Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, a Twenty Year Reunion
I want to ask you a simple question. Try to remember your childhood, your teenage years. Try to remember the one moment in gaming history where you told yourself “I am witnessing the future”. The one moment that made you speechless, that made your jaw drop, that made you wonder if gaming could ever get any better. It might sound like a difficult ordeal, but to me this answer is actually pretty simple. That moment was Christmas 2002, the day I got my own GameCube. It was the day I booted up Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader for the first time, and my idea of what video games could be would forever changed.
Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader was a launch title for the GameCube, which I actually consider to be the best system Nintendo has ever crafted. Sure, it had its problems, such as the stupid storage size in its disc and the lack of a few buttons on its controller, which made porting multiplats to it harder than it should have been. However, in terms of the balance between hardware horsepower, Nintendo gimmicks that actually did not suck, third-party support, and a steady output of excellent exclusives, the GameCube ruled. It still rules. The vast majority of its games still hold up brilliantly. Case and point, Rogue Squadron II. I am not saying this (only) with rose-tinted glasses, but as someone who had actually played it once again up to ten minutes before writing this article. It is the best Star Wars game of all time.
It’s impossible to talk about Star Wars Rogue Squadron II without mentioning its predecessor first. The original Rogue Squadron was an amazing Nintendo 64 title, but it was severely hindered by the console’s capabilities. It had no space battles, its framerate could be counted on single digits at times, and its draw distance was… laughable. You could only see a few feet in front of you. It was a game that punched above its weight. The concept was there, it just needed more horsepower in order for Factor 5, its developer, to fully deliver its vision. They did a good job with Rogue Squadron‘s Episode I-esque pseudo-sequel, Battle for Naboo, but the GameCube’s surprisingly beefy hardware was the solution to the company’s issues.
November 18th, 2001. The GameCube is available for consumers, as well as a top notch launch lineup, featuring titles like Luigi’s Mansion, Crazy Taxi, Wave Race: Blue Storm, and much more. The one killer app available at launch wasn’t any of these games, though. It was Star Wars Rogue Squadron II. That game wasn’t just Nintendo showcasing their new system was more powerful than the Nintendo 64. No, that game was Ninty’s middle finger towards its competition, proving that the ridiculed purple lunchbox could deliver visuals and performance its rivals could only dream of.
Nintendo, Factor 5 and LucasArts all wanted to flex and prove their competence even before the game would actually begin. The introductory cutscene with the Stormtroopers dancing to the Cantina theme song served as a showcase of how many characters could be rendered at once with the GameCube’s hardware. It would then be followed by some of the greatest explosion effects still seen to this day, as well as great MIDI work and an ultra-realistic rendering of an X-Wing, followed by the Factor 5 logo. In one minuscule cutscene, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II showed us what to expect from it: realistic visuals, fantastic music, and a performance to die for.
I rarely, if ever, talk about the design of a game’s main menu, but it’s impossible to talk about Star Wars Rogue Squadron II without mentioning the heartwarming fanservice that is its menu interface. No matter where you are, be it in the main menu, the options screen, the passcode screen, you’re always being greeted by footage from the original Star Wars movies. This is the kind of fanservice you don’t see nowadays. Back as a kid, as someone who hadn’t owned DVDs for the original trilogy until their 2004 re-release, that was beyond epic. The game was telling me, the Star Wars fanboy, I was ready to immerse myself into the movies I grew up loving. And they knew the perfect way to introduce its gameplay.
In fact, perfect ways, for there are two. Upon starting a new save file, you have two levels at your disposal. The first one, which is optional, is Tatooine Training, a pseudo open-world tutorial area where you’re given twenty minutes to fool around in a realistic portrayal of Tatooine, complete with Jabba’s Palace, Mos Eisley, C3PO’s escape pod, Banthas, womp rats to shoot, and much more. All you need to do is fly over some red icons and the narrator, the iconic Denny Delk, will teach you a mechanic or tell you to complete a minigame. The T-16 Skyhopper isn’t exactly an exciting ship to pilot, but its simple maneuverability and low speed work wonderfully as training tools. This isn’t the actual beginning of the game, though. No, Factor 5 had something way more epic in mind.
In the first Rogue Squadron game, the first level was set in a calm area, with easy objectives, in a very laid-back atmosphere. Star Wars Rogue Squadron II, on the other hand, starts off with the Battle of Yavin. Yep, what was once a bonus mission in its predecessor was expanded and turned into an introductory level. A tense, epic, introductory level. At first, you just need to destroy a few towers. They’re standing still, so it’s pretty easy stuff, but the soundtrack makes the act of shooting at immobile targets feel extraordinary. The second part of the level has you shooting a few TIE Fighters. Again, nothing too difficult, they’re just flying around, minding their business, but the visuals and sound elevate the experience.
The final part of that level is cherry on top of a delicious cake. The Trench Run. The music kicks in. The framerate makes things more dramatic. Lasers are being shot from all directions. Obi-Wan tells you to use the Force. Darth Vader tries to shoot you down, but Han shows up to rescue you. Upon reaching the end of the trench, the music becomes even more tense. It’s up to you to save the galaxy. Miss that shot, and we will all die. Press the secondary fire button, throw that missile into the exhaust port, and see the game masterfully transition its polygonal assets to an actual movie clip of the Death Star blowing up, making the experience feel even more immersive.
Things only get better from then on out. We fight on Hoth, on Bespin, on Endor, on Yavin IV. We also fight in space, something that wasn’t possible in the original Rogue Squadron. One of these space levels, Razor Rendezvous, might be one of the coolest moments in gaming history, as you’re told to blow up a Star Destroyer. To this very day, every single Star Wars game copies that level when it comes to the means of destroying that ship. It goes to show how influential Star Wars Rogue Squadron II was, and still is.
Things wouldn’t feel so epic if the performance wasn’t up to snuff. It is no exaggeration to state that Star Wars Rogue Squadron II is the best looking and best performing game on the GameCube. It looks and performs better than pretty much any other game in the system, and the fact it’s a launch title isn’t a detriment to the rest of the console’s library. This game was just that good.
Star Wars Rogue Squadron II was the game that taught me about framerates. Well, it didn’t exactly know what a literal framerate was back in the day, but going from the Nintendo 64, where I would be lucky to get a game running at 15fps, to the silky smooth, borderline insane 60fps offered by Rogue Squadron II on the next day, was enough to teach a nine year old that, yes, the GameCube made games “run faster”. It has drops, sure, but the fact it managed to achieve such a performance literally twenty years ago is worth praising to this day. ESPECIALLY given how good the game looks.
The visuals, oh man. This game is just beautiful. It was in 2001, it still is today. There are loads of PS3 and PS4 games that do NOT look as good as Star Wars Rogue Squadron II does. Sure, they don’t run at 480i like this one does, but the art direction, the quality of the animations, the lighting, the level of detail in each ship, the particle effects… it’s all perfect. I can boot this bad boy up on a big LED screen, the same I use to play my PlayStation 5, and still be impressed with its visuals. It holds up like a champ.
I haven’t even started talking about the gameplay, and to me, there are no issues in here. At all. These controls just work perfectly. They are far from realistic, they don’t try to emulate Ace Combat or even Star Wars: Squadrons‘ physics, but given Star Wars Rogue Squadron II‘s fast-paced, arcade-like nature, they fit perfectly within the concept. You only have two firing methods per ship: an infinite laser blaster, and a finite secondary weapon. X-Wings get proton torpedoes, Y-Wing get bombs, Snowspeeders get the tow cable, Vader’s personal TIE Advanced gets cluster bombs, and so on.
With the help of a brand new targeting computer system, which indicates whether or not an enemy’s destruction is mandatory in order to complete a mission, you can streamline your objectives and your medal acquisition requirements. The more you use the targeting computer, the less points you’ll score, so use this mechanic wisely. Use it as a teaching tool, to learn enemy patterns and positions, so you can replay a mission and grab a Gold Medal. The more medals you acquire, the more secret levels you can unlock.
Speaking of unlockables, not only can you unlock new levels and ships by simply playing the game and beating missions as quickly as possible, but you can also acquire a few extra starcrafts by… inputing passwords! Calm down kids, this was the early 2000s. You were allowed to input codes and perform cheats, as there were no trophies or achievements. You were doing so because you just wanted to have fun with the damn game. You could unlock the Naboo Starfighter from The Phantom Menace, the Slave I, TIE Advanced, an Imperial Shuttle, a flying Buick, and everything else in between. I did not joke with the last one, by the way.
Was there anything I did not like about Star Wars Rogue Squadron II, either back in the day or now? Well, there might be one annoying mission and the level of difficulty can be uneven at times, but those are just personal gripes, not even flaws per se. Honestly, that’s pretty much it. My main qualm is the fact that it ends. Replayable as hell, but it ends. Here at WayTooManyGames, I do my best to analyze a game and find flaws in a piece of medium, as perfection should be something really hard to achieve. Star Wars Rogue Squadron II is one of the few games I have ever played where I struggle to find any single issue. It might just be perfect.
It might be hard to play Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader in an official way in 2021, but this is a game worth experiencing. I cannot believe this titan, as well as the GameCube as a whole, is now twenty years old. It is the pinnacle of Star Wars in video games, possibly the best game available for Nintendo’s purple lunchbox, and one of the best games of all time. Simple as that. No need to beat around the bush. Happy twentieth anniversary, Rogue Leader. You are damn near perfect and will forever be.