Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, the Last Command) – Timothy Zahn

1-heirI might as well sacrifice one more day of applying for jobs or revising my novel in order to do something that really matters, like telling you what Jedi knights drink. It’s hot chocolate. Apparently the Jedi drink hot chocolate. The early scene in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy where Luke tells C-3PO about the amazing drink Lando told him about pretty much encapsulates the uncanny valley of any Star Wars story not directly influenced by George Lucas. There’s just something off about this series, like when someone tells you, “I am just an average earth human

The story begins with the shattered remnants of the Imperial fleet taking a page from the Confederate South’s playbook, hoping to rise again after the war of rebel aggression. Super-top-secret Grand Admiral Thrawn, a phenomenal military tactician with a chiseled jaw, the eyes of Hannibal Lecter, and the smooth, beautiful skin of a deeply-tanned smurf, has discovered Palpatine’s old mountain full of secrets, and wants to use them to get out of the corner of the galaxy the rebels put him in to think about what he did. On his way, he discovers an old Jedi (apparently Palpatine’s order 66 was implemented about as effectively as Trump’s Muslim ban) who’s about as stable as a Jenga tower on the San Andreas fault. Fortunately, he had also just discovered a species of lizard that repels the Force, so the Jedi’s attacks had less of an impact than a carefully placed spit ball. Thrawn postulates that the Emperor had a habit of using the Force to coordinate battles (not very surprising, since we know that Qui-Gon cheated at dice, and I’m pretty sure Yoda rigged a few synchronized swimming events in his 900-year life), and strikes a deal with the new guy to do the same.

Meanwhile, Luke is drinking hot chocolate, Han knocked up Leia, Lando’s still trying to be a respectable businessman, the New Republic senators are laying a trap for Admiral Ackbar with no sense of irony whatsoever, Chewie still hasn’t torn anyone’s arms out of their sockets, and Jabba’s replacement has decided to forgo the lard-induced hedonism and actually hire his sexy sidekick—who just happens to want to murder the crap out of Luke—as his top aid.

2-darkI actually tried reading this series twice when I was younger, and both times I lost interest around the beginning of the third book. I finished this time around, but I know why the series struggles—the villains and the heroes interact about as much as I do with large sums of cash. The original movies were entirely about interaction between heroes and villains. Vader captured and tortured Leia in a way that would make Ned Stark proud. The second act of a New Hope put the heroes directly into the enemy lair, proving my mom wrong, that you can mix your lights and your darks and expect them to come out just as clean as before. Obi-Wan confronts Vader about his regrets over being a lousy teacher (trust me…any teacher who looks back at their first few years understands the urge to let your students have a free swipe at you), and Vader personally hops in a tie fighter—a ship that has the same safety rating as a bottle rocket—to take on Luke at the end. And that’s just the first movie! The Empire Strikes Back continues that trend of interaction, but changes the dynamic into that crushing disappointment you feel when you finally look up your biological father only to find out he’s waaaaay more right-wing than you’re comfortable with.

Meanwhile, Thrawn spends the trilogy sitting behind his desk like an eighth grader with an erection. He makes an intriguing character, to the point where I wished Zahn would focus less on Han and Leia and tell us more about Thrawn, but the only conflicts he has with other characters is with the Jedi he hired without checking his references. Since the Imperials immediately start bickering like Bill and Hillary, they never really get their act together in a way that threatens the heroes, and as soon as Leia starts accepting friend requests from the same species as Thrawn’s bodyguard, the bookies stopped accepting bets on the Grand Admiral’s death. Worst of all, because of this lack of interaction, the anti-Force Lizard League, and because Bonkers McNotasith doesn’t actually use a lightsaber, we never get to see Luke use his newfound Jedi powers for anything more than wisely settling a dispute between two guys in a bar. Because Star Wars fans really only wanted an intergalactic episode of Judge Judy. So with no one to fight, anytime we see Luke pull out his lightsaber, it’s usually to cut open a door, emergency escape route, or especially tightly-sealed jam jars.

However, the trilogy did make it onto several lists of top sci-fi and fantasy novels of all time, so there must be something worth reading. Even though Zahn treats the original cast like a rich kid who was given last year’s toys for Christmas (even going so far as to play up Vader as an incompetent, bumbling meathead with a short fuse—and mind you, this was years before the prequel trilogy had been written), his original characters have a lot more appeal. Thrawn truly comes off as a genius tactician, capable of predicting his opponents’ every move. The crazy Jedi gives off that same creepy, get-me-out-of-here vibe that my doctor did when he started spouting right-wing conspiracy theories during my last appointment. Even the new gangster in town, Talon Kardde, manages that Han-Solo-esque charm without feeling like a Han Solo clone. But the real star of the show is Mara Jade, the Ahab to Luke Skywalker’s Dick. Uh, Moby Dick, that is.

3-lastIf anyone has a conflict comparable to Luke’s do-I-kill-my-dad problem from the original trilogy, it’s Mara Jade. For that alone, Zahn should have written the entire book to focus on her. She’s Force-sensitive, but carries a mysterious vendetta against Luke, and while she has good reasons for it, she’s never quite clear if she wants him dead, or if she’s being manipulated by voices and dreams sent to her through the Force. Unfortunately, lacking any clear protagonist, Jade gets far too little screen time, as Zahn has clearly favored scenes of the original heroes having conversations in bars, so the one character who could give the Star Wars books an actual Star Wars feel is rarely present. But if you liked the cantina scene in A New Hope, boy are you in luck! Unless you liked it for Obi-wan’s spontaneous dismembering of the other patrons, or for the clever character development where Han Shoots Greedo in Cold Blood, thereby introducing us to the fact that Luke might be heading into deep space with a potentially crazed murderer. But if it was the dialogue and the setting you liked…good news.

So perhaps it’s a good book, but doesn’t know exactly why it’s good. I think when George Lucas extended the original trilogy to the prequels, he pretty much established that that’s the Star Wars way. Disney has taken subtle inspiration from Zahn’s novels, so it’s possible they’ll throw us a nod to Mara Jade or Grand Admiral Thrawn in episodes VIII and IX. But then again, Disney has managed to produce an episode VII where every line is less memorable than, “Mesa Jar-Jar binks.” You’ll probably just want to read the books.

In other news, I just started Final Fantasy XII. Be prepared for a lot of book reviews and possibly a few off-weeks. I’ve never finished that game in less than 100 hours.

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Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (Star Wars) – Alan Dean Foster

Splinter_of_the_Minds_EyeWho would have ever thought that Star Wars would turn out a failure? Trick question! For starters, anyone who’s lived through the prequels. There are few things that generally can enrage people to the point where their blood pressure is higher than that of a decapitated Anime character. One of these things is mentioning the terms “Republican” or “Democrat” in the presence of the opposite. Otherwise, it’s just the Star Wars prequels. So try to understand when I say I love the prequels almost as much as the classic trilogy. I love them from the pointy little tip of Amidala’s crown to the metal hunk of bounty hunter digesting at the bottom of the sarlacc pit. And I tell you this story because I want you to understand the sheer amount of masochism required that when I find out Lucas had planned a low-budget alternative to the Empire Strikes Back in case a New Hope flopped, my first thought was, “I need to read this!”

Back when George Lucas commissioned Alan Dean Foster to ghost write the novelization to A New Hope, he also suggested a side-project, a plan B, an option to implement if no studio trusted him with so much as a coupon for IHOP, let alone a film budget. So Foster wrote a 200-page novel called Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which could be easily adapted to film, allowing Lucas to continue losing fan support even if he couldn’t afford the grandiose spectacle of Melatonin known as pod racing. Foster set his story in a dense jungle filled with mist that reduces visibility to less than the distance across a cheap, pay-by-the-hour film studio, and eliminates as many characters as possible without resorting to wrapping a twist tie around a woolly sock puppet and calling it a wookie.

The story opens with Luke and Leia en route to planet Circarpous when they crash land on Mimban, both planets named after Lucas and Foster spent a half hour staring at a hand of Scrabble tiles until they sounded like real words. From there…well, it’s safe to say “stuff happens.” They wander through the jungle, find a town, get captured by the Empire. There’s something about a magic rock and then suddenly they’re in a cave where they talk an indigenous tribe into getting themselves killed to save the beautiful white people. I don’t really know. This is what happens when plots start to get old; their minds start to go, and suddenly they’re wandering down the street, going into other people’s houses, and eventually you find them stripped naked, trying to stuff their clothes into an ATM and asking people for quarters.

Case in point, Foster’s grasp of these characters seem to indicate he uses 10W-40 motor oil and Astro-glide as a hand lotion. For all his trash talk, Darth Vader might have been blowing off steam playing street hoops, or preparing for his next rap battle. After blowing up the Death Star, Luke must have started injecting testosterone intravenously, as his vaguely whiny personality has subsided out of fear for his nearly constant need to mount Leia. And what Foster has done with the princess is bad enough that the resulting disturbance in the Force would incite feminists everywhere to have an aneurysm. The character who, after coming face-to-face with an inept rescue squad on the Death Star, shot out the grate on a garbage chute and commanded everyone to dive in now can’t go more than two pages without complaining about the mud on her dress, the lack of good makeup on planet Mimban, or the fact that Luke comes up with a half-dozen brilliant plans to save their lives by masquerading her as a servant. In the movie she was Rambo with a laser, and Foster transformed her into Willie Scott from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At one point, Leia actually uses the phrase, “Do you know who I am?” and suddenly the book felt less like a Star Wars novel and more like watching Kermit the Frog carry Miss Piggy through a swamp.

What did I expect, though, when I heard this was supposed to become a low-budget movie? Another trick question: words are cheap. Just because a film has to use a limited number of actors and take place on a single planet doesn’t mean the story itself has to sound like it was pieced together from random pages pulled out of the dumpster behind Stephanie Meyer’s office. The book deserves credit for essentially starting the Star Wars Expanded Universe series, although honestly that’s like crediting whichever Medieval monk penned the first piece of erotica–it was going to happen anyway. The fact that this was the first is more coincidental than influential, but an interesting read for the hardcore Star Wars fan, or nerds like me who are interested in alternative drafts of stories. It had potential to be a fun little side-story to the main series, but then again, I could also say I have the potential to be the first Rock-star Astronaut President of the United States.

Lego Star Wars – GBA, NDS, PS2, Game Cube, XBox, PC

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler's List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler’s List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Months ago I played Grand Theft Auto III, and hated it so much that I didn’t finish. At the time I had another GTA game on my shelf, which you may have noticed never made it to this blog. I didn’t just set the disc on fire out of hatred for the series–although in an Odyssey of the Mind style hallucination, I did consider re-purposing it as a coaster, a wall decoration, a tiny stage for pet mice to perform on, a projectile to hurl at my neighbor’s overly-excitable dog, or a shim to level out my wobbly kitchen table. No, instead, I put it in my PS2, which immediately responded, “Ha, ha. Funny joke. Now put a real PS2 game in my tray, would you?” I tried repairing the disc, but apparently someone before me had re-purposed the game as a nail file. “Fine by me!” I thought. I didn’t want to play it anyway! And I moved on to a more interesting looking game: Lego Batman. Which promptly seized up at the beginning of the Penguin’s story arc. Moral of the story: don’t buy used games at Savers. But what can you expect from a store that would chuck Mega Man 2 in the trash for its age, but then try to sell six dozen Madden games for $4 each? Yesterday, I actually found high school sports trophies, engraved with the names of the winner. But Conker’s Bad Fur Day? Burn it! Damn cartridge!

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They'll have to wait outside.

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They’ll have to wait outside.

So to reign in my tirade, when I pulled out the Lego Star Wars disc and could not even with a generous heart refer to it as “round,” I didn’t have high hopes of finishing the game. But as you can see, God does have a sense of humor, and he chose to perform his miraculous Hanukkah Game Technique to keep the disc spinning for as long as it took me to finish, thus forcing me to write about a game virtually identical to Lego Star Wars II, which I reviewed only a few months ago. So here it goes…

Lego Star Wars covers the prequel trilogy, but otherwise bears no differences to Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy.

Pretty good, huh? One of my best reviews yet. Oh! Wait! I’ll do it as a haiku!

Lego Star Wars has
No major differences from
Lego Star Wars II.

Special Ed...momma dropped him on his head...now he's not so bright, instead...he stars in the Phantom Menace.

Special Ed…momma dropped him on his head…now he’s not so bright, instead…he stars in the Phantom Menace.

But seriously, I should probably at least pretend to have some journalistic integrity (I’ll get it when someone starts paying me to write, damn it!) and try to say something worthwhile about it. Lego Star Wars marks the first of the licensed Lego games developed by Traveler’s Tales. Oddly enough, this rookie attempt actually makes it easier to write about, since it lacks a number of things that have become staples for the Lego licensed series. Characters can’t assemble bricks into objects to interact with. The Jedi sort of can, but only as part of their Force powers.  Also, you’ll notice that none of the levels have Free Play areas, places you can access only by bringing other characters into the level using Free Play mode. And now, a limerick:

Uh, Obi-Wan...maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

Uh, Obi-Wan…maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

When playing a Star Wars with bricks
the Jedi all play Pick-up-Sticks
The blasters shoot bolts
The Gungans are dolts
While the enemies all act like pricks.

While the other Lego games don’t exactly force you to look up walkthroughs, this attempt eliminates the need entirely.  It doesn’t really employ puzzles or more than a few secrets, instead focusing on a run-and-gun, Mega Man style of gameplay. The vehicle levels control well, surprisingly welcome from Lego Star Wars II’s underwater-shark-rodeo vehicle handling. It does result in a slightly too easy game, but they don’t exactly market these games to the World of Warcraft or the competitive Smash Bros. crowds. Beating the game in two days actually made the experience rather pleasant.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

For licensed games, the Lego series don’t suck. I know that describing them like that equates to calling someone the world’s tallest leprechaun, or naming someone hacky sack champion of the hospital’s paraplegia ward, but unlike most game licensing, Traveler’s Tales doesn’t seem to do it for a quick cash grab, hiring three people to code the game and twenty-five to design the box and marketing material. Instead, they aim for humor, for ease of gameplay, and amusing moments like when Yoda, who hobbles at a snail’s pace, opens his lightsaber and becomes the God of All Ninjutsu. I know they all play pretty much identically, but look for a few other Lego articles in the future, since I can probably repair my Batman disc. And I bought Anne Lego Lord of the Rings for her birthday. And Lego Jurassic World looks fun…

Nope. I checked. Still no one wants cares about the pod race.

Nope. I checked. Still no one cares about the pod race.

…yeah, I just make my job harder for myself. Maybe I’ll have something to say six months from now. Oh, and Pod Racing? Still stupid.

Star Wars: Episode II: Revenge of the Sith – PS2, XBox

episode3_043005_ps2_orgThe Duluth/Superior region has a Facebook group dedicated to letting people sell their old junk. I like to keep tabs on this, theoretically, because people occasionally post video games or even consoles. Unfortunately, the people who tend to sell these things generally have no understanding of the difference between good and bad games. If they paid $50 for it, then damn it, everyone will claw each others eyes out to get to the $49 used Madden game that they so generously offered to take a financial hit on. Oh, how will you ever feed your starving children otherwise? Word of advice, people, no one wants your shitty sports games. Not even people who buy shitty sports games. Used game stores might charge a token 50 cents for them, but honestly if you needed to assign a realistic value to them, don’t forget to include the negative sign! Also, your 25-year-old front-loading NES won’t fetch the $300 you think it will. Look these things up on eBay before demanding people stop not-buying your shit. Anyway, these people generally mix in a few licensed games based on movies or TV shows, which brings me to this week’s topic.

Despite my unfeeling metal body and legion of droids with heavy artillery, I will fight you with your weapon of choice, because having only two sith lords reduces the opportunity for lightsaber combat.

Despite my unfeeling metal body and legion of droids with heavy artillery, I will fight you with your weapon of choice, because having only two sith lords reduces the opportunity for lightsaber combat.

My regular readers will know by now that I’d rather crawl through a tunnel of razor wire towards a cliff dropping into the Dead Sea than play a licensed game. However, in the past I’ve admitted that Star Wars games fall into the golden territory of, and I quote myself here, “Meh. Not so bad.” And with that philosophy and a masochistic spirit worthy of homosexuals, women, and racial minorities who vote republican, I picked up Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at Savers, expecting a mediocre gameplay at best–and the game wowed me…with how much it still managed to disappoint me with bland, uninspired and glitchy gameplay, and some identity confusion as to whether or not it wanted to fulfill its duty to its father and join the run-and-gun action genre, or whether or not it wanted to hang out with its rebel friends in more of a fighting game format.

I’ve definitely played worse, though. In fact, two minutes into the game, it almost felt just like watching the movie…mostly because they had actually inserted footage from the film as a cut scene, albeit with noticeably lower quality. And since anyone with a laptop less than ten years old can easily rip DVD footage and convert it to a format the PS2 can read, I can only assume the developer–some obscure company called “LucasArts”–had trouble getting their hands on a high quality copy of the game, perhaps developing the game as a bootleg edition. Either that or something went horribly wrong in the middle of George Lucas’ attempt to digitally replace all the lightsabers with walkie talkies, resulting in an explosion that gave him abnormal powers and turned him into a galactic super villain. Also, except for a brief quip in the middle of the final battle, they cut out any mention of Natalie Portman. Assholes. I swear, if you turned her into a walkie talkie, you’ll rue the day you ever….

Tell me 'friend,' when did Anakin the wise abandon reason for madness?

Tell me ‘friend,’ when did Anakin the wise abandon reason for madness?

…sorry. I don’t usually develop crushes on celebrities, but as a nerd, I hold Star Wars near and dear to my heart, and Carrie Fisher predates my time by just a little too much.  Anyway, much like I do with soft porn, the game skips over absolutely everything part of the plot without any action. It begins with the assault on General Grievous’ fleet, the duel with Count Dooku, and the Chancellor’s rescue, and then except for a short mission with Obi-Wan, I immediately found myself battling Mace Windu and bowing before the Emperor. But even though the plot seems to have taken a lightsaber to the head, even the Super Star Wars series took gratuitous license to shove violence and action into every orifice not already occupied by a lightsaber battle, light-speed space chase, or baby Ewok.

...damn it, Ben. I swear to god, if you say that one more time, I will telepathically call Jar Jar and tell him how much you miss him.

…damn it, Ben. I swear to god, if you say that one more time, I will telepathically call Jar Jar and tell him how much you miss him.

As a nameless run-and-gun, it provides a few hours of mild amusement. However, it doesn’t take long before the signs of a quick cash grab start popping up like a whack-a-womprat game. Characters glitch out occasionally, performing cirque du soleil Jedi contortions, enemies tend to get stuck off screen where you can’t kill them, and occasionally cut scenes will just forget to play, forcing you to restart the game to make any progress. Furthermore, for all their supposed strength with the Force, Anakin and Obi-Wan show as much intuition as a gay vegan publicly coming out of the closet at an NRA convention. The game’s targeting system seems to deliberately point me either at the farthest enemy from me or the one holding cattle prod while a nearby spaceship wants to make me a million pieces with the Force. I may have found it in my heart to forgive all this, but the developers also felt the urge to subject me to battle quips that might have worked better as a mild laxative, but even at the end of the game Obi-Wan feels so smugly witty about turning murdered droids into “another one for the scrap pile” that I miss the 3rd-grade joke book humor of James Bond.

8413187107675176The films tried to capitalize on Boba Fett’s cult following by literally cloning him a few hundred thousand times and setting up the elaborate back story of the clones as the Republic’s army, so in the context of the story it makes sense that they’d fight side-by-side with the Jedi. However, you can’t give me a lifetime full of Star Wars games that declare open season on anything wearing a white mask and then expect me not to spend half of every battle trying to slice off their heads. Sorry, but if they look like stormtroopers, my Jedi intuition will assess them as a threat, and meanwhile the inept droid will sneak up behind me and sodomize me with my lightsaber.

While switching play between Anakin and Obi-Wan may have sounded cool on paper, the developers seemed to overlook the fact that the two characters had a pretty epic throw down at the end of the film, as in, Obi-Wan threw down Anakin’s legs into a fiery pit of molten metal. To rectify this, players have the option of playing through the final duel with either character. By playing as Obi-Wan, you can unlock the regular ending of the film. Otherwise, you can play as Anakin and watch a scenario pulled off the dregs of the worst fan fiction the internet has to offer, while simultaneously unlocking a bonus mission from Episode IV that would make no sense considering the new ending.  Either way, you get an extended duel demonstrating that while lightsaber parries make awesome noises and flashes in the movies, they just drag out the games, dealing no damage to anything except your free time before bed.

Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy – PS2, NDS

Lswii_pcfrontBy a show of hands, how many of you played with Legos? I did. I had birthdays where I wouldn’t get anything except Legos. I’d combine base plates with a friend of mine and we’d construct entire cities of little plastic bricks. My fascination with Legos shaped my career path, helping me decide that, for the safety of anyone who ever drove a car or went into a building, I should not go into architecture or engineering. But for all the failed mechanisms I’d contrive and all the magnificent buildings that collapsed under the weight of my genius–or the more likely culprit, physics–I still loved to build. And do you know what else I loved? Star Wars.

Who doesn’t, though, right? Well, besides my ex-girlfriend, but she has a soul cold enough to freeze over and dampen the spirits of even the great Boba Fett himself, so she doesn’t count. The popularity of Legos makes them the natural choice to compliment the epic space-fantasy masterpiece, so what could possibly go wrong with Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. It already has a leg up over the first Lego Star Wars insomuch as it does not demand you play through the prequel trilogy.

Note how Lego Men make perfect--and geographically customizable--Risk pieces. They already have horses and cannons. Also, notice how maps installed on the floors at UMD make perfect Risk boards.

Note how Lego Men make perfect–and geographically customizable–Risk pieces. They already have horses and cannons. Also, notice how maps installed on the floors at UMD make perfect Risk boards.

Like other licensed Lego games, you play through the plot of the film(s) as Lego versions of your favorite characters. By itself, that pays for the cost of the game. I spent $2 at my local Savers to buy this, and another $2 to get the prequel trilogy (after someone else had taken the prerequisite number of chunks out of the disc before passing on ownership). The combined $4 I spent could have covered a physical–and generic–Lego man at the same store. Granted, you can’t, for example, take the characters out of the game and use them as pieces in a giant game of Risk, but you can still play with them with even a little more control than the real things.

The novel idea that, in retrospect, seems obvious: Darth Vader as a playable character in the fight against Palpatine. Duh.

The novel idea that, in retrospect, seems obvious: Darth Vader as a playable character in the fight against Palpatine. Duh.

The game tasks Luke Skywalker and his friends not so much with getting through levels based on the films, but with collecting shit along their way, namely money. Each level hides a cache of red Lego bricks, “minikits,” and Lego studs of various colors which like poker, kids, denote different values. These studs serve as the game’s money, allowing you to buy characters, vehicles, hints, and other trinkets at the central hub, the Mos Eisley Cantina. Only by collecting enough studs in each level can you achieve the “True Jedi” status–and thus unlock more useless collectibles. This gives Lego Star Wars a feeling not unlike poker, asking you to build up more and more stuff merely for the purpose of using that stuff to collect even more stuff.

The stages don’t exactly innovate game design, nor do they really show a departure from typical Star Wars games. Characters progress in a mostly linear direction. In Story Mode, you take control of a small group of characters who might reasonably find themselves within the vicinity at whatever point in time, and in Free Play Mode, you get to choose two of your own, while the game assigns additional characters to make sure you have whatever individual skills you need to actually finish the level. To reach the goal, characters use the Force, grappling beams on blasters, and that little stick that R2-D2 uses as a Deus Literally Ex-Machina (or in the case of C-3PO on Endor, Literally Deus Ex-Machina). Furthermore, you have to build stuff. Lots of stuff. Sometimes you need to destroy something for parts, but it usually comes down to building. Characters can build by walking up to a twitching pile of parts and holding in the circle button. And waiting. Sometimes you have to fight off a hoard of enemies first, but then feel free to go up to that pile and hold in circle. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, play Lego Star Wars if you’ve always wanted to play with Legos, but without any of the actual fun of building things for yourself. Funny, though, how they managed to include the tedium of searching for parts.

Slave Leia! Nice! Although I didn't expect her to be quite so flat-chested...

Slave Leia! Nice! Although I didn’t expect her to be quite so flat-chested…

Anyone who has ever woken up in the middle of the night to pee and had to cross a minefield of Legos can attest to the damage they can inflict, but combat in the game feels a little clunky and awkward. Lightsaber swings pay off at low odds, most often striking a jaunty pose in an irrelevant direction, sometimes managing to deflect blaster bolts, and very rarely slicing through enemies. The design of the blasters seems inspired by Obi-Wan’s description of them as clumsy and random, as about 50% of the time I hit my own characters instead of stormtroopers. I found it far more effective to use Chewie, walk right up to the enemies, and use the melee attack to rip their arms out of their sockets. Like other Star Wars games, you also take control of vehicles on a regular basis. These vehicles control about as well as a drunken condor trying to land on a bicycle seat in a hurricane. Even by the end of the game I found myself flipping, spinning, doing somersaults, U-turns and barrel rolls at the drop of a Lego hat.

A quirk of the game that you might find interesting–no wait, the other thing…obnoxious–the credits, which you have to sit through three times–one at the end of each film adaptation. Not the glorious 45-second credits from NES games, or even the standard five- to eight-minute credits of standard PS2 games. No, Lego Star Wars goes full-on Arkham Asylum, making you sit through an extended credit sequence while they name off not just programmers and artistic designers, but their office staff, from the Assistant to the Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing to the Assistant to the Janitor of Mopping up Puke at the Lego Employee’s Day Care. At the risk of sounding offensive and preachy, credits should offer recognition, a chance for the skilled workers and artists to sign their work. Instead, these credits read like an Occupy Wall Street hit list.

This guy put in nearly 35 hours into collecting all that stuff. . . I hope he enjoyed the search.

This guy put in nearly 35 hours into collecting all that stuff. . . I hope he enjoyed the search.

But hey, you can go make a sandwich or play with your cat or something, right? The valuable part to you as a player comes after the credits, in the post game. Now you can finally play through the game on free play mode, using all those characters you unlocked along the way! I want Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi! Yeah! All right! Now what do I do in free play mode? Uh, go through the levels and collect more stuff…to unlock more characters…to use in free play mode…to collect more stuff… In all fairness, I never did collect all the mini-kits in any given level. Maybe something really cool happens when you do. I don’t know–the game didn’t really motivate me to seek them out. Even in the early stages, they tucked away these things so well that I rarely got more than two per level. If they made these things easier to get in even just the first level, I might know why I want to collect them everywhere else.

Come on...be honest...you wanted this to happen. We hate this guy just as much as Jar-Jar.

Come on…be honest…you wanted this to happen. We hate this guy just as much as Jar-Jar.

Honestly, though, I did have fun while it lasted, even in light of super-easy game play (you can’t actually die, you just spill your coin purse a little every time you lose a few hearts) and some obnoxiously obscure puzzles to solve. The games display a characteristic sense of humor, adding a delightful irreverence to a story that everyone–except for my ysalamir of an ex–already knows. Without additional dicking around in free play, the game runs under ten hours, which doesn’t exactly commit you to a Bethesda-level commitment. Speaking of which…I just got Oblivion for Christmas. Expect a week off here and there because in addition to working on RPG Maker for the last few months, I just took on a Bethesda-level commitment.

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire – N64, PC

6157-1-star-wars-shadows-of-theI’ve spent well over a year writing about games from all sorts of origins, but this entry will mark only the second time I’ve written about an N64 game. The deadbeat of the console family, the 64 had all attention diverted from it in its toddler stage for the newborn baby Playstation, which we all soon realized came out with dozens–and eventually hundreds–of good games. (I figured I’d pass on the chance to make an amniotic fluid joke in there) And of course, this problem plagued Nintendo through the Game Cube and even a little into the Wii era. Fortunately by that time, they’d noticed the DS. “Oh, really? Players enjoy a wide array of fun games, along with backwards compatibility so they can still play all those old games floating around?” See, it turns out that selling a system on the tech alone just doesn’t cut it. But sadly, the N64 hadn’t quite read that memo yet, and millions of people decided to bypass its wonderful new 3-D environments in favor of the 3-D environments that Playstation developers made fun and exciting to play in.

So, hunt down about twenty of these guys and kill them. Oh, and you don't have lasers or missiles. Oh, and crashing into anything kills you instantly.

So, hunt down about twenty of these guys and kill them. Oh, and you don’t have lasers or missiles. Oh, and crashing into anything kills you instantly.

Still, while terms like “amass” feel too grand for what happened, I did accumulate a modest collection of cartridges for the system, about three or four of which I actually enjoyed playing. Of the handful of these I have, I probably encountered Shadows of the Empire before anything else. It impressed me. It hooked me on the system, like a free shot of heroin that would eventually lead to an unsatisfying and expensive habit. But hey, Star Wars! In 3-D! The ability to walk around in the Rebel base on Hoth amazed me. Wandering in and out of my star ship…yeah, it sounds stupid now, but at the time it felt like strapping on a virtual reality suit and logging into Quest World (speaking of nostalgic disappointments). Still, I while I do have a tendency to overlook my N64 games in favor of a towering mass of Playstation discs, I recently began to wonder why I had ignored Shadows of the Empire for so long. So I pulled it out, dusted it off, jammed it in the slot and turned it on…then turned it off, pulled out the cartridge, blew the dust out of the game, blew dust out of the N64, put it back in, and sat back in amazement as I realized “Oh yeah, it doesn’t actually have much to offer.”

Hello Mr. Chicken Walker, you have some explaining to do. Seriously...how did you get in here? Look at the size of those doors.

Hello Mr. Chicken Walker, you have some explaining to do. Seriously…how did you get in here? Look at the size of those doors.

Shadows of the Empire owes a lot to two things. The first, in a move surprising both for the game industry–in basing a game adaptation off something other than a movie–and for Hollywood–to resist hacking and slashing an obvious cash cow of a book into bloody pulped mash of beef and bone–they took inspiration from a Star Wars expanded universe novel. The book focuses on the period of time between Empire and Jedi, while the film’s heroes search for Leia’s hunk of a carbonite boyfriend, matching wits against a crime syndicate lord jealous of all the attention Palpatine gives to Vader. The crime lord hatches a plot to bump off Vader, thus endearing himself to the Emperor (a plan which would make no sense with anyone other than Palpatine) and becoming his new green-guy Friday. So the novel ends up looking at how Luke and Leia get by without the disarming wit and street-smarts of Han Solo, pushing them to their limits to test their mettle. Just kidding. They introduce Dash Rendar, a character exactly like Han, who fills his function just long enough to get them through to Jabba’s palace. Dash, a relatively minor character from the novel, becomes the central figure of the game, driving much of the action.

The rebels may have fared better on Hoth had they filled their prisons with Imperials rather than the indiginous fauna.

The rebels may have fared better on Hoth had they filled their prisons with Imperials rather than the indiginous fauna.

Second, the Super Star Wars SNES games clearly influenced Shadows of the Empire’s creation. It retains the same semi-animation style of cut scenes, at least one secondary blaster power-up, and even some of the slightly nonsensical premises for dashing through a gauntlet of stormtroopers, droids and wampas rather than just landing your ship in a better location; it also makes sure you destroy your quota of tie fighters before jumping into hyperspace. The vehicle levels also feel lifted straight out of Super Star Wars, especially the one level they literally just took from Super Empire Strikes Back, spruced it up a bit, and used to open their game; you fly a snowspeeder at the Battle of Hoth, slaying progressively larger and more dangerous enemies that didn’t actually fight at the Battle of Hoth (we all see you, Probe Droid!) until you have to harpoon a handful of AT-ATs and bring them down in what always feels like the sci-fi video game equivalent of walking heel-to-toe while saying the alphabet backwards.

Wait...platforming? Does the game think we'd rather play Mario than shoot storm troopers?

Wait…platforming? Does the game think we’d rather play Mario than shoot storm troopers?

That sort of drunken play control really marks the game, unfortunately. As an early N64 title, it almost feels like a demo they decided to market. I could almost feel the separate layers of the graphics, with Dash responding to the controls on top and an environment doing the same on a layer beneath. The amazing 3-D environments in retrospect come off as simple and non-interactive, with only a handful of objects that do anything more than just sit there, not letting you walk through them and looking all Star-Warsy. Each level jumps up and down like a 3-year old desperately trying to show you what it can do, especially in the various vehicle levels and the one moving-along-the-train level designed by a programmer who apparently slept through high school physics. While Dash has all the equilibrium of Mario in an ice world, once you get the jet pack the game really starts to handle as well as reading a newspaper in a gale force wind.

Flying like a drunk with a pilot light hanging over his ass, Dash Rendar never lacked popularity with his frat brothers.

Flying like a drunk with a pilot light hanging over his ass, Dash Rendar never lacked popularity with his frat brothers.

But I’ve safely navigated through Mario games before, so I can forgive that. I can even forgive the rarity of blaster power-ups effectively classifying them as too-awesome-to-use items. The save feature, though, pisses me off to the point where I’d gladly strangle a Lieutenant if one made itself available. And I had Force powers. Not yet reaching modern times, Shadows of the Empire uses lives. But still in love with itself over 3-D capabilities, it also uses enormous levels that can take upwards of 30 minutes to an hour to complete. If you don’t get to the boss and die. Like I did. Numerous times. On the medium difficulty setting. A setting which otherwise offered the perfect balance of challenge without frustration, yet still allowing adjustment for veteran players. The game only saves at the ends of levels, meaning any mistake and you get to play through everything again! Better pick something good to watch on TV while you do it. (I recommend Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”) For extra challenge, each level contains either hidden or difficult-to-reach challenge points. Collecting enough of these will grant you bonus lives which become part of the save data, carrying over into the next level (meaning you can play through old levels again to potentially increase your life total for the next). While discovering these trinkets gives the same rush as finding a twenty dollar bill in a parking lot, the bonus lives don’t add to the minimum–if you have one life left and get three bonus lives from challenge points, the game feels that raising you back up to the minimum lives ought to reward you enough.

Shadows of the Empire has all the nostalgic appeal of Johnny Quest–something you loved as a kid, but then you go back and catch the disturbing racial overtones and shallow plots. The game doesn’t come off as racist (well, unless you count casting green aliens as villains and white humans as heroes), but does kind of flop as a retro hit. For all the frustrations, I’d definitely put it in the top…let’s say fifteen N64 games. Maybe even top ten. But let’s face it; it didn’t exactly have fierce competition.

Super Star Wars (series) – SNES

Geeky Star Wars fans dress up their girlfriends like this. True Star Wars fans prefer to put themselves in Leia's place.

Geeky Star Wars fans dress up their girlfriends like this. True Star Wars fans prefer to put themselves in Leia’s place.

Despite my previous piece on the literary and artistic value of games, I’d like to make it perfectly clear that the deeper meaning many artists put into their work does no more than ask, “Do you want to super-size it?” That statement alone reveals the corporate world’s fetish for up-selling, as they used to ask, “Do you want fries with that,” right up to the point when they realized everyone always bought fries already, so why not try to sell us bigger fries? Andy Warhol realized that he couldn’t tell the difference between art and advertising, so he gave us a painting of a Campbell’s Soup can, which everyone treats as a cute novelty without actually understanding his point.

And so we get to video games based on movies; those of you my age might laugh as you remember such debacles as “Last Action Hero,” “Beethoven,” or “Home Alone.” More recently, we’ve had to suffer through Harry Potter games and an entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I fully expect a Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug movie to capitalize on the lousier points of the film and give us long sequences where we can have Legolas use every tree stump, barrel, ax blade and goblin as a snowboard.

It may look innoculous, but this level will make your hair fall out.

It may look innocuous, but this level will make your hair fall out.

Still, in the feeding frenzy of capitalism surrounding us, a few games actually make me stand up and proudly admit, “Meh. Not too bad,” and most of these games belong to the Star Wars franchise. Don’t ask me why. After announcing that N*Sync would guest star in Attack of the Clones, I nearly swore off Lucasfilm entirely, but since they backpedaled on that decision to avoid the Force turning angrily against them, I have to admit that George Lucas doesn’t always make crash-and-burn decisions.

Let’s face it, though; if nothing else, Lucas’ studios have consistently pulled of effects and spectacles well, and in run-and-gun action games like Super Star Wars, you don’t really need much else.

Yes, dear readers, I have wracked my brain for nigh on two weeks and I haven’t thought of anything else to say about this game–rather, these games–than “Meh. Don’t really need much else.”

Note: We need Chewie's lines. This completely changes the meaning of the story.

Note: We need Chewie’s lines. This completely changes the meaning of the story.

The three games that make up the Super Star Wars series (Super Star Wars, Super The Empire Strikes Back, and the aptly named Super Weekend at Bernies 3; Return of the Bernie) recount the story of Luke Skywalker’s journey to become a Jedi and save the galaxy. They do this mostly through cut scenes in between levels, more as a side-story, like a salad to a run-and-gun platforming entree. Also, they included gameplay. The gameplay lets players romp merrily through said galaxy killing things that usually have no relation to the movies. But hey…lightsabers. Doesn’t really need much else.  The first game opens with the familiar scene of Darth Vader capturing Leia’s ship and the droids ejecting toward the planet Tatooine. From their, we switch to the not-as-familiar scene of Luke dashing through the desert with a blaster as though he swore revenge on it for killing his mom. The first stage ends with the explosive death of the Sarlac Pit, thus rendering the climax of act I of Super Return of the Jedi completely nonsensical. From there, he sets off on a quest to liberate C3-PO, a droid he’s never met before, by killing his way through the entire population of jawas that he and his uncle depend upon to do business. I don’t know, Luke. Why would imperial stormtroopers want to slaughter jawas?

Once you’ve accomplished that task, relax, get yourself a snack, and use the bathroom because you’ve got about two and three quarters of a game left of these I personally enjoy the way they reworked Luke surrendering to Vader in Jedi as an epic battle through the forests of Endor, followed by a hack-and-slash run through the Death Star before he finds Vader and the Emperor.

Drive along a Northern Michigan highway at night in the winter, then switch on your brights. Seriously; it looks just like this.

Drive along a Northern Michigan highway at night in the winter, then switch on your brights. Seriously; it looks just like this.

But before you consign the cartridge you bought in exchange for handful of pennies and that shiny bottle cap to the ebay scrap heap, give it a run. LucasArts kept the nonsense to a minimum, really, and certain game elements follow a modicum of logic. Luke begins with a blaster and gets the lightsaber when he meets Ben Kenobi. He can switch between them from that point on, but the blaster deals more damage, so the game at least nudges you to follow the progression of Luke’s training. The lightsaber doesn’t become a reasonably powerful weapon until Luke lands on Dagobah in Empire, although it does deal a fair amount of damage to wampas. By Jedi, Luke loses the ability to use a blaster altogether.

On Dagobah, he can learn special Force abilities by collecting hidden power-ups, but if you don’t find them, you have to finish the duration of Empire without those abilities. Generally, though, using the Force causes more problems than it solves thanks to the clunky control scheme. For example, one skill lets the player toss the lightsaber and steer it around the screen to hit enemies. I might even enjoy that if I didn’t have to completely relinquish control of Luke, leaving him standing like a Tauntaun staring in the headlights of an oncoming AT-AT.  The levitate ability helped me stay out of holes, (a pesky element from the platforming genre, who like a drunken uncle at a Thanksgiving dinner only made it in because someone felt the need to include everyone in the family) but I primarily stuck with the heal ability throughout the game.

They mumble this guy's name only once in a loud action scene, but somehow we all know Boba Fett. We have a Boba Fetish.

They mumble this guy’s name only once in a loud action scene, but somehow we all know Boba Fett. We have a Boba Fetish.

Chewie and Han each have small tweaks to balance out their power with Luke’s, although their default level-2 blaster disappears for the third game, making them somewhat underpowered. In Jedi, Wicket becomes a playable character, as do Leia in three different costumes, although compared to the other characters, she doesn’t have much to offer, and she usually fades into the background of the other characters, except for the fight with Jabba.

I know I've gone lightly on the side-scrolling screenshots, but the games go for an interesting variety with the vehicle levels.

I know I’ve gone lightly on the side-scrolling screenshots, but the games go for an interesting variety with the vehicle levels.

I really don’t have much to say about these games individually. They didn’t exactly innovate much as they released these over the course of three years. Even with minor differences between them, they could play as the same game. However, they do score points for creativity in their 3D vehicle levels. While many play out similarly, each one feels like driving a different Star Wars ship (even sometimes when different levels use the same vehicle). The player has a chance to drive Luke’s speeder, the X-Wing fighter, Snow Speeders, and the Millenium Falcon, each one in a unique level that, for the most part, resemble the movies with a degree of accuracy better than…uh…with a degree of accuracy.

Fortunately, these games play well, and despite only mildly acknowledging that they should bear a resemblance to the movie, it gives the player a Star Warsey feel to it. Worth playing, even for a movie tie-in game, but at least they didn’t base it off a commercial…or make it into a commercial. Speaking of which, look out for a Plants vs Zombies II article. I know it doesn’t qualify as retro, but I have important things to say.

May the Force not bend your NES connector pins out of place.