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The Making Of: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

The Making Of: Star Wars

There’s only one way to start this story. A long time ago, in a videogame universe far, far away, there was a videogame console called the Atari VCS. Upon its release, thirdparty licensing deals did not exist, meaning that there was just one company that initially programmed games for Atari’s console: Atari.

It was a monopoly that couldn’t last. First came breakaway group Activision. Then Parker Brothers, the creator of Monopoly – as well as Cluedo and Risk – threw its hat into the ring too. The story of how the venerable toy company beat Atari at its own game and created the first ever Star Wars outing is a tale of pluck, courage and what a small band of rebels can do when they sneak in under the radar.

“Parker Brothers was just a typical Yankee board game manufacturer,” remembers The Empire Strikes Back’s programmer, Rex Bradford, who joined the company in the summer of 1981. “Making videogames was a new kind of thing for them.” Originally hired to work on Parker Brothers’ lucrative handheld electronic toys – a booming business after the company’s smash-hit Merlin in 1978 – the young University of Massachusetts graduate quickly learned that his new bosses had their eyes on the VCS market.

“It was like David and Goliath,” says Bill Bracy, then marketing manager at Parker Brothers. “Atari was a behemoth in the industry and totally controlled an enormous volume. But they were vulnerable in the software aspect because, unlike Nintendo, they hadn’t been able to secure a monopoly on the hardware and software.” Making a leap from what Bracy calls its history of “tortured cardboard”, Parker Brothers agreed with Lucasfilm to license games based on Star Wars across all platforms.

Unwilling to tie itself to only licensing games for Atari’s console, Lucasfilm took the bait and Parker Brothers quickly set up its videogame development team, a secret ‘skunk works’ group comprised of Bradford, Bracy, programmer Mark Lesser, designer Sam Kjellman and project manager Richard Stearns, taking up residence on the top floor of the company’s corporate headquarters in Beverly, Massachusetts.

While the goings-on at Atari’s Sunnyvale offices have become the stuff of videogame legend, Parker Brothers was a rather more puritan environment. No hot-tub parties or dope-smoking sessions here, just lots of hard graft. The first assignment was to reverse-engineer the Atari VCS hardware from scratch. Photos were taken of the interior of the graphics chip, circuit diagrams were traced and Bradford wrote a disassembler program that could take existing cartridges and lay bare their code. With so much R&D going on, it’s no wonder that there was little time for Atari-style R&R.

“It was a bit like being shot out of a cannon,” remembers Bradford. “I was fairly fresh out of school, I’d seen Star Wars ten times and I was something of a hotshot programmer back then. But I’d never programmed in assembly language before, so I definitely learned on the job.” By November, Bradford and designer Sam Kjellman were ready to start work on their first game: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

In 1981, the concept of making a game out of a movie was still a fresh one. The only touchstone was John Dunn’s Superman, released on Atari’s VCS in 1979 after precocious marketing suits at media giant Warner Communications (distributor of the Superman movie and owner of both DC Comics and Atari) dreamt up the first cross-platform tie-in.

While Superman owed little to the movie except its spandex hero, The Empire Strikes Back was the first home console game to capture some of the drama of the film on which it was based. Opening with a beepy burst of John Williams’ distinctive theme, it was groundbreaking stuff. Bradford is characteristically modest about the achievement, however: “In general, the Atari [VCS] was so limited that we weren’t so grandiose to say: ‘Oh, we’re going to recreate the experience of the movie here’. It was clearly going to be a limited experience, something that at best would remind you of the movie, evoke a little bit of the emotion and most importantly be a fun game to play.”

Still, the Star Wars films seemed to be perfect for game adaptation. “Within each one of those movies there were four or five scenes that clearly lent themselves to videogames,” says Bracy. After a marketing brainstorming session, it was decided that Empire would concentrate on one, iconic scene from the film. The first choice was the battle of Hoth, where the rebel forces fight a desperate rearguard action against the advancing Stormtroopers and their towering AT-AT walkers. Putting the player in control of a Snowspeeder, the game proves an impossible battle for survival: your tiny craft is dwarfed by lumbering, seemingly invincible giants that can take 48 hits to destroy. Like so many early videogames, it’s less about winning or completion than simply how long you can stay alive.

With just 4K of ROM, fidelity to Lucas’s storytelling was always going to involve a certain amount of compromise. “The marketing people were really excited about the idea of roping the walkers’ legs to bring them down,” laughs Bradford, recalling one of the film’s best-known moments. “I never took it seriously because we just couldn’t figure a way to do it on the console.” Instead, the game offers players a different set of tactics.

Each of your five ships is allowed two repair landings on the jagged terrain; and, if you stay alive for a whole two minutes, your pilot is made briefly invulnerable thanks to The Force. Other strategies involve waiting for what Bradford calls a random “sweet spot” – a bomb hatch – to appear on each AT-AT’s body, offering the chance for a one-shot kill. Another technique involves slowing down the advancing procession by damaging (but not destroying) the first and last AT-ATs, buying a little time before
the inevitable flashing screen heralds the end of the rebels’ efforts.

Empire’s real pleasure, though, lay in its sense of speed. The velocity and smooth maneuverability of the Snowspeeder was instantly appealing but tough on peripherals. “The running joke around the office,” says Bradford, “was that we were being paid by the joystick manufacturers because it was so hard on the controllers and people’s thumbs.”

With playtesting complete, there was just one final hurdle: Lucasfilm’s seal of approval. Despite adopting a hands-off approach during development, the company had a contractual right to veto the game before it shipped if it wasn’t happy with it. So, in spring 1982, Bradford took a flight to San Francisco to showcase his work.

Even in those days the Star Wars franchise cast a long shadow, especially if you were a programmer, gamer or geek. George Lucas himself wasn’t in attendance at the meeting, but Bradford remembers nervously showing his game to Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, two of the founders of Lucasfilm’s computer graphics division. “These were the pioneers of computer graphics in the Star Wars movie,” he says, still slightly over-awed at the thought even today. “I was a bit embarrassed showing them this little blocky Snowspeeder flying around!”

With Lucasfilm’s blessing secured, the game was released to a public ravenous for anything Luke Skywalker-related. Its success, with over a million copies sold and a later Intellivision port, told its own story, and Parker Brothers would go on to make three further Star Wars games: Jedi Arena, Death Star Battle and Star Wars: The Arcade Game (a planned Ewok Adventure title was unreleased).

For Lucasfilm, then just prepping its own in-house gaming division, Empire’s sales were proof that it was heading in the right direction, marking the emergence of a new empire and an army of clones. Yet it was also something else, perhaps even more influential than that. No one called it ‘convergence’ back in 1982 but that’s what Empire was, the first date in the on/off love affair between games and movies that’s still being played out today.





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