Star Wars at the arcade

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Image courtesy
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Image courtesy /

Ever since 1982, fans have been able to take part in the action of Star Wars by playing Star Wars video games at home. From Atari all the way up through Jedi Survivor coming out on the PS5, video games have become one of the biggest aspects of the Star Wars franchise. In several cases, the video games have even become important parts of the expanded universe, telling stories that never existed in the movies or the novels. But while the experience on the home console has been one that almost every Star Wars fan is familiar with, there was always something special about being in a loud arcade with flashing lights, and seeing the Star Wars logo emblazoned on the side of an arcade cabinet. Throughout the years, there have been several arcade games that have strived to help fans recreate the most exciting moments of Star Wars, one quarter at a time.

Star Wars (1983)

The very first Star Wars arcade game came out the same year as Return of the Jedi. In the game, players would take on the role of Luke, in the final battle of A New Hope. It was a first person shooting game that placed the player in the cockpit of an X-wing and used 3D vector graphics to create the visual of TIE fighters flying toward the screen. The game was divided into three stages, with the first stage being set in open space, the second stage being along the surface of the Death Star with laser cannons added to up the difficulty, and the third stage recreating the trench run where the players would have to try and destroy the Death Star. If players were able to successfully shoot the exhaust port at the end of the trench run and destroy the Death Star, the game would reset back to the first phase but with added difficulty.

The game was a massive success for arcades, and was one of the most popular arcade games in the world when it was released. The game was ported to almost every available home console at the time, though the graphic limitations of all of the consoles meant that nothing came close to the experience in the arcade.

Return of the Jedi (1984)

After the success of Star Wars, Atari developed another game based on the franchise, this time adapting the most recent Star Wars movie at the time. Return of the Jedi had a very different look from Star Wars, with different graphics used. The game focused on different vehicles with players controlling speeder bikes, an AT-ST and the Millennium Falcon at different points in the game. Like the first game (and almost all arcade games at the time) the game would cycle through all of the stages with the difficulty growing each time. Like Star Wars before it (and The Empire Strikes Back after it) this game could be unlocked on the GameCube game Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike as a bonus feature.

The Empire Strikes Back (1985)

The third Star Wars arcade game to come out in three years was based off of The Empire Strikes Back to round out the complete original trilogy. This game is split into two halves with each half containing two stages. The first part of the game has the player take control of a snowspeeder during the battle of Hoth, with the first stage focusing on the player shooting down probe droids and Imperial Walkers being added in the second stage. For the third  stage, the player takes control of the Millennium Falcon, and fights a swarm of TIE fighters, very similar to the first stage of the first game, before traveling through the asteroid field for the last stage. Interestingly, this game was not sold as it’s own game but rather as an upgrade kit that owners of the first game could buy an install into the Star Wars arcade cabinet. Because of this, the graphics for this game reverted back to the vector graphics of the original, instead of the updated graphics that Return of the Jedi used. In the end, The Empire Strikes Back ended up being less successful than it’s predecessors, in part because for many arcade owners, the original Star Wars machine was still a big success, and they saw no reason to change out the board for the game.

Star Wars Arcade (1993)

The Star Wars arcade experience was updated in 1993 with an entirely new game that updated the graphics. Like the most popular Star Wars arcade game (the original) this one focused on space battles, having the players fly through an asteroid field, battle TIE fighters, and recreate the Death Star run. The biggest updates to the game included updated graphics, the ability to play the game in first and third person, and a two player option where one player would pilot the ship while the other one served as the gunner. The game was ported exclusively to the Sega 32X, an add-on for the Sega Genesis. The 32X’s commercial failure makes this one of the more difficult Star Wars games to play today, unless you happen to find an arcade that still has this machine in it.

Star Wars Trilogy Arcade (1998)

Set to release alongside the Special Editions of the original trilogy, this game set out to be the definitive Star Wars Arcade experience. The game consisted of three missions, each one recreating a different moment from each movie. As is to be expected at this point, the New Hope mission is the attack on the Death Star, and the Empire Strikes Back mission is the battle of Hoth. The Return of the Jedi mission takes place on the surface of Endor, with sequences featuring speeder bikes, and taking the role of a Rebel soldier attacking the shield generator. However, if a player is able to beat all three missions, they are sent to a secret final mission recreating the attack on the second Death Star at the end of the trilogy. The other main appeal of the game was two bonus levels where the player would get a chance to play as Luke using a lightsaber to fight Boba Fett and Darth Vader.

Star Wars: Racer Arcade (2000)

The first arcade game that wasn’t based on the original trilogy was this Podracing simulator released the year after The Phantom Menace was released. Some have referred to the game as an arcade version of Star Wars Episode I: Racer, the podracing game for the Nintendo 64, but this is in fact, an entirely different game. The game featured four different tracks with different difficulties, with the actual race from the movie being the “expert” track. The controls for the game are designed to look like Anakin’s podracer, with two main throttles being used to control the podracer. To add to the experience, a seat was added to the arcade cabinet, similar to what you would see on most arcade racing games.

Star Wars: Battle Pod (2014)

The most recent Star Wars game designed to be played in an arcade is the Star Wars: Battle Pod. Once again, the game lets players experience several highlights of the original trilogy, with levels recreating both the first and second Death Star battle, the battle of Hoth, and riding speeder bikes on Endor. However there are two additional levels in this game that haven’t ever been experienced in Star Wars arcade game before. One is an alternative, non-canon level where the player takes control of Darth Vader’s TIE fighter after the destruction of the first Death Star. Players take revenge on the rebels for the destruction of the battle station, including getting to destroy the Millennium Falcon. The other unique level exists only in certain, later versions of the game where players get a chance to play through a space battle that takes place in the era of The Force Awakens. This makes Star Wars: Battle Pod the only arcade game where players can do anything in the sequel era. The game features updated graphics and gameplay making it an easy step up when compared to the Star Wars Trilogy Arcade game. But to add to the immersive experience, the more elaborate of the two different arcade cabinets for this game featured a dome screen surrounding the sitting player, hence the name Battle Pod.