Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
In 1992, a follow-up to the original Star Wars NES video game was released, this time based on the next film in the series, The Empire Strikes Back. This entry in the Wars-related video gaming canon was notable for retaining some of the elements of its predecessor while departing in some significant ways as well.
Much like the first 8-bit Star Wars game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Empire Strikes Back primarily follows the protagonist Luke Skywalker in his efforts against the evil Empire, while featuring some play appearances from other characters from the films as well
This time, rather than starting in the sandy deserts of Tatooine, Luke begins in the icy expanses of the planet Hoth. Skywalker even begins riding a tauntaun, a kangaroo-like creature, just as in the movie, that you can choose to jettison at any point or continue as far as you wish with it beneath you. Play control remains similar to the first game, with the A button jumping, the B button firing, and Force Powers becoming eventually available via a selection menu screen brought up by pressing Start. One key addition in the controls is the capacity of the blaster weaponry to fire in any of the eight basic directional pad directions (the four cardinals plus diagonals), which although adds an intriguing element of firepower, also seems to give the game designers reason to include crazy-difficult enemies that ebb and dive in chaotic patterns and perhaps take too many shots to kill.
While navigating vast levels, enjoying the occasional cutscene and almost-cutscene, switching vehicles from beasts of burden to outright spaceships, engaging in precision jumping, and pressing the fire button as rapidly as possible, the player is working toward the ultimate goal of confronting Darth Vader in an epic lightsaber duel. In order to get there, crazy-awesome instincts, reaction time, intuition, and other gameplay gifts will be necessary, as this game offers a few less continues than the original and seems markedly more difficult.
The visuals of this game are of high quality, showcasing the true capabilities of the 8-bit NES home console as it neared the end of its supported run before being eclipsed by the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). As such, the animations are smooth, the enemies are daunting, and there are some noteworthy on-screen appearances that feature head shots of the major players in the Wars mythos. Within the first minute of playing, the player will encounter messages from Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi. As the lasers fly and the space-oriented battles emerge into view, this video game makes it clear that it is aiming for a cinematic experience.
The music, though recognizable in portions, is hit-or-miss. The original score for the Star Wars films, including that for Empire Strikes Back, is among the best in cinema history, yet the digital translation here is thin. Had one not had any attachment to Star Wars, it would take a rather skilled ear to recognize anything special in the digitized tones. The sound effects, too, are a tad generic and overpowering each other at points, with one key exception: This game does feature some nice voice effects, impressive in their historic context of early video game lore.
This was the second and final Star Wars game released on the NES, and for some reason, it feels like it takes a step backward. Maybe it is the slightly more linear gameplay, the seemingly increased challenge, or an intangible “feel” that separates it from the original, but this game is not as fun as the previous. As a two-dimensional platformer, it is decent at best, and eclipsed by many earlier titles from other developers. Some of the portions of the gameplay that are not taking place in a side-scrolling environment are nice, but do not detract from the title’s primary fault: Its immense difficulty. The characters die very easily, there are even more “cheap shots” than the previous Star Wars game, and some inexplicable quirks are in place. For example, in the Hoth ice cave, the wampa monsters (in the film, the wampa is a bigger-than-man, hulking, roaring, imposing Yeti-like animal) are smaller than Luke yet nonetheless pose a significant threat as they nimbly hop over to maul and claw at him. Taking down an AT-AT may be a great experience, but the film-turned-game nabs just two stars out of five.
Eric Bailey is a retro gamer on a crazy quest to write a quality review for every single American-released NES video game over at NintendoLegend.com.