By Jeremy Parish

Limited Run’s latest batch of Star Wars releases brings us to a pair of indisputable classics from the ’90s. At the time of their debut, Dark Forces (1995) and Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (1997) were among the first truly great Star Wars games ever made. With a few notable exceptions (including Atari’s addictive 1982 arcade game, and the brilliant X-Wing simulation series), most video game interpretations of Star Wars fell into either the 2D platformer or 2D shooter category—fine genres, but incredibly limiting when it came to depicting the faraway galaxy of adventure that fans expected from the franchise. Most of these games combined film imagery and concepts haphazardly, which meant that at some point you usually ended up controlling Luke Skywalker as he leapt around inside a sandcrawler gunning down Jawas left and right: An unsettling scenario if you really paid attention to what the films said about the Force.

Dark Forces, on the other hand, worked. It worked in one respect because it didn’t try to retell the plot of the movies; much like Rebel Assault, the game followed the story of other Rebel heroes in parallel to the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han. It worked in another respect because it left behind older game formats in favor of exploring the medium’s bleeding edge as a first-person shooter. Of course, we didn’t call them “first-person shooters” back in 1995. Dark Forces was called a “DOOM clone”, arriving barely a year after DOOM first ripped and tore its way into history. By early 1995, just about everyone was trying to offer up their own take on the DOOM formula even as Id Software had improved on their own work via DOOM II

Dark Forces put LucasArts in the enviable position of being one of the few publishers not only to equal DOOM, but to improve on it in many respects. Technically, Dark Forces ran on a sophisticated engine that could render more complex spaces and level geometry than DOOM’s engine. Its rooms looked less boxlike than the ones Id created on Mars and in Hell, and it could even produce intricate vertical spaces—a trick displayed to great effect in several missions, most notably one that sent players down, down, down into a multi-level reactor core. That mission also helped highligh Dark Forces’s other big advantage over DOOM: True vertical aiming. DOOM famously employed a vertical auto-aim feature for enemies that appeared to be on different levels than the player, because verticality in DOOM was completely faked to begin with. Dark Forces required players to aim up and down manually if they wanted to take out enemies firing at them from high balconies or the depths of a pit. 

Of course, the real advantage Dark Forces had over other DOOM clones of the era was right there in the title: Star Wars. In a time where the most recent Star Wars movie was more than a decade in the rearview mirror and you could count the number of recent “expanded universe” Star Wars books and comics on your fingers, Dark Forces felt like a meaningful new addition to George Lucas’s beloved sci-fi universe.

The plot of Dark Forces intersects with the film’s in a few places; protagonist Kyle Katarn kicks off his adventure by stealing and transmitting the famous Death Star plans to the good guys, and the main thrust of the story revolves around an Imperial scheme to create Force-enhanced cybernetic Stormtroopers to help compensate for the loss of the Death Star at Yavin IV. For the most part, however, Dark Forces takes place in new places that feel familiar, thanks to all the visual cues the game carries forward from the films. Likewise, Kyle goes toe-to-toe against enemies and creatures previously seen on the big screen; aside from the imposing, Terminator-like Dark Troopers, Dark Forces doesn’t add new creatures to the galactic bestiary. The game sticks to the boundaries of the Star Wars sandbox as it existed in 1995, but the story and action both play out in a way that could never have worked as a rendition of the hero’s journey Luke undertook. By shifting to a new protagonist and a never-before-referenced storyline, Dark Forces becomes more than just a retread of a nearly 20-year-old movie and takes on a life of its own. 

Besides, it was cool to finally see aliens like “Ree Yees” as something more than background scenery, and to discover that the Death Star trash compactor monster had a natural habitat. If some of the film-based elements feel a bit obvious or silly in hindsight, well, bear in mind that in 1995 the idea of a shootout with Boba Fett or being captured by Jabba the Hutt were still fresh and new. We had never heard of Jango Fett or Clonetroopers. Heck, in 1995, we still hadn’t seen Han Solo awkwardly step on the tail of a digitally inserted Jabba! Dark Forces was a more immersive take on the Star Wars shooter than its immediate predecessor Rebel Assault, allowing players to move freely through the corridors of an Imperial base or a smuggler’s den, with a familiar Stormtrooper rifle bobbing along in front of them. It was the most exciting interactive interpretation of Star Wars to date—or at least the most exciting that didn’t involve sitting in an X-Wing cockpit. The fact that it was an excellent take on a hot new game genre certainly didn’t hurt.

The only thing more exciting than Dark Forces was its sequel, Jedi Knight, which launched two and a half years later. Playing faster and looser with Star Wars lore than the first game, Jedi Knight was much less concerned with maintaining a cohesive, canon-friendly narrative universe than in creating a kick-ass, crowd-pleasing video game experience.

Jedi Knight aimed to address two issues with the original game—not failings, exactly, but areas where Dark Forces left room for improvement. First, there was the matter of technology. Like DOOM, Dark Forces was built on a so-called “2.5D” engine that faked its three-dimensionality. Jedi Knight arrived in the wake of DOOM’s follow-up, Quake, and like Quake it made use of a proper polygon-based 3D engine. Although the visuals appear pretty chunky by modern standards (especially the enemy models), they looked great at the time—and perhaps more importantly, they felt like a natural extension of Dark Force’s visuals. Architectural stylings and small details like control panel textures helped maintain a great sense of unity between the games.

The more significant update, of course, was hinted at by the game’s title. In the mid-’90s, LucasArts seemed convinced that everyone wanted to play as Han Solo. Kyle Katarn was a brazen ersatz Solo in Dark Forces, and the following year we got the Image Comics version of Han Solo with Shadows of the Empire’s Dash Rendar (who even flew a YT freighter that looked like a chopped-down Millennium Falcon). Honestly, though, LucasArts misread the room; Han’s charming roguishness made him a more interesting movie character than Luke, but Luke carried a glowing laser sword that could deflect bullets. Kids may have aspired to act like Han in real life, but in a video game, we all wanted the laser sword. And so: Jedi Knight, the story of Kyle Katarn discovering that he is, in fact, somehow, a Jedi in the making.

A short ways into Jedi Knight, Kyle updates his arsenal of pistols and heavy blasters with a lightsaber. Unlike Luke, he doesn’t need to spend months training in a miserable swamp under the judgmental eye of a small frog-man in order to wield the Force, he just needs to find collectible tokens in order to upgrade his saber skills and Force powers upon completing a level. (And to think Twitter complained about Rey being a Mary Sue!)

OK, so maybe Jedi Knight’s approach to the Force seems a little lacking in hindsight, but remember that the nuanced morality system of Knights of the Old Republic was still six years away. And maybe it rang a little false for the guy who found the Death Star plans and shutdown the Darktrooper project to also become a Jedi and put a stop to a deadly Sith conspiracy while the main character of the film saga couldn’t even salvage his drowned X-Wing fight without help. None of this changes the fact that Jedi Knight was an extraordinary take on the FPS, deftly combining new trends in tech with improved shooting mechanics (it largely did away with Dark Forces’s aim assist crutch) and, of course, the ability to go to town on bad guys with a lightsaber. 

More than 20 years later, even after countless other games ranging from Episode I: The Phantom Menace to The Force Unleashed to Battlefront have let us wield a lightsaber, Jedi Knight still remains a lot of fun to play. There’s a purity to its action that makes for a game you can pick up and play anytime you like. Really, about the only part of Jedi Knight that doesn’t hold up are its full-motion video cutscenes. But as we saw with Rebel Assault, that’s just the ’90s, baby. There’s more great about these games than there is goofy, and it’s a treat to have them in circulation again.

Dark Forces and Jedi Knight are available for preorder through Limited Run Games: Dark Forces (PC Classic Edition) | Dark Forces (PC Collector’s Edition) | Jedi Knight (PC Classic Edition) | Jedi Knight (PC Collector’s Edition)

March 27, 2020