20 years later, Dark Forces and Jedi Knight are still great Star Wars games


Dark Forces art

In the last months of 2015, Star Wars was everywhere. Everywhere. TV ads. Billboards. Sneakers. Mac ‘n cheese. Cars. PCs. It’s hard to remember a time when Star Wars wasn’t all around us. Even before the Force Awakens marketing blitz, Star Wars has been omnipresent for a decade now, with a steady stream of cartoons and toys and games and books and comics, some good, many bad. This is what we’ve come to expect from the Lucasfilm and Disney empires. We don’t expect Star Wars spin-offs to be bold and daring, and it wasn’t until I spent the holiday break playing Dark Forces that I remembered Star Wars games were once genuinely groundbreaking.

After watching Force Awakens, my Star Wars fever drove me to replay Dark Forces and Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II for the first time since my childhood. This was actually my first time playing all the way through either; I only had demos as a kid. Despite being released just two and a half years apart, in 1995 and 1997, the games feel like they belong to distinct eras of FPS design. Each is forward thinking in some ways I found fascinating with 20 years of perspective, and comically dated in others.

But not really comically. Like, Jar-Jar-and-his-stupid-tongue-funny. It’s 2016. We know better.

Dark Forces

21 years on, Dark Forces feels almost prehistoric for a 3D game, and its ambition dates it in a way that the arcadier Doom will never age. The 2D sprite enemies, their simplistic AI and repeated audio clips, the labyrinthine levels and obtuse puzzles are the essence of first-person PC games from 1995. Made today, Dark Forces would probably feel like a sanitized Call of Duty clone with lasers.

And yet. And yet. The same way Star Wars took the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey and turned it into a movie unlike anything we’d seen before, Dark Forces cloned Doom and created something amazing from its DNA: a game that placed you into a three dimensional world that was new and yet recognizably Star Wars.

Dark Forces 2

LucasArts’s Jedi Engine added jumping and looking up and down on the vertical axis, so you could explore Dark Forces’ world like it was a real place. The stormtroopers and Imperial officers may have been crudely animated 2D sprites, but they looked just like they did in the movies. The blasters sounded the same. The music captured the essence of John Williams in simple MIDI.

Instead of revisiting locations from the films or playing out some hackneyed video game version of the battle of Hoth, LucasArts took places we’d glimpsed, like the interior of a Star Destroyer, and spun out their own creations with the scope and detail to bring them to life. The world is gray more often than not, but Dark Forces keeps switching out tilesets as you reach new levels. One Imperial base looks different than another. Ship interiors take inspiration from the Death Star. Natural canyons, blocky and angular as they are, admirably lend scale to Dark Forces’ representation of the galaxy far, far away.

Even the hundreds of stormtroopers spread across the campaign makes it feel like you’re struggling against the Empire, a Rebel underdog deep inside an overwhelming military machine. The mostly static cutscenes and briefings between missions feel rudimentary next to the 3D world—possibly Dark Forces at its most dated—but Mon Mothma lends the story an air of legitimacy, too.

21 years on, Dark Forces feels almost prehistoric for a 3D game.

I found Dark Forces’ additions to the Doom template simultaneously the coolest and the most frustrating bits of its design. I appreciated some of the puzzles I had to solve to make my way through Imperial strongholds, and not always knowing where to go in its layered and complex levels. Other relics of the time—like how difficult it was to discern a random decorative texture from an interactive control panel—really do add depth to the world, making it feel more real and less like a linear guided tour through some Cool Shit, as so many shooters today are.

But I spent more of my Dark Forces playthrough appreciating what it pulled off in 1995 than I did really having fun. The shooting doesn’t have Doom’s oomph, and I ground my teeth in frustration while trying to navigate the sewers early on, and while trying to make one particular series of jumps between rising and falling platforms later on. If you’ve played Dark Forces, you know the one. And the computer core in mission 11? Fuck that hexagonal nightmare.

I’d recommend playing with a guide on-hand for the most obtuse bits, but Dark Forces is still worth a run through to get to Jedi Knight, where the series really finds its way. And it’s easy to play on modern hardware thanks to DarkXL, a rebuilt version of the game that supports high resolutions and Windows.

Dark Forces Jedi Knight Duel

Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

What a difference two years makes. When LucasArts started using scale models for Star Wars in 1977, they first had to figure out how to make them look like real spaceships. A couple years later, for Empire Strikes Back, they had that down—the next step was making them look good, leading to the invention of Go Motion. Jedi Knight followed a similar path, going fully 3D, telling a far more complex story with full motion video, and slowly unlocking Force powers throughout the campaign. Dark Forces’ great success was putting you inside a Star Wars world with the best technology available at the time, and Jedi Knight amplified that tenfold.

Its FMV story is unfortunately every bit as bad as the words “full motion video” usually imply. Hero Kyle Katarn has the gruff voice down, but can’t do much more than frown and deliver terrible dialogue from awkward bluescreen-turned-CG-graphics sets. Everyone else is even worse, especially Dark Jedi Jerec, who is wearing the banana hammock equivalent of a pair of sunglasses and has chin tattoos that I mistook for a bad fu manchu for 90 percent of the game.

There’s no passion to be found here, but the story loosely justifies Jedi Knight’s strength: the experience of gaining badass Force powers over the course of 20+ levels. Where later Bioware RPGs would much more deliberately tie your Force skills and alignment into the narrative, Jedi Knight mostly just gives you points to assign between missions, and bam, you’re a Jedi. Believable? Not really—but the FMV cutscenes already threw immersion out the window. Accept Kyle’s inexplicable mastery of the Force, and Jedi Knight will hand you a really satisfying skill progression from blaster-wielding slowpoke to Jedi superhero.