Monday 8 May 2023

40 years of Atari's Star Wars

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and Atari's Star Wars arcade game.

It's summer 1983, and my family have stopped for a break at Gordano Services, Bristol. Clasping a cherished copy of Peter Davison's Book of Alien Monsters, I wander into a smokey, neon-lit arcade after hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi's digitised voice! A childhood dream of becoming Luke Skywalker and flying an X-wing into the Death Star trench is within my grasp as I step inside the cockpit...

The classic Atari title, with its dazzling vector graphics and use of original music, sound effects and dialogue from Star Wars, was soon followed by Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi arcade games.

Star Wars Insider issue #218 features an interview with Mike Hally, project leader on Atari's arcade classic.

“We had a research group led by Rick Moncrief, and a guy on his team named Jed Margolin was developing this hardware called ‘warp speed.’ It was 3D vector hardware that wasn’t really being built for a game, but I took a look at it and thought, ‘Man, this would be perfect for Star Wars.’ So, I worked up a proposal, and Atari approved me being in charge of it,” Hally smiles. “I remember getting to work and being very excited.”

What self-respecting Star Wars fan wouldn't want to pilot an X-wing, dogfight with TIE Fighters and destroy the first dreaded Death Star?

“To me it was really, really simple. I mean, the whole climax of the movie was about Luke Skywalker flying his X-wing, shooting TIE fighters, trying to get down to the Death Star past the gun turrets, and then diving into the trench to get to the exhaust port,” Hally says. “It was perfect for a video game.”

Atari's arcade game spawned clones for 8-bit home computers. I remember playing 3D Starstrike on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum whilst listening to John Williams' Star Wars soundtracks and surrounded by Star Wars toys. Incidentally, Parker Brothers released official Star Wars game cartridges for the Atari VCS. I have fond memories of holding off AT-AT walkers in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back with fellow Rebel and childhood friend Kevin Simpson.

What are your memories of playing Star Wars video games? Let me know in the comments below.

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