GAMEROOM

June 2004

     
     On May 25th, 1977, Star Wars was introduced to moviegoers, and the world has never been the same since. George Lucas' epic sci-fi saga not only changed the way movies have been produced and marketed, but it also revolutionized a concept that had long been dormant in the business industry: licensing. Posters, action figures, books, toys, clothes, jewelry... For kids and adults alike, there was something for everyone who wanted to take home a little piece of Star Wars.

     And, of course, there was coin-op. In the nearly twenty-eight years since the original film's release, twelve titles spanning the formats of arcade video games, pinball and even slot machines have been produced. Each has made their own unique contribution to the Star Wars gaming universe, and a few have the distinction of being the first to offer new technological features in their respective platforms. Three more new games based on the saga have been released recently, but before we start talking about the current and future state of Star Wars coin-op, let's take a look at the past with this insider's guide to the journey of a sci-fi staple from the silver screen to the arcade.

     For years, many people were under the assumption that Atari's Star Wars video game kicked off the series' coin-op run in 1983. But one little-known game, available only overseas, beat it to the punch. In 1980, an Australian company named Hankin secured the license to make a pinball based on The Empire Strikes Back."Only in the last couple of years have these been showing up in the U.S.," says Steve Sansweet. "I love this game for a number of reasons, but mainly because it takes you back to a simpler time. It's an old-style, electro-mechanical pinball game. It has a certain clunky, non-gracefulness to it, with a big wide body, and it weighs a ton." The machine is probably best known in collector's circles for it's striking visual appearance. "The backboard is one of those flashing infinity mirrors that looks like it's eight layers deep when the lights go on," Sansweet explains. "The playfield has some very strange art from Empire, but I really like it. It's a cool piece." As if to officially solidify the Star Wars connection, the brochure for the game even features a photo of Mark Hamill watching the machine being played.

     It would be two more years before fans in the States got their first Star Wars coin-op experience, but it was well worth the wait. Atari's 1983 game was a huge hit, smartly capitalizing on the frenzy surrounding the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi. It's common knowledge that the final version of Star Wars initially started out as a game called Warp Speed, but what many people don't know is that the game was partially inspired by a competing sci-fi franchise.

     "I was a Star Trek fan, and because I started the project, that's the name I chose," says Jed Margolin, the Hardware Engineer and Project Engineer for the game. "I really wanted to do a 3D space war game, and when I was given permission to start Warp Speed, Greg Rivera was the programmer and Ed Rotberg was the project leader. When Ed left to start his own company, Greg and I needed a project leader, and we selected Mike Hally. We then went through several technicians until we got Erik Durfey. Everybody else in the company thought the game was a guaranteed loser. It was a zero priority project." With the addition of programmers Norm Avellar and Earl Vickers, the game finally began to take shape. In mid-1982, Atari started negotiating with Lucasfilm on the idea for a Star Wars project, and Margolin suggested that Warp Speed might be a good platform for just such a game. "Once it became Star Wars, people were more willing to work on it." He recalls also getting some help from outside of the company. "I remember hearing that the tower wave was suggested by Steven Spielberg, who came through the lab one day when he was at Atari for a meeting about something else."

     In the game, players assume the role of Luke in his X-Wing during three different stages of battle: against a squadron of TIE Fighters, around the Death Star surface towers, and finally, into the Death Star trench. The use of 3D vector graphics not only gave the game a distinctive look, but it simulated a real sense of flight that still holds up today. "Memory was a great deal more expensive in the early 1980s than it is today," Margolin says. "The power to do real-time processing for polygon graphics or a high-resolution bit map was prohibitively expensive, and the only systems capable of doing real-time 3D were made for the military and cost $10 million. Vector graphics allowed us to do real-time 3D at a cost that we could afford."

     Realizing the Star Wars license was something special, Atari released the game not only in a standard upright cabinet but also in a sit-down cockpit version, fulfilling every wannabe-Jedi's fantasy of climbing into an X-Wing to take on the Empire. To make the experience even more cinematic, the game was also the first to ever utilize speech, incorporating classic lines spoken by such characters as Luke, Han Solo, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. There has been speculation about whether these soundbites were from the actors or voice-over artists, but Margolin sets the record straight. "Earl Vickers did the speech processing, and as I recall, the first dialogue tapes he received were directly from the movie and contained the final movie mix with speech, dialogue and sound effects. This confused the speech synthesis system we used, so Earl had to ask for just the dry dialogue tracks. But as far as I know, the voices were of the real actors."

     In 1984, Atari followed with a tie-in to Return of the Jedi. Using more traditional raster graphics and 3D animation, the game is divided into four segments. The first is Luke on a speeder bike, flying through the forest of Endor towards the Ewok village while trying to avoid trees and Imperial biker scouts. The next section has Chewbacca in a stolen AT-ST walker heading for the control bunker. The third sequence introduced an innovative "Split-Wave" feature, which cuts back and forth between Chewie in the walker and Lando piloting the Millennium Falcon in outer space. The forth portion of the game involves Lando maneuvering the Falcon through the bowels of the Death Star, shooting the reactor core, and trying to make it out alive before the space station explodes.

     By 1985, interest in the series was waning, but Atari had one more weapon in its Star Wars coin-op arsenal: The Empire Strikes Back. The game was produced as a conversion kit, which meant arcade operators could take an existing Star Wars machine, replace a program memory chip, add some new decals to the cabinet and come away with a brand new game. Going back to the eye-catching vector graphics of the original, Empire recreates some of the film's classic sequences. The first stage has Luke in his snowspeeder attempting to destroy Imperial Probots before they can transmit the location of the Rebel base. The second level has Luke fighting off a wave of AT-AT walkers as they methodically march towards the base. Han tries to escape the planet Hoth in the Millennium Falcon during the game's third wave, with a squad of TIE Fighters in hot pursuit. The last section involves piloting the Falcon through a deadly asteroid field.

     Ten years after Star Wars first took the world by storm, the trilogy had nearly run its course in America. There were a few projects keeping the name alive, but with no new films on the horizon and creator George Lucas working on other endeavors, the franchise seemed destined to fade away after leaving an indellible mark on popular culture. Fans in the States may have been ready to move on, but there was enough demand on foreign shores to merit the production of one more game.

     In 1987, a company based in Spain called Sonic released a Star Wars pinball machine for the European market. Very little information exists about it, but Lisa Stevens, President of the Official Star Wars Fan Club and owner of the world's only complete collection of Star Wars coin-op, sheds some light on this rare game. "It was sub-licensed to Sonic by Atari, which had the license at the time," she says. "What Sonic mainly did was take licensed games from the United States and bring them over to Spain. I'm not sure how much Lucasfilm knew about it, to tell you the truth. This is back in the late '80s, and it was a time when Lucasfilm wasn't really hot on licensing Star Wars. When they did this game, I think the Droids and Ewoks cartoon series' were really big in Spain at that time. I'm guessing that Sonic wanted to do a pinball game, and Atari had the license but hadn't done an arcade game since 1985, so Atari probably thought, 'Why not?', and sub-licensed it to them."

     The game itself is a no-frills affair, seemingly designed to cash in on the brand name rather than provide interesting gameplay for silverball fans. "It has the Star Wars music and some R2-D2 sounds, but it has some generic stuff to it that has nothing to do with Star Wars," says Stevens. "It was the last machine I needed for my collection, so it was definitely my Holy Grail, but I think it's one of the worst pinball games I've ever played." With that kind of customer feedback, it's probably a good thing not many are still around. "A lot of times Sonic owned the machines and put them into bars or places like that, then they'd take them back after a period of time and retro-fit them into something new and different," Stevens explains. "I don't know how many still exist, but I don't know of anyone else who has one."

     In 1992, marking the original film's 15th anniversary, Lucasfilm began a campaign to resurrect Star Wars in the public's consciousness. Several new products were introduced, and coin-op fans were not neglected. Even though two other pinball machines had been licensed and produced, both of them were only available overseas. Data East finally brought Star Wars pinball to American audiences, and the reception was enthusiastic, to say the least. "It was the biggest-selling game in the history of the company," says Joe Kaminkow, one of the pin's designers.

     Many of the characters and situations from the trilogy are represented, including dot matrix animations of Empire's AT-AT walker attack and Jedi's speeder bike chase, but the main objective is taken directly from the original film: destroy the Death Star. A rotating mock-up of the Empire's ultimate weapon is in the upper-right corner of the playfield, and the player must skillfully shoot the ball into the Death Star's small opening, cleverly mirroring the movie's penultimate moment when Luke fires his proton torpedoes into the space station's exhaust port. The combination of soundbites (when a ball is lost during a critical moment, Leia scolds, "This is some rescue!") and custom speech (Yoda rewards the player by saying, "Hmmm... Extra ball you have!") also contributed to the game's popularity.

     Although it was a huge success, Kaminkow reveals the game was initially intended for a smaller, more exclusive audience. "When we originally started, it was going to be a game specifically for Industrial Light & Magic. It had some stuff from Willow and Indiana Jones and Star Wars... And there was so much Star Wars stuff, we just said, 'Screw it, let's make a Star Wars game.' John Borg was the main playfield designer, Neil Falconer did the software, and it was really one of the best games we ever made."

     With renewed interest in the trilogy gaining momentum, Sega took full advantage of its licensing opportunities by rolling out five coin-op titles within a seven year span. The first to debut was 1993's Star Wars Arcade, a two-player sit-down game played on a 50-inch monitor in which one person pilots an X-Wing while the other person is the gunner. Diehard fans might find that concept a little strange since an X-Wing is a one-man ship, but as Lisa Stevens reveals, the game's foreign origins might explain a few other oddities that are very apparent. "The game was done by Sega over in Taiwan. There's a wacky storyline where you're coming through an asteroid field, and there's Star Destroyers and you're fighting TIE Fighters, which is all pretty normal. But then you fly inside a Super Star Destroyer and fire proton torpedos at it's core! And then you're raiding the second Death Star, but all of the dialogue in the game is from the first movie!" Star Wars Arcade was mainly distributed to foreign markets, but Stevens says some of them did find their way to America. "I heard Sega shipped 10 or 20 to the United States, and I've run into people who remember seeing it at DisneyWorld and other big amusement parks."

     In 1996, another overseas country would lay claim to the next piece of Star Wars coin-op produced, but this one was a little different, as it couldn't be found in an ordinary, family-friendly arcade. Even Steve Sansweet, a collector who has pretty much seen it all, admits that this particular game took him by surprise. "When I first heard about the German slot machine, I was absolutely convinced it was a bootleg," he says. "But it really was licensed. It was made by a British Sega company called JPM International for the German market, so the voices of Darth Vader and the others are in German."

     Intrigued with his discovery, Sansweet did more research, only to find that -- technically -- the slot machine wasn't really a slot machine. "I asked someone in Licensing here at Lucasfilm about it, and they said, 'Oh, well that's not a slot machine, Steve, that's an arcade machine,' because it doesn't take money, it takes tokens. It's like a pachinko machine in Japan, it's not a gambling device. You pay your money, you get a number of stainless steel balls, and the idea is to get back more balls than you put into the machine. You can redeem the balls for silly kinds of prizes, but then you go across the street and redeem your prizes for money! The fun thing about it was, although I got the machine with regular tokens, it also came with TIE Fighter tokens."

     Even though he's not fluent in German, Sansweet says the game is still entertaining. "It's a triple-reel touch machine, and you can do all these kinds of matches, but if you get three TIE Fighters, then you play the second game, which involves things like flying around a Star Destroyer and getting a lightsaber to turn all the way on in increments. I'm not sure I still fully understand the game, even though I've had a couple of German people over to explain it to me. But it's fun, it lights up and lots of points accumulate. It's quite a piece."

     In 1997, twenty years after its theatrical debut, Star Wars was back on the big screen with the release of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Editions. When Sega chose to use pinball as a tie-in to the Special Editions, Joe Balcer, a mechanical engineer who worked on the R2-D2 and Death Star mechanisms for the Data East pin, was called on to design the newest entry in the Star Wars coin-op field. As he explains, time was not a luxury on the project. "It was really a last minute thing. Joe Kaminkow, who did all of our licensing, had it drop in his lap. I think Williams was going for it, along with a couple of other companies who were around at the time, and it was kind of up in the air. He had a really good relationship with Lucasfilm and came back from a meeting one day and said, 'Hey, I got Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition and we've got to do a game... now!'. So we hit the computer and started going. We actually did it in a four or five month time frame. It was unreal that we pulled it off so quick."

     With the hugely popular Data East pin having been produced only a few years earlier, Balcer and his team took great care to make the two as different as possible. "That first one was all about the Death Star, so we wanted to stay away from that, but we really tried to hit the other key elements from all the movies. There was always a lot of fighting between the TIE Fighters and the X-Wings in the films, and we definitely wanted to have something in there about that, so we turned this one into more of a shooting game. That was the main feel, but it had a lot of elements from all the movies, and we just tried to put in as much as we could in a short period of time."

     Those other elements included such mechanical features as a Death Star turret whose turbolasers will divert the ball's direction, Vader's TIE Fighter that rocks after every hit, and an X-Wing that's used to take out TIE Fighter drop targets to access a bonus mode. The turret was sculpted specifically for the pin, but toy collectors will easily recognize the ships as part of Galoob's Micro Machines series. "The TIE Fighter and the X-Wing were toys that we bought", says Balcer, "so we didn't have to spend a lot of money on tooling to get the game going. We would buy them in bulk from Galoob and then add holes or clips to mount them to the mechanisms." An optional feature on the game to attract business was also a first for the decades-old pinball industry -- the Sega Showcase Backbox with a 3D backglass.

     Another trilogy-themed piece arrived in 1998 with the release of Sega's Star Wars Trilogy Arcade. Unlike the similarly titled Star Wars Arcade from 1993, this game gave fans a faithful recreation of key battles and chases from the movies. Players have the choice of starting with one of three planetary missions, each based on a different film in the series. Yavin (from the original movie) involves fending off waves of TIE Fighters as you try to destroy the Death Star. On Hoth (the ice planet in Empire), the player must destroy AT-AT's and Probots before taking on an army of snowtroopers and a Wampa, all in an effort to reach the Millennium Falcon. And on the planet Endor (from Jedi), you zoom through the forest dodging biker scouts en route to an Imperial bunker, where an AT-ST stands guard. Bonus stages include lightsaber duels with Boba Fett and Darth Vader. Star Wars Trilogy Arcade was produced in both an upright cabinet and a deluxe sit-down version with a 50-inch monitor. Of all the video games based on the films, it's also Steve Sansweet's personal favorite. "It's a wonderful game," he says. "It's all three movies, plus fighting Vader and Boba Fett one-on-one... It's just an incredible experience. I never get tired of playing it."

     1999 was a historic year for the franchise, as Episode I - The Phantom Menace became the first new Star Wars film to be released in sixteen years. To celebrate the occasion, Williams introduced a game using their Pinball 2000 platform, a cutting-edge hybrid of traditional pinball and arcade video. Designer John Popadiuk tells how this technologically advanced idea became a reality. "At the time, pinball was slowly eroding in sales, and all the design groups were asked to come up with the next wave. I had worked on a digital pinball at Bally in the '80s and at Williams in '96, which was basically a pin with a Nintendo 64 shoved in it. Then when everything was going south, they asked me to build the prototype of the digital pin for review. We did it in three weeks and blew everyone away. The monitor was used as the backglass, suspended over a traditional playfield, but it had digital graphics and a killer sound system. It was a total experience."

     Like the 1983 Atari game, the Episode I pin was initially conceived and developed as a much different project. "It started out as Defenders, which was a remake of the old Williams' Defender," says Popadiuk. "Kind of an alien-battle/secret-society type of game, like Men in Black. It was an original theme, and we had already created many of the characters and ships. But when the Star Wars license came up, we knew it would be a great vehicle for the new pinball platform and give the operators a healthy title to invest in, so it was an easy decision to make in changing it to Episode I."

     The game features thirteen different sequences from the film, including the Gungan battle, the sub escape and a duel with Darth Maul. Players must combine their pinball and arcade video shooting skills to manuever through various levels to obtain the ultimate honor of Jedi Spirit. Designing a game using the Pinball 2000 platform was difficult enough, but as Popadiuk explains, basing it on a film as eagerly anticipated and hyped as Episode I only added to the complications. "It took fourteen months to make the game, and ten of those were in secrecy. We had to meet certain dates set by Lucas Licensing. We could only get bits of the film, resource material, script stuff, and CG models when it was available from Lucas, so they would limit how fast we could design. Also, because we had such a large team, it was a huge amount of work on eveyone's part. We had 6 CG artists and 3 programmers, so everyone had to have a good idea what was happening. All of this was being pioneered for the first time, and we had to show our department VP, Larry Demar, we knew what we were doing and had a sound direction for gameplay. In some cases, one scene lasting ten seconds might take the CG artist one to two weeks to animate and render, and then the programmer another week to get it flipping."

     The hard work paid off, as coin-op fans and collectors like Steve Sansweet and Lisa Stevens eagerly cite Episode I as the best of all the Star Wars pinball machines ever made. Unfortunately, the game's success didn't come soon enough for Williams, which closed its doors after Episode I's production run. Looking back, Popadiuk has mixed feelings about the project. "Pinball is really a pure game... A ball, some flippers and junk to shoot at. Pinball 2000 was not a pure form. We also had some design issues that needed to be resolved with the monitor. But we were working with the best guys in the industry, and everyone worked their butts off and are very proud of what we did. It was real heart and soul that went into it."

     Sega released its own Episode I game in 2000 based on a huge action sequence from the film -- podracing. In Star Wars Racer Arcade, players can select one of four characters and choose from four different tracks to compete on. Cabinets are equipped with either a 33-inch or 50-inch monitor, and up to four machines can be linked together for multi-player racing. Lisa Stevens feels this kind of head-to-head competition is what puts Racer Arcade ahead of the other video games in the Star Wars universe. "I love it. I have two right now that are hooked up, but I want to get two more," she says. "I have the most fun when I'm racing other people because there's more of a challenge. Sega did such a wonderful job with the feel of the game, the maneuvering and some of the thrusting strategies, it's really the epitome of arcade gaming in a lot of ways."

     In examining the history of Star Wars coin-op, design and development are only two steps in the creation of the games. Another important process, one that ultimately decides the final look and feel of the game, is the stamp of approval from Lucasfilm. As Joe Balcer tells it, working with a licensed property has its share of both blessings and curses. "Licensors can be real picky. They have their product, and it has to be shown the way they want it to be shown. They can nitpick lines in the artwork, or they can nitpick the angles on someone's face on a pinball backglass. They have their list, and we're paying them to use their product, so they want it to be right on. On one hand, they come up with a lot of suggestions that are really helpful, but on the other hand, they can put a big stick in the process if a certain part of it isn't what they like." But past performance can also make for smooth sailing the next time around. "If you had a good product before, it makes it that much easier going through their process on the next one. I worked with Joe Kaminkow a lot, and I got to go around to the licensors and meet these people and get a relationship with them. Down the road, if you do another project with them, you're seeing the same faces, they know who's doing it, and it goes that much smoother. I don't think another company could have pulled off the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition game in a short period of time like we did without our relationship from the Data East game."

     Getting approval from the licensor is a huge hurdle, but even when that is crossed, it ultimately pales in comparison to the final judgment made by the fans. Is there any added pressure to make sure the core audience will appreciate the product? "Absolutely," says Balcer. "Because of the popularity of the movie, you want the game to be well-received, too. You want to see people's first reaction to it as, 'Wow! Look at this!'. There was also more pressure because you're talking about a real high-level license. If you come out with something that's a dog, not only are you wasting the money on a license of that size, you're not going to get the production run that you want and you're not going to get the earnings the game should make. And as we've seen through the years, the game will probably end up in a family room or some guy's collection, so you do want to make it fun for the fans."

     As the countdown continues to the premiere of Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, three more coin-op games have been released in the last several months to help fans worldwide pass the time. Star Wars Starfighter from Tsunami Visual Technologies is based on a LucasArts title previously available on PC and home console systems. Set during the events of the prequels, Starfighter is an interactive, motion-based game which comes in a cockpit design with either a 33-inch display or a 50-inch deluxe display.

     Gamers will have to visit their nearest casino to see America's first Star Wars slot machine from International Game Technology (IGT). Joe Kaminkow, the former pinball designer who is now IGT's vice president of game design, said in a statement, "The development of the Star Wars video slot will be a significant gaming event. Those who stood in line in 1977 to see the first Star Wars movie are now about 50 years old, exactly the demographic of core slot players. Our first game will be themed around Star Wars: A New Hope. I'm happy to be working with Lucasfilm again. My relationship with Star Wars products began over a decade ago." The machine is a MegaJackpots progressive system game using IGT's Advanced Video Platform (AVP). "AVP is the next generation of slot machines, with enough computing power to produce vibrant 3D-like video and theater-style audio which should be a perfect match for this material," said John Sears, vice president of MegaJackpots for IGT.

     As a member of the Lucasfilm family, Steve Sansweet was granted an early look at the game. "It's the most amazing, mind-blowing machine. I was slobbering!", he says enthusiastically. "I asked Joe, 'How do I get one?' He said, 'You can't. We can't even give a sample to Lucasfilm because it's illegal. We don't sell them to the casinos, we lease them and have a profit sharing arrangement.' So I asked how long until it becomes antique under the law, and he said, 'Oh, about twenty to twenty-five years!'"

     Collectors won't have to wait nearly as long to get their hands on another new gaming device, as Sansweet reveals that a Star Wars pachinko machine has recently been released to Japanese pachinko parlors. Unlike slot machines, a pachinko game is usually available for resale to the public within a year after its debut.

     Like many other long-running entertainment series, Star Wars has experienced its share of highs and lows in popularity, but after nearly three decades, there's no question it has stood the test of time. Although the cinematic adventures are coming to an end, fans can still look forward to the new exploits of their favorite characters in an on-going series of books, comics and video games. Whether or not coin-op will continue to play a role in the future of Star Wars is unclear, but as history has shown, whenever new technology allows gamers to go to the next level, Star Wars is a property that often leads the way. In the coming years, as video graphics and audio become more and more realistic, it's a good bet that we'll be able to get a little bit closer to that galaxy far, far away... one game at a time.