Over The Years: Star Wars At The Arcade

arcadehero October 3, 2014 7
Over The Years: Star Wars At The Arcade

At the beginning of 1977, if one was to bet that Star Wars would become the cultural phenomenon that it is today, that would have been a risky guess if you had money on the line. Hindsight is 20/20 of course but either way, it did not take very long for the ‘Star Wars Craze’ to set in. The film would not just influence science fiction films but it had a huge impact on video games, although that would not become immediately clear due to the length of development time needed to turn a game from just an idea into something that could be sold to arcades around the globe.

With Bandai Namco Amusements picking up the banner as the latest company to give the franchise an arcade title, let’s take a look back at the history and the games that prominently feature the Star Wars logo on their marquee. We will also take a look at a few titles which wish they were Star Wars games but they lacked that official license blessing.

One reason why Star Wars ended up being the perfect catalyst for influencing video games was the fact that it had many nuggets of ideas which could be broken off on their own to serve as a concept for a basic game. Light-saber battles, space dogfights in an X-Wing or the Millenium Falcon, running the trench on the Death Star, battling walking robots on Hoth and so on. The problem was that to fully realize some of these concepts, technology had some improvements to make. When Episode IV came along, games at this time were just starting to use microprocessors and even ideas like animated characters was still very new. To put it in perspective, it was the year after Breakout had come along and the year before Space Invaders would change gaming forever.

Because this post is heavy on media, I am splitting the content up between two tabs, just click on the tab below to sort. In case anyone cares, I did something like this for Star Trek back in 2009 albeit with less detail.

The Official Star Wars Games

The very first game to grab the coveted license for Star Wars was in pinball. A forgotten Australian company by the name of A. Hankin & Co. released a licensed table called The Empire Strikes Back, complete with the movie logo and Darth Vader staring the player down from the backbox. The playfield featured very detailed artwork showcasing an AT-AT walker from the movie and various other Star Wars symbols from from the film. It was all fairly impressive looking but it was not enough to keep the company going. It was their last game.



The time that the franchise finally received the official license blessing for video games was with Atari’s Star Wars (1983). Taking advantage of the graphical effects like smooth scaling that vectors provided, this also used Atari’s evolved color vector monitor for brilliant color and it featured voice samples from the movie. While voice was not unheard of in games by this time, it was the among the first pioneers to blend such a thing into a game, which people found impressive. A cockpit cabinet served as an answer to Exidy’s earlier Star Fire and the yoke controller featured a great design that served as a perfect pointer needed to blast the TIE Fighters.  This was Atari’s last 10k+ selling game; they would release a conversion kit called The Empire Strikes Back in 1985, which would count as the last new game to employ vector monitor technology for the arcade industry.


Let’s jump into the Wayback Machine for this one

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Atari, 1984) – Atari’s Star Wars was a little delayed in hitting the arcade market, in good part due to development time so that game was hitting stores right when Episode VI was reaching movie theaters. Atari was ready to have this one out in 1984 but it took the raster approach as opposed to the vector. Vector had its advantages but raster had few technical problems. ROTJ used a Zaxxon-style approach to level layouts and such although it was the first game to employ anti-aliasing; it also re-used the yoke controller design. It did not sell as well as the first Star Wars but it still has obvious collector value now. One of the more enjoyable aspects of this one is that you can ram enemies into trees or pipes to watch them go up in a ball of fire.

Star Wars Pinball (Data East, 1992) – With the movies taking a hiatus after ROTJ, the rest of the 80s would rely on these previously released games to entertain SW fans at the arcade but in 1992, Data East felt it was time to bring the franchise back to pinball. This would take advantage of technological improvements to pinball at the time, such as the dot matrix display and big, finely detailed toys.


Star Wars Arcade (Sega, 1994) – Sega caught the Star Wars bug, and the license, in 1994 as they began working on content for the new 3D hardware called Model 1. To take advantage of that, they created a game which gives you off-rails movement as you follow commands from Admiral “They Only Remember Me For It Being A Trap” Akbar. Star Wars Arcade was quite an elaborate simulator, featuring a large sit-down cabinet for two players. This worked out in the pilot/gunner configuration which has occasionally be used in arcade titles. I have read that very few of these cabinets were ever made; I have never seen one in an arcade anywhere. Here is a video showing a direct feed from the Japanese version; Akbar certainly sounds far more intense in Japanese. It might be just me but I think the flat-shaded polygon graphics have aged ok in this case thanks to the frame rate being smooth. That wasn’t always the case with such graphics on PCs back in the day.

Star Wars Trilogy Pinball (Sega Pinball, 1997) – Sega’s love of Star Wars continued once again into pinball with this game. It featured an “industry first” 3D backglass (something Stern would bring back years later for a brief time with AVATAR and TRON Legacy Pinball) although I am not sure if that was done on all production models. There were four major toys on the playfield, a TurboBlaster from the Death Star, an X-Wing and TIE Fighter models and Han Solo encase in carbonite. It had a lot of art crammed onto the playfield but not as much in the way of targets.


Star Wars Trilogy Arcade (Sega, 1998) – Here is one Star Wars arcade game you have probably come across in modern times, thanks to availability. I spent a lot of time playing this one at the first arcade I worked at, the other employees and I had an ongoing high score competition, which was a lot of fun. SWTA retold certain events of Episodes IV-VI, allowing you to partake in the action. Make a run on the 1st Death Star, attacking the surface turrets and soon the trench run, followed by the Battle of Hoth with the famous walkers escaping from the Empire’s grasp. The game spends a bit of time with Episode VI as you have scenes from fighting Boba Fett with the light-saber, the land speeder chase through the Endor Forest, the ground battle on Endor, another attack on the Death Star above Endor and a light-saber battle with Darth Vader. One thing we discovered while tinkering with the game (and setting it to max difficulty, since that equaled the biggest attainable scores) was that there were a lot of sound samples from the movies not used anywhere in the game. Not sure if these were intended for use in some cut content or just placed there for fun.



Star Wars Episode I Pinball (Williams, 1999) – We didn’t know that Episode I might be a hot mess going into the theater but that did not stop the force of media hype and product tie-ins. Fortunately in the case of pinball, it was arguably much more entertaining than the movie, especially where one of the most innovative hardware platforms in pinball would be tied to the license. Episode I Pinball would use the Pinball 2000 visual platform which did allow them to use various scenarios from the movie in a way other pinball machines couldn’t, although it may come down to your like of EI as to whether that is a good or a bad thing. Oddly enough just like Empire Stikes Back Pinball, Episode I was the last manufactured pin at WMS before they closed the pinball division. The Force was not with these companies it seems.

Star Wars Racer Arcade (Sega, 2000) – 1999 finally brought Star Wars back to the Silver Screen, much to the chagrin of many fans disappointed by the mess that was Star Wars Episode I. One portion of the movie that seemed to take entirely too long, but it made for a fun arcade game was the podracing. This gave players a dual throttle controller system to guide their podracer and it could handle linking of up to 4 cabinets. It also used the Hikaru hardware, which was used in games like Brave Firefighters and Planet Harriers but not many others.

Star Wars Starfighter (Tsunami, 2003) – The last game to wear the Star Wars mantle on the arcade scene was back in 2003 with Starfighter. Episodes II and III just didn’t provide what was needed to inspire arcade game creators it seems. Starfighter was available on home platforms like the PS2 and PC but Tsunami decided it was a good fit to use for their Tsumo motion platform in arcades. Generally they modified software to work for arcade use running a Windows 98 PC.


And that’s a wrap…for now. Soon we will have a look at the newest entry into Star Wars arcade gaming with whatever it is that Bandai Namco has been cooking up for the past while. Star Wars Episode VII is also on its way for the end of 2015 so it should be interesting to see if Namco’s game will be the only coin-op item to hit the market or if we might also see a return to pinball with the license.

UPDATE: With the launch of Star Wars The Force Awakens, it is prudent to mention the latest addition to the universe of Star Wars arcade titles, the Star Wars Battle Pod by Bandai Namco Amusements. Released early in 2015, this game has been launched in three ‘flavors’, the Flat Screen Edition, the Deluxe pod and the Motion Deluxe Pod. The game itself focuses just on the original trilogy of films, ignoring the prequels entirely. One new level was designed for it, ‘Vader’s Revenge’ which takes place immediately following the destruction of the Death Star. The overall game is fast-paced and in some respects basic compared to some other games mentioned here but was designed more to be a Star Wars simulator. Software updates might add more content to this in the future but that depends on Namco.







The Star Wars Wannabes

Due to that aforementioned development time and the march of technological developments, it was not until 1979 that the first games would come along that were certainly influenced by Star Wars. Various games had been influenced by the space craze and science fiction before that – the space race to the moon at the end of the 60s and in the early 70s certainly contributed a great deal to that; franchises like Star Trek had provided extra fuel to setup the cultural bonfire.

Starhawk (Cinematronics, 1979) – Sometimes this is listed as a 1977 game but copyrights put it at 1979. This would be one of the very first attempts to turn a memorable scene from the movie into a full fledged arcade game. In this case it was the Death Star Trench Battle, albeit from a view high above something like the Death Star. To a lesser degree we could say that Cinematronic’s Tailgunner also may have pulled some influence from the Millennium Falcon chase from Episode IV.

Oddly enough the first game to be found that uses the Star Wars name is a bootleg of another game called Galaxy Wars, both released in 1979. Whoever came up with Star Wars (1979) was not too concerned with legalities and probably figured they may as well use the popular name of Star Wars to get some extra sales before operators would catch on; otherwise the game itself had nothing to do with any of the particular Star Wars concepts.

Along those same lines, Nintendo had a game where it had nothing to do with Star Wars (it was a sci-fi precursor to Frogger) but the flyer and cabinet art have some spaceships gracing the cover that look very much like TIE Fighters. That game as you can see was called Space Launcher(1979). Using art like this to sell a game was far more important back in those days so what better way to show a space enemy than to use the iconic craft?


Astro Fighter (Data East, 1980) – While not all about copying Star Wars, this does have some enemies that look like TIE Fighters and it also has a sequence where the player has to fly down a trench in space. In the marketing they also used some Star Trek influences but the game itself was more about blending Star Wars and Galaga while hoping to cash in.


Space Encounters (Midway, 1980) – In 1980, the graphical improvements games were enjoying led to some more direct influences. Speaking of of space trench battles, Midway has their own take on the idea with Space Encounters. The player controls something that looks like a TIE Fighter, shooting at enemy space ships above. Their vision of this scene was bordering on psychedelic – you have to see this one running in the cabinet as opposed to a direct pull from MAME – epileptics should probably avoid this one:

Starfire (1980) – The idea of piloting an X-Wing in a fantastic space battle was something people had wanted to experience since watching Episode IV. Game desigers at companies like Exidy wanted to make that a reality and while they did not have the license, they got as close as you could expect someone to get in producing  a Star Wars game at the time. Star Fire was the first arcade game to use a cockpit style cabinet, which you could easily see how the space dogfights as portrayed in Star Wars directly influenced this cabinet idea.  It was also one of the first video games to introduce a high score table, which that in itself would become a big influence in video games.  Just a quick look at the flyer and you can see where the Star Wars influences lie.


Per Steffen in the comments, there is one I missed by the name of Fiprepower Pinball by Williams. With names like Steve Ritchie and Eugene Jarvis having worked on this one, it remains well known among pinball fans and by looking at the artwork, the influence of a mechanized planet about to reign doom upon a world below is obvious.


After that, most games decided to use their own designs or find their influences elsewhere, especially where litigation started to become more commonplace among video games businesses by this point.


Now for a poll – what is your favorite Star Wars arcade game of the bunch?

What is the Best Star Wars Arcade/Pinball Game? (You can choose 2 for 1 arc, 1 pin)

View Results

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  1. RJAY63 October 4, 2014 at 4:25 am - Reply

    Star Wars Racer Arcade was actually the title that got me into racing games. I think it was also the first racing game in the west that had an internet ranking!

    • arcadehero October 4, 2014 at 4:13 pm - Reply

      It was about the time SWRA came out that I was into SFRush2049, which was my game to get me into arcade racers; unfortunately I didn’t come across SWRA very often since the place I worked for didn’t have one. But it was a great game, it did show that there was at least something redeemable from Episode I 😛

  2. voltz15 October 5, 2014 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    I’ve just recently heard the news about this and I’m hoping it will be an X-Wing title that will actually allow you to control the ship this time. The others have been screen-shooters, so here’s hoping we get the real deal this time.

  3. Steffen October 6, 2014 at 11:54 am - Reply

    I would include the first Firepower pinball by Williams on the list of the wannabes. Just look at its backglass with that “deathstar” and its release date.

    And the arcade at the Luxor in Las Vegas used to have a Star Wars Arcade with that bench for two players back in its days.

    • arcadehero October 6, 2014 at 2:36 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the suggestion, I added it to the post.

  4. Arcades4ever October 7, 2014 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Well sadly not a fan of the Star Wars series but I used to love playing the racing game which was good fun.

  5. Mateus October 20, 2014 at 10:40 am - Reply

    I live in Brazil’s countryside and there’s a mint full working unit of the rare Sega Star Wars in a city nearby. What a surprise when I discovered how rare the game is on the MAME forums. Played it a lot when I was a kid, and AFAIK the machine is still there, still working.

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