Following up on the success of Super Star Wars, LucasArts released Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back (a.k.a. Super Empire Strikes Back) to an audience already hyped and waiting. As we discussed in our previous review, the story barely paid lip service to the movies, and this release is little better. Even so, the game was a success before it even hit store shelves and legions of fans still cling to it all these years later like Darth Vader to his “ancient religion” but, like Yoda, we must constantly remind these fans of the failures of its predecessor. Will the sequel repeat the mistakes of its father?
The first Super Star Wars game was primarily a run and gun platformer with some Mode 7 levels to change things up from time to time, and that same formula is still in place this second time around. Graphics, although essentially the same quality, feel a bit more polished, and this is especially evident in the Mode 7 levels. Despite merely replacing sand with snow, the planet of Hoth looks much better than Tatooine did: AT-AT’s and AT-ST’s are clear and distinguishable here, in contrast to the bizarre blips and bloops that chased you around the Dune Sea in the last game.
Later in the game you get to hop into the Millennium Falcon and fight Tie Fighters in outer space. This looks, plays and feels a lot like the X-Wing and Tie Fighter games that were popular on PCs at the time of this release and leagues better than the space combat sequence outside of the Death Star in Super Star Wars. Though it is only one level, it is an impressive diversion from the normal action of the game.
Although these graphical improvements in the Mode 7 levels were greatly needed and do contribute to the appeal of the game, they are still somewhat dated in that these same levels, particularly the Hoth ones, have been played out again and again on numerous other Star Wars games. And, although it’s not really a fair comparison, the more recent iterations naturally feature better graphics than the SNES could ever hope for. Consider this, if you find yourself wanting to take down a few AT-ATs with a tow cable today: do you want to do so on the SNES, N64, or Gamecube? There are two options on the N64 alone, and in the Gamecube version of the battle for Hoth you can play with modern graphics in true 3D at 60 frames per second. The SNES version of this exact same battle... well, it does not fare so well by comparison. There’s nostalgia, and then there is obsolescence, and with so many Star Wars options for the battle of Hoth, it’s tough to make an argument for this one, other than to say that it looks good for the SNES.
The length of Super Empire Strikes Back is roughly equal to Super Star Wars. However, this time around LucasArts added a password system to allow you to put the game down rather than have to play for hours from start to finish. Although it’s less necessary on the Wii because of the save state feature, it still comes in handy here because it will let players replay the specific level they want without having to play from the beginning. It can also be useful in restarting after you have died, as if you lose a life you will lose all of your weapon upgrades.
The ruthless difficulty from the first game strikes back here for an even more difficult experience. Although it will not necessarily be that much worse if you have already played the first game; most of the skills you learned there will transfer over, as the gameplay is almost entirely the same. New players, however, should be warned that even the first game was not for the inexperienced, and this one is tougher. Most players agree that the third game, Super Return of the Jedi, is the easiest of the three and therefore, from a difficulty standpoint, makes for a safer starting point than either of these first two.
Although the game is more difficult, some basic changes to gameplay were made that will ease your burden somewhat. One of the biggest changes is that you can now make a double jump that allows for greater accuracy in platform jumping. Additionally, you can move the screen to look up or down separate from moving your character. These two changes greatly help tackle the blind jumping problem that tortured players in the first game, while also bringing the game more in line with how a traditional platformer handles. You can also now run and shoot your blaster at the same time.
In addition to the Mode 7 levels overhaul, there are a couple of new side-scrolling levels that play something like Gradius… very short and easy versions of Gradius, making for some of the easiest levels in the game. These appear to exist solely as a diversion to keep the player from getting bored with the primary levels. Although not challenging like the rest of the game, they seem to serve as a segue to move your character from one part of the story along from one setting to the next within a single level.
Lastly, Luke has been given an overhaul from the first game. For starters, Luke’s lightsaber is available from the very beginning and he can use it to block and deflect incoming fire. It’s just as awesome as it sounds, although he has to stand still in order to do so. But perhaps an even bigger change is his access to Force powers; midway through the game Luke goes to Dagobah to learn the ways of the force from Yoda. In this game, that means he must jump and flail with his lightsaber until he uncovers items hidden around the Dagobah levels that will give him specific force powers when he retrieves them. It is up to you to hunt around and find these hidden items and it is entirely possible to leave the level without collecting any of them.
Failure to ‘complete your training’ could mean going throughout the rest of the game without the levitate ability or the ‘freeze every enemy on the screen’ ability, which means the game will be harder for you than for those who had the patience to find every Force power. However, most of these abilities are unnecessary and just for fun. All you really need is the heal ability which allows you to spend Force points to heal your life points. Even so, you have to love a game that effectively seals your fate halfway through, with no option but to start over if you decide that you really should have spent more time training on Dagobah after all. It could be worse: Luke made that same mistake and lost his hand.
Super Empire Strikes Back offers the same classic gameplay and epic cutscenes of the first game while incorporating significant improvements in the controls and graphics. It’s still insanely difficult, even on the easiest skill setting, but overall the presentation is better here than Super Star Wars. Most importantly, with the addition of a more Jedi-enabled Luke, the series finally feels like Star Wars instead of just looking like it. Although newer games using newer technology may have stepped on its toes regarding the Hoth sequence, the rest still packs a fantastic 2D platforming experience and, like Mark Hamill, Super Empire Strikes Back hasn’t aged one bit.