In this age of photo-realistic 3D graphics in video gaming, I sure miss the days when 2D gaming and highly detailed pixel art were the standard. I’m referring to the so-called 16-bit era of the Super NES/SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) back in the 1990s.
In 1991, Super Star Wars was released on the Super NES and it became a big hit with the gamers, the critics and fans. That game was heralded as one of the best video game adaptations of movies.
Naturally, a follow-up to that game was released in 1993 – Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
That being said, here is my retro gaming review of Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
Developed by Sculptured Software and LucasArts and published in America by JVC, this game is based on The Empire Strikes Back which today has been considered to be the greatest Star Wars movie ever. Of course, in order to make a cohesive video game adaptation out of the classic movie, a lot of liberties were taken when it comes to following the story. This was inevitable as the game developers needed a lot of creative freedom to make a cohesive video game.
Early story (and some notable differences from the movie)
Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back begins with Luke Skywalker riding a Tauntaun. Unlike the movie, Luke (controlled by players) visits some places of the wasteland of Hoth, notably caverns and hills fighting several forms of wild life (including wampa beasts), and even some probe droids.
Unlike the movie, Luke does not get rescued by Han Solo in the wilderness. Instead he defeats a giant-sized probe droid and a giant-sized wampa beast (as in-game bosses) and make his way back to Echo Base to rejoin the rebels. Upon returning at the base, he finds it filled with Imperial troopers and their machines (where are Luke’s fellow rebels?) and fights his way through to fly a rebel speeder (note: without the movie co-pilot Dak) and proceed in the Battle of Hoth.
Back at Echo Base, Han Solo (player-controlled) has to make his way through a wave of Imperial enemies and machines to meet Princess Leia, secure her and ride away on the Millenium Falcon. The Falcon (player-controlled) enters the asteroid field being attacked gradually by over twenty TIE Fighters. Once all of them have been eliminated, the Falcon jumps into light speed (which contradicts the movie).
Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is composed mostly of 2D, side-scrolling action sequences in which players control their characters moving from left to right in order to make the game progress. The sequences are filled with lots of action-packed moments mainly due to the MANY enemies challenging the players plus sequences of shooting, jumping and using special weapons (note: the thermal detonator was awesome to use). When it comes to filling up the health meter of your character, defeating enemies result random releases of hearts (symbolizing health) which you need to pick up. Key side-scrolling segments of the game will have players facing off with in-game bosses or enemies that are large, intimidating and have their own health meters for players to reduce to zero.
As typical with most 2D side-scrolling games of the era, this game is really tough and will take gamers some patience and perseverance to complete.
What really stood out in this game are the makeshift 3D segments (made possible by Mode 7) which were pretty extensive and really interactive. The Battle of Hoth in Mode 7 was pretty engaging as players get to fly a rebel speeder over a snowy field complete with lots of Imperial enemies (including the AT-ST walkers and the AT-AT walkers) and each of them is composed of multiple 2D sprites making them look 3D as the speeder moves around. Apart from simply shooting, the interactive sequence of tagging an AT-AT walker with a cable, flying around it and wrapping it with the cable, and then watching it fall to the ground really is an awesome gaming experience which really showed how hard the game developers pushed 2D visuals and pixel art.
Apart from the Battle of Hoth, there was also another Mode 7 sequence involving the X-Wing Fighter approaching Cloud City. That particular sequence was noticeably shorter and did not have a standout action sequence as it was limited to the X-Wing Fighter simply shooting Bespin fighters. Another non-2D segment was the Millenium Falcon’s flight through the asteroid field which was done with the cockpit view (first-person view exactly) in which you move a cursor for targeting and moving the ship to. This segment was pretty tough because players were not only required to eliminate more than 20 TIE Fighters but also avoid incoming asteroids and maintaining the Falcon’s energy shields (which serves as a health meter)
Going back to the 2D side-scrolling segments, the use of the lightsaber by Luke remains a lot of fun to do. Not only could he slash bad guys, he could use the lightsaber defensively protecting himself from incoming energy blasts (which get deflected by the lightsaber). On the offense, Luke can jump into the air and spin with the lightsaber turned on making him an aerial slasher over the bad guys.
In keeping with the theme of the movie showing Luke Skywalker learning to be a Jedi, the Dagobah segment in the game has Luke gaining varied Force powers and he also has a separate Force energy meter. The Force powers can be used in subsequent segments of the game and they are quite useful when Luke encounters Darth Vader as the final boss in Cloud City.
The fights with Darth Vader were nicely designed. With creative freedom, the game developers expanded on Darth Vader’s use of the Force to move several pieces of debris and machines towards Luke who has to defend himself from all sides. Fighting Darth Vader with the lightsaber was tricky and for the most part, I had Luke slashing on villain with just enough space between them and many times I had Luke use the lightsaber on him while jumping and spinning in the air. Defeating Vader was a requirement to complete the game.
Finally, like in Super Star Wars, players can also play as Han Solo (special attack: grenade throw) and Chewbacca (special attack: offensive spin) but only in specific segments of the game supposedly to keep in line with its story.
Even by today’s standards, Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is still a high-quality video game that is a lot of fun to play with even though it is tough (a password system is used for in-game progress so that gamers can come back to continue) all throughout. Gameplay aside, the presentation of visuals and audio is also very solid. The sprites for the in-game characters, enemies, machines and animal were detailed to look at while the background art were immersive (like in the movies, Cloud City, Hoth and Dagobah had their distinctive visuals). The Super NES audio chip was greatly used on recreating 16-bit sound from the movies, especially John Williams’ movie scores and lightsaber sound effects.
Take note that this game was released in 1993 which is significant in the sense that people had moved on since the release of the movie Return of the Jedi (1983) and the Star Wars prequel trilogy did not begin until 1999 with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This game was released at a time when 2D gaming was still in strong demand and most gamers did not expect that 3D polygonal graphics would reshape video gaming eventually. In retrospect, the polygon-focused gaming consoles Sega Saturn and the original Sony PlayStation launched in late 1994 or more than a year after Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
I myself had lots of fond memories playing this game back in the mid-1990s. I simply endured the many challenges of it and ultimately had a lot of enjoyment completing it. I even replayed the game from the start even though I knew how the game presented the ending and key story elements of the movie. I also got to replay The Empire Strikes Back on home video around the time I played this game.
Believe it or not, Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was the first of the Super Star Wars trilogy on the Super NES that I actually played. After completing it, I borrowed the Super Star Wars cartridge from a friend and later bought a copy of Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. I completed those two other games and I can clearly say that Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back remains the best in game design, the best in terms of fun factor and the most memorable of them all.
If you love Star Wars and you want the best 16-bit era video game (note: you’ll need a working Super NES console or Nintendo’s Virtual Console for any Super Star Wars game) experience of it, Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is highly recommended.
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