Summoning LucasArts' Force Ghost: A Look at the Late Publisher's Ten Best Games
Oh, so that's why Disney shuttered the iconic video game publisher LucasArts: because they wanted to pass the Star Wars baton to EA. If you’re under a certain age -- say, 25 -- that news might not be of much significance to you. The days of LucasArts as a bold innovator that nurtured auteurs like Tim Schafer and Lawrence Holland seem to be long behind us, and the goliath’s last decade was better defined by deadlines missed and opportunities squandered rather than by games actually delivered.
The truth, though, is that the achievements of LucasArts span almost the entire history of modern PC and console gaming. As we gamers wait anxiously to see if EA will do right by the storied Star Wars gaming franchise, it's worth taking a speeder bike ride through memory forest and celebrating the late publisher's finest works.
Grim Fandango (1998)
Before creating the cult classic Psychonauts, Tim Shafer was arguably the brightest star in the LucasArts constellation -- and Grim Fandango is his masterpiece. The game’s hero, Manny Calavera, is a travel agent shepherding lost souls in the Land of the Dead to the Ninth Underworld. The visuals are an original combination of “Casablanca”-style architecture and Mexican calaca figures. It’s weird, it’s arch and it’s hilarious.
Play It Now: Unfortunately, the game -- which wasn't a huge seller -- hasn’t been released on Steam, nor does it run well on modern PC hardware. If you can get your hands on a copy of the game, though, you might have success using this guide.
TIE Fighter (1994)
Lawrence Holland’s X-Wing, the predecessor to this game, was a seminal release in the now-deceased PC space-sim genre. So what could be more fun than taking virtually every ship in the Rebellion for a spin against the Empire? As it turns out, being the bad guy. Against the odds, TIE Fighter one-upped its forebear in nearly every way, with a huge campaign, a surprisingly wide variety of ships and an engaging story that presented the Rebels as terrorists out to disrupt the Empire's efforts at maintaining order. The game’s difficulty level was relentlessly high, but the game had some unforgettable moments: a mission flying as Darth Vader’s wingman, being approached to join the Emperor’s secret society, the first time flying a ship that didn’t explode the second time it got hit. The game's sequels –- X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance -- are classics in their own right, but TIE Fighter was one for the ages.
Play It Now: Again, there hasn’t been a Steam release, but the game was re-released as a Windows 95 CD-ROM that is usually available via Amazon or eBay. A guide for running it on modern hardware is available here. It’s worth the effort.
SCUMM Adventure Games (Late 80s)
LucasArts’ early successes were predicated on its use of a verb-noun point-and-click system called SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), which drove the majority of its adventure game titles. The LucasArts adventure game philosophy –- that experimentation shouldn’t result in instant death (looking at you, Sierra Online) and their writers’ humor and clever puzzles -- are why the games remain classics to this day. The Monkey Island titles, with their absurd pirate puns and humor, are probably the best remembered, but Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis remains the best Indy game on any platform, while Maniac Mansion and its sequel, Day of the Tentacle, represent early high-water marks for gaming humor.
Play It Now: A SCUMM emulator, SCUMMVM, is available for just about every platform including mobile. Finding the ROMS for the games themselves can be trickier (and less legal). Several of the Monkey Island games have been ported and enhanced for current consoles and are well-worth seeking out. The two Indiana Jones games are available on Steam. No sign yet of Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle or Zak McCracken and the Alien Mindbenders through official channels.
Star Wars: Jedi Outcast (2002)
The first title in the Star Wars: Jedi Knight series, Dark Forces, was LucasArts' clunky attempt at a response to the popular first-person shooter Duke Nukem 3D. The follow-up, Jedi Knight, offered a richer 3D experience, but employed some of the most bizarre full-motion video sequences ever captured in the Star Wars universe. This third game, though, hit paydirt, as gamers were introduced to roguish would-be Jedi Kyle Katarn. The game featured the best lightsaber combat to that point, as well as light and dark Force powers and a gritty, realistic story that actually felt like it belonged in the SW universe.
Play It Now: Buy it on Steam to play on PC or Mac. Alas, the Xbox version isn’t compatible with the 360.
Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
One of the best RPGs of the last two console generations, KOTOR set the standard for what to expect from Star Wars games. The story, a galaxy-spanning adventure of betrayal and revelation, made the petty goofery of the prequels look like amateur hour. Players could take their character and squad through a variety of light or dark-side Force decisions in a truly epic experience. Though the BioWare-developed game begat an ambitious but buggy sequel that left gamers more frustrated than satisfied, KOTOR remains a classic.
Play It Now: KOTOR is available on Steam, and Xbox copies will run on the Xbox 360 with occasional graphics glitches. Fair warning: this is by no means an action game, with combat that relies more on strategy than reflexes.
Episode I: Racer (1999)
Easily the best thing to come out of The Phantom Menace, the game is a surprisingly fun ride through a circuit of Star Wars planets. Most of the recognizable pod drivers are included -- Anakin is annoying as ever -- and the sense of speed made the game more than a Mario Kart clone. (There was one of those, too: Bombad Racing. It will remain far, far away from this list.) It was often said of Episode I that the podrace scene felt like a video game, and it indeed made for a good one.
Play It Now: There’s not a reliable way to play Episode I: Racer on modern PCs, though a fully patched version may work on some configurations. If you’re willing to illegally seek out and download a ROM, the Project 64 Emulator will let you play the Nintendo 64 version.
Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (2005)
One of the earliest forays into open world, third-person shooting, Mercenaries let players romp around North Korea working for one of three rival military factions. The ostensible purpose is to make money, but the game’s legacy is built on the wanton devastation hinted at in its subtitle: everything blows up real good. There’s a plot to work through, but players have the freedom to execute missions in a variety of different ways with numerous vehicles, weapons and characters. The game was developed by Pandemic, another great software house that was closed before its time.
Play It Now: The Xbox version is playable on the Xbox 360, and there’s a PS2 version.
The Dig (1995)
It’s possible to be too ambitious, and it’s certainly arguable that The Dig flies too close to the sun. An early CD-ROM-only title for PCs and Macs, the game was a brainchild of Steven Spielberg and sci-fi novelist Alan Dean Foster, and it featured full voice acting and a deep, involved story about an asteroid threatening the end of the world. The point-and-click adventure is extraordinarily difficult in that mid-90s way, so expect frustration if you don’t play with a walkthrough nearby, but it remains a fascinating experiment in video game narrative. It was, in its day, the closest gamers could get to a genuine interactive movie.
Play It Now: It’s available on Steam.
Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader (2001)
To see Rogue Leader was to lust after it. A brilliant launch title for Nintendo’s Gamecube, the Factor 5-developed classic remains a high point for Star Wars titles and action titles in general. The shoot-em-up borrows moments from all three of the original Star Wars films, and the highlights -- including a AT-AT takedown on Hoth and a Star Destroyer attack -- have rarely been more compellingly presented. Even 12 years later, Rogue Leader is a memorable, thrilling title.
Play It Now: If you don't have a Gamecube kicking around, the title can be played on earlier Wii units that include compatibility with that console.
Star Wars: Battlefront II (2005)
Every Star Wars fan is holding out hope that Battlefront III will eventually see its long-rumored release, but BF2 remains no slouch even today, with a small but healthy enthusiast community. The Battlefront series is a multiplayer-first class-based shooter with maps, vehicles and characters representing a variety of Star Wars worlds. Battling TIE Fighters in an X-Wing, then landing on a Star Destroyer to chop up some Stormtroopers with a lightsaber? Yes, please.
Play It Now: Steam sells a PC version, the Xbox version works on the 360 and there's always the PS2 version.