Hall of Fame Review: “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” (1998)
By Marshall Garvey
Platforms: Nintendo 64, Microsoft Windows
Release Date: December 7, 1998
Mode: Single player
Genre: Action, Shooter
Part of the challenge of making a truly A-grade “Star Wars” game is the sheer abundance of its universe. Even though the official status of this expanded canon may be in jeopardy, as my colleague Terry Randolph detailed earlier, it nonetheless provides a rich well of material that’s fuelled efforts as dramatic as “Knights of the Old Republic” to more playful excursions like “Lego Star Wars.” Furthermore, no franchise has provided a wide array of action that could lead to such a diverse lineup of games, with some being able to emphasize specific thrills better than others. Hell, even the weaker films of the series have produced some memorable spin-offs in this vein, chiefly the podracing titles from “The Phantom Menace.”
While some may prefer the meticulous intensity of a lightsaber duel or the chaos of a shootout with stormtroopers, the essence of “Star Wars” action for me lies in the space battles. Nothing set my heart racing as a kid (and still does) like the Rebels’ improbable assault on the Death Star, or the breathtaking final battle in “Return of the Jedi” that prompts Admiral Ackbar’s signature line. The designs of the star fighters remain the best in science fiction history, from the proficient and straightforward X-Wing to the sleek menace of TIE Fighters and other variants. (And of course, the Millennium Falcon, the coolest ship ever to be modeled after a burger with an olive next to it.) A great portion of my childhood was devoted to recreating X-Wing and Y-Wing missions, using the one or two I had of each to simulate an entire fleet. (If memory serves me right, I was gracious in letting more Y-Wings survive than in the first movie.) Best of all about these galactic hot shots is that, just as many of the best elements of the films are rooted in classic history and cultural mythology, the interstellar scraps with TIE fighters, X-Wings and the like drew heavily upon footage of World War II aerial dogfights. If that doesn’t just send your imagination soaring through the galaxy, good god, what will?
The game that did Luke, Wedge and company’s heroics the greatest justice is easily “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” for the Nintendo 64. As LucasArt’s follow-up to the popular “Shadows of the Empire,” it presented an even greater challenge in succeeding than its predecessor. Indeed, “Rogue Squadron” wasn’t even the first attempt at distilling the exhilaration of piloting a rebel ship into a gaming experience. “Star Wars: X-Wing” preceded it on DOS by five years, allowing players to steer letter-wing crafts from a first-person perspective in the cockpit. “Shadows” kicked its story off with an on-point snowspeeder battle on Hoth, and was followed by a couple of levels that had the player navigate Dash Rendar’s Falcon-esque “Outrider” through some other tense battles. So popular was the first level on Hoth, in fact, that it served as the inspiration for developers to make an entire game comprised of flying missions that would become this one.
Even so, the expectations for “Rogue Squadron” were relatively low, even if only by the standards of a “Star Wars” game. While “Shadows of the Empire” was massively hyped and advertised alongside “Super Mario 64” as one of the N64’s launch titles in 1996, “Rogue” was trotted out with subdued anticipation in December of 1998. This was understandable, as it hit stores the same month as “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” then the long-awaited 3D debut of the franchise and now the unofficial “Citizen Kane” of video games. It would not only go on to exceed sales predictions, but also become the first truly great game for the franchise in modern times, and easily the best on the N64. A decade and a half later, it remains one of the best media spin-offs for “Star Wars” altogether, even with certain flaws and age more visible.
Just as the story for “Shadows” filled in the gap between “Empire” and “Return,” “Rogue Squadron” adds dimension to the Empire/Rebellion conflict between the first and second films. Fresh off the destruction of the Death Star at the end of “A New Hope,” the highly renowned Rogue Squadron fleet continues to undertake missions against Imperial forces on planets from Tatooine to Chorax. Under the command of General Rieekan and the leadership of Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles, they’ve become the elite fighting force in the galaxy. But their missions soon take on a greater significance than blasting probe droids when Imperial officer Crix Madine announces his intention to defect and join the Rebel Alliance. They quickly launch a mission to rescue him on Corellia, as the Empire attempts to stall his departure. With Madine now a part of the Y-Wing Gold Squadron, Rogue Squadron begins carrying out more daring raids to cripple the Empire’s strength, even acquiring another turncoat ally in Kasan Moor. The intelligence provided by Moor provides Rogue Squadron with the means to carry out even more daring attacks, including Imperial prisons and even an outpost on the volcano planet Sullust. After the Empire’s plans have been foiled, the story concludes with a final mission six years later after the end of “Return of the Jedi.” Even with the Empire officially defeated, its remnants have regrouped to create World Devastators that can destroy entire planets. Wedge, now in control of the rebel fleet, leads one last mission to stop them.
Unlike “Shadows of the Empire,” which succeeded due to its variety of gameplay from ground action to space battles to speeder bikes, “Rogue Squadron” excels with a consistently engaging style in one mode of action. Level after level, the player completes each mission from a Rebel cockpit, the only variance coming in the type of ships that are required or become available. However, this hardly leads to repetitive gameplay; rather, each level feels fresh and original. The key to this are the controls, which make piloting each ship an easy and wholly immersive experience. Unlike the “X-Wing” game five years prior, you can alternate fluidly between third-person and cockpit views. Additionally, the balance between each craft’s strengths and weaknesses is perfectly attuned to each level. For example, the A-wing is fast and precise in dogfights, but its speed can be a detriment when you need to slow down and pull up to avoid an obstacle. The Y-Wing is sturdy and can take way more hits, plus it has a powerful bomb as its secondary weapon that makes it great for attacking bases and turrets. But it’s painfully slow, and practically a sitting duck in the thick of an intense fight.
The details of each stage and objectives remain impressive, even with the obvious N64 age more flagrant (complete with the classic fog, just like “Shadows”). Despite gameplay being restricted only to flying combat, the level variety is relatively outstanding. There are some familiar settings from the movies, such as Mos Eisley in the warm-up opening level, while the majority are newer. Some of the best include the Jade Moon, fittingly only lit by moonlight, and the Battle above Taloraan, a sojourn in the sky that echoes Cloud City. While some levels can take getting used to, the pure thrill of piloting your favorite rebel ship holds throughout the course of the game. The strongest feature that ties this all together and promotes replay value is the medal system, which is an addicting and gratifying challenge. While earning a medal isn’t required to advance to the next level, it still feels triumphant to push yourself enough to grab bronze, silver, or gold even on levels you’ve played through dozens of times.
Just as invaluable to the game’s success is the high quality of the story. Despite being an arcade-style actioner, the plot is well-developed, and even interspersed into separate chapters marked by the signature title crawl. This strength is even more remarkable given that the characters aren’t animated or seen outside their ships in cutscenes, which is compensated for by the excellent voice acting. The overall result gives Rogue Squadron the lively characterization they’ve always deserved, even though it wasn’t the first. (The game drew heavily upon a series of comics that started in 1995.) In addition to fleshing out the story in cutscenes, the dialogue also adds an immediate and authentic feeling to the battles. Though admittedly, cries like “Rogue Squadron, where’s our cover?” and “My shield is down” can sometimes be as grating in their repetition as “Need a dispenser here!” or “Fox, get this guy off of me!”
Even with a strong story and a satisfying gameplay experience, “Rogue Squadron” is still hampered by some egregious flaws. The worst is easily the lack of a “restart” option on the pause menu, with the player’s only exit being the “Abort Mission” selection that leads to a failed mission. This can expedite the path to a Game Over all too quickly, and amounts to too many quits and hitting the reset button for harder levels when a quick restart option would mitigate the difficulty (as I fumed in my Raid on Sullust piece). Also, Game Overs can lead to having less or even no extra lives on the next retry. While many reviews have lambasted the heavy use of shadow fog, the greater visibility issue comes in the absolute darkness of some of the level designs, which can make finding targets too hard and crashing into walls too easy. Most infamously, it lacks a multiplayer mode, which is every bit as disappointing now as it was in 1998. Why not have modes that pit X-Wing against Y-Wing, A-Wing vs. TIE Interceptor, Speeder vs. Walker, and so on? Why not make Luke, Wedge, and other classic rebel pilots like Biggs selectable characters?
To leverage the added difficulty caused by some of these flaws, there are fortunately a host of bonus goodies. Whether you unlock them through collecting medals or shortcut with cheat codes, there are bonus levels straight from the movies like the battles of Yavin and Hoth. The rest of the cheats are a riot too, and among the best of their time. One allows you to unlock a secret level as an AT-ST (or “chicken”) walker, while others add the TIE Interceptor and Millennium Falcon to your selection of ships for a mission. In a then-sneak peak of the upcoming “Phantom Menace,” you can even unlock the Naboo Starfighter. The best, however, is KOELSCH, which turns the V-Wing into a flyable 1969 Buick Electra. But be careful: If you press start while flying that automobile, the game will freeze up!
As I referenced at the end of my SOTE piece, the expanded canon laid out in “Star Wars” games provides intriguing possibilities for the practical armada of films Disney intends to release. Well before I acquired a copy of this game in particular, my filmmaker friend Dylan White suggested the exploits of the Rebel pilots should receive their own films. Given Denis Lawson’s (that’s Wedge) unenthusiastic refusal to star in “Episode VII,” such a possibility looks sadly unlikely at the moment. But if we don’t end up seeing two hours of Rogue Squadron’s stories unfold in cinemas anytime soon, we can always appreciate their treatment on the Nintendo 64. From protecting bacta tanks and convoys to obliterating Imperial construction yards and bases, their first starring role in gaming remains a true classic. That said, I’m still waiting for a prequel with Jek Porkins as the main character. Now that would be better than any movie.
Author’s Note: As of the original writing and publication of this review, I have yet to play the game’s Gamecube sequels, “Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader” and “Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike.”
Original commercial for the game: