This game is really special to me – which is a little odd, seeing as I’ve spent more time playing it in the past week than I have at any other point in the previous twenty-eight years. To me Star Wars Arcade sits at the very heart of my arcade gaming experience, stirring up fond memories of being a kid with a few precious coins jangling around the pockets of my dungarees in a dimly-lit room full of incredible possibilities: it’s unpleasant sticky carpets, the promise of a plate of chips when we’re done, and wow games can look like that?! all in one polished package. Seeing Star Wars Arcade in its native environment helped shape my opinion of what real arcade games should be – and that’s big, bold, and Sega. Running on Model 1 hardware – the cutting edge of cutting edge arcade tech back in 1993 – meant it looked nothing less than jaw-droppingly fantastic, a sensation only heightened by the fact that even if only for one single credit you’d get to play Star Wars at a time when you couldn’t guarantee you’d get to see Star Wars at all outside of a TV channel’s special Christmas Day movie showing or from an old VHS tape rented from a local shop.
Obviously these days… OK I’ll admit it, arguably even at the time, when compared to the graphical muscle of the arcade version this surprisingly smooth 32X port looks… well I personally think the lo-poly flat-shaded shapes are still as beautiful as all heck myself, but I accept many will find them just a bit primitive. Even so the timeless design of Star Wars’ space furniture combined with Sega’s original arcade team very sensibly making the decision to not create a game that required them to visualise anything that wouldn’t look convincing when made out of sharp polygonal lines gives this space shooter an instantly recognisable consistency, everything from the starry smear of hyperspace jumps to the chunky look of passing TIE bombers always appearing authentically Star Wars-y even if the passage of time and vast advances in technology make the raw quantity of polygons on display here (What about textures, you say? What are those?) wouldn’t be considered fit for use in a free mobile phone game today. And for all the blocky shapes floating around there is detail to be found where it really matters: Star Destroyers always look absolutely huge whether they’re distant triangles or you’re scraping the underside of one at high speed as you try to get a lock on a nimble TIE fighter, and when you dip down into a Death Star trench you’ll find the sides aren’t grey and flat but packed with vents, ridges, pipes, and shield-sapping overhangs. The Death Star itself is a genuinely awe-inspiring sight, especially as your first view of the moon-sized base is accompanied by three other X-Wings appearing in formation around you as a “Lock S-foils in attack position” speech sample crackles over the radio. The graphics and the sound effects – from that charmingly fuzzy rendition of the Star Wars theme that hits you almost the instant you turn the game on to R2-D2’s panicked yelp if you take a lot of damage – help to envelope you in a happy cocoon of Empire-bopping goodness; everything you can see, hear, and do in perfect step with the spirit of the classic trilogy of films.
Apart from one pretty big thing – dying. You’ll be doing an awful lot of that however you choose to play because for all the joyous nods to fans Star Wars Arcade is an exceptionally tough and unforgiving game: The opening arcade mission makes no apologies for its difficulty and for your first few sorry attempts if you don’t fail because you’re blown to pieces you’ll fail because you ran out of time as that last TIE Interceptor somehow darts past your cockpit unscathed again, and it only gets harder from there. Thankfully the remixed 32X mode is a challenging but slightly less frustrating ride: success is still far from guaranteed (the highly limited number of continues ensure that), but 32X TIEs do seem to be much happier waving themselves around in front of your targeting reticle than the almost unbelievably capable Imperial pilots found in arcade mode. If you still need help – and I know I did – bringing a friend along for this exciting ride swaps out the single-player X-Wing for a two-person Y-Wing, with your friend/partner/roped-in relative taking on the role of a dedicated gunner, doubling your firepower without taking anything away from the pilot. It’s a lovely idea executed perfectly, offering those who simply wanted to play with a friend a brand new ship of their own to sit in while still making canonical sense to those capable of pointing out a Klatooine Paddy Frog in an aquarium full of Burra fish.
Unfortunately flying around in either craft always feels oddly “flat” as you can’t perform any loops, rolls, or dives – leaving you only capable of moving from side to side (vertical movement is possible however it’s extremely limited) and deciding whether you’re going to go fast or slow. It does feel restrictive but it also does a very good job of keeping you close to the action at all times, forcing you to dodge close-range turbolaser fire as you duck and weave across the surface of the Death Star rather than boosting away to safety before turning around to make another timid run at a now distant target.
It’s not arcade perfect: The 32X port omits some minor and major details present in the original, and the extra levels found in the lengthier 32X arranged mode are no grand departure from the space battles of the original game (in fact they all either reuse assets from pre-existing levels or repurpose objects they had to trim from arcade missions to prevent the home release from overworking itself), but seeing as this is literally the best (and only) home port we’ve ever had in the past twenty-seven years, and it would still be convincingly close to the real thing in spirit if not in detail even if it wasn’t, to complain about such differences feels petty. The Mega Drive’s doomed mushroom of 3D power puts up a convincing fight and unquestionably delivers everything a home port of a bombastic early nineties arcade title needed to: This cart contains nothing but exciting action, clear speech samples, amazing graphics, and some overly-dithered stills from the movie forced in where they’re not really needed – just like the real thing.
Compared to any vaguely similar space adventure available somewhere around the early nineties such as Wing Commander, Star Fox, or the brilliantly sim-ish series of X-Wing/TIE fighter games this objectively comes up short in one way or another: It hasn’t got the depth or variety of the PC games nor can it claim to possess anything like the finesse of Nintendo’s barrel-rolling Super-FX action, and after one level of shooting three different kinds of TIE fighter you’re more than likely to go directly to another level where you’re asked to… shoot three different kinds of TIE fighter. Again. And as luck would have it none of those issues actually matter, because whether playing at home with a Mega Drive pad in hand or sitting before a deluxe arcade cabinet holding on to a large joystick, there’s no doubt Star Wars Arcade absolutely nails the one thing it needed to do well, and that was to make you feel like you’re a brave Rebel pilot going up against the evil Empire’s iconic forces of darkness. The world is not short of Star Wars games, and many of them look – or play – better than this one. But few can really make you believe, even if only for a few minutes, that the fate of the rebellion – no, the whole galaxy – rests on your shoulders the way this one does.