Saturday, September 3, 2022

Game 335: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Star Wars' early video games just can't seem to get a sensible release order. First, in 1982, Parker Brothers released Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600, skipping the first movie entirely. Then in 1983, as Return of the Jedi hit theaters, they released a tie-in game for the 2600, 5200, and Atari computers, along with the unrelated Jedi Arena, while Atari themselves had their hit arcade game based on the original 1977 film. In 1984, Atari rushed out an original Return of the Jedi arcade game while the movie hype was still strong, and Parker Brothers ported Star Wars to consoles and computers, completing the 2600 trilogy in an incorrect order. And finally, in 1985, Atari released Empire Strikes Back in arcades, completing their trilogy in a different but also incorrect order.

Atari's 1984 game is my end point for this brief retrospective, producing yet another wrong chronology (Empire->Star Wars->Jedi). Star Wars interest revitalizes in the 90's, and with it are many successful licensed video games, starting with JVC's Star Wars and Super Star Wars, the latter finally kicking off a congruous game trilogy after the former fails. In the interim years, the UK gets an 8-bit computer puzzle game based on the short-lived Droids TV series, while Japan gets an inexplicably weird platformer by Namco and a flashy computer remake of the original arcade game with cinematic-like camera angles and sound.

For now, this is the last Star Wars game on my agenda, and it's a dark horse, having been developed by Atari's "B" team while the core Star Wars team continued work on a proper vector-based sequel. Using a flight yoke for control but otherwise a 2D axonometric driving game/shooter, it was a foregone conclusion that Return of the Jedi would be a disappointing step down from its predecessor.

The below video is played at medium difficulty, which is required to see all three stages, but also played with the maximum number of lives allowed. Other than that, there are no cheats.

Return of the Jedi is pretty much Spy Hunter combined with Zaxxon, and like those games, it's frustratingly difficult. It was a struggle to complete a single loop of even "easy" mode where the second stage is skipped. So much of its challenge, though, comes from the difficulty of dodging obstacles at high speeds, especially trees which are already hard to see against their similarly shaded backdrops, and infuriatingly, have unclear collision boxes that make it a guessing game to determine precisely how close you can skim by one without crashing. On top of all that, the analog flight yoke controls just don't provide enough finesse, and the viewing angle is confusing. Maybe it's easier with genuine Star Wars controls, but I managed Star Wars just fine with a flight stick.

Stage 1 has you race through Endor with stormtroopers in pursuit and is probably the hardest stage. The standard tactic is to speed up, putting some distance between you and them, and then when they draw in closer, quickly decelerate and ram them from the side or shoot them from behind. Speeding up is always dangerous, though, as it means less of a chance to react to incoming obstacles. Not speeding up will inevitably end badly as a stormtrooper shoots you from behind at too closely a range to dodge. Ewok traps can also take out troopers behind you, as long as you pass through them first. Flying ewoks are the worst, dropping rocks indiscriminately. They killed me about as often as they killed stormtroopers.

Make it to the end and C-3PO nonsensically declares "Wonderful! We are now a part of the tribe," referencing the movie in a manner that makes no sense in the context of the game.

Next, you play Chewbacca piloting an AT-ST to rescue Han and contend with malevolent logs that magically roll toward your legs while also avoiding lumber piles and rock traps. You can swivel your head to hit targets to your side but this seems completely pointless. In one of the game's cleverer touches, this stage, like the film's climactic chapter, alternates back and forth with Lando making his approach toward Death Star 2.0, where you are accompanied by two X-Wings and blast TIE Fighters and turbolaser towers while Lando chatters nonstop. Writing tip - announcing I have a bad feeling about this while laser explosions are already going on all over the place feels lazy and forced.

Finally, with the shield generator down, you enter the Death Star's framework and race toward the core, with TIE Interceptors in pursuit. It's basically just a repeat of the Endor bike stage with the same tactics and difficulties except for the difficulty of spotting trees - the barriers here stand out just fine, though their collision boundaries are still a bit wonky. There are even traps in the form of loose scaffolds that collapse after you pass under them, destroying any fighters behind you. No flying ewoks here either.

Shoot the core reactor and you have to fly the stage in reverse as the station explodes. The controls confusingly invert vertically but not horizontally, but overall this is not hard.


GAB rating: Bad. Return of the Jedi plays bad, looks bad, and sounds bad. This is by far the worst of Atari's Star Wars games. I get why, given Atari's financial problems, the lukewarm state of the U.S. arcade industry, and urgent need to ride the movie's hype wave, it had to be rushed, but I can't help but wish it had been delayed a year or two and given proper attention. Imagine what might have been possible with a 3D polygonal engine on the hardware of the unfinished Air Race prototype!


  1. 3D Deathchase for the ZX Spectrum is still the best Return of the Jedi-based game out there, and really should've served as the inspiration for the arcade game.

    1. Sprite-scaling hardware would have been an interesting choice too, and better for an Endor-style chase than wireframe or 80's polygons, but not as good for a space battle, I think. But I don't think any US developers were using that technology.

    2. They should've really just made the entire game about the Endor bike chase, that's the big iconic scene from the movie. All the earlier Star Wars games focused on their movie's most iconic scene (Death Star trench run, Battle of Hoth), making this one feature multiple scenes shouldn't be necessary.

  2. I always thought this game was pretty keen. The digitized sound effects, the playful Ewoks causing chaos for both you and the Empire, the good merger of theme and gameplay. I can see your speeder jerking around unstably in the video. This is one of those games you really have to play on real hardware otherwise you miss out on the smooth movement from the yoke. And come on, Chewbacca *and* Lando Calrissian as playable characters? This game was always worth a quarter when passing by it in the arcade.


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