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The Making Of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

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Released: 1982

Genre: Shoot-'em-up

Format reviewed: Atari 2600

Publisher: Parket Brothers

Developer: Parker Brothers

In some respects, University Of Massachusetts graduate Rex Bradford secured his position in Parker Brothers’ videogame group by being in the right place at the right time. But getting to that right place involved a childhood of playing board games and extensively coding at university. “As a kid, I played Risk and other board games. And I tried to invent my own,” Rex explains. “So after learning how to program computers while working at UMass, I saw in the Boston Globe an ad for a job programming electronic games at Parker Brothers. I sent in a resume and was ecstatic to get a call. I drove out to Beverly with a two-foot tall stack of printouts of the code and documentation for every program I had ever written, and was basically hired on the spot. There was definitely a clash of cultures at the Beverly corporate office. It was a pretty ‘Yankee’ company with people dressed in very nice suits, and then the fourth floor was invaded by programmers in blue jeans.”

Although he was hired to develop electronic games, Rex soon found himself transferred to Parker’s newly-approved videogames division, which had been tasked with understanding how the Atari 2600 worked. “My first project was an electronic Monopoly game. I completed the prototype right around the time that the videogame go-ahead happened, and so then transitioned into working with Jim McGinnis and Mark Lesser to determine how the 2600 was programmed. Mark and Jim – our manager – did the hardware-level reverse engineering. The 2600’s zany graphics chip was the key thing there. My first contribution was to write a disassembler for already-published cartridges. When analysis of the circuitry presented ideas for how the sprites and background worked, I wrote small test programs on the 2600 to verify our assumptions. With these combined efforts, we figured out how everything worked in a few months.”

Seconds after hitting a AT-AT’s bomb hatch, a snowspeeder flees from the resultant explosion.
Seconds after hitting a AT-AT’s bomb hatch, a snowspeeder flees from the resultant explosion.

While Rex and his colleagues got to know the 2600, Parker’s marketing department out-pitched Atari to acquire the lucrative Empire Strikes Back videogame licence, the design of which was entrusted to longtime Parker designer Sam Kjellman. “It was an easy sell because Parker’s marketing muscle demonstrated that the licence would be a great moneymaker for Lucasfilm,” Sam remembers. “Parker Brothers had momentum in the electronic game arena; the company was not limited to paper and plastic games. It was a big factor that Parker committed to publish its titles across all viable platforms, and it had a long history of successfully licensing properties for all kinds of games. Parker’s product development was atypical of game companies but typical of marketing-driven consumer products companies. I was selected at Parker because I was on the creative side and had experience with handheld games. I had a keen interest in computer technology and was motivated to read and learn how these devices worked.”

Parker’s marketing-driven approach resulted in a decision to base its Empire game around the movie’s iconic Hoth battle scene, but Sam also cites a classic coin-op as influencing the design. “Marketing considered at the outset how to promote the product on TV. Hoth was a unique and visually-stunning scene from the movie. It also was a real departure, because in most games you were shooting many small attackers. In the Hoth scene, you had many Rebellion fighters taking down these huge Imperial walkers. In the end, the Hoth scene was chosen for its overall market appeal. Defender was out there and was an influence. But we worked to capture the essence of the scene; that was the main objective. We designed the game from still graphics, posters and from the scene. I used gridded paper, initially, so that I could count pixels and make sketches. The next step was to create a storyboard to present to marketing. A long panel had the background, and cut-outs were pasted for the walkers and fighter as well as the base at the far right side. There was a high level of urgency to get the game programmed and released. But additional suggestions were constantly coming, mostly from marketing. They were pushing to get as many features as possible. Once the storyboards were approved, Rex and I were dug in to get it done. From the storyboards, I created cut-outs that had the pixel data for the animations. The pixel data was then picked up by Rex to animate.”

A rare moment of serentiy for your pilot. Careful, danger is only a few seconds away…
A rare moment of serentiy for your pilot. Careful, danger is only a few seconds away…

With the foundations for Empire Strikes Back laid, Rex joined Sam on the game’s development and hit the ground running. “Empire was not only my first videogame, it was also my first assembly language program. It was a baptism of fire. Every morning I printed out the program – it wasn’t that long, really – and every evening I printed out another copy to take home and pore over at night. It took about five months start to finish, and I don’t think I did much of anything else during those months but work on that game. Sam and I worked closely together in the same building and he was playing iterations of the game regularly. As well as being in charge of the game design, he did the graphics for the walkers and perhaps the snowspeeder as well, though the smaller sprites were so simple that they were often done by programmers. The basic scene of ‘snowspeeder versus walker’ was decided before I got on the project. But the details of the game were definitely worked out on the fly. For example, while the vulnerable ‘sweet spot’ on the walkers was part of the design early on, the idea of it launching a smart bomb that chases you came up much later.”

On the origins of the walkers’ vulnerable bomb hatches, Sam reveals their inspiration was another famous piece of Star Wars tech. “They made the game more dynamic because a great shooter could do better in the game. Jim McGinnis was the inspiration for that feature, and marketing jumped all over it because of the idea of the Death Star vulnerability.” Parker’s marketing department was also excited about roping walkers, which landed Rex with the unenviable task of explaining memory constraints. “This was something the marketing folks were quite adamant about, and I defused one tense meeting by stating that I would write the basic game first and then we would see if we could fit it in later. It never got done, obviously. The sprites were already in use and it would have been pretty tough to do any sort of horizontal rope graphic with missiles. And we didn’t have any room in the ROM for animations of walkers falling over.”

It’s tricky to pull off, but blasting a smart bomb out of the sky is extremely satisfying.
It’s tricky to pull off, but blasting a smart bomb out of the sky is extremely satisfying.

Beyond fielding feature requests, Rex also implemented and fine-tuned Empire’s impressive sensation of speed and parallax scrolling backdrops. “The camera and parallax was something I took to and honed myself with feedback from others. I believe it was Jim McGinnis who first suggested the parallax motion of foreground and background. The camera was something I owned and played around with a lot, trying different ideas for the camera behaviour as well as tuning camera and snowspeeder velocities.”

But Rex’s hard work on Empire’s mechanics failed to impress Parker’s marketing department, and it was only by accident that he subsequently gained unanimous approval for the game. “I thought the game was pretty good, but the marketing people were not impressed. So I put in the basic sound effects for missile firing, explosions, and so on. The next day, people came to me saying: ‘This game is awesome, what did you do to it?’ They hadn’t realised that the only change was the addition of sound effects. The theme song for the Force was a nice addition to the game; one that I remember Jim McGinnis may have suggested was possible and helped me a bit with.”

Meanwhile, Sam devised gameplay enhancements such as missile collisions, snowspeeder repairs and representing damage with colour changes, which Rex is still rightly impressed by. “Obviously if it takes 48 hits to kill a walker, there had better be visual progress feedback, and doing it with the sprite graphics was impractical in a 4K cart. The ‘land to repair’ mechanism was a great idea also because the walkers are still shooting at you and so it increases the sense of panic that was part of the feel of the game. Making sure missile collisions exploded the missiles gave daring players with a quick thumb a chance to hang out in front of a walker for a bit and blast away, with decent odds of taking out their missiles with their own.”

After every snowspeeder is destroyed, the sky over Hoth cycles through many colours.
After every snowspeeder is destroyed, the sky over Hoth cycles through many colours.

After realising Sam’s final gameplay ideas on-screen and helping to playtest the game, a final hurdle awaited Rex. “I flew out to California with one of the Parker managers to show Lucasarts the game. We met with Ed Catmull and some of the other graphics gurus who had created the graphics for Star Wars. They were very nice, and understood the limitations of the 2600 and thought the game was good. There were no changes requested. As I remember it, after their approval it just went into a box and into stores.”
Empire Strikes Back was officially launched at the 1982 New York Toy Fair, including a video presentation in a small purpose-built cinema. Rex remembers the fair but didn’t attend. “I didn’t go to the Toy Fair unveiling, though I was aware of it. Parker obviously did a great job with the launch, and the white hotness of the Star Wars theme and licence obviously was key to the game’s success. But I was still very proud of what Sam and I did with help from a few others.”

Sam doesn’t offer changes to Empire when asked if he would make any. “We made all the changes that we could at the time working with a very limited machine. The combination of a mega-hit movie and a mega-hit videogame console produced a commercial success that was as great as anyone could wish for.” Rex has a few ideas for minor improvements, but his final words underline his pride for his first videogame. “I would try to get the power generator ending sequence in, see if I could achieve single-line resolution with the snowspeeder. Beyond that, I think the game was pretty sweet. It was fun to be there near the dawn of the videogame era. The games are incredible now, but it was fun to create them in the early days, with just some simple tools and a blank screen beckoning.”

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