Super Star Wars Trilogy: The Making Of A Super Nintendo Classic
Cast your mind back to a time not so long ago when the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were the game console kings, and a certain Mr. Lucas had given us a mere three instalments of his interstellar movie juggernaut; the bonafide sci-fi classics Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and another one with Ewoks.
Released in 1992, Super Star Wars was a state-of-the-art mix of platform action and 3D shoot-’em-up sections, culminating in the famous X-Wing trench run – arguably the closest interactive experience the film franchise had yet seen.
It became a major ace in the sleeve for Nintendo’s battle against arch-rival Sega, and a future benchmark for action games on the SNES. “I started working at Lucasfilm Games in 1988 as a designer/programmer,” recalls Kalani Streicher, producer and lead designer of the Super Star Wars trilogy.
“At the time they were trying to expand into the European markets and looking for someone who was fluent in German. I fitted the bill and they hired me immediately. My first project was Zak McKracken And The Alien Mindbenders with lead designer David Fox.”
“As we were finishing the game I started working on porting and localising all of the story games such as Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade into various European languages on a variety of platforms.”
The visuals were outstanding across the series, particularly the vehicle stages.
After building up and managing LucasArts’ localisation department, and a brief programming stint on Brian Moriarty’s Loom, Kalani finally asked the question many working at the company had been itching to for years.
Lucasfilm had previously shied away from entering Star Wars territory for its gaming releases, the nearest it had come being an abandoned attempt at a point-and-click adventure from Hal Barwood, designer of Indiana Jones And The Fate of Atlantis.
“Lucasfilm was very focused on the PC platforms, such as the IBM, Mac, Amiga and Atari ST,” explains Kalani. “A bunch of us wanted to work on console games and a handful of them wanted to work on Star Wars, including myself.”
“Basically we asked our manager, Steve Arnold, ‘Why aren’t we on console, and why aren’t we developing Star Wars games for it?” He replied, ‘Do you guys want to do it? Go for it!’ And off we went building a Star Wars game for console.”
Kalani teamed up with Utah-based developer Sculptured Software, producing Star Wars for the NES, a platform action game based on the plot of the first movie which became a template for the later Super Nintendo title and its sequels, Super Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi.
Han Solo shows off his excellent blaster skills at the climax of Empire.
The relationship with Sculptured would remain for all three Super Nintendo games. “My vision was to create the first trilogy on a single platform for our fans,” Kalani tells us. “We were slightly behind the curve getting onto the SNES, though in the end we pulled off the release of each game from the Star Wars trilogy back-to-back, year after year, which I’m very proud of.”
As an avid gamer himself, Kalani demonstrates admirable taste when revealing the titles that inspired his first Super Nintendo project. “I was a big fan of platform games and side-scrollers,” he says. “Contra, Super Castlevania, Turrican and Mega Man on SNES were my favourite games.”
“I was also playing the Willow arcade game, which inspired me to push the visual quality on the SNES above other games. I wanted it to be as good a side-scroller as Contra or Castlevania, with the visual quality of arcade games such as Willow or Street Fighter, and vehicle gameplay using Mode 7 as seen in F-Zero.”
Mode 7, the Super Nintendo’s unique and much-touted graphics mode, allows for the rapid manipulation and scaling of a background ‘landscape’, the first instance in Super Star Wars being the early landspeeder stage, as Luke travels towards a Sandcrawler encountering a bunch of really annoying Jawas.
Though primitive by modern standards, the use of this technique made recreating seminal vehicular Star Wars moments possible in a way that wowed gamers of the time. Later series highlights would include the Hoth Snowspeeder vs. AT-AT battles of Super Empire Strikes Back, and the gripping dash of the Millennium Falcon through the bowels of the unfinished Death Star Mk II in Super Return Of The Jedi.
“I wanted to allow players to interact with their favourite Star Wars vehicles in third or first-person perspective, and experience the different aspects they’d seen in the movies,” says Kalani.
The games expanded on the films. Like Luke’s battle through the Dagobah swamps.
“You might say we were the first to combine genres of side-scroller and third/first-person vehicle combat for the SNES. I didn’t want to utilise the vehicles in a side-scrolling or top-down fashion. I wanted the player to feel like they were in the vehicle racing across the desert or through the galaxy.”
Indeed, the series succeeds in recreating the atmosphere of the films remarkably well, from the opening text crawl over Tatooine in Super Star Wars, to the Lucas-esque screen wipes and imposing rendition of John Williams’ score.
Each game closely follows the plot of the relevant film, transitioning through platform sections with memorable bosses like the Sarlacc Pit Monster, Boba Fett, and the Rancor, and interspersed with story-progressing cut-scenes.
With a rich tapestry of characters, creatures and vehicles to draw on from the films, the team took pride in attempting to present as authentic a Star Wars console experience as possible.
“I looked at every aspect of the movie in detail with the team and pointed out the environments and characters I wanted in the game,” says Kalani. “We used reference materials and photos from Lucasfilm’s photo library, and took reference pictures of the actual movie models from the Lucas Archives.”
Even Wicket the Ewok got his own stage. Which was odd, but no less fun.
“Everybody on the team was a hardcore Star Wars fan. I was also producing the X-Wing game at the same time, which added even more extensive research of every spacecraft and ship in the game. I was heavily entrenched in getting the authenticity of the Star Wars universe into these games.”
“Though from the beginning I wanted to retell the story of the movies in an interactive fashion,” he continues, “I also knew, being the Star Wars geek myself, that I wanted to bring in elements that never were explained or expanded upon in the movies, especially areas or characters that were mentioned briefly in the films, such as fighting the Star Wars chess monster as a boss in the Cantina.”
Kalani is quick to praise what he describes as the “terrific relationship” between Lucasfilm and Sculptured Software over the course of the three games. “We were in control of all creative aspects of the game such as game design, art and animation, and Sculptured was responsible for coding the game,” he explains.
“Sculptured had a great engine, tools and development kits that allowed us to rapidly create levels and character animation. [Lead programmer] Peter Ward at Sculptured was an incredible engineer and a true Star Wars fan. I had such a blast working with him.”
“Initially I created a design document outlining all specification and progression of the levels, characters and vehicles from the first to last level. We then did storyboards for the plot progression, cinematics and story panels. My concept and art lead Harrison Fong storyboarded a lot of them, which we then passed on to the team and converted it into digital artwork.”
The trench run at the end of A New Hope is stunning.
In the original Super Star Wars, one of the early stand-out platform stages involves Luke making his way to the top of a massive Sandcrawler brimming with hostile turrets and yet more pesky Jawas.
“We did several iterations on the Sandcrawler and wanted to make the player feel like they were climbing up a huge vehicle and that the level was moving as you are jumping from platform to platform, ”says Kalani.
Later stages give players an opportunity to control alternate heroes, such as Chewbacca in the Cantina stage, or Han Solo taking on hordes of slightly inept stormtroopers en route to the Falcon in Mos Eisley. A ride in Han’s iconic galactic rustbucket, a daring rescue, and a brush with a trash compacter later the famous Death Star run awaits you.
“We knew from the start that we had to have this level, and this was the climax of the game,” says Kalani of the famous X-Wing sequence. “It had to live up to the then-in-the-arcades Star Wars game trench run. The SNES and its Mode 7 feature were perfect for this and allowed us to give the player an incredible climactic moment.”
Working with Mode 7 graphics proved very much a mixture of trial and error on Super Star Wars. “It was our first attempt to utilise Mode 7 in a different way than other games,” Kalani explains. “The landspeeder stage had to show progression, moving across a desert towards the mountains in the distance.”
Fresh out of carbonite, Han Solo gets back to doing what he does best.
“It was a fine balance of sprite usage for the terrain, enemy characters and distant parallaxing of the mountain range. We had to take that one step further with the X-Wing level, flying across the surface and then down the trench allowing the player to be able to move anywhere in space.”
“Lastly, integrating the Millenium Falcon took several iterations. It is such a unique ship that we fairly quickly ran out of sprites/tiles. We had to pull off every trick we had in the book for those sections.”
One interesting side note Kalani offers is that the atmospheric platform section set inside the Death Star nearly didn’t make it into the finished game.
“That level was difficult to pull off and barely avoided the chopping block,” he remembers. “I remember contemplating many times cutting it, but I am glad that we found a way to make it work and keep it in the game.”
For the sequels, Lucasflim and Sculptured continued to refine their game engine, packing in ever more content and visual advancements with the help of increased cartridge capacities. The series finale, Super Return of the Jedi, was the largest; with its 16-Megabit cart it was twice the size of the original Super Star Wars.
The desire to innovate and improve was not without its share of technical stumbling blocks. “We were constantly pushing the SNES and adding as much content as possible from the Star Wars universe from one game to another, challenging and trying to outdo ourselves each time.
The first-person assault on Death Star Mk. II is a particular highlight.
In Super Empire the most challenging parts were of course the AT-AT /snowspeeder levels and the Millennium Falcon. These are iconic vehicles that needed to behave and feel like they did in the movie.
“For the AT-AT sequence, using Mode 7 for such a big vehicle was difficult. We were definitely pushing the capabilities of the SNES hardware. The cable release and circling of the snowspeeder was incredibly hard. We spent many long hours refining the gameplay to make it work.”
“And in Super Jedi the speeder bike scene and final flight through the inside of the Death Star wasn’t easy. For the speeder bike chase the most difficult part was creating believable trees moving past at high speeds. Because of the difficulty I considered many other design perspectives such as isometric or top-down views, but they never felt as dramatic as the Mode 7 version.”
One gameplay aspect that was greatly improved for both sequels was the addition of RPG-style character development, with Luke gradually gaining a number of useful Force Powers including the ability to heal, levitate, deflect attacks or even mind control enemies. The downside is that powers can be only be collected from certain locations in each game, meaning they can be easily missed by the not-so prudent Jedi.
“Balancing the Force Powers wasn’t easy,” admits Kalani. “We had to anticipate players getting through a level with or without them. For me it was an integral part of character evolution and player progression (levelling up of a character) in adding Force Powers in Super Empire and Super Jedi.”
Boss battles don’t get much more epic than this.
For Super Empire Strikes back, the initial platform stages on Hoth added an extra dimension of difficulty due to the slippy-slidey nature of the planet’s icy terrain. “This was our first attempt to add a ‘slippery’ factor to gameplay,” Kalani comments.
“It was difficult to test because of the many ways to slide into objects and assure proper collision. We also had to work hard on making the tiling of ice pieces look organic and not too repetitive. I enjoyed all the levels and am glad we added Han Solo and Chewie throughout these levels.”
However, these stages, along with some of the more sprawling, hazard-filled levels and increasingly fearsome bosses of both sequels, still attract criticism over their degree of difficulty, despite the addition of level passcodes.
“I get that a lot,” chuckles Kalani. “These were difficult games. We were aiming at the hardcore. Everybody was a hardcore player back then! I definitely could not deliver such difficult games today. In hindsight, I would reduce the enemy damage by 10-20 per cent, make the player character able to absorb more damage, add more power-ups and improve level design.”
“Though I wouldn’t want to make it too easy – it has to be challenging. The player needs to feel like they are earning the Force. My excuse for the difficulty of those games in Yoda’s words is: ‘You are not a Jedi yet. Much training you will need!’”
The Mos Eisley stage sees Luke battering many Stormtroopers with his new lightsaber.
Overall, Kalani tells us that there really isn’t that much he would change about his SNES gaming trilogy in hindsight. “I’m very happy how the games turned out,” he admits. “We did an incredible job getting this trilogy out back-to-back each Christmas.”
“There are a couple of elements I wish we could have incorporated if we would have had more time, such as all the levels, characters and bosses we had to cut from the game – with each game we built more levels than we actually shipped.”
“I’d also make the games a bit easier to play. I’m very fond of the Super Star Wars trilogy and very pleased with its popularity. They were my very first games and we had such fun designing and developing them.”
We thought it might be fun to ask Kalani if, like us, he had any favourites out of the many memorable Star Wars moments found across the trilogy. “There are so many favourite moments,” he replies.
“A lot of them had to do with gameplay as well as the technical challenges they presented. In Super Star Wars my favourites are the landspeeder and trench run levels. In Super Empire it’s definitely the snowspeeder/AT-AT level. Who doesn’t want to take down and AT-AT? That was incredibly difficult, but we managed to pull it off.”
Leis’s battle through Jabba’s palace in disguie is a great stage.
“One of my favourite levels is also the Carbonite Freezing Chamber playing as Chewbacca. You had to keep moving and were fighting jet troopers, stormtroopers with shields and bombs, various bounty hunters and the little pesky Ugnaughts.”
“The Darth Vader levels were also a treat. It’s so emotional going up against Vader no matter how pixelated he looked. By this time the player had all of the different Forces accessible and Luke was at his most powerful.”
“Jon Knowles, my animation supervisor, did an awesome job animating Darth with the limited sprites we had available.” “In Super Jedi it’s definitely the Rancor. It’s the biggest beast in the Star Wars universe, and so satisfying when you take it down. The sail-barge level was also exciting.”
“For the first time we could create and show what the sail-barge looked like on the outside and inside. In addition, we were able to go up against a slew of bounty hunters and strange creatures. And you got to play Princess Leia with her chain weapon in a bikini!”
“Then of course there are the final levels flying the Falcon inside the Death Star. The climax of the entire trilogy racing to the core and back out in the nick of time blasting the Death Star into a million pieces. Finally, the showdown with the Emperor was a fun level to design.”
What the Hutt is that!?
“The difficulty was in creating the scene with the round window. It took a lot of tiles to look right. And then giving the Emperor all of his lightning effect powers…”
Before his departure from LucasArts earlier this year, Force Unleashed producer Haden Blackman stated that he would have loved to see a modern revival of the Super Star Wars series. We wonder if Kalani would be game.
“Definitely, I’d be all over that project,” Kalani enthuses. “It‘s the game that catapulted LucasArts into the console space and it can do it again on the new platforms. I’ve been trying to convince LucasArts to recreate the Super Star Wars trilogy for tablets, handhelds or Xbox Live Arcade/PSN.”
“If given that opportunity I’d keep the essence of the original, though reinvent and innovate the game with today’s gameplay mechanics, give it a visual facelift and, of course, pack it with even more Star Wars goodies including additional environments, characters, bosses and vehicles from the movie.”
“I’d also add a mode where players can create additional content to the game, like LittleBigPlanet. Maybe readers could start petitioning LucasArts for a new Super Star Wars series on the new platforms. I’m totally up for it, and it will be even better than the original.”