Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Developed by: Parker Brothers
Format played: Atari 2600
Based on the AT-AT attack on the planet Hoth at the beginning of Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back is a fast paced, side scrolling shooter.
Effectively a variant on Defender,you are tasked with piloting a Snow Speeder to defend the rebel base from a relentless horde of AT-ATs.
I have fond memories of this from my youth, taking turns with my brother to defend the Rebels against the evil Galactic Empire.
Some 33 years on, I was concerned how much appeal this would hold. Retro gaming can be fun but there comes a point when the visuals are so shonky as to render the experience unplayable and so I was worried that this would be a wash out.
I needn’t have been, It is visually limited, sure; your ship is a misshapen blob, the sky differentiated from the ground only by a different shade of the same blocky texture. And yet for all that, it retains the core of Star Wars. Your blob actually looks like a Snow Speeder. The AT-ATs look like AT-AT’s and are all the more satisfying to destroy because of it.
And the damage mechanic works well too. Take a hit and your ship goes from black to orange, warning you of danger. Take another and watch forlornly as your ship disintegrates into a heap of junk. The flashing blob on the AT-ATs is great too, adding to the excitement as you zero in for a quick kill.
Modern eyes look for things are are unfair to demand of the hardware. For a game based around defending your base, there is no visual representation of it, just a flashing sky when you inevitably die to mark your failure.
But who cares when it’s this much fun?
Picture the scene…
You are browsing your hard drive, looking for a game from yester-year to pass a few minutes when you chance upon the Atari emulator. With so many games to choose from, you narrow it down to Moon Patrol and Empire, plumping for the latter but with little expectation.
You load up and your heart sinks as the tinny music starts up, the front end nothing more than a stationary ship on a garish background. You try to figure out the keys to get started, accidentally changing the difficulty before finally hitting the start key, taking control of your ship and…
…Holy crap this thing is fast! In the best traditions of Defender, your Speeder zips along at a rate of knots. It might look the pits but it is a dream to control, your craft reacting quickly, allowing you to fly around the advancing horde, skimming the beast and dodging incoming laser fire.
As they are hit, the AT-ATs gradually change colour from black through to orange before finally being destroyed. Or a shot on a flashing sweet spot will see the beast taken down with a single shot. But beware, the AT-ATs shoot back and crashing into one can be fatal.
If you do get hit, your ship bounces away in a neat recoil, giving a tangible sense that you have been blasted by a big, hulking leviathan of a foe.
Speed can be controlled too, a shove of the stick to the left taking you at full pelt, a nudge back to the right slowing you down, a full shove turning you on a sixpence.
There is little variety of course but then that is not the point. This is arcade gaming purity, just you against the scoreboard. How long can you last? How many AT-ATs can you take out? Like the aforementioned Defender or Asteroids, right up to modern handheld games like Subway Surfers or Temple Run. Simple, fun and addictive.
Things get off to a poor start with an ear splitting rendition of the Star Wars theme, a cross between Metallica played backwards and a group of frogs having a burping contest. However it is quickly forgotten as the main game sound effects kick in.
Okay, the laser fire sounds a little like someone crinkling tin foil but it works. When ship or AT-AT is destroyed, it crumbles with a satisfying explosion.
But best of all, acting as a backdrop to the action is a steady, ‘thrum, thrum, thrum’ beat of the AT-ATs advancing, starting off at a steady pace, quickening as they get closer to the Rebel base, the beat intensifying as they draw inexorably closer until finally they reach their target and the base is destroyed in a cacophony of unbearable tension and a flash of light.
True, authentic, exhilarating Star Wars.
The Bottom Line
This is what retro gaming is all about. Forget the visuals, forget the limited gameplay. There is no plot, no characters, no hidden areas. This is pure, unadulterated arcade escapism that remains as enjoyable an experience to play now as it was when it was released.
The Force is indeed strong with this one.