For over twenty years, Nintendo and Star Wars had an excellent relationship. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of Nintendo’s core demographic and Disney’s core demographic, it would be two circles almost completely on top of one another. It would seem that right in this post-LucasArts world, there has never been a better time for a Star Wars game on a Nintendo platform.
Early Star Wars Nintendo games
The NES had two exclusive Star War games, based on the films Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back respectively. Whilst not the most highly-rated games, the seeds were planted and a few short years later the Super Star Wars games revisited the movies and even rounded off the trilogy, exclusively on the SNES.
By the mid-to-late-90s LucasArts started taking a bigger interest in console game revenue and so the N64 saw the release of both SotE and Rogue Squadron. Shadows of the Empire was released within three months of the N64’s release and was a huge media event for Nintendo and LucasArts. A brand new storyline set between Empire and Jedi; a brand new line of novels, comics and action figures for impressionable kids to run out and buy. Despite hokey controls and the mixed reception of the game’s protagonist, Dash Rendar, Shadows of the Empire went on to become the top-selling N64 game of 1997; outselling GoldenEye, Lylat Wars and even Mario 64.
Rogue Squadron was developed by Factor 5 with direct involvement from LucasArts. Inspired by that one level on Shadows where you’re flying a snowspeeder at the Battle of Hoth, Rogue Squadron took its inspiration from Star Wars novels and comics to deliver a Star Wars space-shooter the likes of which had never been seen on console.
Rogue Squadron pushed the limits of the N64 hardware, with Factor 5 doubling the N64’s output resolution by using the console’s Expansion Pak in new and adventurous ways. In fact, Nintendo were originally against their hardware being “hacked” in such a way, until they saw what a difference this made to the game’s visuals. Despite being released the same month as Ocarina of Time, Rogue Squadron still went on to incredible financial and critical success. That same month, Nintendo signed an exclusive three-title agreement with LucasArts for new Star Wars games with Rogue Squadron being the first. The second game in that agreement was Episode One Racer which ended up seeing release on N64, Sega Dreamcast and PC. Not an exclusive game, but when you consider that Pod Racing sold more units than F-Zero, Nintendo would let that one pass. Factor 5 finished up the three-game deal with a spiritual sequel to Rogue Squadron, the gorgeous Battle for Naboo. Factor 5 had proved they could take Nintendo hardware to the absolute limit and LucasArts were delivering hit after hit. Howard Lincoln, chairman of Nintendo of America said “The Star Wars franchise is undeniably one of the gold-plated entertainment properties of the 20th century… Launching new Star Wars video games surrounding the eagerly-anticipated new Star Wars movie, propels both Nintendo and LucasArts aggressively into the new century of interactive entertainment.”
Battle for Naboo came out one year before the GameCube launched and there’s no doubt that Factor 5 were already in possession of a Dolphin dev kit. Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron 2 was an official launch title for the GameCube console and this time the bulk of the game’s development was done solely by Factor 5. Rogue Squadron improved on everything from the first game and after reviews of over 90% came flooding in, Rogue Leader became a must-purchase GameCube title. Rogue Leader went on to become the best-selling third-party game ever on GameCube. Here in the UK, the game smashed into the top spot on the charts, making it the first ever third-party game to debut at number one. Factor 5 were at the top of their game, following up shortly with Rebel Strike: Rogue Squadron 3. Re-built from the ground up in a brand new engine, Rebel Strike added in multiplayer and local co-op and the visuals were taken to the next level with more ships on screen, better explosions and probably the best ship-to-ship space battles ever seen in a game. The GameCube came out swinging and it came out strong.
Star Wars Episode One games went crazy
But Star Wars was starting to take off on other platforms too. Star Wars games like the aforementioned Episode One Racer, Jedi Power Battles and Star Wars Demolition had proved that the franchise had bigger financial potential and the 6th console generation saw LucasArts expand exponentially under the leadership of Simon Jeffery. Star Wars Bounty Hunter and my favourite Star Wars game ever Jedi Knight II did appear on the GameCube, but Nintendo just couldn’t nail down any more exclusive console rights. Nintendo is known for its poor treatment of its third parties, but the GameCube era is possibly most famous for this. Capcom’s Resident Evil 4, Viewtiful Joe and Killer7 all started life as GameCube exclusives, but Nintendo’s unflinching attitude to its third-party developers saw Capcom porting their games to the PS2.
Around this time, other platforms started to get their own Star Wars exclusives and multiplatform franchises like Battlefront and Knights of the Old Republic were taking Star Wars games into the stratosphere. I consider this time to be the Golden Age of Star Wars games but for Nintendo it represented the end of an era. Robbed of any more third party exclusives, the GameCube didn’t even host the more ubiquitous Star Wars multiplatform titles.
The Wii would prove to be the perfect storm as Nintendo started marketing the Wii console to a casual family-friendly market, but LucasArts were pushing Star Wars into a darker, more adult tone. The Force Unleashed series was ripping up trees in terms of sales and the Wii port helped to make it the fastest-selling Star Wars game ever. The Wii version of The Force Unleashed featured an exclusive Smash Bros. clone multiplayer which attracted high praise, but flaws in the Wii version’s single player prevented it from becoming a must-have Wii title. The Force Unleashed II actually performed better on the Wii than on other platforms, garnering a higher Metacritic score than on any other console. However the game sold poorly compared to its predecessor. I’ve covered The Force Unleashed in greater detail in another video, but despite selling nearly 2 million units on the Wii alone, LucasArts considered TFU to be a failure and would retract into an extremely risk-averse model for its remaining years.
How come Wii never got a lightsaber game?
I’m sure that I wasn’t the only person who, upon seeing the Wii launch videos, immediately thought the platform was ripe for a lightsaber video game. The Wii did get the exclusive Star Wars Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels, which offered the promising premise of Wiimote-controlled lightsaber duels, but ultimately proved to be a mediocre waggle-fest and fell short of expectations. Factor 5, out of the wings, announced a Rogue Squadron Trilogy which promised Wiimote-controlled lightsaber fights but was cancelled at the last minute. A couple of multiplatform games and the Wii was done. The Wii didn’t suffer for Star Wars games, but there was no platform-defining killer app, unlike nearly every Nintendo console before it.
LucasArts are as equally to blame as Nintendo here. By shifting their focus away from their flagship franchise, LucasArts embarked on a path which led to the ultimate closure of the studio. There was a time when Star Wars games themselves were a seal of quality. After the closure of LucasArts, it seemed that we’d never get good Star Wars games ever again. But there is still hope. Disney are showing that they have a strategy for their games division and Nintendo are proving that there’s still life in the old dog yet. Nintendo have had a hard time recently. The Wii U certainly suffered, despite having so much going for it. It’s not new or clever to suggest that Nintendo increase their offering of third or second party content. But I’m talking about one particularly special relationship. Nintendo and Star Wars. Historically, it’s been proven that exclusive Star Wars games are a great weapon in Nintendo’s arsenal. Mistakes were made on both sides but there’s an incredible opportunity for both franchises to heal those wounds and move into a brighter tomorrow, together.