Last Updated on May 23, 2023
I woke up to an interesting reminder this morning: that the Star Wars arcade game – a machine where I spent (and lost – read on) a lot of money over the years, was now 40.
But of course it is. It hit arcades in 1983, not long before Return of the Jedi hit cinemas.
While I can’t be certain, Star Wars was the first arcade game I remember playing. There may have been others, but they wouldn’t have had the same impact, would they? After all, no other game had the voice of Sir Alec Guinness, or green TIE fighters or a crosshair that could be mistaken for an enemy craft on first play (come on, I wasn’t the only one!)
None of those other games had the Star Wars theme tune, or a cabinet you could sit inside, like being in an X-Wing fighter making a trench run and hoping to deposit a pair of torpedos into the Death Star’s reactor. With three phases of play (approaching the Death Star, the surface, and the trench), the game grew in difficulty as you progressed. For example, the easiest level took you straight from the approach to the trench.
The biggest game changer since Space Invaders
It might be hard to appreciate 40 years on, but before this, there were no (significant) movie-arcade game tie-ins. There was simply nothing like the Star Wars arcade game, a machine that generated queues like no other.
The first time I remember playing it was at the George Carls’s (a name that already looked sci-fi to a 8 year old eyes thanks to an abbreviated similarity with Star Wars character “Calrissian”) arcades on Redcar seafront. Somehow I had persuded my dad – rushing around as usual between two or three jobs at the time – to stop off there and try the Star Wars arcade machine I’d seen through the doors.
Surprisingly he agreed, probably keen to see the game himself (or just have a cigarette). He gave me 50p for a game (quite a lot back then, even for a new machine), and I set forth on my mission from Yavin 4. Baffled at first by the X-Wing-like shape of the crosshairs, I eventually got the hang of it and made it to the trench on my first go.
Then I died, my dad appeared and we left.
Ten minutes later, he asked me where the 50p was. “It’s in the Star Wars game.” This meant nothing to me at the time; my dad knew, however, that some character was enjoying a couple of free goes. But, as we journeyed home in our red Hillman Hunter (a car that would expire a few months later), I knew that I’d just played the greatest game in the world.
The Star Wars arcade game at home
There was no way that the experience this machine provided could stay in the arcades. And so, it slowly began to escape, hitting all of the big gaming platforms of the time.
Let’s be honest: this was the game that kickstarted the craze for Star Wars titles on all platforms. By 2023, over 100 Star Wars video games have been released; in 2020, the franchise had sold 90 million copies of all its games. Titles have been released on almost every piece of hardware since the Apple II through to the Sony PlayStation 5 (with a few exceptions) with the first game released a year earlier on the Atari 2600. The Empire Strikes Back was a good game (enough to be remade for the Commodore 64 40 years later) but it lacked the depth of the arcade game.
The bright colours of the rails shooter, the voice sampling, and theme tune and special effects eventually found their way to various home computers and consoles. These included: Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit, ColecoVision, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, Acorn Electron, BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum, and even DOS and Macintosh.
(It was also included as an unlockable bonus on Rogue Squadron III on the Nintendo GameCube.) In some cases, the conversion of the Star Wars arcade game occurred more than once. For example the C64 had a version by Parker Bros. in 1984, then by Vector Gfx/Domark in 1988.
Commodore 64 Parker Bros Star Wars arcade game:
Star Wars arcade game on Commodore 64, Domark version:
I’m not familiar with the earlier release, but the Domark version wasn’t as good as one might hope. I played it through, but that was more out of desperation for more Star Wars than anything else.
(Star Wars: Droids and Caravan of Courage did nothing for me. I wouldn’t genuinely enjoy Star Wars again until the 1992 novel Heir to the Empire.)
Of course, with these older games, the audio was less accomplished. Playability was reduced as it wasn’t possible to play with the same X-Wing-style controller.
Happy birthday, Star Wars arcade game
If pressed, I’d probably say that my favourite Star Wars game is Jedi: Fallen Order, although I have a soft spot for the LEGO games, the second set of Battlefront titles, and KOTOR. But the arcade game kicked it all off with a cabinet, colourful graphics, and audio experience that was unparalleled at the time. It was an experience that was later replicated by other movie franchises, but it took time; for years, this was the ultimate arcade gaming experience (at least until After Burner in 1987).
While other games came close, Star Wars was the one everyone wanted to play. Which probably explains why the Star Wars Arcade1UP version is so popular.
Gaming since 1984, retro gaming since 2004. Contributes to Linux Format magazine and MakeUseOf.com.