As is the case with many intellectual properties that branch into multiple mediums, it takes far more effort than a simple dump of assets from one to another. In regards to the archetypal film to game transition, injecting rudimentary gameplay hooks into sections of a film that seem to lend themselves to audience participation or interaction rarely results in anything compelling. Rather, it generally serves to inhibit any potential the gameplay experience may have had, and nullify the merits of the source material.
Star Wars as a series is, of course, not immune to the allure of license proliferation. The games have ranged in quality; from the middling, cheap cash-ins to the big-budget extravaganzas. The unfortunate reality is that, for the time being, the bad far outweighs the good. However, in that rare situation where a Star Wars game is actually good, it is more often than not, absurdly good – a rule cannily proven by the second game in the Rogue Squadron series, Rogue Leader for the Nintendo GameCube. Released in 2001 as a launch title for the console, Rogue Leader made an attempt, like so many before it, to recreate the films. The critical success that followed upon its release came not from achieving that goal per se, but rather from perfectly emulating the feeling of actively participating in the Star Wars universe, a goal far more noble and worthy of admiration.
For the uninitiated, the Rogue Squadron series, developed by the now defunct Factor 5, is an arcade shooter from the point of view of the starfighters of the Rebel Alliance. It follows the adventures of the titular crew from mission to mission, engaging in rescue operations, dogfights, and all out assault against the might of the Empire. Rogue Squadron is given scant representation in the films, but their scenes certainly form some of the more iconic moments within the original trilogy. Each of the three games in the series focus on original missions and stories, as well as recreations of pivotal moments within the films.
Rogue Leader followed on from 1998’s Rogue Squadron for the Nintendo 64 and PC. Most Star Wars games up until that point tended to focus on the mythology of the Jedi and their powers, particularly those released on home consoles. Conversely, the PC had seen the release of titles such as Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Wars: TIE Fighter, which had players control the titular ships in the guise of a space flight simulator. Though these games served as direct descendants of Rogue Squadron, they placed the focus more on a ‘realistic’ interpretation of the ships’ controls and abilities.
The original Rogue Squadron stripped the more technical aspects of the X-Wing/TIE Fighter games and pushed forward with an action arcade focus. Rogue Squadron was more about the thrill of the dogfight than trying to accurately simulate the role of the pilot. Furthermore, as is the case with technical advancement, the game featured highly detailed ship models, voice acting, and extensive audio work, all of which served to bring the films’ aesthetic to an interactive medium. Most importantly though, the game was incredibly fun: the controls were tight and responsive, the level design was wonderfully crafted, and the entire experience was steeped in intricately detailed Star Wars motifs, such as the liberal use of John Williams’ score and direct use of high quality sound effects.
While the transition from the 16-bit era to 32/64-bit was substantial, Rogue Leader’s presence as a launch title for the Nintendo GameCube proved that gamers hadn’t seen anything yet. Rogue Leader’s first mission is a recreation of the Death Star trench run as seen in the first Star Wars film. This mission had been represented as a bonus level in Rogue Squadron, but in a way that was limited by the console’s hardware – there was no prelude to the trench run itself as depicted in the film, and the trench itself had numerous right angle turns in it to enable the Nintendo 64 to render the stage in chunks rather than a single length. Rogue Leader seemed to recognise the failings of this earlier attempt, as the opening cinematic (rendered entirely in real-time by the GameCube) featured a direct copy of the Rebel fleet’s descent onto the Death Star’s surface, complete with an almost word-for-word re-enactment of the film’s script graced with John Williams’ recorded soundtrack. The utterly incredible (at least, for the time) detail on the ships as they flew by was mind-blowing, but the game certainly didn’t want the player to dwell on it for an extended period of time: in just over a minute, the action is handed directly to the player as they pilot Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing on the surface of the Death Star.
It’s difficult to express my captivation after seeing this for the first time. I certainly remember being overwhelmed by the sight of it all: green laser fire streaked constantly over the screen, the sounds of my X-Wing pushing through the cacophony. Every explosion shuddered through my speakers as huge fireballs erupted from the wreckage of whatever I had just destroyed. This wasn’t a mere computer-generated remake of something from a film I loved: it was a chance for me to live out the experience as the pilots of this fictional world did.
The level is split into three distinct segments: an initial run on the surface of the Death Star to take out turrets and a series of deflection towers, serving to gently introduce the player to the game with very little danger. The second stage introduces the TIE Fighters as enemies, the whine of their engines beautifully encapsulated in a moment of pure dogfighting. It then moves into the final and most iconic of sequences: the trench run itself. Unlike the rather spacious and poorly rendered version that graced the Nintendo 64 version, this one is exactly as the film depicts it: straight, long and incredibly narrow. Switching into the cockpit view and bringing up the targeting computer produces an immense satisfaction: the player is truly Luke Skywalker at this point. Pivotal lines of dialogue play themselves out over the length of the run, before the player is given the direct responsibility of accurately firing a torpedo into the exhaust port at the end of the run. At no point during the sequence is control wrested from the player: they are entirely in control of the sequence and its outcome. Granted, the end result is always binary – you either pass the mission or you don’t – but the experience leading to that ending is always down to the skills of the player.
Subsequent Star Wars games don’t seem particularly concerned with a focus that captures the essence of the franchise. They will undoubtedly lean on the same raw assets that Rogue Squadron did (the music, the sound effects, etc), but are obsessively concerned with portraying some kind of niche within the universe’s canon. As a result, none of them evoke the same sense of emotion and connection to the world that Rogue Squadron does. They inevitably drag the player out of the world as a result of some kind of spurious reference to the original films (in the form of a ham-fisted character cameo or an attempt to ape a significant arc).
Unfortunately, things do not end well for the Rogue Squadron series. Rogue Leader was followed up by Rebel Strike for the GameCube, a game in which Factor 5 attempted to outdo the ambitiousness of its predecessor with a ill-advised foray into on-foot segments during missions. While even more graphically impressive than Rogue Leader (Factor 5 reportedly rebuilt the engine the game ran on rather than simply reuse the existing one), the on-foot segments were protracted and incredibly weak, and the story attempted to weave in pointed references to the prequel trilogy, to its overall detriment. The only saving grace of this release was that it included an almost full re-release of Rogue Leader that incorporated co-operative gameplay for the first time (two levels were removed from this new release). Factor 5 then went on to develop the critically panned Lair for the PlayStation 3, after their attempts to shop around the Rogue Squadron series on competing consoles failed. The company eventually applied for bankruptcy, and the ownership of the Rogue Squadron license and code reverted to LucasArts and then, subsequently, Disney after their buyout of LucasFilm. Disappointingly, a remastered version of the three games was completed for the Wii by Factor 5 but never released, leaving the series to languish as a forgotten relic in Disney’s cavernous vaults.
Rogue Squadron built a series out of emulating an essence, not remaking it. It did not try to stamp its place within the Star Wars canon, and is all the more better for it. As an experience, Rogue Leader was phenomenal and enthralling: a game that defined an entire generation, but somehow didn’t spawn any imitators or successors. Perhaps in this age of remakes and re-releases (and the more frugal nature of Disney’s licensing) we’ll see Rogue Squadron rise again and invite us back into the world that we’ve always longed to be a part of. Until then, we can simply spin the disc back up in our dusty GameCubes and relive the thrill of watching our torpedo soar perfectly towards the end of that trench.