A long time ago (around 13 years to be precise) in a galaxy not so far away, and when Nintendo 64 hardware was still fresh off the factory production line, LucasArts released Shadows of the Empire. Unfortunately for Star Wars fans everywhere, it was a pretty average affair, with only the Battle of Hoth level proving to be truly memorable. While most of the game took the form of a 3rd-person shooter, one stage allowed the player to take control of a Rebel Alliance Snowspeeder and, in true Star Wars fashion, go for the legs of any AT-ATs which happened to get in the way.
Gamers everywhere saw the potential and clamoured for more. Couldn’t LucasArts make an entire game based solely around this type of gameplay? Well, after teaming up with German developer Factor 5, LucasArts decided to make it happen and in late 1998 we were introduced to the first entry of the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series.
Set in the period of time between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the player assumes the role of Luke Skywalker – leader of the titular Rogue Squadron fleet. The game features all the craft gamers have come to expect from a Star Wars game, from good-old X-Wings and Y-Wings to the more obscure. There are 16 different stages, each with their own mission objectives and set over a wide range of varied environments – from the snow-covered valleys of Fest to the inside of an active volcano on Sullust. If the names of these planets don’t exactly ring a bell, don’t worry; at the time of Rogue Squadron’s development, Lucasfilm was uneasy with video games depicting scenes directly from the movies. For this reason, the game focuses instead on the expanded Star Wars universe, drawing inspiration from sources such as the X-Wing Rogue Squadron comic book series. The lack of iconic movie locations could be seen by some as a disadvantage, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rogue Squadron, with its original storyline and different range of levels from the usual formula, provides a refreshingly new Star Wars experience.
The gameplay is fast-paced arcade-style fun. This isn’t a flight simulator by any stretch of the imagination. However, that’s not a bad thing at all. The tight controls fit the action perfectly; the analogue stick controls the direction of your craft, Z and A slow-down and speed-up respectively and the B trigger is used for standard blaster fire. The C buttons are used for changing camera view as well as ship-specific functions, such as dropping bombs from the Y-Wing or closing the S-foils of the X-Wing. A sign of good game controls is when, after a short while of playing, they become completely natural and you don’t have to think about them. Rogue Squadron is one of those games. No matter how many times you might die (and it’ll probably be a lot), never once will you be left blaming the controls.
Rogue Squadron has the distinction of being easy to pick up but very difficult to master. There’s plenty of replay value to be had here. As if playing through the game’s 16 stages wasn’t hard enough, it’s possible to earn bronze, silver or gold medals on each level. Silver and gold medals in particular are very difficult to achieve and it’ll take a lot of practice, play time and replaying levels over and over again to obtain them. Easily frustrated gamers or those looking for a nice game to chill out with should think twice, but for fanatics it provides excellent replay value and a firm sense of achievement when you finally get gold on that level after the 80th try. However, a feeling of pride isn’t the only motivation to go for gold. The developers have included some tantalising unlockables to tempt players to get the most out of the game. Bonus power-ups are also hidden in some levels and finding them will provide upgrades such as shield improvements or more advanced missiles.
In addition to the gameplay, another area Factor 5 outdid themselves is the game’s sound. Incredibly, the developers (through the use of advanced compression techniques) have managed to squeeze around 80 minutes of sampled speech and other high-quality sound effects onto the cartridge. The amount of in-game speech coming from your wingmen – while it may seem like nothing nowadays – was amazing back in 1998, and when combined with the terrific cinematic cut-scenes weaved into the missions, it adds greatly to the game’s sense of immersion. The short cinematic sequences, advancing the story at the beginning and end of each mission, combined with the excellent voice acting pull you into the action. Accompanying the game’s quality sampled speech are all the authentic sound effects that gamers have come to expect from Star Wars games. The sound of blaster fire, TIE fighter engines, clanking AT-ATs… chances are that if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re now hearing these sounds in your head automatically. This is what Star Wars Rogue Squadron sounds like. It’s a tremendously authentic experience and only serves to add to the immersion and overall experience of the game.
The in-game music is also worthy of the Star Wars name and includes both familiar and original synthesised tunes. Don’t expect to have the opportunity to appreciate it very often though - due to all the blaster fire and engine noise that will inevitably be wailing out of the TV speakers.
The game’s graphics are also of a very high standard for a Nintendo 64 game and make full use of the system’s Expansion Pak. Craft are intricately detailed, right down to their smallest aspects and in-game textures are also a grade above the usual N64 standard. The only downside is that the game tends to suffer quite badly from fogging. Although the draw distance isn’t impressive, it’s hard to fault Factor 5, as this problem riddled many a game on the console. Even still, the fact that most of the environments are shrouded in a heavy fog can’t be ignored.
A two-player mode would also have been a nice inclusion, but Rogue Squadron is such an exquisite one-player experience anyway that it isn’t a huge blow. Anyone truly determined to play with a friend should check out the GameCube's Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, which features extensive co-op and versus modes.
Aside from this, it’s wise to bear in mind that the later stages of Rogue Squadron can be difficult, and if you’re stuck on a level there’s not much else to do but try again to beat it. There aren’t any other game modes to play if you happen to hit a brick wall. What’s more, each time you use up your three lives you have to go all the way back to the title screen and navigate through the menus if you want to try again. That being said, although it’s annoying, it’s only a very minor irritation.
Nitpicking aside, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Factor 5 have put a lot of time and care into Rogue Squadron. As well as tons of unlockables (secret passcodes hide even more, should you manage to obtain all gold medals), the iconic Star Wars yellow scrolling text is in there laying out the story. The developers have also included pilot profiles for the prominent members of Rogue Squadron. It’s a nice touch — the sort of thing that no one would notice if it wasn’t there, but they put it in anyway just because they cared.
In the same vein, Factor 5 have also included an incredibly detailed cockpit view. It may prove impractical in terms of actually playing the game but it certainly looks impressive and is another example of the developers going the extra mile and putting a lot of effort into something so minor.
Even the mission select screen is cool – looking exactly like the holographic-screen from the Yavin base briefing room straight out of the movies. Furthermore, as if Factor 5 would have it any other way, your mission briefing is also delivered to you verbally.
For Star Wars fans especially, Rogue Squadron is absolutely essential. Others just looking for a fun flight combat game will get a kick out of it too, even if they know nothing about the movies. Great gameplay, visuals (minus the fog) and sound combined with an engrossing sense of immersion provides a fantastic experience even a decade later. With the recent appearance of the Super Star Wars series on the Virtual Console, let’s hope that Rogue Squadron is next on LucasArts’ list.