Happy Star Wars day! Want a trove of games—released a long time ago, but in a galaxy just down the way—to help you while away the nearly 5,500 hours that stand between today and the ballyhooed debut of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on December 18?
Here you go then, a compendium of gaming’s brightest vamps on George Lucas’s Campbellian space opera, now living in what Disney calls its “Star Wars Legends” line (formerly the “Expanded Universe”). That, if you hadn’t heard, is Disney’s controversial wave-of-the-hand relegation of everything not the films, TV shows or recent books to “maybe it did/didn’t happen” status. So much for Luke Skywalker rubbing elbows with Kyle Katarn, or you usurping a 4,000-year-old Sith Lord to become one yourself.
But never mind that, because games are innately anti-canonical—subversion’s in their DNA. And while some on this list were more genre acolytes than pioneers when they first appeared a decade or more ago, a few managed to be exemplars of the medium for their time.
My only guideline in culling these 10 from the record books, was that they had to be playable on currently available platforms. So think of these as less a “best Star Wars games ever” lineup (though they’re nearly that) than the best you can sample without having to track down the original hardware or software.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Arguably the apotheosis of all the Star Wars games, Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic transported players thousands of years into the galaxy’s past, folding iconic lore like Jedis, Sith Lords, lightsabers and droids into a baroque reinterpretation of Lucas’s science fantasy verse. You’ll find some who’ll swear Bioware’s take on Star Wars bests even the original trilogy (including The Empire Strikes Back), and given the caliber of games Bioware was releasing at the time (both Baldur’s Gate installments), it’s easy to see why.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords was a bug-riddled and unfinished mess when it first arrived in late 2004. Time and sufficient patching have thankfully rectified most of its shortcomings, allowing players to experience one of the most insightful and reflective Star Wars stories on the books. Credit design lead Chris Avellone (Planescape: Torment, Pillars of Eternity), whose exhilarating vamp on the Star Wars universe simultaneously deconstructed it.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
What if the esteemed studio that gave us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic crafted a modern MMO that revisited the era’s storied 4,000-year-old playground? EA’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, released in 2011 and still going strong, capitulates to MMO tropes (like fetch-and-deliver quests ad infinitum), but dressed in better-than-average, more personalized storylines.
How to play: swtor.com
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Sure, 1993’s Star Wars: X-Wing was terrific, but it took 1994’s TIE Fighter to catapult developer Totally Games’ series to legendary status. For the first time in gaming history, players could campaign for the other side, exploring the Empire’s strangely compelling machinations–peace by the sword–through ingenious white-knuckled sorties, piloting vulnerable Imperial star fighters without combat backstops like deflector shields. TIE Fighter remains one of the best flight simulations ever made, a tour de force of mission design, plausibly brutal Newtonian deep space dogfighting and subversive storytelling.
How to play: GOG.com
Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga
My favorite moment in the friendly, rollicking, collection-angled Lego Star Wars games happens early on, in Lego Star Wars itself when you’re poking around Mos Eisley, playing co-op with a friend. At one point you come across a pile of unassembled Lego bits and bobs. You don’t have to do anything. You can just walk on by. But tap a button to whip the mess together, and you’ll find yourself staring down an Imperial AT-ST. At which point my companion yelled: “We just built our own boss monster!”
Super Star Wars
I’m skirting my platform stricture here, but if you’re still rocking a Wii, you can pull this platforming run-and-gun down via Nintendo’s Virtual Console for 800 points ($8). Take note of the game’s first-person, pseudo-3D levels, where you can zip around flattened Tatooine landscapes in Luke’s land speeder, lobbing energy balls at enemies. Nintendo called this “Mode 7” back in the day, and while it looks dated today, seeing it in games like F-Zero and Super Star Wars in the early 1990s was a revelation.
How to play: Virtual Console (Wii)
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II stands as the first Star Wars game that let you experience, however crudely, the combat life of a Jedi Knight. Other games had let you swing the franchise’s iconic lightsaber or pull off Force tricks from sidewise perspectives, but Dark Forces II put that lightsaber (and those force powers) in your hands, then leveled the camera where your eyes would be, propelling you through puzzle-filled levels flush with enemies you could optionally choke or throw or envelop with tendrils of bluish lightning.
Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast
Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast may harbor lower lows (uneven level design) than its predecessor, but it’s also packing higher highs (lightsaber play, force powers). And it remains an essential play if the whole “be a Jedi Knight” thing ranks high on your list of Star Wars-ian fantasies.
Star Wars: Empire at War
No one’s yet produced a Star Wars strategy game to rival the genre’s best, but Star Wars: Empire at War comes the closest. Developer Petroglyph, harboring designers who’d worked on pioneering the real-time strategy games Dune II and Command & Conquer, folded competent terrestrial and space-based real-time strategy battles into a galaxy-spanning meta campaign that gave players control of heroic figures like Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader and the Emperor himself.
Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds
Yes, developer Ensemble slapped a coat of Star Wars paint on Age of Empires II, but worse things have happened in gaming. The result was a respectable, reasonably deep real-time strategy game that offered just enough Star Wars flavor—albeit steeped in prequel lore, fair warning—to make it passably more than Age of Empires 2.5.
How to play: GOG.com