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Fare thee well, Lucasarts

Posted on April 17, 2013 at 1:15 AM

Fare Thee Well...


Last week, Disney announced it was shutting down Lucasarts. Lucasarts has a long history of game development across PCs and consoles and is responsible for some of the best games in history...


....decades ago....


Yeah, this is the confounding part. No, not that Disney shut down a game company without really looking to restructuring and so on, just shutting it right down. No, not that games were cancelled (actually probably moving development elsewhere) as a result which pretty much made all that money and personnel wasting years of their lives (and now looking for jobs). All that is sad, sure, but what confounds me is how upset people are over it.


I can understand being upset over the suddenness of it, a developer closing down is never good in this day and age and feeling bad for people now looking for jobs in a tough gaming world, but instead, it seems most people are upset that Lucasarts is no more in a way that's more playing off of their nostalgia rather than reality. "Oh, Lucasarts made some of my favorite games, I can't believe they're shutting down!"


Seriously, there are already countless video rants and blogs with people angry, and the defense has always seemed to be "this is the studio that brought us the likes of Grim Fandango and TIE Fighter and Monkey Island! How dare you!"


Folks, honestly, I grew up with Lucasarts like the rest of you, but when was the last time they were really all that relevant? During the early days of gaming, especially on PC, they were a force (pardon the pun) to be reckoned with. Consoles too, hell i still have all my Super Star Wars games on the SNES, but Lucasarts hasn't really done anything relevant in at least ten years. The last good thing they did was license out the Star Wars franchise to Bioware to bring us Knights of the Old Republic back in 2003.Of course, that was the precursor to their new direction: license games for others to make, not spend millions to develop internally.


I guess to me, Lucasarts was already "gone" over a decade ago. It's strange to see this sudden turn, because across the internet people had been saying, for years, how Lucasarts lost touch and no longer making good games and are a shell of their former selves like a lot of game developers these days (Hi Square Enix) but then Disney nixes them and suddenly everyone is upset. Why? What were they doing the past many years that was getting you so excited? Most of the Star Wars games were just licensed titles anyways (Lego, KOTOR, Battlefront) . What? Were you dying for another Kinect game or Force Unleashed III? They weren't internally developing squat and put all their chips on Star Wars 1313.


Read the release. Lucasarts isn't going to develop games anymore, but that doesn't mean the Star Wars license, or any other of their IPs, won't be put in to the hands of developers still. 


Maybe that's the issue. Maybe it was just a poor announcement on the part of Disney. It's not exactly glowing towards Lucasarts, they're just making a smart business decision and that's the end of it. Maybe they needed to treat the company with a bit more respect and that lack of said respect is what people are most upset about. Not the fact it's closing, let's be honest they were on borrowed time in this gaming market in the first place, but maybe a release from Disney stating how wonderful, not to mention important, Lucasarts was to gaming...and to us gamers.





But Here's My Ode, Anyways


All that being said, I don't want to sit here and talk about the downward spiral of Lucasarts the past decade or so, let's try to make this a happy thing.

 

The very first Lucasarts game I recall playing was the very first, and very difficult, Super Star Wars on the Super Nintendo. "Super" a term way over used during that era, it was all marketing, I suppose. To me, though, it really was "super." The only prior Star Wars related game I ever played was The Empire Strikes Back on the Atari 2600. It was pretty awful, but that also might have been the super-small black and white television I played it on influencing that.

 

Super Star Wars came at the right time. I had just started getting in to the Star Wars movies, read a few Star Wars book (which, at the time, was pretty much just the Timothy Zahn Heir to the Empire, the movie novelizations and the Dark Horse comics), but more importantly had just bought myself a Super Nintendo, which I've talked about plenty in the past as it was the first console I slapped my own hard-earned cash down for at age 13. 12. One of those ages, I can't remember exactly.

 

Anyways, I bought Super Star Wars new. Nintendo Power and EGM were all over it, and those colorful and glorious SNES 16-bit graphics were damn powerful to look at. It was a big deal. For once, we looked at a screenshot of the video game and there we recognized everything Star Wars.



 Dude...you're fighting Vader. This had never been done before. Also, Han is definitely shooting first in that pic. Screw you, Jabba (and continuity).



I went on to purchase the next two Super games which came out over the course of the 1990s, Super Empire Strikes Back which was a very uneven and hard game, and Super Return of the Jedi which was the easiest and most balanced and I'd say probably the most polished. They were all faithful to the movies, with some natural liberties as game design needed, and really pushed that old SNES to its limits with some of the most memorable mode 7 sequences the system could muster (like flying in to the Death Star or the Battle of Hoth and bringing down Walkers...who didn't look forward to each of these parts?)

 

Lucasarts, though wasn't just about Star Wars. They were a legitimate developer and talented as hell, and during all these Star Wars releases in the 1990s, they also developed (to be published by Konami) a little game called Zombies Ate My Neighbors. Being, at the time, really getting in to horror movies also (oh…the things that were to come…;) I fell in love with the game. I had a hell of a time playing it, I soon felt that Lucasarts games were intentionally hard at this point, but I actually enjoyed going back and replaying levels to try and do better. It was a game that was super challenging, but not frustrating. It sucked me in and I'd call it an unheralded masterpiece.


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Now watch and listen to two drunks have a blast with it. Nostalgia overload.


Around the mid-90s, for some reason I bought a Sega CD, and on that Sega CD I bought a couple of games alongside it including Star Wars: Rebel Assault. "Oh, it's Star Wars…it's the same company that did the games on the Super Nintendo…what could possibly go wrong?"


Oh, it went wrong.



There was a time when these graphics were amazing.


 

I hated that game. Sure, it was a shoddy port to begin with and probably didn't have a chance on something like the Sega CD, but it's all I knew.  Imagine this: I've only played the Star Wars games on the Super Nintendo at this point, I believe the first two, so I was pretty adept to insane action and platforming and, you know, fun. Rebel Assault was absolutely not what I was expecting and certainly not what I was wanting. Instead of action, it was just static screens and you kind of shot stuff. You flew around, and you also attacked on foot on some levels, but I didn't like either. It was restrictive and I ended up getting rid of it relatively quickly. I disliked it so bad I didn't bother with its sequel which was also on the Playstation years later.

 

But Lucasarts redeemed themselves. Boy did they redeem themselves, because not only did they also releaed the aforementioned Zombies Ate My Neighbors that same year, not only did they conclude the Star Wars trilogy with Super Return of the Jedi, but also released the absolutely glorious and sometimes overlooked Indiana Jones Greatest Adventures, which was basically the Super Star Wars games in the Indiana Jones universe. I was a huge Indiana Jones fan. Hell, I'd even say I liked those movies more than the Star Wars flicks, so this was just amazing to me. The graphics were amazing, control perfect and you got all three movies in one game. It was like three for one! Other than that little dip with Rebel Assault, Lucasarts could do no wrong in my eye.

 


But…they would go away for a long, long time for me. I wouldn't play another Lucasarts game for years. I didn't have a PC, mind you, so games like TIE Fighter or the numerous point and click adventure games they were known for were still lost on me. In the late 1990s they pretty much stayed exclusive to the PC with games like Jedi Knight, Monkey Island, The Dig, and Grim Fandango, but I wouldn't even touch those for probably a good five years after they were released.


Not all was lost, though. I took a plunge in the mid 90s and bought a Sony Playstation. On it: Star Wars: Dark Forces. It was a first person game with a pretty nifty Star Wars story with a character that fans would come to know in years to come: Kyle…Kyle….


Shit…what was his last name?

 

That's kind of the fun of this series, I try to avoid looking stuff up and go entirely by my memory. If anything it's an exercise.



Katarn. There we go. Yeah, I looked it up. Sue me.


 

Kyle Katarn in Dark Forces was already pretty cool, he was like a scruffier and more nerf-herdier Han Solo. Though I knew I was playing a gimped version of the game compared to its PC counterpart, I still enjoyed it. But it was really Jedi Knight, Dark Forces far-superior sequel that I remember more fondly, but let's talk about that in a PC moment.


On the Playstation, I also enjoyed another surprisingly fun title called Herc's Adventures.  I know most are probably not even aware of it, but it was kind of my favorite game at the time on the Playstation and still one that I think is criminally overlooked to this day. Basically, you're Herc, as in Hercules, and you went around various levels beating the shit out of people. It was kind of like Zombies Ate My Neighbors only with a little more of a story and a lot more humor. I really dug it, and I really wish I still had my copy. At least it's not overly pricey on ebay.

 

Around 1998 I also took the plunge in to the world of the Nintendo 64. I got it at cost through the job I was in, thankfully, as well as the games. So, naturally, I went with the only Star Wars game on it at the time, Star Wars Shadows of the Empire.


Now you talk about a game that has not aged well at all, Shadow of the Empire is great in concept, incredibly frustrating in execution. Even at the time the graphics weren't anything amazing, but that's mainly the on-foot sections, because what most people remember is that first level. As good as past games had done in re-creating the Hoth battle, the Nintendo 64 really was the first that kind of nailed it.


 


 I barely remember anything else from the rest of the game, but playing this level for the first time still sticks with me.

 


That was really it in terms of console games. There were a couple of others, I think. The Episode 1 Racer wasn't too bad, but a bit forgettable if you ask me. But then, magic happened. My parents bought a PC. It was a Gateway, because Gateway was really big in the late 90s because of brilliant marketing and people's fondness for cows, and in to the home it came - with it: Jedi Knight. Yep, it was one of those bundle deals where if you bought a computer you also got a lot of software with it. The internet was still relatively new so it was a lot of research and educational stuff, like encyclopedias on discs and whatnot, but along with it came Jedi Knight and the newly released expansion of Jedi Knight, Mysteries of the Sith.

 

Jedi Knight. Was. Amazing. It was the sequel to Dark Forces only, now, it was better because it focused less on the shooter/smuggling thing found in the first game and went balls-deep with the world of the Jedi. You start as Kyle as we know him, kind of aloof, but then he finds a Jedi path and the next thing you know you're swinging the lightsaber and using the force. Not in a "power up" kind of way like it was in the side-scrolling Super Nintendo games, but in a way that had you really manipulating the enemies and environment and exploring.


Jedi Knight reminded me of something: there were a ton of Lucasarts games I still hadn't played, and over the course of the next few years I got lost in a ton of them. Now that I had a PC, I could live what others were reliving on a regular basis. Now I could finally see what all the talk was about (the internet was really off at this point, people began to develop conversations about classic gaming right away). I went back and played the original Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, hit the road with Sam and Max and hopped a ship to Monkey Island (which one I can't remember exactly, I have been meaning to go back and replay those). The only point and click adventure I played before all these was a Leisure Suit Larry game on DOS at a friend's house when I was probably 14 or 15.  I ran roughshot through a lot of them, and as a result probably burned myself out on them and still have Full Throttle and Indiana Jones titles  on my "to do" list. There right there, on my computer all installed and ready to go, but...


In college, we're talking around 2002 in and around, I picked up what became my favorite Lucasarts title by a mile. Ok, maybe not a mile because those Super Nintendo games were incredible, but it wisked me away in to the world of the afterlife as I tried to solve mysteries.



Yeah, and it's one of the greatest games ever made as most would agree.



At the time I was really getting in to film, and I discovered film noir with amazing flicks like The Naked City, The Maltese Falcon, LA Confidential, Chinatown, The Third Man and Touch of Evil. Grim Fandango was the culmination of a lot of things I loved: noir, horror/fantasy and point and click adventures (which, mind you, I had only been playing for a few years and was new at). It had a great sense of humor as well, which is something the Lucasarts point and click games were known for, but this was just...well, it was just perfect, and as a result I said to myself "No point and click adventure game will outdo this one."


As strange as it sounds, I felt like this was the game I was always meant to play. As though someone reached in to my head and made a game out of it. It's like the game was made just for me.



It was one of the first games where I really took note of the comedic writing. It's a hilarious piece of satire with some incredibly clever and witty writing that could only be done in a videogame. Not "ha ha" funny but more clever, whimsical funny.



I don't know if that's true from an objective angle, but from a personal one I know it is. It's still one of my favorite games, probably my favorite game still off of PC, and I really ahven't touched a point and click adventure game since. At least, not to the extent of those classic ones. Even when I hear some heralded as great, such as the recent Walking Dead one, I just can't bring myself to do it because Grim Fandango became so intrenched in to my mind that I can't approach another similar title without that expectation that it has to outdo Grim Fandango for me to like it.


Moving on, though, I had slowed my Lucasarts game playing to a crawl. They shifted their focus, I assume due to the resurgence of Star Wars popularity alongside the prequels, and pretty much focused entirely on Star Wars branded titles. Most were junk. I could do a massive list on how many awful games I played during the Prequel years, but let's just say that the quality and variety dipped tremendously in the early 2000s.


I started to dislike Star Wars. It was oversaturated at this point. Still, a few nice ones krept through:


Jedi Outcast was the sequel to Jedi Knight. It was a little more of the same, still starred Kyle, but it felt a little more polished and intuitive. It's a game that didn't wow me, I think because there were so many Star Wars games at this point, but it was a quality title that shone through all that crap that Lucasarts was putting out at the time.


Lucasarts did a smart thing, though. They licnenced off Star Wars to another company, Bioware, to make a Star Wars RPG. "Holy crap," I probably said. "I love RPGs, and Star Wars rocks, so this is either going to be incredibly horrible or decent."




Turns out it was pretty damn good. Knights of the Old Republic hasn't aged all that well, to be honest. I played it about a few years after it came out, and its sequel right after, but it was the best I had seen a Star Wars world depicted and despite the rather clunkiness of it at times, it always kept me engaged. The atmosphere wsa thick in those games, and even though now the story is a little tame, at the time it was a pretty damn good plot with some great twists.


After rushing through all those old PC games I missed, and hitting a couple of console games here and there (Namey Rogues Squadron on the Gamecube), my Lucasarts playing has dwindled to nothing. "Nothing" being what Lucasarts has really put out since Knights of the Old Republic 10 years ago. They've lost some people, they began to focus solely on Star Wars, they just didn't have a lot of good coming out of it. The Force Unleashed was a horrible game, Bioware's second crack with a Knights of the Old Republic MMORPG didn't reach its lofty heights and the tactical/strategy games are genres I got burned out on years ago.


Their creativity stunted over a decade ago, and they were hanging on. Their better games were no longer behind them, but way behind them as my playing of their older point and click adventure games really showcased. In other words, they hadn't made a great game in years, which is why I'm so surprised so many have come to their defense on their shutting down.


But, like I said, it's not so much Lucasarts, as much as its their history and the affectino people have towards their impressive catalog of titles. These are games that were, and still are, the standard in many ways. That's how you do an adventure game, that's how you write comedy, that's how you do a Star Wars platformer or give the Indiana Jones licence justic. That's how you take risks with weird little games like Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Ghoul Patrol and Herc's Adventures - types of games you don't really see anymore.


To me, Lucasarts is something you think back to, not even consider as something presently relevant. It's like a window in to an era of gaming that was arguably at its most creative and interesting. Today, many developers play it "safe" but back then, Lucasarts and other developers were really taking risks and setting trends. Their best games were well behind them, but I'm still glad we think about them fondly despite the missteps they might have hit along the way.


Lucasarts is like an old friend we remember back when we were growing up. A friend that made us go places we weren't sure if we wanted to go, or made us do things we weren't used to doing, or just made us laugh and have a good time. Then they started doing meth and getting arrested and you stopped associating yourself with them, moved to another town and made new friends. I can't say that about a lot of my old friends, game developer companies or real people for that matter, but at least we were friends at one point.


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