Star Wars: Rebel Assault, a Thirty Year Reunion
Readers of WayTooManyGames might have already noticed I like to talk about old-school Star Wars games whenever possible, for I have tried to play pretty much all of them back in my late teens to early 20s. Be them Aspyr remasters, atrocious Atari outings, or just your run-of-the-mill momentous occasion to celebrate a classic’s anniversary, I love talking about these titles whenever given the ideal opportunity. One of them, which just turned 30 freaking years old, is Star Wars: Rebel Assault, a textbook example of a game that aged like mice milk from the Black Plague days, but one so ambitious and influential I can’t help but deeply respect.
This is an odd one. Star Wars: Rebel Assault was actually the first CD-exclusive Star Wars game developed by LucasArts, and the first cinematic arcade shooter of its time. Back in the early 90s, Star Wars games were mostly relegated to side-scrollers on the NES and SNES. They were good, no doubt about it, but it was hard to convey a sensation of epicness, one the franchise was known for, with simple visuals and bleeps. Rebel Assault was LucasArts trying to bring the epic battles and large-scale action of the movies to one’s home, via a technology that seemed good at the time, and for about 1 to 2 years after the game’s release: full-motion video.
Yep, Rebel Assault, for the most part, is an interactive movie with very little in terms of mechanics. All you need is a joystick and one button. You could, in theory, play the game with an Atari 2600 controller without an issue. Brand new (and heavily compressed) footage is shown onscreen, be it a battle against stormtroopers or a flight through Beggar’s Canyon, with a digitized sprite representing your character, ship, or cockpit put on top of it, acting as what little the game offers in terms of interactivity. In essence, you just need to avoid obstacles and shoot at enemies. As basic as basic can be.
I do agree that, for today’s standards, Rebel Assault looks horrible, and has aged terribly. Unlike, say, Dragon’s Lair, the game does a poor job at just feeling like an interactive movie/cartoon, all due to how the interactive sprites stand out against the FMV backdrops. The story, what little is on offer, is also pretty bad. But that’s the thing: it was one of the first Expanded Universe games of its kind, the first one on console (I played it on the 3DO, with an admittedly atrocious Sega CD port also available), with brand new characters, planets, and so on. It was LucasArts branching from just the source material featured in the three movies which existed at the time.
Being a CD-only game, Rebel Assault spared no expense when it came to featuring footage and music taken straight from the movies. This was no MIDI soundtrack; this was the orchestral soundtrack from the films, albeit heavily compressed. I have mentioned in the past that the simple fact of Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader featuring small clips from the original movies in its menus was a revolutionary highlight for 2001 standards… so you can only imagine having something similar 8 years prior, on even more limited technology.
I would also go as far as to say that the limitations imposed by the format, not letting players fly an X-Wing or Snowspeeder freely around an arena, were probably one of the reasons LucasArts would constantly evolve over the next years, trying to perfect the sensation of actually being inside a space fight like one in the movies. I would dare to say that Rebel Assault was the conduit that led to the creation of the Hoth level in Shadows of the Empire, and, as a consequence, the Rogue Squadron franchise, and the phenomenal Star Wars: Squadrons released in 2020.
So this is why I actually respect the living hell out of Star Wars: Rebel Assault, despite being an admittedly limited and clunky game, even for 1993 standards. LucasArts was trying to do its own Star Wars cinematic masterpiece on consoles and computer, despite their monstrous limitations back in the day. It was the first time we could at least pretend we were inside an X-Wing in a somewhat realistic (for 1993, c’mon) manner. It was also the reason we’d get games like Shadows of the Empire and Rogue Squadron years down the line. You may not like (you surely won’t), but you sure can’t say it’s a black sheep in the franchise’s gaming history.