Continuing my journey through as many Star Wars Video games as I can get my hands on, we move onto the second game made and distributed by the Parker Brothers for Atari: The rather lengthily titled Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle. In the first part of this series, I repeatedly spoke about how difficult it was for me to judge a game on a platform as old as the Atari 2600, while nothing has changed since then, the more games I can play, the better I can compare and contrast them on these older platforms.
After getting my hands on this one, I think I appreciate Empire Strikes Back a little more, which isn’t to say this game lacks creative ideas…
Initially released in 1983, Death Star Battle was the first of the Star Wars games to find its way onto multiple platforms. After an initial release on the 2600, it found its self getting updated versions for the Atari 5200 and the 8-bit platform known as the Atari XE. Having seen all three versions in action, there wasn’t a huge amount of difference between them, but I’ll get into that a bit later.
It also found itself on the U.K. exclusive platform: The ZX Spectrum.
I spoke about the Empire Strikes Back video game being notable in that it was the earliest video game to be based on the Star Wars property, but it wasn’t alone for very long. Following this there was a huge cluster to follow. And while there were no shortage of impressions on that first game, scouring the internet, I struggled to find any reviews of the time speaking about Death Star Battle.
The one fun fact I did manage to find was that the game’s cover art was made by John Berkey, the man who illustrated of the earliest art and posters for the original Star Wars movie in 1977. It’s something I really do appreciate about these old Atari games; their box art is oftentimes really creative, being more akin to movie posters of the time.
The game itself is much different from the Empire Strikes Back game I played last time. As you might guess from a called Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle, the Parker Brothers chose to recreate the Millennium Falcon’s assault on the Death Star during the conclusion of the movie.
Interestingly enough, the manual for the Atari 2600 version of the game doesn’t regard any character by name, instead it only refers to the player as the Falcon itself. No mention of either Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, who was the person piloting the falcon during this part of the movie.
The Falcon is viewed from a top down perspective and movement is limited to a two dimensional plain. So up, down, left and right are your only directions for movement. The game works in cycles of two stages. You begin the game with the Death Star in the distance, covered by a powerful shield.
In order to make your approach, the Falcon must destroy a number of TIE Interceptors that fly around at various angles, they occasionally shoot at you with projectiles that are pretty difficult to see on screen. These rarely do pose much of a threat though as they seemingly fire at random. The major threat comes from the Death Star itself. Eventually, a green light starts blinking on the Death Star and it will begin firing at you with its “Death Beam”, which obviously destroys you in a single blast.
Once you do make your open the shield and make your approach to the battlestation, you find yourself in the second and more difficult stage of the game. The station itself is a pretty basic representation of the Death Star. The major difference between the versions of the game that I could see comes with the design of the Death Star itself.
During the second stage, there is a lot more for the player to keep track of. Aside from the continued assault from TIE Interceptors and the increased firing arc of the stations death beam, you have to avoid the occasional imperial shuttle that flied across screen. One thing that did amuse me is that the manual describes these shuttles as a priority target, because each one contains a “Dark Lord”. Snatching you a cool 3000 points for every dark lord of the Sith you blow up.
In a design reminiscent of Breakout, you’re tasked with shooting the Death Star itself, each shot chipping away at a pixel of its mass. You do this until you have a clear shot at its blinking red core, then you’re clear blow the thing and go home. Or to just repeat the process infinitely.
So that’s the plan in theory. Playing the game itself is a little trickier, as with most games of this era. Controls are slow and more methodical than you’d expect. If you want to flip the falcon from one direction to the other, it needs to go through a full rotation animation at 90 degree increments. It means there is always a slight delay to your control which can either be annoying or “just part of the challenge” depending on your mindset.
On top of that the Falcon, like most ships in these old Atari games, carries momentum, meaning you continue to move for a few pixel spaces after you let got of the control stick.
One of the more frustrating aspects for me was that only one bullet can exist on the screen at any time. It means you need to discipline yourself and time your shots. A game like Space Invaders forces you to wait until you last shot has hit something before you can fire again, in Death Star Battle, you can spam to your heart’s content, but it means each shot will only make it an inch away from you before vanishing into thin air. It was something I struggled with as I would unconsciously spam the fire button in tight spots.
I could argue that these things combined make for a more challenging experience, forcing you to be more deliberate with your movement, and actually take the time to plan out and line up your shots before you take them. Maybe that was intentional, then again, it is just as likely that the developer’s hands were forced by the limited technology they had to work with at the time. Again, It’s more obvious that you can’t shoot rapidly in Space Invaders and consistently, it gets its message across much clearer.
Either Way, it’s a game that takes some getting used to. Strangely enough, the ZX Spectrum version of the game is a lot more responsive than the Atari version, allowing for a much more controlled experience with the Falcon.
There are none. Unlike Empire Strikes Back that included a number of variations on the basic game play, there are no additional modes to Death Star Battle aside from a difficulty toggle. While I appreciated the stronger sense of accomplishment that came with finishing a cycle, destroying a Death Star and returning to the beginning of the cycle, the variation and better control of Empire Strikes Back made it a better experience for me personally.
Effect on Franchise
Like the Empire Strikes Back game I spoke about previously, there isn’t really a lasting effect or change to the canon that comes as a result of this game. It’s primarily a recreation of the events of the movie on which it was based. Additionally, It probably isn’t considered a canon game if you take into account how many Emperors you can kill on those imperial shuttles as you blow up your third or forth Death Star.
A recreation of the events of Lando’s assault in Return of the Jedi is an admirable idea, but the game doesn’t really manage to realise this outside of the most basic fashion. It has more in common with the destruction of the first Death Star than the scene from Return of the Jedi. If anything, this probably could have been easily redesigned and re branded with iconography from A New Hope. But Jedi was a more timely movie to base their game on and the Falcon is probably easier to represent in game.
I personally feel that Death Star Battle is a weaker game than Empire Strikes Back. Most of my issues with Empire came from it being an old Atari game that I couldn’t think about outside of it being a curiosity of early video games. Now I have a second game to compare it to, I feel like Empire was a stronger showing compared to Death Star Battle.
It controlled a lot better and the basic loop of gameplay felt more rewarding. On top of this, the game actually had a number of modes to vary the game play experience. It was just a better game overall, despite this one getting more releases over different platforms.
My journey through Star Wars on Atari continues next time with a game a little less explodey.