Nostalgia is a powerful and profitable force — more so now than ever before. It’s far easier nowadays to make everything old feel new again, and the movie and video game industries have been leaning on this for some time now — pleasing fans and raking in the profits based on the seemingly unending demand for the past. But does the flood of nostalgia-driven remasters and HD releases of the older Star Wars games mean that old truly is new, or is old still just old, or is it something in between?
Earlier this year, an HD port of the 2005 PC and Xbox first-person squad-shooter, Star Wars: Republic Commando was released on PS4 and Nintendo Switch. Back in the day, I did not own an Xbox nor a gaming-quality PC, so I had to wait a little over a decade and a half to finally get my hands on a game that everyone and their mother raved about during the era of the prequel trilogy. After pre-ordering the game and pre-downloading it, I was locked, loaded, and ready to go. An hour and a half later, I was done. No, I had not beaten the game in record time, but rather the game had beaten me.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that a first-person shooter from 2005 would still feel like a first-person shooter from 2005 even in 2021. Apparently, I’m in the minority about this; whether it’s due to me not having the nostalgia for this particular title to anchor me or not is certainly up for debate, but: the AI was impossible to work with, the controls were a mess, and it all felt so, so very dated, and not in a charming and fun way. I quietly walked away from the game and have yet to return. This is exactly how I felt trying to play the original Metroid while playing the recently released Metroid Dread — sometimes a game from the past is just too difficult to play even in the face of quality-of-life improvements and better control setups. Playing something so old, so many generations removed from what came before, is hard for me, especially since I grew up not allowed to own video games (PC games were allowed for some reason, just not games of the video sort). So, in my quest to catch up with what I missed, I have learned that, sometimes, what has come later makes it difficult to play what has come before.
After my disappointment with Republic Commando, I got to thinking about all those Star Wars games I obsessively played in my youth, and knowing that so many of them are available once more, I wanted to see whether I was looking at my past gaming experiences through rose-tinted lenses, or if any of these games still felt fresh or fun so many years removed from when they first debuted. I wanted to see if any of them made me feel like I was able to still go back to that comfy, proverbial home that is the past. What I found was a strangely mixed bag…
Let’s start with a more recent release, Star Wars: Squadrons — here is a game that in every way, shape, and form, is a spiritual successor to the Star Wars: X-Wing/TIE Fighter and Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter series of PC games. While Squadrons ditches a great deal of the deep simulator systems of the older titles, the game makes up for some of these losses by leaning on what it does have: power balancing on the fly, customizable load-outs, and maneuverability. All of these are all key to victory in this game. While the older games in the space-flight simulator series could be action-packed from time to time, a lot of time was spent on escort missions and, all in the same, endless starfields. Now, we have a game that makes the multiplayer experience a little easier to swallow all while delivering a solid single-player campaign, and all in various and unique locals. Sure, there’s only a handful of maps, but at least they’re not all an endless starfield. That all said, TIE Fighter and X-Wing do still get a lot right and hold up well even all these decades later — there’s a good reason these games, especially TIE Fighter, still have a dedicated following — they did things right and stuck with what made them work.
Another series I was obsessed with growing up was the Star Wars: Rebel Assault games. Rebel Assault and Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire were arcade-like rail-shooters that had you flying X-Wings, blasting Stormtroopers, and as the title spells out, assaulting the Empire. Both games relied heavily on the tried-and-true formula of going with what the movies did. Aping the Star Wars films was nothing new in the era of the old EU, pretty much every book and comic and game rehashed plots (or plot points) from the movies. In the realm of video games, there was also the bonus of John Williams’ original trilogy scores being used to death. So not only were you playing through the Hoth Rebel base attack or the Death Star run as a ‘different’ character, but you had to do it all while listening to the same track on an endless loop. There was not much original in these games. While Hidden Empire did have an interesting premise, both games were bogged down by an insane difficulty and simply having to go through the motions of what we had already seen on the big screen.
Something those older games did that I will forever tip my hat to are the cheat codes. Modern games tend to avoid allowing users to input cheat codes to gain god-mode or infinite ammo. As someone who loves to game, but is still terrible at most games, I desperately miss the days when I could turn on god-mode, feel like a champ, and see a game through to the end credits. While I loved Star Wars – Jedi: Fallen Order overall, there were many times I wished I could have skipped levels just so I could advance the story. When I popped Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy into my system, I found these games still hold up, especially because I could use cheat codes. As a piece of nostalgia, these two games still work well and are still fun, with fluid combat and smooth controls (a little too smooth sometimes). Overall though, Fallen Order is a more complete package with an original story, original score, and an incredibly well-written script — difficulty quibbles aside, for my money, it feels like the better Star Wars gaming experience.
Finally, let’s address the bantha in the room that is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (or KOTOR if you’re not a fan of saying the whole title in one go). In recent years, BioWare may have lost some of that magic that really made them shine back in the day, but KOTOR was the game that put them on the map and for a very good reason: it’s still a great game. Recently, I played both KOTOR and the original Mass Effect around the same time, and I was shocked by how well the Star Wars property held up against BioWare’s other, original space RPG property. So much of what made Mass Effect work was already baked into KOTOR. In fact, this is the rare instance where BioWare, pushing for innovation, ended up horribly damaging their own IP with Mass Effect: Andromeda. While KOTOR may lack some of the gameplay polish seen in later BioWare titles, there is still a solid enough experience and good RPG systems in place, and it all works so well to this day.
The KOTOR remake coming out for PS5 and PC is unique in that it will not simply be an HD upscale, like so many of these other classic titles have had, as this will be a complete rebuilding of the game from the ground up. What that looks like is anyone’s guess. Considering that the twist in the original game’s story is so iconic, I am curious to see what additional plot surprises may be added to make the experience unique to those who have played the original and know what to expect. Will fans accept changes (that is if there are any) knowing that the remake will be the same, but different, or will they embrace the change knowing that the game is both new and old in the best ways possible?
At the end of the day, while I do mourn the loss of the love I once had for some of these older titles, I am very pleased by what has come since. As much as I thrilled to blast crude pixel formations that I knew to be Stormtroopers while running around as Kyle Katarn in the original Star Wars: Dark Forces, I have come to enjoy and embrace the change that comes with improvements seen in more modern titles like Star Wars: Battlefront/Battlefront II. I’m also glad that now I can still revisit the older games that I did enjoy, and not have to endure an endless stream of terrible games being churned out on what seemed like a weekly basis back in the day — for every Star Wars Episode I: Racer, we got a dozen Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing or Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi.
I guess that, at the end of the day, it’s true what they say: you can never go back home. But it sure can be interesting and sometimes enjoyable to visit that place every now and then.