In the last months of 2015, Star Wars was everywhere. Everywhere. TV ads. Billboards. Sneakers. Mac ‘n cheese. Cars. PCs. It’s hard to remember a time when Star Wars wasn’t all around us. Even before the Force Awakens marketing blitz, Star Wars has been omnipresent for a decade now, with a steady stream of cartoons and toys and games and books and comics, some good, many bad. This is what we’ve come to expect from the Lucasfilm and Disney empires. We don’t expect Star Wars spin-offs to be bold and daring, and it wasn’t until I spent the holiday break playing Dark Forces that I remembered Star Wars games were once genuinely groundbreaking.
After watching Force Awakens, my Star Wars fever drove me to replay Dark Forces and Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II for the first time since my childhood. This was actually my first time playing all the way through either; I only had demos as a kid. Despite being released just two and a half years apart, in 1995 and 1997, the games feel like they belong to distinct eras of FPS design. Each is forward thinking in some ways I found fascinating with 20 years of perspective, and comically dated in others.
But not really comically. Like, Jar-Jar-and-his-stupid-tongue-funny. It’s 2016. We know better.
21 years on, Dark Forces feels almost prehistoric for a 3D game, and its ambition dates it in a way that the arcadier Doom will never age. The 2D sprite enemies, their simplistic AI and repeated audio clips, the labyrinthine levels and obtuse puzzles are the essence of first-person PC games from 1995. Made today, Dark Forces would probably feel like a sanitized Call of Duty clone with lasers.
And yet. And yet. The same way Star Wars took the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey and turned it into a movie unlike anything we’d seen before, Dark Forces cloned Doom and created something amazing from its DNA: a game that placed you into a three dimensional world that was new and yet recognizably Star Wars.
LucasArts’s Jedi Engine added jumping and looking up and down on the vertical axis, so you could explore Dark Forces’ world like it was a real place. The stormtroopers and Imperial officers may have been crudely animated 2D sprites, but they looked just like they did in the movies. The blasters sounded the same. The music captured the essence of John Williams in simple MIDI.
Instead of revisiting locations from the films or playing out some hackneyed video game version of the battle of Hoth, LucasArts took places we’d glimpsed, like the interior of a Star Destroyer, and spun out their own creations with the scope and detail to bring them to life. The world is gray more often than not, but Dark Forces keeps switching out tilesets as you reach new levels. One Imperial base looks different than another. Ship interiors take inspiration from the Death Star. Natural canyons, blocky and angular as they are, admirably lend scale to Dark Forces’ representation of the galaxy far, far away.
Even the hundreds of stormtroopers spread across the campaign makes it feel like you’re struggling against the Empire, a Rebel underdog deep inside an overwhelming military machine. The mostly static cutscenes and briefings between missions feel rudimentary next to the 3D world—possibly Dark Forces at its most dated—but Mon Mothma lends the story an air of legitimacy, too.
I found Dark Forces’ additions to the Doom template simultaneously the coolest and the most frustrating bits of its design. I appreciated some of the puzzles I had to solve to make my way through Imperial strongholds, and not always knowing where to go in its layered and complex levels. Other relics of the time—like how difficult it was to discern a random decorative texture from an interactive control panel—really do add depth to the world, making it feel more real and less like a linear guided tour through some Cool Shit, as so many shooters today are.
But I spent more of my Dark Forces playthrough appreciating what it pulled off in 1995 than I did really having fun. The shooting doesn’t have Doom’s oomph, and I ground my teeth in frustration while trying to navigate the sewers early on, and while trying to make one particular series of jumps between rising and falling platforms later on. If you’ve played Dark Forces, you know the one. And the computer core in mission 11? Fuck that hexagonal nightmare.
I'd recommend playing with a guide on-hand for the most obtuse bits, but Dark Forces is still worth a run through to get to Jedi Knight, where the series really finds its way. And it's easy to play on modern hardware thanks to DarkXL, a rebuilt version of the game that supports high resolutions and Windows.
Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II
What a difference two years makes. When LucasArts started using scale models for Star Wars in 1977, they first had to figure out how to make them look like real spaceships. A couple years later, for Empire Strikes Back, they had that down—the next step was making them look good, leading to the invention of Go Motion. Jedi Knight followed a similar path, going fully 3D, telling a far more complex story with full motion video, and slowly unlocking Force powers throughout the campaign. Dark Forces’ great success was putting you inside a Star Wars world with the best technology available at the time, and Jedi Knight amplified that tenfold.
Its FMV story is unfortunately every bit as bad as the words “full motion video” usually imply. Hero Kyle Katarn has the gruff voice down, but can’t do much more than frown and deliver terrible dialogue from awkward bluescreen-turned-CG-graphics sets. Everyone else is even worse, especially Dark Jedi Jerec, who is wearing the banana hammock equivalent of a pair of sunglasses and has chin tattoos that I mistook for a bad fu manchu for 90 percent of the game.
There’s no passion to be found here, but the story loosely justifies Jedi Knight’s strength: the experience of gaining badass Force powers over the course of 20+ levels. Where later Bioware RPGs would much more deliberately tie your Force skills and alignment into the narrative, Jedi Knight mostly just gives you points to assign between missions, and bam, you’re a Jedi. Believable? Not really—but the FMV cutscenes already threw immersion out the window. Accept Kyle’s inexplicable mastery of the Force, and Jedi Knight will hand you a really satisfying skill progression from blaster-wielding slowpoke to Jedi superhero.
Gaining Force powers in Jedi Knight gave me one of my favorite experiences playing games: the feeling that I’m using abilities to play the game in a way it wasn’t meant to be played. To outsmart the designers by navigating the environment and defeating enemies in ways I wasn’t meant to. The best-designed games give me this sensation even when it’s not true: they make me feel clever and powerful, even when I’m following the path I was meant to.
When you first start gaining powers in Jedi Knight, they’re a convenience. You can use Force speed to get around more quickly, or Force jump to leap over a gap that would’ve taken longer to cross by foot. Gradually, the game starts introducing areas you need Force powers to navigate. By the end, you’re jumping a dozen meters into the air, yanking blasters out of your enemies’ hands, and sprinting across levels to avoid unnecessary combat.
Jedi Knight ties its high-level light and dark Force abilities to some key story decisions, which would be a great idea if the story wasn’t such a galactic suckfest. Star Wars games have done it better since. But Jedi Knight deserves credit for doing it first, and for doing Force powers so, so well. Dark Forces let you view Star Wars from an angle very different than the films, and in making Jedi Knight, LucasArts did the same with the Force. This was the Force we imagined watching the films, letting a heroic master run faster, jump farther, sense enemies that can’t be seen, heal his body when he’s injured. I don’t know if Jedi Knight’s powers were directly influenced by the novels filling out the Expanded Universe in the 90s—almost two dozen were written between 1991 and 1997, with different authors granting Jedi new skills—but it nailed the toolset, making the powers fun to use and believable within the Star Wars fiction.
Acquiring those Force powers is unfortunately tied to the most archaic part of Jedi Knight’s design (aside from the FMV, I mean). Completing each level earns you a measly one point to put into the Force skill tree. Most of the points come from discovering secret areas in each level. And there are a lot of them. These secret areas are usually packed with health and ammo, hidden in dark corners or behind stairs or on top of structures. Finding them is a fun excuse to explore...until you miss one of the six or eight or ten hidden areas in a level and miss out on the entire Force point bonus. Fun, that is not. The secret areas feel like a holdover of Dark Forces older design, and as poor match for the Jedi power system.
It's no coincidence my favorite level in the game has only a single secret room right at the outset. Jedi Knight is even more varied in its level design and settings than Dark Forces, but one really stands out: The Falling Ship, which has Kyle rushing through a ship before it hits the ground and explodes. The ship and gravity are both twisted, making for some surprisingly fun platforming on a tense time limit. I failed on my first time through but enjoyed going at it again, racing the clock to make it to the hangar bay and escape in a smaller ship. This is the kind of setpiece you'll see in a blockbuster AAA game today, but Jedi Knight managed to pull it off in 1997.
When I played Jedi Knight’s expansion, Mysteries of the Sith, I skipped most of the secret rooms, and was nearly crippled by my meager Force powers in the last few levels. They really felt like a necessity, and only save scumming and dodging tougher enemies carried me through to the end. Freakin’ vornskrs, man. Most of Mysteries of the Sith feels like an uninspired retreat of what Jedi Knight has already done, which is a disappointing first (and only, really) outing for EU heroine Mara Jade in a Star Wars game.
But the last few levels, hard as they are, are its salvation: they take you deep into an old Sith temple to bring Kyle Katarn back from the Dark side, and it feels every bit like the hallowed, dangerous ground it should be. Well, mostly. The leaping dog creatures and yeti monsters may be based on Timothy Zahn’s novels, but they come across as goofy video game enemies. And the zombie wizards? Maybe a step too far.
Nothing in Jedi Knight or Mysteries of the Sith is as challenging as getting the games to run in the first place. To play them yourself, I recommend slavishly following the directions on JK2DF, which was the only way I could get the games to run on Windows 10. The GOG and Steam versions each have their own problems, and patches and mods are often not fully compatible with one version or the other. You can also grab a Mysteries of the Sith texture pack to make the game look comparable to Jedi Knight retextured.
Hoo boy, are the original models and textures ugly. But they're still better than the FMV.
Becoming an outcast
I haven’t tackled Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast yet, but it’s next on the list, and I have high expectations. LucasArts wisely handed the series to FPS maestros Raven Software, and by 2002 3D games could do far more advanced cutscenes than the awkward first steps of Mysteries of the Sith. I expect Jedi Outcast to be the game that turns Kyle Katarn into a genuinely interesting character.
And I hear the lightsabers are pretty cool.