The Drifter is a psychogeographer of videogames. His people once were warriors, and he continues their noble tradition, fighting in the flame wars on the bloody fields of 4Chan and Reddit.
As the leading columnist of an internationally acclaimed videogame website, I earn a tasty side-line speaking at schools, universities, and blue-chip corporates about how I came to be the man I am today. My answer to these perennial underachievers is always the same: if there’s one figure after my own absent father who took the small, asthmatic, and curious child I once was and thrust his face into the white-hot hearth-fire of disappointment, it’s George Lucas. He played the blonde waif to my Arya Stark, except the stick he beat me with was nothing less than my own hopes and dreams. The stoner stand-up routines of a certain notorious Gungan, the bloodless romance of Anakin and Padme, and the cackling pantomime villainy of Palpatine broke my teen spirit time and again until I grew tough enough to take on the world – or at least the Blogosphere. Who could have imagined that as I lay beneath a ceiling of glowing sticky-back stars, tucked up by my mother under a Chewbacca duvet (that’s ‘comforter’ to you, Americans), I would be so in debt to the interstellar battles and threadbare fairy-tale heroics of Star Wars all these many years later? Lovers may come and go, imploring me to renovate my bedroom, but Star Wars is forever.
This week’s column is dedicated to all who’ve played a part creating that galaxy far, far away, and especially its newest wunderkind, JJ Abrams. If you’re reading this, JJ: loved A Newer Hope, although can’t pretend I’m not disappointed you didn’t go with my screenplay for Star Wars Episode VII: Winter of Discontent, a black-and-white melodrama about a young Hoth lumberjack disowned by his parents after he converts to veganism. Here’s the tagline: The only thing frozen on this ice planet… is the human heart. I’m going to short my keyboard from salivating over all the money we could have saved on CGI – but listen, JJ, don’t lose sleep over it. I expected too much of you. Clearly you wouldn’t know Art if Marcel Duchamp wedged a urinal onto your head and pissed into your mouth. Can you even imagine that, JJ? Probably only if you’d seen him do it to Steven Spielberg first.
In fairness, though, JJ, you’re hardly the first philistine to reject high culture in favour of shameless populism. Only this month, readers of Existential Gamer gave me my lowest ever number of clickthroughs for a philosophical treatise about romantic love. I get paid by the Facebook Like, and since I’m almost out of the novelty American breakfast cereal that provides my only real nutritional sustenance while my beloved is away sunning herself at a big pharma conference junket in Taipei that she refused to smuggle me into, folded up inside her Trunki like a piece of origami, this week I’m writing about the most popular franchise in the whole universe: yours. You’re not the only one who can ride the Force Awakens hype all the way to the bank, JJ. This people-pleasing puff piece is a round-up of the very greatest Star Wars videogames, and the very, very worst. It’s easier to write about the bad ’uns, because nastiness is funny and being nice is hard. That’s why the blogosphere lit up over Super 8, but E.T., not so much. Let’s hope Ryan Johnson saves himself a similar drubbing by buying my treatment for Episode VIII: Love and Meatbags, a charming romantic comedy starring a pair of droids that might just be made for each other. One speaks eight billion languages, the other only in bleeps and bloops. Like all romantic comedies, it’s about the failure to communicate. Will they/won’t they? Find out Christmas 2017, or else stroll over to Reddit, where I’ve accidentally leaked the entire beat sheet to rabid fanboys in order to guarantee Disney’s full attention. Here’s a clue though, JJ: it’s probably ‘won’t they’, since the robots in Star Wars enjoy being touched even less than I do, and I enjoy it like Lando Calrissian likes sliding down the gullet of a Sarlacc. (That’s a Star Wars joke there, JJ; feel free to copy it exactly, except Lando is now Landa and the Sarlacc lives on Jakku.)
Now cue the big music. It’s time for…
The Third Best and Worst Star Wars Games of All Time
The inspiration for recent Phil Dick indie ambulator Californium, The Chinese Room’s Sunday on Arrakis with George (2014) is an all-too-brief glimpse into the headspace of the bearded billionaire man-child who started it all. A portal hidden in an office stationery cupboard in the godforsaken commuter town of Milton Keynes teleports the unsuspecting player straight into the mind of ‘Gorgeous’ George Lucas himself, spewing her out again after fifteen minutes of merry interference in George’s cognitive processes. The player is invited to fiddle freely with history: what if Lucas had never picked up Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and instead turned to Nietzsche’s crazy syphilis memoir, Ecce Homo? What if, instead of reading Dune, he’d seen an early cut of Spiceworld: The Movie? In this continuity, anything is possible, but be warned: government agents are competing for control of Lucas’s mind from other portals across the globe. In one revelatory sequence, the player discovers that The Phantom Menace was the work of a Floridian tree frog that took an unfortunate leap into Lucas’s id. Can you sweep up all the little tadpoles and prevent Jar Jar from ever being unleashed upon the world? Or will our favourite lonely mythmaker be forever cursed to lick flies from the air in public with his freakishly long tongue, growing still more alien from everyone he loves?
These are the sorts of questions that push videogames forward as a serious storytelling medium. The same can hardly be said for the third most maligned Star Wars game: Princess Leia’s Patriarchal Dress-Up Cabaret Fun Time (1992). In this split-screen Mega Drive title, the young Princess is invited to design, ethically source, and try on a near infinite variety of colourful outfits, as long as they’re made of chain mail and sexually degrading. Player Two takes control of everyone’s favorite space slug, commissioning acts of violence and extortion across the Empire from the Hutt sandcastle, and occasionally cracking the chain that binds the young Leia to his imperial seat. Like its near contemporary Sonic & Knuckles, the game was an ideal vehicle for any younger brother to teach his sister her rightful place in the pecking order. Unfortunately in our own politically correct era even the most innocuous heteronormative propaganda is subject to censorship, and surviving copies of the original cartridge are routinely rounded up and crushed under the jackboots of social justice warriors.
The Second Best and Worst Star Wars Games of All Time
In Darth Vader’s Dance Odyssey (1998), players are invited to boogie on down with Han, Darth, Greedo, and the galaxy’s other hep-cats in a rhythm action disco bonanza. LucasArts pitched Darth’s Odyssey as a wholesome activity that geek dads dewy-eyed for their childhoods could use to initiate their prepubescent daughters in the ways of the Force. Sadly many years would pass before the Nintendo Wii made it socially acceptable for the clinically obese to stand in their living rooms thrusting a stick in the air like they just don’t care, and Odyssey is best remembered now as a tabloid bogeyman, responsible for breaking crockery and triggering cardiac arrests in middle-aged men who really should have known their limits. Let that be a lesson to you before you shovel the next cronut into your maw, Pops – the Rebel Alliance would run out of orange fabric long before it finished a jumpsuit in your size.
Prejudice against the obese is perhaps the only form that didn’t make it into LucasArts’ other Star Wars title from that year, the hideous Bullfrog-inspired management sim, Watto’s Space Jewry. A menagerie of ethnic caricatures, from Klingons to those froggy people Lucas couldn’t even be bothered to pretend weren’t really WWII-era Japanese, gather in the eponymous slaver’s Tatooine junk shop to conspire against the flaxen-headed heroes stealing their thunder. Who knew that running a morally bankrupt small business could be such fun? There’s even a chance to unlock Futurama’s Yiddish crab, Dr. Zoidberg, and see him natter incomprehensibly with wise Oriental master Yoda. They certainly don’t make ‘em like this anymore – sign the petition on Gog.com to help a new generation enjoy the pleasures of racism in the metaphorical, consequence-free environment of deep space.
The Very Best and Worst Star Wars Games of All Time
Regular readers will know of my deep affection for Monkey Island, Sam’n’Max and the other zany adventures of LucasArts’ golden years. It should come as no surprise, then, that I consider the crown in the Star Wars videogame canon to belong to Tim Schafer’s surreal point and clicker X-Wingspotting (2005). Set in Mos Eisley after the fall of the Galactic Republic, X-Wingspotting depicts Obi Wan Kenobi’s pitiful metamorphosis into the scrawny, junkie waster known as ‘Old Ben’. You’ll never hear a more wretched and harrowing tale. Help Le Jedi Invisible pick up rent boys – or ‘padawans’ – in exchange for promised training that never materialises; watch appalled as he gives blowjobs to smugglers for a few galactic credits. What choice does he have? Obi pawned his lightsabre long ago; he was too weak to swing it anyway. His cheeks are sallow, his eyes blacker than the desert night. Lift his ragged sleeve and you’ll find arms covered in welts – welts that you, the player, will help to make, as you instruct this fallen knight to shoot spice and other still more fabulous space-junk straight into his bloodstream. Picture all those little midichlorians wearing sunglasses and jamming on space-saxophones – that’s how great it feels. Better keep the music playing, or a disturbance in the Force will be the least of your problems – Obi’s nerves simply can’t handle another visit from the dead baby that crawls like a snail across the ceiling of his poor desert cell.
Tattooine happens to also be the setting for the most tedious of all Star Wars videogames: Harvest Moon knock-off Moisture Farmer 2000. Playing as Anakin’s stepbrother Owen Lars, you’ll make regular repairs to heavy machinery, barn-dance with eligible Jawas, and escape into the idyllic rustic life of a man who rises each morning before dark to sow crops that will never, ever grow in the barren twin-sunned shithole he calls home. Who could believe, in the midst of a galactic civil war, that life would turn out like this? Between you and I, those Stormtroopers were doing him a favour.
Until next time, folks, live long and prosper.