the amazing engineering work of the Empire. Designing your assault craft as a heavy and unbalanced metal box atop two long, spindly legs was a bad idea even for the Empire who, let's not forget, had a vast space-army at their disposal and yet still had to resort to bounty hunters to get the job done.
That said, the gravest threat to your AT-ST is a weapon that the Empire could never have seen coming - heat-seeking logs. These logs roll towards you, and I mean they roll towards you, changing their course to hunt you down with a tenacity rarely seen in untreated timber. Maybe the Ewoks are a species of wood nymph or something, that'd explain a lot. Touching a log results in the immediate loss of a life, so don't touch them. You can shoot them with the AT-ST's cannons (which have the almost entirely useless ability to fire left and right as well as straight ahead) but even that's harder than it should be because the AT-ST's guns have a very short range. Oh, and those piles of logs? They don't move, but they are similarly fatal if so much as brushed against. The walker's body literally drops right off its legs at the slightest contact.
"Lord Vader, we have designed a new scout walker that we believe will prove most useful on the forest moon of Endor."
"Can it walk over logs?"
"No, Lord Vader."
"Excellent, I'll take seven hundred thousand."
Then suddenly it's all change and you're piloting the Millennium Falcon above a Star Destroyer while TIE fighters harass you. This isn't the next stage, it's still part of the AT-ST stage. It's referred to on the arcade flyer as a "Split-Wave," and as an attempt to capture the simultaneous lines of action from the film - Han and Chewie trying to lower the shields on Endor while Lando assaults the Death Star - it's interesting if not entirely successful. It definitely took me by surprise the first time it happened, but each subsequent time you're piloting the AT-ST you'll at least know it's coming up when you hear what I think is supposed to be Leia saying "Han, hurry, the fleet will be here any moment!" in the voice of a sleepy robot with a throat infection.
The Falcon-flying sections are the most "pure," for want of a better word, sections of the game: with nothing to crash into, the action is all about shooting TIE fighters and avoiding incoming lasers. I say lasers, everything in this game spits out tiny red-and-yellow explosions, which is a bit of a shame. It would have upped the Star Wars-iness of proceedings considerably if everyone was firing green and red pew-pew-pew lasers at each other, and what's the point of making a Star Wars game if you're not going to make it as Star Wars-y as possible? I hate to break this to you, Atari, but no-one was playing Return of the Jedi because it provided a vastly superior gameplay experience to other arcade titles.
Another detail of these Millennium Falcon sections is that you start with two X-Wings flying alongside you in support. They move and fire when you do, giving you a little extra protection. They are also completely expendable, and there will be no comeuppance if you, say, use them to ram into TIE fighters that have gotten a little too close for comfort. Not that I would condone such a tactic, because that would sully the memories of great Rebellion heroes such as Biggs Darklighter and Jek Porkins. He was called Porkins because he was fat, you see. No, wait, that can't be right. He was fat because he was called Porkins, then? I suppose you'd get a lot of sarcastic comments if your name was Porkins and you weighed ten stone, so I assume he just leaned into it and successfully applied to get double Rebellion rations.
Back on Endor, and Chewie has stumbled across some enemy AT-STs. They are much, much less dangerous than the stage's proliferation of timber. They even look a bit sheepish in the screenshot above. I recommend running up to one of them as quickly as possible while tapping the fire button, that almost always lets you destroy it before it can retaliate, and you can just walk past the other one at the same time.
Mission accomplished! Chewie destroys the shield generator, the bunker explodes and an Imperial officer calls you "rebel scum" in a defeated tone of voice before wandering off into the forest to await the imminent Force-choking I'm sure he assumes is coming his way. Maybe he'll get lucky and the Ewoks will find him and roast him alive on a spit before Vader catches up with him. It's not looking good for that Imperial officer, let's be honest.
With the shields down, Lando Calrissian takes his chance to fly the Millennium Falcon deep into the Death Star for the next stage. It's a lot like the speeder bike section, the main difference being that this second Death Star is constructed entirely from plumbing. It's pipes all the way down. Red pipes, copper ties, grey pipes that are presumably made of PVC, if you're looking for a videogame with lots of pipes then, well, play a Super Mario game but, you know, this game has a lot of pipes. That's what I'm getting at. It makes sense to me, the Death Star is the size of a small moon and some quick addition of figures from Wookiepedia (you know, the Star Wars Wikipedia, badum-tsh) imply that 2,471,647 people made up the Death Star's crew. All these people needed to expel bodily waste at regular intervals, hence all the plumbing.
As with the first stage you're constantly being chased by persistent but extremely fragile Imperial ships, TIE Interceptors in this case, and as before the best and most satisfying way to deal with them is to force them to crash into their surroundings. In the screenshot above I am doing the exact opposite of that, having caused this pipe to fall down but not moving fast enough to get out from under it before it killed me. Earlier it was Ewoks, now it's shoddy workmanship. The Rebel Alliance just can't catch a break.
If you manage to avoid hitting any pipes or getting shot, you'll eventually reach the reactor core. To destroy the reactor as commanded, simply shoot one laser into the reactor. Well, that was easy. I didn't even need to use that Force everyone keeps banging on about.
Getting out of the Death Star before the huge explosion incinerates the Millennium Falcon? Not so easy. The final stage makes you leave the way you came in while a wall of flame licks at whatever part of a spaceship would be the heels. The backs of the stabilizer fins, maybe? But I digress.
Escaping from the galaxy's biggest firework is a noticeable peak in Return of the Jedi's difficulty curve. Part of that is down to the sudden reversal of direction, and I freely admit that might just be me that finds it a struggle, because I'm not good with sudden shifts in controls. As well as that, I seemed to crash into things a lot more. The reliability of Return of the Jedi's collision detection is difficult to gauge - the game moves so fast that you're not always certain about how close you were to obstacles that killed you, unlike a lot of games with bad hit detection where it's very obvious whether you should have been hit or not. That said, I did seem to crash into more obstacles that I would have avoided easily in previous stages, so who knows? It's definitely not frustratingly inaccurate most of the time, and let's leave it at that.
The Death Star is destroyed, the Empire is defeated, millions of human lives are claimed but most importantly Han Solo gets his beloved Millennium Falcon back in one piece, although I suspect the seat of the captain's chair will need a thorough cleaning.
10,000 points does not feel like a sufficient reward for saving the known universe from the yoke of tyranny. I was going to make a crack about wanting my weight in Space Credits, but then I remembered that Credits are the actual in-universe Star Wars currency.
After that, Return of the Jedi loops back to the start, encouraging players to try for the high score as the difficulty of each stage increases. The game doesn't just get harder by throwing more enemies and more foliage at you, (although it does do that too,) it also adds slightly different features to each area. Here in the speeder bike stage, for example, there are now hollow logs in the road that you can fly through for bonus points. It's quite a narrow fit with no room for error, as you can see in the screenshot above, but I made damn sure I flew through that log at least once. It wasn't even about the points - if a game provides a dangerous yet exciting alternate route, it would be rude of me to not take it on a few times. Plus, zooming through the log throws any chasing stormtroopers into utter confusion, causing them to forget that wood = death, and they are eliminated when they try to get behind Leia despite her being inside a tree. It's like watching a cat trying to walk backwards out of a head cone: they know something's not right but they can't quite figure it out, bless them.
Not much changes in the space stage - the TIE fighters take it a bit more seriously and there are Imperial shuttles that fly across the screen depositing space-mines in their wake, and the walker segments are even less varied. I think there might be more logs. It's hard to tell when there were so many logs in the first place. I did manage to move through the end of the walker stage fast enough to get Chewbacca right to the doors of the bunker, just in time for the explosion to engulf him. Chewie doesn't seem to mind. Maybe his fur is flame-retardant. I hope so, god only knows how bad a singed Wookie would smell.
The most punishing new additions are the forcefield gates inside the Death Star. They're activated by a tripwire, and usually they're covering the only gap through the dense plumbing jungle so if you let a TIE fighter get ahead of you and activate the gate then you're screwed and for me their introduction marked the point at which Return of the Jedi rolled over from "hard" to "annoying" and so I think I'll call it a day here. Apparently there is an ending screen that can be reached if you persevere long enough: Yoda pops out and tells you your Jedi training is over or something along those lines, but I didn't reach it because the last "escape from the Death Star" stage I tried was so frustrating with the sudden instant deaths that I had a good, long think about how I'm spending my time on this Earth and then stopped playing.
In summary, Return of the Jedi is an acceptable but basic arcade title that gets by in large part thanks to its Star Wars theme. The actual gameplay is a mix of the good and the bad - it's fast and smooth, and I used the word "satisfying" more than once to describe destroying enemies by nudging them into the scenery because it really is good fun, as anyone who's played the Burnout games will attest. On the other hand it's very shallow, the hit detection can be dubious and once you get past the first loop it quickly becomes completely merciless. The strangest thing about Return of the Jedi is the presentation, however, because for a Star Wars game it doesn't feel as "Star Wars" as you might think. I mean, it's clear that this is a game based on the movie, but the familiar sound-effects are missing, lightsabers are completely absent and you don't get to play as Luke Skywalker. You don't even see Han Solo or Darth Vader, which is kinda of mind-boggling - certainly these days, it's almost impossible to imagine any other RotJ-themed product that doesn't feature Vader front-and-centre, milking his evil Sith teat for all it's worth. Why did I write that? I wish I hadn't written that.
Anyway, Atari's Return of the Jedi: especially recommended for lovers of garbled digital speech, play it if you like Star Wars but don't expect anything amazing, and remember: for all the Ewoks' faults, "yub nub" is a fun phrase to say out loud.