Friday, 20 May 2022

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Spawned Some Great (And Some Truly Terrible) Video Games

Depending on who you ask, The Phantom Menace is either a misunderstood masterpiece or a steaming mound of bantha turds. Released in 1999, this was the first Star Wars movie in 16 years, and it was accompanied by one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns the planet has ever seen. Everything from toothpaste to Pepsi vending machines had the faces of Darth Maul, Anakin Skywalker, and Jar Jar Binks slapped on them.

It was everywhere. Magazine covers, adverts on the sides of buses, TV spots, radio commercials—if there was a blank space or a merciful moment of silence anywhere in the world, it was promptly filled with a promo for The Phantom Menace. Naturally, this relentless sensory bombardment also included games. There's a long history of great Star Wars games stretching back to the '80s, but this was not the series' finest hour.

The PlayStation, N64, and PC were the major platforms of the day, and the Phantom Menace marketing blitz hit them hard—both around the time of the movie's release, and for several years after. Despite being responsible for classics like X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, Dark Forces, and Rogue Squadron, LucasArts mostly failed to turn The Phantom Menace into a worthwhile video game, with only a handful standing out from a bad crowd.

The first game, launching just a few days after the film's release, was a straight-up adaptation—the kind most big ticket Hollywood films would spawn in the late '90s and early 2000s. Slipping on the Jedi robes of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn, it saw you playing through the story of the movie, albeit with a few artistic liberties taken. An action scene that lasted a few minutes in the film would be stretched out into an entire level here.

It felt sufficiently Star Warsy, and slicing up Battle Droids with a lightsaber was enjoyable enough. But the clunky controls, weird top-down perspective, and general lack of polish mean it has since faded into obscurity. From the publisher behind stone-cold classics like X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, Rogue Squadron, and Dark Forces, it was a big disappointment—and felt every bit like the cheap movie tie-in it was always destined to be.

However, a much better Phantom Menace game was released on the same day. Star Wars Episode I: Racer took the best scene from the film, the podrace on Tatooine, and turned it into a blisteringly fast sci-fi racing game. Developed in-house at LucasArts, it perfectly recreated the breakneck, knife-edge tension of podracing, where one mistake can shatter your rickety little space chariot into a million flaming pieces.

It was incredibly easy, presumably because LucasArts wanted children to be able to play it without bursting into tears—which was the only mark against it. Get a good head start and you wouldn't see your opponents again unless you took a corner really badly. But the racing itself, especially in first-person, felt fantastic. Considering the developer only had a few short pre-release clips of the movie to base an entire game on, it did a fantastic job.

LucasArts released a few educational games, including a strategy game/ecology simulator called The Gungan Frontier. Gungan leader Boss Nass wants to colonise Naboo's moon, and needs you to seed it with life. Doing so involved releasing plants and creatures into the wild to create a food chain, and ultimately a balanced ecosystem. It's a neat idea, and a rare example of a Star Wars game not focused on action.

Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo, meanwhile, was business as usual. Set during the events of The Phantom Menace, you played as ace pilot Gavyn Sykes, who sounds more like a rugby player than a Star Wars character. You would shoot down Trade Federation fighters, dodge air mines, and pilot a bunch of vehicles, including the very yellow Naboo N-1 starfighter. It was a decent, if basic, semi-sequel to Rogue Squadron.

Jedi Power Battles was an awkward fusion of a beat-'em-up and a platformer, with some infuriatingly clumsy jumping sections and repetitive, button-mashing lightsaber combat. Levels included the streets of Theed and Coruscant, Tatooine (obviously, it's a Star Wars product), and the swamps of Naboo. It was terrible, alas, despite the ability to unlock and play as Darth Maul, and I'd be amazed if many people even remember it existed.

Star Wars: Starfighter was a space combat game based around the events of The Phantom Menace, but despite some impressively big scale set-pieces, it was exceedingly average. Star Wars: Obi-Wan, which launched exclusively for the Xbox, was slightly better, letting you twirl the analogue stick to spin your lightsaber about—but it was yet another deeply okay prequel spin-off, and its platform exclusivity only limited its audience.

In 1999, The Phantom Menace was the hottest thing in Hollywood. But like the movie itself, the many video games developed to accompany its release were disappointing. But with that source material to work with, I don't blame the developers. The golden era of LucasArts Star Wars games remains the early-to-mid '90s, when it was pumping out hit after hit—heights it still hasn't reached again to this day, despite EA's best efforts.

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