Donning the hat of 1989: A lightsaber is no match for a good whip at your side, kid.
Talkative robot Rex had already flown thousands of Star Tours passengers through space by 1989, yet the entertainment industry, including Lucasfilm itself, observed other matters with much greater interest.
At the movies, even truckloads of gadgets and gizmos that would put the Toys R Us inventory to shame could not help Tim Burton’s dark Batman vanquish Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which became the most successful film worldwide that year. Far removed from the wild battles of tentpole behemoths, James Cameron released a most significant feature film in early August: The Abyss.
The exciting underwater drama startled audiences with one stunning sequences after another, but it was one scene that topped them all, the appearance of the so-called “pseudopod”, a being made entirely of water: “How the hell did they achieve that?”
Flashback to 1987: Phil Tibbett receives a phone call from Cameron, asking him if it were possible to create an animated character such as the eventual pseudopod. He suggests stop-motion for the body and water-reflections projected onto the model to create the illusion of water.
When Tibbett left ILM, however, a group of engineers including John Knoll reviewed the technologies pioneered for Young Sherlock Holmes (the knight of stained glass) and Willow (the transformation of a goat into a tiger and then wizard Fin Raziel) and determined to push the envelope of computer generated imagery further.
The Abyss was indeed the mysterious motion picture, not a new Star Wars film, that ILM had been secretly working on. The effort literally drained ILM, which had to turn down Star Trek V, and hurry the second Ghostbusters and the third Indy film through post. The bold move nevertheless paid off huge dividends: the element of water could from now on be created and manipulated photorealistically using pixels, processors and hard drives.
The groundbreaking pseudopod earned ILM an Academy Award and laid the foundation for the future of visual effects.
Another turning point occurred in a different arena: prices for IBM-compatible personal computers were falling more rapid than an intergalactic Emperor on a bad day. The home computer segment, which was essentially stuck with technology developed in 1985, was totally unprepared for this direct challenge.
Since PCs had been designed with customisable expansions in mind, the emergence of faster CPUs, such as the 486, and indeed the 256 color VGA graphics board, rendered PCs exceedingly more powerful than their “built-to-last” competitors, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST.
The PC had over night turned into the best computer gaming plattform.
Lucasfilm Games had already established itself as brilliant master of 3D-environments with Rescue on Fractalus, Koronis Rift and The Eidolon. More resourceful computers allowed them to add a much better developed storyline, which led to the combat simulator Battlehawks 1942. Lawrence Holland’s and Ed Kilhalm’s game would eventually spawn a whole series of simulators, yet the most significant game release from Lucasfilm that year was the marvellous Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 2-D point-n-click adventure.
Meanwhile, a man named Chris Roberts from Origin Systems (today part of EA) hatched a brilliant plan…