Over the last few weeks, we’ve been following Dave Palmer’s exploits at the 1985 Video Games Masters Tournament, where, you’ll recall, he established six world records, left heartbroken motherboards all over the place, and failed to meet any ladies. This week, it’s time for the Death Star to tremble like a jelly as Palmer fires up his X Wing and takes to the skies.
It’s the end of A New Hope, and it’s all gone right off. Skywalker’s hearing voices in his head and has turned off his targeting computer, which looks like an error. Princess Leia, one of many characters who spends the whole film in a dressing gown, is looking nervous, knowing that unless Skywalker, with whom she feels a strange connection – which in the end probably turns out to be nothing – can do the business with the photon torpedoes, the franchise is over. No one really knows what happens after that, but it’s this scene that forms the main chunk of Atari’s 1983 vector graphic bonanza Star Wars.
There are, however, two stages to get through before you get to grips with the Death Star. First, the player has to fight off imperial TIE fighters, which are not exactly blessed with all round vision, on the approaches to Darth Vader’s spaceus stationus horribilus. The wheezy ne’er do well pops up quite a bit during these dogfights, and forms one of the many cheats in the game: if you shoot him thirty times, you recieve either 27 or 255 shields, depending upon the version of the game you are playing. This is handy, as you only start with three, and destroying the Death Star itself only rewards you with one.
In common with most of the Imperial forces in the game, Vader does not actually shoot at you, as there wasn’t the techology available for full on dogfighting in 1983. He pops up with a couple of wingmen – the TIE fighters always attack in groups of three – and puts what can only be described as Very Dangerous Snowflakes in your path. These are explained as ‘mines’ in the blurb plastered all round the cabinet in which the game was housed, and was either the familiar stand up unit, or a more lavish sit-in console. Happily, your ship is being flown by R2 D2 during this stage, so all that needs to be done is to point the crosshairs in the right direction, and press fire. That said, you’ll be needing to do that often – the Very Dangerous Snowflakes can be blasted away but you’ll need to have an itchy, if not entirely eczema ridden, trigger finger to keep up.
Get through the deep space snowball duelling, and down onto the surface of the Death Star you go. This time, it’s towers that you have to destroy. Towers with sort of cubes on top, which we are led to believe are gun emplacements. As you might expect, death lunges at you from every angle, as the surface of the Death Star is covered with all kinds of things that’ll shoot you to bits, given half a chance. Another bug in the program means that you can shoot the Very Dangerous Snowflakes through the towers as they drift behind them, which is in fact a very handy tactic. By this point in the proceedings, players will have heard various characters from the film going on about the Force, Red Five, R2 D2, and so on. Atari were rightly proud of this feature, which did at the time represent a huge pole-vault forward in audio technology, and they topped the eardrum-oriented side of the game off with seven different musical themes, all taken from the film itself. When you bear in mind that a digital watch that could play the Yellow Rose Of Texas as an alarm would set you back £25 at the time, Atari’s programmers really did achieve something special by bringing in so much genuinely innovative trickery at an affordable cost to the company – although only just. The inclusion of such an ambitious and complex audio track pushed Atari to the brink of bankruptcy, and, had the game failed, would certainly have sent the company under.
It is at the third stage that the player finally gets a crack at the Death Star itself by belting along a trench and shooting an exhaust port. This part of the game is particularly visually effective, with a palpable sense of claustrophobia created by the apparent speed at which your X Wing is moving, and the frequency with which stuff to not fly in to is thrown at you. Atmospherically, it is spot on, and with Han Solo pointing out that the player is ‘all clear’, the exhaust port looms. Hit this, and the Death Star explodes. Miss it, and it will still explode, but it’ll take you with it.
Star Wars is an every aspect a classic game. Technologically advanced, hugely playable, and a worthy addition to George Lucas’s burgeoning pop-sci fi franchise. Importantly, it understands the limits that available technology places upon arcade gaming, and concentrates foremost on being, quite simply, a very good use of a ten pence piece. Dave Palmer’s score has never been conclusively verified, although it was, and remains, a world record by millions and millions of points. If the legendary joystick waggler’s previous exploits are anything to go by, his score a long time ago on a weekend far, far away was about a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion.