Dark Times 10 – 1995 – Part 1

Tom Hanks was having a problem on the far side of the moon, Mel was brave at heart and people threw their DOS right out their Windows, while Vader was at last busy polishing his helmet…

When Star Wars opened in 1977 on only a handful of screens, the merchandise frenzy typical in this time and age of potential blockbusters did not exist. When the film became a sleeper hit and unbelievably never stopped drawing crowds, many millions were lost in sales as retailers had nothing to placate the public’s insatiable hunger with. Kenner famously reacted at the 11th hour with the legendary Early Bird Package and thus launched a multi-billion dollar segment almost single handedly: the motion picture tie-in.

A couple of lightsaber duels later, Bantha Tracks reckoned in anticipation of ROTJ that “at the current rate” of Star Wars film production, fans would get to see the final ninth episode by 2001. Holders of a Lucasfilm approved license had every reason to be merry, for revenue from Force-related products now seemed more deliciously bountiful and, above all, eternal than ever. Unimpressed and remorseless, the inevitable predicament in life called reality nevertheless cast its ghastly shadow over the Star Wars merchandise miracle.

As if a million voices had cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced, the ambitious efforts by the jovial folks at Kenner to re-invent the line post-ROTJ vaporised into the vacuous Dark Times and along with it, an inspired storyline pitting arch villain Atha Prime and his army of Clone Troopers against the New Republic (for more information pay a most rewarding visit to the Star Wars Collector’s Archive !). Kenner was forced to concede that without new films they had to let go in 1985.

1986 ultimately officially sounded the end of the first Star Wars craze, coming from none other than George Lucas himself, who vowed to reactivate the Star Wars Fan Club once the time had come for him to return.

George Lucas leaves Star Wars for good in 1986 and closes the Star Wars Fan Club.
In 1986 George Lucas somberly announced leaving Star Wars aside to focus on his personal life, closing all Star Wars-related operations, including the fan club and its original publication, Bantha Tracks.

in your solitude […], training I have for you. An old friend has learned the path to immortality

Jedi knights have always had a knack for the tempus fugit-motif, of course, and by 1995, Star Wars was once again a bona fide entertainment property. The steady stream of novels following in the wake of Zahn’s successful trilogy, such as The Glove of Darth Vader by Paul and Hollace Davids(1992), who also wrote Mission on Mount Yoda (1993), Dave Woverton’s The Courtship of Princess Leia (1994), Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy (1994) or Barbara Hambly’s Children of the Jedi gave fans the sequel narratives they craved for and solidified constant interest in the OT.

It is a tremendous credit to these authors’ vast talents that the Star Wars franchise, whose success had always been indelibly connected to its striking visuals and thundering soundtrack, owed its eventual comeback to written fiction. Star Wars books consequently became a ubiquitous sight on your friends’ shelves and secured, however humbly at this stage, a strong foundation in the ever so boisterous entertainment trade.

The ceaseless endeavours of LucasArts added their own twist to the saga: as previously noted, the games started to reference the as-yet unknown prequel storyline in a shy, elegant manner to plant information in the public mind that would soon turn the Prequel trilogy into famiiar territory. LucasArts’ 1995 Star Wars game Dark Forces carried this strategy to new, ingenious heights.

Advertisment, Star Wars Dark Forces by LucasArts 1995
The Star Wars Dark Forces ad emphasised how the latest LucasArts release finally placed players at the receiving end of Imperial Stormtroopers, face to face with the Dark Lord’s faceless henchmen. Of particular note is the game’s villain on the right, the “Dark Trooper”, a new “type of Stormtrooper” that is the franchise’s very first battle droid…

Crucial to LucasArts’ next project were Jon Romero’s influential Doom and its sequel, which carved in stone the direction computer gaming would take: virtual environments, rendered beautifully in real time, encapsulated players in strikingly realistic combat situations. Dumb as Doom may have been, it was a technological marvel. LucasArts’ Darron Stinnet, who would please the world greatly with Republic Commando ten years later, granted Romero’s brainchild the credit it arguably deserved, but sensibly figured that Star Wars necessitated a more solid narrative approach to the first-person-shooter template.

Star Wars Dark Forces box, front and back, including "Manual: Coded Intelligence"
Good blaster at your side? Check. Darron Stinnet’s FPS Dark Forces reigns supreme, shipping more than 500,000 units in its first year of release. As box design proves, LucasArts seized every opportunity to sell the idea of putting players right inside the Star Wars universe.

In every way possible for a game of that time, Stinnet expanded the game interface of Doom. The very first Star Wars FPS abandoned the Binary Subdivision Process Architecture (BSP) used by id’s gore fest to afford players a multi-layered, overlapping tiered environment. Gamers were also given an until then unknown level of freedom to explore the sinister environements of Dark Forces with crouching, jumping and running modes. Dedicated head movement furthermore enabled gamers to scan areas above and below their current position. Stinnet’s game also added explosive devices (grenades, mines), much more varied and detailed textures as well as rounded corners and edges. Lastly, it would of course be set in the Star Wars universe.

Enter Kyle Katarn, former Imperial officer and now mercenary for the highest bidder. During a cold night of foreboding clouds and darkness, he infiltrates a secret Imperial base to retrieve plans of utmost importance to the Alliance: the Death Star schematics! Quickly disposing of dallying Imperials, he dashes in and out of this mission faster than the Falcon made the Kessel Run – cue the narrator, who intones: “Kyle delivers the plans safely to the Rebel Alliance. Soon after, the Death Star is destroyed”.

What an excellent introductory mission!

One must savour the great honour the people at LucasArts bestowed on gamers: Rebel Assault opens with a depiction of the very event referred to in ANH’s opening crawl (“…have won their first victory against the evil galactic EMPIRE….”),  X-Wing let pilots escort the Tantive IV to its portentious hyperspace jump-point and Dark Forces makes players responsible for actually procuring the Death Star plans in the first place. One could not help but feel like an essential part of the Star Wars saga.

Once the Death Star is history, it does not take long for the Empire to devise an even more sinister plot: Dark Troopers, super-advanced battle droids which lay waste to a heavily armed Rebel base in seconds. Their inventor is one Ron Mohc, a veteran of the Clone Wars, who has become disgusted at the overly technological focus of Imperial warfare, which he feels has lost the lustre of man-to-man combat. Vader approves of his plans and off goes Kyle Katarn to save the Rebellion. In the course of his journey, he must infiltrate several excotic places, as well as the centre of the universe, the planet of Coruscant. Needless to say, one building crucial to a mission objective would later re-appear in the skylines of ILM’s rendition of Coruscant!

Enjoy the full Dark Forces narrative here (in German).

Battle droids, Clone Wars and Coruscant: the adrenaline rush from being offered these most juicy nuggets of Star Wars lore was unavoidably overwhelming. Add to the mix the pages piling up in Lucas’ writing retreat on Skywalker Ranch and the on-going popularity of the sequel novels and it was clear that nobody could help being utterly eager and restless to re-experience the Force in 1995.

Then finally on August 29th, 1995, Lucasfilm starts harvesting the fertile ground it had so carefully nutured…


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