Back in the ’70s a Californian filmmaker named George Lucas – inspired by the mythological writings of Joseph Campbell – created a little-known space opera saga that spanned a trilogy of movies centring around the epic adventures of a faction of Jedi Knights and their unwavering determination to quell the dark side of the Force. It was called ‘Star Wars’, though you’ve probably never heard of it.
It was quite popular in its heyday, spawning a galaxy-load of licensed video games based on the franchise. One of the earliest was ‘Star Wars: The Arcade Game’, a first person, 3D space simulator comprised of vector graphics developed by Atari and first released in July 1983 as a coin-op machine, which was subsequently ported to a plethora of home micro systems. Based on the Battle of Yavin as depicted in the inaugural movie, ‘Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope’, you play as rookie X-wing pilot, Luke ‘Red Five’ Skywalker whose ultimate mission is to destroy the Death Star by depositing a Proton Torpedo (actually a pair on the silver screen) into a conveniently unprotected exhaust port. As in the movie, Luke engages in numerous dogfights with a marauding stream of enemy TIE Fighters as well as one of movie history’s most iconic super-villains, Darth Vader.
“Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”
“Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, farm boy.”
“Great shot kid, that was one in a million.”
“The force is strong with this one.”
Mike Hally’s arcade game – the controls of which were a modified implementation of those found in Atari’s 1980 tank combat simulator, Battlezone – was eventually ported to the Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, Macintosh, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Acorn Electron, BBC Micro, Enterprise 64, and the Commodore 64 between 1987 and 1989. Neither Mike nor the original PCB hardware engineers played a part in any of the conversions, that save for a twist of fate wouldn’t have been licensed Star Wars games at all. Lead coin-op programmer, Jed Margolin, was initially working on a 3D space war game known as ‘Warp Speed’, designed to play like a dual cockpit cabinet, head to head, celestial rendition of Battlezone. Only later was it retrofitted as an interactive accompaniment to the movie when someone in Atari’s marketing department suggested approaching LucasGames to acquire the licence, the design concept was successfully pitched and the deal of the century forged.
In Europe the ports were published by the prevailing license holder, Domark, who in 1988 subcontracted North American publishing rights to Brøderbund where the Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64 and MS-DOS versions were concerned. A lone coder, Jurgan Friedrich, developed the Macintosh, Atari ST and Amiga ports, whilst the contract for the remainder was awarded to Leeds based development team, Vektor Grafix, founded by Andy Craven and Danny Gallagher in 1986, and absorbed by MicroProse in 1992.
Computer science student, Jurgan, began his career in the games industry in his German homeland in 1982. Pushing his first computer – a Tandy TRS-80 – to its limits, he started to learn programming in Basic and assembler before progressing to an Atari 800. With dreams of turning his hobby into a profession, Jurgan switched to the C programming language and a superior Apple IIse. Initially the fruit of his commercial labour was a collection of applications rather than games; a RAM disk utility, graphics suite, and a computer aided design tool.
“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
Jurgan took a shine to playing the original coin-op game at the amusement arcades, yet wasn’t so taken with its potential to empty the silver from his pockets. His solution was to duplicate it for the Apple Mac so he could continue playing at home, and no doubt for the thrill of the challenge that drives all intrepid, ambitious coders.
“I developed an experimental routine to move vector graphics around the screen in three dimensions. When this routine was up and running, I realised it could also be used as a game. I was a Star Wars coin-op addict at the time, so to put my routine to the test I converted that from memory.”
Astutely realising that selling a bootleg game based on the most successful merchandising franchise of all time wouldn’t wash, Jurgan approached the current license holders, Domark situated in Putney, London, with a nearly complete copy of his first game. Neither of the founders, former junior account executives Dominic Wheatley and Mark Strachan, had any programming experience so were content to outsource work to talented individuals capable of developing games under their label.
Whatever Jurgan is up to these days, he’s not exactly shouting about it from the rooftops – the trail runs colder than the latest Disney Star Wars movie left me feeling. Wondering what Dominic – now the CEO of Catalis – recalled about working with his ‘ace card’ protege, and if he could shed any light on the mystery of his whereabouts, I posed the question:
“Don’t know what happened to him – he was a brilliant programmer. I think he went on to some serious stuff. I was introduced to him by Rod Cousens (Acclaim) and he lived in my parents house while he coded the game. We made a fortune out of it, but he was also very well paid by us. I’d love to meet him again, so let me know if you find him!”
Dominic’s former business partner, Mark, who is now the CEO (and founder) of vehicle rental company White Car, couldn’t help either, though was equally enamoured by the enigmatic coder:
“Best version of any game we made in my opinion. No idea what happened to him but it was a wonderful version.”
At least some of the critics appraising the game at the time of release agreed, albeit with the temperance of a few caveats, most of which should be leveled at Atari’s archetype rather than Jurgan’s conversion.
“A few more sampled voices do well to enhance the atmosphere, as do also the powerful sound effects. The graphics are simple, but at least they are fast, as they should be on the Amiga. Star Wars is great for a quick game, but once you’ve played through it a few times, I am not sure that its appeal will last tremendously long. Nevertheless if you are a fan of the original, coin-op or movie, you will love this and the frighteningly fast excitement it provides. At last, Domark have come up with a game that you will have more fun playing than chucking in the bin.”
80% – Amiga user International (April 1988)
“Star Wars is an accurate conversion in most respects, the speech is there, but rather than being digitised from the arcade version it sounds as though it was lifted straight from the film with the incidental music still hovering in the background. It’s also unintentionally camp as an awestruck voice exclaims when you fly over the battlestar “Look at the size of that thing!” The graphics are as smooth as might be expected but not always fast. In the stage where you fly over the surface of the battle station the whole game slows down to about half speed. Apart from that I have no other complaints.
It might sound as though game appeal might be limited with only three stages, but Star Wars plays well enough to overcome this hurdle.”
70% – CU Amiga (April 1988)
“Long-term interest could wane because of the simple format, but until then it is as it should be, considering the machine’s capabilities: a brilliant arcade conversion packed with furious blasting action.”
78% – The Games Machine (April 1988)
“Star Wars is entertaining enough, and quite exciting in the trench sequence, but it does become rather repetitive before long. For 10 minutes of adrenaline pumping action it’s worth rolling back the years giving Darth Vader a run for his money.”
70% – Amiga Computing (June 1988)
“Star Wars is a game that will probably sell Amigas. I am aware of at least one person who has decided to turn his back on a lifetime of MS-DOS on the IBM PC and move over to the Amiga just to play this game – if that isn’t a recommendation, then I don’t know what is!”
74% – Your Amiga (June 1988)
Jurgan only worked on the first Star Wars game despite Domark having acquired the license to produce the entire trilogy, and his near-perfect conversion (including speech sampled directly from the movie) receiving above average review scores. This can perhaps be explained by his entrenchment in Domark’s next major project, a conversion of Atari’s arcade 3D racing game, Hard Drivin’, and its sequel.
“While I was in San Francisco I visited the local arcade and got hooked on Hard Drivin’. It appealed to me because it’s more of a simulator than a racing game. There’s a tremendous amount of skill involved just in keeping your car on the road, let alone completing the course in time.”
“The maths is a lot more complicated where filled vectors are concerned. I’ve been able to use a couple of the vector routines and the maths from Star Wars, but the rest I’ve had to develop new techniques to deal with the filled vectors.”
Jurgan took charge of the Amiga, Atari ST and DOS ports and it turned out rather well judging by the EMAP Golden Joystick Award he received in 1990 in the ‘Best Coin-Op conversion’ category.
Conversion of Star War’s pseudo-sequel – The Empire Strikes Back – chronologically the first game to be released, and technically a conversion kit for the original arcade PCB, was assigned to Vektor Grafix who worked on versions for the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. On the Amiga side of the equation, the team consisted of coders, Bill Pullan and Ciaran Gultnieks, graphicians, Bill Pullan, Ciaran Gultnieks, Derrick Austin and George Iwanow, and musician, David Whittaker.
Like the first game it’s a vector graphics, first person perspective, 3D space shooter, this time inspired by events taken from the second movie in the trilogy. Despite appearing indistinguishable to its forbear, programmer, Ciaran Gultnieks, assured me that, “The Amiga/ST versions of The Empire Strikes Back used our own engine”. While it’s certainly odd that Vektor Grafix would be asked to duplicate Jurgan’s solid foundations, perhaps giving up his source code wasn’t factored into the deal struck with Domark. Whatever the reason, the setback didn’t present the new team with much of an impediment to success judging by the critical reception of what would be their first of six Amiga games.
“A rather dated arcade machine has been replicated almost perfectly on the Amiga and all Star Wars fans should love it. While the repetitive and limited nature of the action might ultimately disappoint, this is certainly an extremely accurate conversion which is both very playable and enjoyable.”
89% – The Games Machine (November 1988)
“The well presented vector graphics, combined with the zappy effects all helped to give Empire that polished feel. I thoroughly enjoyed this game, in spite of the asteroid level. My only gripe is that the game’s ending is a little bland. The first incarnation, Star Wars, at least saw you accomplishing something with the destruction of the Death Star. The Empire Strikes Back, unfortunately, ends rather abruptly.”
75% – ST Action (October 1988)
“Domark did a pretty good job with the Amiga conversion of Star Wars and they’ve done it again with The Empire Strikes Back. The careful presentation manages to recapture a lot of the frenetic atmosphere of the arcades, and as you’ve got the option of using the mouse (which I’d definitely recommend), you don’t have to worry about controls and can just get on with doing what comes naturally – ie, shooting mindlessly at everything in sight – great!
It’s a pity that following the unexceptional quality of the sound in Star Wars, Domark haven’t thought to improve it a bit the second time around. OK, so it’s true to the original but the arcade version was released some time ago. A more up-to-date soundtrack and the Amiga conversion really would have been something to shout about.”
“Cor! Another superb conversion in the Star Wars trilogy – not only is it the best film of the three, it’s also the best arcade game. The variety is what makes it so enjoyable – one minute you’re pouncing around gaining a 20,000 point bonus flying through the legs of the AT-ATs, the next you’re swaying left and right in your seat trying to avoid the nerve-wracking asteroid field! There’s so many extras that monotony doesn’t apply as much as it did in the original Star Wars – the gaining of Jedi status, shooting probots for points and attempting to stop each wave reaching a goal, just blasting the hell out of everything – it’s great! Maybe it’s simply because it’s got that huge name behind it, but The Empire Strikes Back is brilliant.”
“Hurrah! One of my favourite arcade machines (not that you see them much nowadays) converted to the Amiga. It’s not quite as good as the original – the vector graphics are just a tad too slow for that – but who cares when you can zoom through the sky shouting out ‘Death to the Empire’ and ‘Kill Darth Vader’ at the top of your voice… er… preferably, when there’s no-one else in the room. Being able to use the mouse is a definite improvement over messing about with a sluggish joystick, and really recreates the atmosphere of the arcades. The only real disappointment is the sound – surely the Amiga could have provided us with a bit more than a Chewbacca roar and one or two sampled squirts! Still, I’d rather play this than any other Empire conversion I’ve seen. In fact, I think I’ll have another go…”
“An excellent conversion – atmospheric, addictive and faithful to the coin-op.”
82% – Zzap (November 1988)
Split between four distinct phases, once again – at least initially – you play as Luke who isn’t quite so green now he’s earned his stripes. In the first, the Battle of Hoth is recreated on the ice planet where you’re tasked with wiping out the Imperial Probe Droids from the purview of a Rebel snowspeeder. Back on your snowspeeder, stage two’s goal is to curtail an assault on the Rebel shield generator by a battalion of AT-AT and AT-ST walkers. As in the movie this entails weaving lengths of tow-rope between their legs to bring the mecha behemoths crashing to their doom, or bombarding their cockpits with lasers.
“Obi-Wan has taught you well.”
“You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.”
For the remainder of the game you slip into something more comfortable; the Millennium Falcon. Embodying Han Solo you must obliterate a predetermined mass of enemy TIE fighters to earn letters spelling out the word ‘Jedi’, much as you have done thus far.
“Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.”
Your only hindrance to completing the game now is to survive a perilous game of chicken with a smorgasbord of space debris, at which point the game loops, ramping up the difficulty level into the bargain in true coin-op cash-crunching style.
“Why you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder!”
To find out if Vektor Grafix had to use a Jedi mind trick to seal the deal with Domark, and to understand how they were able to translate the mayhem and magic of the movie to our bedrooms, I contacted one half of the Amiga port’s programming partnership, Ciaran Gultnieks… and that interview may well follow on at some point. Meanwhile in a disjointed gaming trinity timeline a year earlier…
Return of the Jedi, the concluding entry in the trilogy, dispenses with vector graphics altogether in favour of a diagonally scrolling, isometric viewpoint comprised instead of raster graphics, as was the case with Atari’s 1984 coin-op original from which it was ported.
This time Consult Computers were the developers at the helm, translating what – chronologically speaking – was the second Star Wars game to make an appearance in the arcades. The Amiga contingent comprised coder, Colin Parrot, graphician, Dave Price, and musician, Dave Kelly. Their 1988 contribution to the series – clearly inspired by Zaxxon – was simultaneously made available for the Atari ST, BBC Micro, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum, in the same year that ushered in the release of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back for the home micros. Domark’s commitment to manage limited time and resources then may well explain why three different development teams were drafted in to produce each entity of the trilogy.
Return of the Jedi is the more visually appealing of the hat-trick, embodying three sub-games inspired by events from the movie. In the first you’re cast as Princess Leia racing through the seemingly impenetrable forests of the Century Moon of Endor at breakneck pace aboard your Speeder bike. Bound for the Ewok village you’re pursued by Imperial Scouts who can be dealt with by expunging them from the roll call with your blaster cannon, shunting them into trees, or steering them towards the Ewok’s eagerly awaiting traps. Unfortunately we’re not immune to the ‘friendly fire’ projectiles of the hang-gliding Ewoks.
“I’m rather embarrassed, General Solo, but it appears that you are to be the main course at a banquet in my honour.”
“Laugh it up, Fuzz ball.”
With a deft scrolling orientation switch, we take on the role of Chewbacca who has commandeered an Imperial AT-ST in an effort to reach the bunker that harbours the Death Star’s crucial shield generator. On route you must dodge or destroy rolling logs, and duck catapulted rocks. Had you clued in the Ewoks as to your wily disguise, your passage through a throng of Darth Vader’s minions, this time riding in Scout Walkers identical to your own hijacked plaything, would have been far smoother. Upon arrival you’re reunited with Han Solo who nonchalantly tosses a grenade into the bunker without troubling himself to even turn in its general direction, thereby eliminating its precious innards.
Disconcertingly the skirmishes are abruptly interrupted by scene transitions that inject us into the Millennium Falcon as we strafe over gargantuan Star Destroyers accompanied by a dyad of X-Wing fighters. Aside from emulating the movie’s rapid scenario flips, the dizzying bonus rounds are played for points so don’t impact the core directive.
Shields disabled we swiftly segue into the finale where you embody Lando Calrissian, the super-smooth administrator of Cloud City. Here your objective is to pilot the Millennium Falcon through the convoluted infrastructure of the Death Star’s perilous trenches, eschewing the pursuing TIE fighters to reach the central reactor, obliterate it with your ST2 concussion missiles and hightail it out of there before the spectacular implosion of the space station turns you into cosmic dust particles.
“Lando’s not a system he’s a man!”
Akin to its predecessors, Return of the Jedi resets upon reaching the denouement, offering you the opportunity to reprise the saga playing at a tougher difficulty setting. Even Neverending Story had a conclusion! Of course if you’re going to accurately recreate the antecedent arcade games, this goes with the territory. Why eject a paying customer when you can evoke that ‘just one more go’, score-chasing mentality?
Prevailingly Return of the Jedi is considered the weakest faction of the trilogy amongst critics, whilst still delivering an enjoyable – if short-lived – diversion for dedicated fans of the source material.
“There’s no doubt that Return of the Jedi is a good conversion of the arcade machine. The problem is that it isn’t a great game because the coin-op wasn’t particularly good in the first place.
Tengen could have done so much with the conversion from film to coin-op, such as a real Sega-type race game for the bike section, a Barbarian style combat game with light sabres between Luke and Vader, and surely the confrontation with Jabba the Hutt should have been included? That said, it isn’t bad and the graphics haven’t suffered too badly in the conversion.
Overall it’s competent and the three difficulty levels will help to provide some lasting interest.”
66% – The One (December 1988)
“The Amiga version is, not surprisingly, the best of the bunch featuring enhanced graphics, sound and gameplay. It features all the clarity of graphics of the coin-op and carries lots of samples from the film, as did the first two. Battle along to a pretty groovy tune and Lando shouting ‘Here goes nothing!’ Nevertheless you might find this is for the completists of the Atari trilogy only.”
78% – Commodore User (January 1989)
“Everything is carried out the way you’d expect on an Amiga – sampled speech from the film, pretty graphics… switch off the brain and be prepared for some unsophisticated violent enjoyment. But, if you’ve got one, you’ll have to remove your A501 first.
Return of the Jedi is grand while it lasts, but since it’s a little superfish (as in superfishul, not as in halibut) that may not be forever.”
63% – Amiga Computing (April 1989)
In 1989 Domark took a leaf out of George’s book by reviving and revamping their trilogy for the compilation generation; “3 chart-topping software hits!” in “1 mega value pack”, all for the bargain price of £24.99. Not a bad deal at all considering only a year earlier they were marked up as premium rate titles in isolation.
A year later Domark struck a deal with the floppy based Amiga magazine, Rampage, to have the unabridged versions of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (in addition to Licence To Kill) included as the starring attractions and focus of their pamphlet covers spread across two issues costing a paltry £3.99 each. Sadly in November 1990 after the publication of only five editions, the trailblazing magazine became a casualty of the ELSPA agreement to embargo the distribution of cover-mounted, complete, full price software.
Assuming you haven’t got a spare £4349 rattling around down the back of the sofa to lavish on Atari’s coin-op cockpit prototype cabinet with its four button X-Y yoke controls and 194kg heft, this may well be the next best thing for those of you yearning to recapture the elation and trepidation of the sci-fi movie phenomenon that snapped in two the pole vaulter’s bar and flung it into the Great Pit of Carkoon for the Sarlacc to chew on.
“Remember… the Domark will be with you, always.”