This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 279. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.
Star Wars weaves itself in and out of the history of PC games, occasionally yielding genre-advancing greatness and sometimes coughing up the most mercantile dross you might ever regretfully buy.
The story of the games mirrors that of the film series as a whole. Sometimes, the link is obvious—as when the arrival of the prequel trilogy plunged the franchise into a dark new era. At other times, it s more subtle. Star Wars games, particularly those on PC, did much to advance the notion that this galaxy far, far away was a real place, governed by real rules and principles—a setting that could be simulated, not just presented as pastiche. The best games actively enhance the source material rather than merely doing justice to it. As Disney—Star Wars new owner—moves away from traditional games towards browser and mobile, it s an idea that might be lost. But if Star Wars has taught us anything, it s that good wins out in the end—even if it becomes more machine than human along the way.
Despite being a rudimentary rail shooter, it s remarkable just how much the original vector-drawn Star Wars arcade game anticipated about later games. Later takes on the Death Star trench run had you blowing the tops off turrets in the exact same way you do here. Notable also for the clumsily digitised voice of Sir Alec Guinness.
1988—Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
This follow-up to the Star Wars arcade cabinet uses a diagonal-scrolling isometric view to represent everything from a speederbike chase to the Millennium Falcon s run at the second Death Star. The technique is stretched to its logical extreme when you find yourself dodging an endless stream of Ewok log traps as a questionably manoeuvrable AT-ST. It s actually aged worse than its predecessor: while the original s vector graphics make it feel like a crude forebear to the later, greater space combat sims, this just comes off as an attempt to jam as many Star Wars set-pieces as possible into Frogger.
1993—Star Wars: Rebel Assault
In the dark times before somebody thought to make actual games about Star Wars, this is what you got: the rail-shooter framework strapped to the clumsiest excesses of 90s FMV. I found it tremendously evocative at the time, and the pre-rendered visuals were stunning—but it s aged worse than the fan-fic I wrote about it.
1993—Star Wars: X-Wing
To really understand the troubled duality of Star Wars gaming, consider that X-Wing and Rebel Assault came out in the same year. The former: crap FMV tied to a fidgety arcade game. The latter: an earnest attempt to simulate the actual devices and conflicts of the Star Wars universe. X-Wing was groundbreaking because it was a movie tie-in that not only respected the source material, but built upon it. Thousands of fans understand the workings of an X-Wing starfighter thanks largely to this game s unusual attention to detail. This wasn t just about being plonked down in a rudimentary rendition of a familiar scene: it was about actually getting to fl y one these beloved starfighters for yourself. Despite the crude visuals, it holds up today—the pixel rendition of an X-Wing cockpit is even lovely, if you squint. Newcomers should go straight to the sequels.
1994—Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Beyond picking up where X-Wing left off, this spacebased combat sim stands out for being among the first Star Wars games to confidently tell its own story and offer a different spin on the source material—presenting the Empire s rank-and-file in a more positive light. Part of the golden age of the Expanded Universe.
1995—Star Wars: Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire
I have an enduring affection for the overweight and middle-aged FMV X-Wing pilot who shows up half way through Rebel Assault II because I assume he s someone s dad. Beyond that, though, this is a dodgy fan-film strapped to a shooter where you pan left and right to make a photo of a rebel soldier shoot pop-up stormtroopers.
1995—Star Wars: Dark Forces
Dark Forces and Rebel Assault II are another set of strange contemporaries. While indebted to Doom s rat in a maze with a gun formula, Dark Forces paid fresh attention to both telling a story and giving the player greater freedom of movement—including jumping, crouching, and free-look. Its attempts to tie-in to the story of the original trilogy are a little hamfisted, but the Kyle Katarn saga that begins here picked up a lot of fans over the course of its run. It remains playable today, particularly if you ve got fond memories of the era of being totally lost in sprawling FPS levels. It is relentlessly grey and monotonous, mind—they weren t joking when they called it Dark Forces.
1997—Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter
Arguably the best of the series, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter boasts texture mapping, a huge array of multiplayer options and, via the Balance of Power expansion, substantial singleplayer campaigns. The AI is superior to X-Wing Alliance, too, so it s worth returning to on that basis alone. A landmark Star Wars game.
1997—Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II
An epochal Star Wars shooter, Dark Forces II pioneered the combination of firstperson blasting and third-person, acrobatic lightsaber combat. While ultimately eclipsed by its successors, the techniques and powers introduced here are incredibly important to Star Wars games as a whole. Your fond memories of Dark Forces II may not include the incredibly cheesy FMV, however. Presumably they switched to in-engine cutscenes for Mysteries of the Sith because there wasn t any scenery left to chew. Better: the effort expended to realise a proper Light Side/Dark Side system based on player actions.
1997—Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire
The proud history of finding ways to shoehorn new characters into every imaginable Star Wars sequence enters a new chapter in Shadows of the Empire, which opens with mercenary Dash Rendar fighting in the Battle of Hoth before variously rescuing Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. It s a passable third-person action game that hasn t aged particularly well, but at the time it was a pretty big deal—Shadows of the Empire is the Star Wars movie that never got made, a multi-pronged attempt to build interest in the series in the mid- 90s. Between the novel, comics and game it answered questions left hanging from the original trilogy, like where did Luke get that green saber and why does Dash Rendar have less personality than a frozen Han Solo.
1997—Star Wars: Yoda Stories
Part of LucastArts Desktop Adventures series, this was a set of puzzle rooms where you helped a bobble-headed Luke Skywalker rescue his friends from a variety of predicaments. Features a rare cameo by Indiana Jones, one of only two times LucasArts have made a joke about his resemblance to Han Solo.
On page two we head into a worrisome time for Star Wars games: the turn of the century, and the arrival of the prequel trilogy.
1998—Star Wars: Supremacy
A 4X strategy game, Supremacy (called Rebellion in the US) enabled you to steer either the Republic or the Empire through an alternative history of the Galactic Civil War. It s a great idea on paper, but there are far better 4X games from the period—and far more interesting interpretations of the setting than click on the text boxes .
1998—Star Wars: Rogue Squadron
If the earliest Star Wars games split themselves between themepark ride and attempted simulation , Rogue Squadron represents the two starting to come together. Its flight model is slow, heavy and arcade-derived, but the impressive (for the time) level of detail and dead-on sound mean that it hews closer to the proper space combat sims than the vast majority of console-first Star Wars games did. The campaign, similarly, straddles a line between feeling like a legitimate expansion of the universe and a series of too-familiar set-pieces. Its opening, particularly, is a little odd: an all-out attack by the Empire on a few square miles of Tatooine for no particular reason. That said, the story s scope—spanning the Original Trilogy and beyond—is impressive, as is the large roster of ships.
1998—Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith
A substantial, old-school expansion for Jedi Knight, Mysteries of the Sith sees the end of FMV—and with it, the end of an embarrassing era. The campaign amounts to more and more complex Jedi Knight, with larger set-pieces and a lightsaber available from the beginning. The opening, which sees you repel an Imperial invasion, was pretty exciting at the time.
1998—Star Wars Millennium Falcon CD-ROM Playset
A last gasp for the very worst of the 90s, this came with a plastic Falcon cockpit that you stuck on top of your keyboard—ideally in front of the monitor—so that you could interact with a bunch of awful quicktime events overlaid on scenes from the original movies. It makes very little sense and functionally exists to sell plastic. Terrible. Also: for kids.
1999—Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance
The Phantom Menace was released only three months after X-Wing Alliance. Not only is this one of the best Star Wars games ever made, but it s one of the last games to be untainted by the prequel trilogy s infantilising influence on the series as a whole. Here s a sprawling new Star Wars story set during the events of the original trilogy, packed with detail in terms of the flight model and number of simulated ships, and in the small things that make it so replayable: cameo appearances by Slave I and the Millennium Falcon, the way missions spread from one sector to another via hyperspace jumps, the personal stories offset against the larger conflict. Its only weaknesses are those 3D cockpits, which have aged worse than the older 2D ones, and that awkward purple UI.
1999—Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
This is a movie tie-in console action game from the late 90s, which tells you everything you need to know about the creative rigour it displays. It s notable for two reasons: you can massacre a load of innocent Gungans, including children, and face no repercussions. Also, there s a homeless person on Coruscant whose likeness is based on David Duchovny.
1999—Star Wars Episode I: Racer
This game is basically the only reason you might be glad that The Phantom Menace exists. It s a fast, stunning (for the time) and creative sci-fi arcade racer based on one of the longest toy adverts to run in cinemas before Michael Bay got his hands on Transformers. Scant reward for the death of your childhood, mind you.
2000—Star Wars: Force Commander
Ambitious but rough around the edges, this was the first concerted effort to create a Star Wars RTS. The camera is the biggest issue—useless when zoomed in, and awkward even when pulled back. Still, it offers a rare opportunity to try out famed Imperial strategies like march in a straight line and lose the war .
2001—Star Wars: Starfighter
A Phantom Menace tie-in dogfighting game that broadly follows the patterns established by Rogue Squadron, Starfighter offers far less in terms of playable ships but provides a greater sense of speed and agility. Terrible voice acting, although it did give us the immortal line now let s see how you deal with my favourite training canyon. Good job, whoever wrote that.
2001—Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo
Another vehicle action game in the vein of Rogue Squadron and Starfighter, Battle for Naboo focuses on terrestrial combat, particularly in tanks. This is a less typical Star Wars fantasy than space combat, and as such it feels a little more detached from the source material—it really could be any other console-first shooter from this era, with a prequel trilogy coat of paint. The paint s chipping, too: this is a rough-looking game.
2001—Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds
Galactic Battlegrounds eclipsed Force Commander not with visuals, but with RTS credibility. It s by Ensemble, the studio behind Age of Empires, and it s great largely because those games were great. Their systems aren t a perfect fit for Star Wars—even in the drabbest corners of the expanded universe, gathering berries was rarely a priority. The campaign spans the four movies released up to that point and includes a few unusual factions in addition to the ones you d expect—wookiees and gungans being the strangest. Given its heritage, it s a viable competitive multiplayer strategy game as well as a singleplayer experience and picked up a small but dedicated following after release. If you re trying it today, check out the Expanding Frontiers overhaul mod.
Next we move towards 2003, an amazing year for Star Wars games.
2002—Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds Clone Campaigns
Clone Campaigns expands Galactic Battlegrounds with two new factions derived from Episode II—the Separatists and the Galactic Republic. As such, the new campaigns actually fold into the middle of the base game, an unusual step for an RTS expansion. The factions, soldiers and vehicles of the Clone Wars never achieved the same iconic status as those of the original trilogy—perhaps there was never any hope of that—and it s telling just how far their star has fallen. If you were old enough to play this at the time, you probably don t care too much about getting to play with Galactic Republic AT-TE walkers today. They re no AT-ATs, that s for sure.
2002—Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast
Star Wars gaming entered its golden age in late 2002, starting with this—the best Kyle Katarn adventure, a great shooter, and an epochal multiplayer melee combat game all in one. It has a dedicated fanbase to this day, and rightly so. The campaign is worthy of a replay, and even now you can find players to compete against online from time to time.
2003—Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
More than a decade on, this is still the greatest videogame realisation of the lightsaber. The weapon is simulated to a deep level of complexity, with a vast array of saber styles and accompanying force powers. This drove a vibrant multiplayer scene and powered a great campaign that has shades of BioWare in its branching story and Light Side-Dark Side system. No subsequent Star Wars action game has bettered it, and it s still very much playable today. Even after you ve exhausted every mission, the simple joy of combat sustains repeated playthroughs.
2003—Star Wars Galaxies
Beautiful, ambitious and broken, Star Wars Galaxies was a deep, player-driven MMO driven by the core talent from Ultima Online. It promised what Star Wars fans had always wanted—a chance to live in that galaxy far, far away, and to be given the freedom to determine what kind of life that was. It ll be keenly missed.
2003—Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
The emergence of BioWare into the modern era was also a huge advance for the quality of Star Wars storytelling. By taking the then-unprecedented step of detaching the story entirely from the era covered by the movies, BioWare gave itself the freedom to rebuild Star Wars from the ground up. And rebuilt it was, with far more character and integrity than had been achieved in a Star Wars game before. It remixes familiar elements in intelligent ways and presents traditional Star Wars themes with rare clarity and focus. Crap minigames, however.
2004—Star Wars: Battlefront
Sitting somewhere between the Battlefield series and the console-centric vehicle action games that followed Rogue Squadron, Battlefront is fondly remembered for simulating conflict on a scale that hadn t been achieved before in Star Wars gaming. It had some interesting new ideas, too, particularly in the inclusion of neutral NPCs on each map. Great in multiplayer.
2004—Star Wars Galaxies: Jump to Lightspeed
Space combat was notably absent from Star Wars Galaxies when it launched, but its eventual inclusion was revelatory: not only a substantial expansion to the underlying RPG, but a legitimate action game in its own right. For the first time, you could own and heavily customise your own starfighter, with each ship deeply tied into Galaxies underlying crafting system. Larger ships like freighters had fully explorable, multi-person interiors that could be decorated like any other building in the game, making them unique to the player who owned them. A reminder: this was 2004. Elite: Dangerous was a decade away, Star Citizen even further than that: and these features made it into an MMO that was fundamentally about life on the ground. A high-point for the game.
Next up, 2005-2011, in which we witness the entropic demise of Star Wars in videogames. There are still some gems to celebrate, mind.
2005—Star Wars: Republic Commando
A rare example of a Clone Wars tie-in game that isn t crap, Republic Commando offered a take on the period that was a little darker and a little more human thanks to the role played by your squadmates. It s like a more inventive Call of Duty: a similar sense of military bravado, tempered by your squad s status as expendable clones bred for a war they don t have any control over.
2005—Star Wars: Battlefront II
An expansion on the original s strengths with a single standout new feature: space combat between fleets of fighters with seamless transitions from cockpit to combat in the hallways of capital ships. It s also possible to unlock and play as hero characters such as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader for a limited time during each match, adding an interesting degree of asymmetry to competitive play. Otherwise, Battlefront II s improvements build upon the foundation laid by the previous game: the AI is better and the freeform Galactic Conquest campaign mode has been revamped with a greater range of strategic options. Battlefront II picked up a dedicated modding and mapping scene on PC, where players would create new multiplayer arenas to simulate various famous battles from the expanded universe. To date, Battlefront II remains Star Wars definitive combat sandbox.
2005—Lego Star Wars: The Video Game
The first of the Lego platformers, a series that would become a genre unto itself: a template that could be applied to almost any suitably beloved childhood movie or book series. At the time, it was a surprise hit: a silly, charming and unpretentious take on a series that was becoming a little self-serious, with a vast number of characters to collect and a generous selection of new levels. Similarly, it marked a highpoint in Star Wars games for children.
2005—Star Wars Galaxies: Episode III Rage of the Wookies
A World of Warcraft-style expansion that both ignored SWG s roots as a player-driven persistent world and introduced a sickly quantity of movie tie-in gunk that the game was previously free of. Collect Anakin Skywalker s starfighter! Win medals! The beginning of the end for Galaxies.
2005—Star Wars Galaxies: Trials of Obi-Wan
In which Sir Alec Guinness s glowing ghost sends you to Mustafar just in time for the DVD release of Revenge of the Sith. Also, HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic shows up in order to remind you that better Star Wars RPGs exist—indeed, Star Wars Galaxies used to be one of them. Standout dumb ideas include the lavasaber .
2005—Star Wars: KOTOR II - The Sith Lords
Rather unfinished on release (but subsequently patched up by the community), Knights of the Old Republic II is a fascinating, unorthodox take on Star Wars by Obsidian. Where the original reconstructs Star Wars, this deconstructs it: challenging the Light Side-Dark Side division and with it the core tenets of the Jedi-Sith conflict. In particular, the exiled Jedi Master Kreia offers a perspective on Star Wars—penned by veteran RPG scribe Chris Avellone—that functionally rips apart Lucas s simplistic fiction. The ability to act as a mentor to your Force-sensitive companions and explore a nuanced, morally grey interpretation of the universe is the main draw here, as its interaction with its predecessor s narrative is cursory at best. A rare example of Star Wars fiction that is smarter than it is dramatic.
2006—Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy
More charming simply for being based on better films, Lego Star Wars II is otherwise a very similar game to its predecessor. In that it s for kids, mostly, but remains enjoyable today for the chunky clattery way that stormtroopers fall apart when you bash them. Brick Vader is adorable too, but not to be confused with Brick Vader from the excellent Snatch Wars YouTube parody.
2006—Star Wars: Empire at War
If Galactic Battlegrounds represents the legacy of Age of Empires, then this represents its great 90s RTS rival—Command & Conquer. Empire At War s developer, Petroglyph, was formed out of Westwood veterans and would here produce a deep and beautifully-rendered take on Star Wars strategy. Rather than focusing on resource harvesting, Empire at War took the more setting-appropriate step of basing unit construction on the amount of galactic territory controlled by the player. Battles could take place both planetside and in orbit, with each campaign describing a different course through the period between Episode III and IV. It s far more grounded in the latter, though, featuring detailed renditions of the Empire s most iconic weapons of war. It spawned an active modding scene, too.
2006—Star Wars: Empire at War: Forces of Corruption
Rather than stick to the series traditional binary conflict, Forces of Corruption introduces the Zann Consortium as an organised crime syndicate capable of playing both sides against each other. A refreshing break from the traditional prequel trilogy tie-in formula.
2008—Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
This was Star Wars answer to the era of gritty console character action games like God of War—an attempt to win over older fans with a take on the setting that emphasised massive Force destruction and brutal lightsaber kills. A lot of emphasis was placed on the narrative, too—the story of Darth Vader s secret apprentice and his quest to scowl and kill people in every signifi cant location in the Star Wars universe. Its interaction with the movies is clumsy in the extreme, but it s not without drama and the more spectacular moments definitely stick in the mind—particularly bringing down a Star Destroyer using the Force. That said, this is also as over the top and videogamey as Star Wars combat gets—Jedi Academy had almost as much spectacle and far more nuance.
2008—Star Wars: The Clone Wars—Republic Heroes
An action-platformer tie-in to the Clone Wars kids TV series that mixes Jedi platforming with Clone Trooper third-person shooting. The Force Unleashed for kids, basically. Lego Star Wars has aged better and has more personality, but this may still appeal if you were 12 in 2009. Or are still 12, for that matter.
2010—Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
Wherein the II stands for two lightsabers . Vader s apprentice returns as a clone of Vader s apprentice in a galaxy-shaking tale of revenge and rebellion that no longer happened thanks to LucasArts excision of the expanded universe. A little too similar to the original game to have the same kind of impact—by this point, man uses Force on spaceship was an old trick.
2010—Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures
Shorter-lived than Star Wars Galaxies, Clone Wars Adventures was a free-to-play MMO based on the Clone Wars cartoon. It was a small-scale themepark MMO in the World of Warcraft mould, though far less successful in that regard than The Old Republic would subsequently be. Minigames were used to furnish players with other types of experience, like fl ight, racing, and even tower defence. Clone Wars Adventures was reasonably well-presented, for what it was, but SOE (now Daybreak) ultimately determined that free to play MMOs for kids didn t really work: parents wallets are only so deep, after all, and the cost of keeping the game updated ultimately outstretched its value to the developer. A shame for the game s fans, but likely a victory for their homework.
2011—Star Wars: The Old Republic
The Old Republic, at launch, was a great MMO of the WoW sort and a remarkably complete singleplayer RPG experience, with eight entirely different game-length campaigns. The scope and expense of its production was remarkable, which goes some way to explaining why it suffered once dwindling subscriber numbers necessitated the switch to free-to-play. It s gone a bit themepark-crazy since—particularly the recent Shadow of Revan expansion, which ties into KOTOR I—but it s (mostly) free and much of the writing is genuinely excellent.
2011—Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars
Another TV tie-in, therefore the Lego Star Wars game that you re likely to have the least connection to. Introduced vehicle levels with an on-foot component, but otherwise highly similar to its predecessors. Almost a decade after the release of Attack of the Clones, the movie finally fades from the landscape of PC Star Wars gaming. It is the dawn of a new era.
And that's it! Until 2015, when the new film and DICE's Star Wars Battlefront will surely bring Star Wars back in a big way. Expect to see many more additions to the Star Wars PC game canon in the coming years. For now, here's everything you need to know about Battlefront and our round-up of our favourite Star Wars games ever.