Retro Game Review – Star Wars: Jedi Power Battles
The Phantom Menace was not the only tie-in game based on Episode I that players received after the film was first released. Almost a year later, Jedi Power Battles arrived on PS1.
This time around, the project was developed by LucasArts themselves. Despite (loosely) following the events of The Phantom Menace, the game distanced itself from the 1999 title and embraced the beat ’em up genre while adding big doses of platforming. It was met with a mixed to positive reception upon release, with the main complaint being that the game was too difficult. Reviewers were not wrong about that.
Jedi Power Battles feels like an old school arcade video game. It punishes every mistake and wants players to learn its mechanics and practice every jump. It is easier to pick up and play than The Phantom Menace though; its systems are easy to understand, and everyone can feel comfortable choppin’ up droids from the very first moment. There are no RPG elements to be found here, just straight-up action and platforming. It has, however, a surprisingly solid progression system that rewards combat performance and exploration; defeating enemies and collecting items instead of simply rushing through some sections yields significant score gains that are turned into health/Force upgrades, new combos, and even new Force powers at the end of each level. Pro tip: smash and cut through every asset you can interact with.
One of the game’s strengths is its roster of Jedi knights, which offers different playstyles: Mace Windu is a balanced fighter with some flashy lightsaber tricks, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are more defensive, Plo Koon is strong but slow, and Adi Gallia is a rogue-ish character that relies on speed. These distinct approaches to combat can be mixed up by playing with a second player thanks to the game’s fantastic co-op mode, which is the optimal way to experience it. Just try not to lag behind your buddy, as staying off-screen for more than a few seconds will kill you (the game avoided split-screen confusion altogether).
Throughout the game, you find pickups that heal, replenish your detonators (yes, I know) or Force bar, boost your attack damage, etc. Some rarer pickups are “credits” (extra lives, basically), and other items reward players with score boosts in exchange for a fair amount of their health bar. There are no warnings or information about them, so this is something you learn as you play through the levels. The game relies quite a bit on “trial and error”, especially during its platforming sections, which are arguably the toughest parts of Jedi Power Battles, since enemies are usually shooting at you and one hit makes you plummet down like a rock. Also important: Jedi knights suffer greatly from fall damage (as in instant death), unlike in the films.
There are ten levels in the game, starting with the Trade Federation battleship and ending with the epic duel against Darth Maul. There are a few checkpoints in every level, but some sections are longer and tougher than others, which can lead to abundant close calls and players punching their controllers due to diabolic jumps placed right before that sweet, sweet checkpoint pickup. Tatooine (watch out for those Tusken raiders) and Coruscant are especially difficult levels which test the patience of first-timers. The eighth and ninth levels are different though, and that is all I will say about them. There are some bonus levels too, which are unlocked after beating the game with certain characters. In the same way, players can also unlock Queen Amidala, Captain Panaka, and Darth Maul as playable characters that handle quite differently; they cannot be leveled up though, which makes beating the game with them extremely hard.
A (greatly) upgraded and reworked version of the game arrived on Dreamcast months later (October 2000). It runs on a higher resolution at 60 frames per second and features improved graphics, bugfixes, and the inclusion of Jedi master Ki-Adi Mundi, who sports a purple lightsaber. Mace Windu, Plo Koon, and Adi Gallia’s lightsaber colors are also canonically “wrong” in both versions, as they had not been chosen for the films at that time. The PS1 version, which is the one that most people played, still holds up visually, with some impressive level design and a vast array of assets that are put to good use from start to finish. As you would expect from LucasArts, the audio is top-notch too, with many effects and musical pieces ripped straight from The Phantom Menace. Game Boy Advance later received a poor attempt at making the experience portable that was developed by HotGen Studios and published in collaboration with THQ. You do not want to know about that one.
My favorite aspect of this game is how zany it is. Despite following on the steps of Episode I, it constantly finds new ways to surprise the player with strange enemies (and some insane bosses) and many absurd situations. All in service of the gameplay, which is weighty and relentless. That Coruscant level filled with criminals and insane platforming is a marathon, let me tell you. There is also quite a bit of charm in some of its bugs and exploiting the AI to kill itself by making impossible jumps. And then there is the extremely odd choice of using Yoda’s laugh as the sound effect for consuming pickups. The first thing you hear after dying and respawning is Yoda’s laugh (you load on top of checkpoint pickups). For real.
This video game is another case of unpolished charm. You have played better Star Wars games, but there are not many as unique as this one. Below its recognizable beat ’em up surface, there is a very specific take on the genre and the source material. LucasArts clearly had a lot of fun putting this one together, and I believe it serves as a reminder of how fun movie tie-in games could be when they did not stick close to their big screen counterparts.
Francisco J. Ruiz is that guy who has watched Jurassic Park a thousand times and loves Star Wars. His hunger for movies is only matched by his love for video games. He graduated in English Studies from the University of Malaga, in Spain. As he continues to write about what he enjoys (and doesn’t), he’s studying for a master’s degree and working on becoming a teacher.