Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

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

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

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.


Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back - NES - Gameplay Screenshot

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

The Secret of Monkey Island

It’s very difficult to write a blog that focuses on the best retro games without reminding everyone about the gaming joy that was The Secret of Monkey Island, released by LucasArts Entertainment in 1990, to rave reviews from both game critics and the gaming community as a whole.

The Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island cover art.

Monkey Island was an adventure game wherein the player assumed the role of young Guybrush Threepwood, a wannabe pirate looking for the way to become one of the pirate fraternity.  The Pirate Leaders give him three tasks: Defeat the island’s Swordmaster, Carla, in insult sword fighting; steal a statue from the Governor’s mansion; and find buried treasure.  Along the way he will meet a cast of wacky characters, while finding both true love with the beautiful and intrepid Elaine Marley, and a bitter, lifelong enemy with the ghost pirate LeChuck.

The Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island insult sword fighting.

The quest process is one of the great strengths of Monkey Island: non-linear story telling.  It does not matter what order Guybrush completes his tasks in, so a player never feels unduly railroaded through the plot, and can explore the game world at will.  Another key strength that makes this work is that Guybrush does not die as a result of a wrong course of action.  Even jumping off a cliff cannot do our hapless hero in, which frees the player to try unusual actions in any circumstance, just to see whether the game programmers anticipated it.  (Actually, there is one way for Guybrush to expire – and only one – in the game, which involves hanging around for longer than 10 minutes underwater.)

The Secret of Monkey Island

Guybrush Threepwood is running out of time…

The guiding force behind The Secret of Monkey Island was Ron Gilbert, who based the game’s ambience and feel upon his experience at the Disneyland attraction Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as on the novel On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers, which was the inspiration for many of the game’s characters.  He went to the point of writing a series of short stories based on his ideas for Monkey Island, which he used to help convey the spirit of game to his creative partners, Tim Schaffer and Ron Grossman.  All three used the stories as a blueprint for creating the game, and as a place marker for keeping the project vision focused.

The Secret of Monkey Island

Another tight spot for Guybrush.

The Secret of Monkey Island used LucasArts’ SCUMM engine, and the fifth such game to do so.  Players interacted with the game environment by choosing a verb and an object to interact with, and the game would provide a response.  Examples of the kinds of commands are LOOK AT, GIVE, PICK UP, OPEN, CLOSE, TALK TO, PUSH, PULL, and USE.  Part of the fun of Monkey Island is to see how many responses are programmed into the game depending on what actions you choose!

The Secret of Monkey Island

It’s the Pirate Life for me!

The Secret of Monkey Island migrated to several platforms: MS-DOS, Macintosh, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, FM Towns, and Sega CD.  It was a smash hit for LucasArts, thus guaranteeing a sequel – Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge – which was also a huge seller.  In fact, the Monkey Island franchise has had many sequels: The Curse of Monkey Island, Escape From Monkey Island, and the various Tales of Monkey Island Chapters.  Its popularity continues today with the downloadable Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition release.  Gamers just keep coming back the Monkey Island universe, a sure sign of a classic gaming franchise!


Pipe Dream

Pipe Dream - Title Screen

Pipe Dream a.k.a. Pipe Mania (1990)
By: Bullet Proof Software / Lucasarts Genre: Puzzle Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Nintendo NES First Day Score: 17,250
Also Available For: PC, GameBoy, Amiga, Atari ST, Archimedes, Apple II, Apple Mac, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Acorn Electron, BBC Micro, Sam Coupe
Download For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade

After the overwhelming worldwide success of Tetris, puzzle games were suddenly big business. The first major release I can remember after the Russian juggernaut had conquered all was Pipe Dream, or Pipe Mania as we know it here in the UK. Like most of the best puzzle games, it’s such a simple concept it makes you wonder how someone didn’t think of it earlier! Each level takes place on a grid spread over a single screen. From a starting point in the form of an open pipe somewhere round the grid, you must lay additional sections of pipe to create a pipeline. After a short amount of time, a liquid called ‘flooze’ starts to slowly pour into the pipeline. If the liquid reaches the open end before you have built the pipeline to a required minumum length, the game will be over.

Pipe Dream - Gameplay Screenshot 1

The pieces of pipe you lay are each the size of one grid square and they appear one at a time in a random order. They include horizontal pieces, vertical pieces, corners, crossroads, and small reservoirs (which buy you a little time when the flooze is on its way!). Much like Tetris with its ‘next piece’ indicator, here you get to see the next five pipe pieces in the queue so you can plan ahead to some extent, but if you get any pipe pieces you don’t want, you can dump them elsewhere on the grid. You’ll get points for every piece of pipe you lay, and you can lay pieces on top of existing pieces (providing the flooze hasn’t yet reached that piece), but you’ll lose points for that. Any stray or unused pieces of pipe left upon completion of the level are also deducted from your score, however. As you advance through the stages the game gets harder by allowing you less time from the level start before the flooze starts to flow, and the flooze also flows faster and faster. Luckily you get three ‘lives’ represented by wrenches on the score panel.

Pipe Dream - Gameplay Screenshot 2

As I said, Pipe Dream is a simple game, perhaps even more so than Tetris itself. You can choose between three catchy (but quickly irritating) tunes before play, and it has a suitably panic-inducing tune for when the flooze is nearing the end of the pipeline. It’s a bit drab-looking, but games like this don’t really need, and seldom receive fancy graphics. The hook games like this need is just that – an inherent addictive quality to keep you coming back, and Pipe Dream has it. It’s great fun to play and with some practise you can create huge, grid-filling pipelines and rack up big scores. It’s not the most addictive game I’ve ever played, and doesn’t topple the mighty Tetris, but it’s a great game to play for short bursts before you realise you’ve been playing it for hours!

RKS Score: 8/10