Thursday, September 19, 2013

Stomaching Super Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back

at 6:59 PM

A LTA in a GFFA, I loved nothing more than Legos, Star Wars, and Super Nintendo. So whenever those things came together, I was in heaven. Sadly, this won't be a post about my Episode I Lego collection. Sadder still, I came of age before the debut of the Lego Star Wars video games, so they've been pretty lost on me. Saddest yet, I spent a lot of time playing Super Star Wars and Super Return of the Jedi instead. I don't remember if I ever legitimately completed the games, but thanks to a cheat code featured in Nintendo Power, I was able to unlock debug mode to warp around levels and live like a king in his castle. I never played much Super Empire Strikes Back, having access to it only through friends. When the opportunity came to pick it up on Virtual Console, I had no choice but to give it a shot to see how it stacked up.

The Super Star Wars trilogy is the work of obscure developer Sculptured Studios toiling under the oversight of LucasArts. Wikipedia tells me that Sculptured was a prolific developer of licensed games and ports (aka shlock), though I'm not seeing a lot of games I recognize in their library. The Atari XEGS port of Mario Bros.SeaQuest DSV for the Game Boy? The NES classic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Cosner as Robin "Friar Tuck" Hood, the Prince of Thieves? Among the few original titles Sculptured developed is the notoriously terrible Day Dreamin' Davey, often mistakenly attributed to publisher Hal Labs (it amazes me to this day that people don't know the difference between a developer and a publisher). Suffice to say that their only lasting work has been Super Star Wars. 
Chewbacca's famous spin-move, from the part of the movie where he fights robot bounty hunters
Since the first and third games play largely the same, it's no surprise that Empire fits comfortably in between. It's a brutally difficult Contra-influenced run-and-gun featuring Turrican-style open levels, melee combat, and occasional vehicular variety segments. The shooting spans tediously slow and punishingly frantic (a long life bar ensures that the game is never nearly as precise as Japanese one-hit-death shooters like Metal Slug), while the platforming tends to be obnoxiously demanding thanks to a love of asynchronously moving platforms and (literal) slippery slopes. The vehicle segments... I can't even formulate a summary, so we'll come back to those later. They're um, ahead of their time? At heart at least. Empire introduces a password feature which, along with a difficulty select and a large supply of lives/continues, keeps the game relatively finishable for most players. The original Super Star Wars lacks any type of progress tracking and thus must be beaten in one grueling sitting, ensuring that only one human being has ever reached the end unassisted - he died of mental trauma shortly thereafter. 

Remember this guy from the movies?
The two biggest gameplay changes made in part two are run-gunning and lightsaber combat. Han Solo and Chewbacca can't wield the lightsaber, so the shooting still takes center stage (you think it's unnecessary to say that, but the Super Star Wars series takes some pretty sweeping liberties with the film canon... like having Luke duel and kill the Sarlacc monster on his way to buy the droids at the beginning of Episode IV). The original SSW required the player to stand still to shoot (Bass rules), creating somewhat slow-moving and methodical screen-clearing. The introduction of simultaneous walk-shoot-aiming speeds up the gameplay a ton. It also gives the player the inclination to say "fuck this game" and bolt for the exit, though that usually backfires. Empire's mobile shooting allows it to move away from the Mega Man-style one-screen-at-a-time feel, letting swarms of infinitely spawning enemies flood in from off-screen and chase the player for minutes at a time. That is to say, the characters' offensive prowess has been cranked up a notch, but the opposition has gone up two. If you don't constantly run with the attack button held, you'll be locked into standing aim mode and quickly overwhelmed. If this sounds dynamic and cool, that's just a testament to poor writing. What it is is boring. The game often degrades into a one-note randomized arcade shooter, quickly pushing from sensory overload into brain-fried apathy. There is so much going on beyond the player's capability to manage that success and failure feel extremely random.

What comes to the rescue of the manic mess that is Super Empire Strikes Back is Luke's lightsaber. The lightsaber was a pretty useless joke in Super Star Wars, but here it's been completely redesigned. Few 20th century games attempted anything resembling melee combat outside of the brawler framework, but Empire/Jedi's Luke belongs with Castlevania IV's Simon Belmont and ActRaiser 2's Master as a remarkably capable action protagonist gone medieval. He can swing the lightsaber in a fast horizontal arc or slowly over his head to clear out flying enemies, he can use it to reflect projectiles back to their source and block melee attacks, and best of all, he spins it around his somersaulting body for the best jump attack ever; a giant, deadly ball of destruction. 
The greatest jump attack of all time?
And you know what? It complements the absurd cavalcade of enemies and touchy platforming. It gives the action a sort of Dynasty Warriors feel - what I would call lawnmower combat. A super-powered player character mowing down seas of impotent foes like blades of grass. That's not to say it makes the game easy - the stalwart, position-dominant enemies can withstand enough blows to put a careless rampage to a plummet of an end. Think of it as mowing a lawn strewn with logs. Still, the lightsaber provides the player some much-needed control of the game's stampeding flow. It stands out and makes things work - at least for a little while.

Luke's stages are many screens tall and usually set outdoors, often offering two or more paths. The top path tends to be a strict platforming challenge and the bottom a combat free-for-all, though players will probably find themselves indiscriminately bouncing between high and low against their will thanks to the imprecision of the platforming. If you weren't sure whether platforming would combine well with infinite monster closets, Super Empire Strikes Back provides a definitive "no". It's just not rewarding to struggle through a bunch of tough jumps only to be thrown back down to the shitty path by a bird swooping in from off-screen.

Alas, Luke's levels make up less than half of the game and are still marred by weird design choices like hilariously deep spike pits and pace-destroying freeze-monsters. The remainder of the playtime is dedicated to the largely identical Han Solo and Chewbacca, who themselves are just Luke-minus-lightsaber (unlike in SSW and Jedi, Luke here can swap between blaster and lightsaber at will). Han and Chewie's levels scale back the nutty platforming a bit (actually, a lot) and present what is essentially a corridor-shooter. The landscape is flat, ceilings are low, and almost all progress is made directly left-to-right or right-to-left. In fact, most of Han's levels are just one long corridor interrupted by occasional elevator cut-scenes. It's cool that the characters get different level types and even helps to keep the lightsabering fresh, but you can't really get around the fact that the Han/Chewie levels are extremely repetitive and don't evolve much over ther course of the game.

Probably the single most annoying thing about the game is the collision behavior. The player character and any enemy entity (be it a monster, projectile, or just debris) cannot EVER co-occupy the same space. What makes that insane is that enemy position takes precedence over the player - that means an enemy that walks into a standing player character will push the player around! Even the tiniest bats can push a standing character off a ledge with just a bump. There's no post-damage invincibility (that blinking phase that Mega Man and Sonic have) to cope with this, meaning that if an enemy walks straight forward into your character, they will damage and push you until you fall off a ledge or run out of health. Sometimes it feels like the game is aware of this weird trait and uses it to create challenge, like with the turrets in Cloud City that pause for a moment after dying (giving the player a small window to rush by) before exploding into a flurry of debris. Sometimes, like in the caverns of Hoth, it's mind-fuckingly annoying that an enemy can freeze Luke and push him into an instant-death spike pit before he has a chance to thaw. This combined with an excess of undodgeables means it's literally impossible to hold your ground in this game. Like the shooting and respawning enemies, this does encourage a no-brakes play-style, but simultaneously punishes it. Didn't expect an enemy to spawn on the edge of the platform you're jumping to? Too late, your jump already got blocked and you probably died.
The bosses are probably the best part of the game, but that's mostly just because they aren't as annoying as the levels. Still, their tendency to instantaneously dole out heaps of unavoidable damage can get very frustrating.
No post on Super Empire Strikes Back could be complete without at least a shout-out to the vehicle levels. These stages are a great idea - much of Star Wars' action has always been bound to its trademark spaceships, so an adaptation would be just as incomplete without them as it would without lazerbeams. It's also really cool that all of the vehicle levels are different - there's a sorta turret-shooter set in an asteroid field, a few brief scrolling shooter levels , and even a full 3D Battle of Hoth. The Gradius-style sidescrolling shoot-em-up levels, played as a snowspeeder and some kind of speeder bike (better known from Return of the Jedi, but whatever), are so short and easy as not to register, but the Battle of Hoth is pretty cool. It's very primitive 3D (this was '93) and is set in a looping environment (like the multiplayer arenas of Star Fox 64), but provides a few different enemy types to shoot down and even - and I could barely believe this - a tow cable mechanic that needs to be used to wrap up and trip the big AT-AT walkers. Oddly enough, these variety stages are much more fair than the main gameplay, or at least the difficulty is appropriately scaled to the randomness. Even if it wouldn't sustain an entire game of its own, the snowspeeding is fun for its run-time and provides some much needed relief from the monotonous sidescrolling levels. It's also probably the most faithful-to-the-movie part of the game, if you like that kinda thing. Just don't play it back-to-back with Rogue Squadron.

There's fun to be had and a handful of good concepts at work here, but overall the game is too frustrating to ever be satisfying more than momentarily. The upside to that is... well... there are plenty of cheats and passwords out there. You can give yourself 99 lives, use debug mode's stage select to skip to the end, instantly unlock all the Force powers, or just switch on invincibility. Normally I'd say that requiring codes to be fun makes a game a definite skip, but Empire's Luke is a genuinely unique character worth experiencing for anyone interested in 2D game mechanics. How much and for how long you can enjoy that experience will probably be determined by whether you're willing to cheat - and I will add that all the enemy pushiness actually allows the game to retain much of its challenge even if the player character is invincible (in a Warioland 2 kind of way). I'm typically not one to complain about difficulty (I don't mind not finishing games, as I consider a single session to be a complete experience), but this game has no dignity about it. This is not Alien Soldier or Gradius II - it's not about learning to play right, it's about learning to abuse a system that is more than happy to abuse you. And that is the essence of Super Empire Strikes Back - a constant battle against the very mechanics of the game
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Hey I just learned that LucasArts was shut down in April. I probably already knew, but didn't care. Their good games percentage has been awfully low since the turn of the millennium (conspicuously coincident with the debut of the prequel trilogy), so it's probably better for Disney to shop around the Star Wars property to third parties. Who knows how that'll turn out, but it couldn't be much worse than the disappointing output of recent years. If Star Wars games were as multitudinous now as they were in the '90s, Force Unleashed and Star Wars Kinect could be swept under the rug along with middling and embarrassing disappointments like Yoda Stories and Masters of Teras Kasi. But with no Dark ForcesX-Wing, or Rogue Squadron to outshine them, every Star Wars flop today is enough to convince a player that the series is in the wrong hands. And let's not forget that the popular favorite Star Wars games all in fact were developed by third parties: Super Star Wars of course (Sculptured), X-Wing/Tie Fighter (Totally Games)Rogue Squadron (Factor 5), Jedi Knight II (Raven), Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare)Battlefront (Pandemic), and Lego Star Wars (Traveller's Tales). Yeah, wait a minute. That's like, all of the good Star Wars games ever. So basically, the only good Star Wars games that can be attributed to LucasArts are Dark Forces I and II. Not to mention that the diaspora of the classic adventure team (Tim Schaefer, Ron Gilbert, et al.) is well-documented and long over. So who cares again that the studio was disbanded?

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