My preteen self didn’t want much. Just my own lightsaber. And the ability to move things with my mind. Oh, and I wanted - so badly - to be the one to fly an X-Wing fighter down that trench to take the one-in-a-million shot that would destroy the Death Star. Is that too much to ask?
I sat at my Commodore 64 for days, desperately craving a video game that would deliver the climactic experience at the end of Star Wars. I wanted to capture it all in a game of my own creation – the impossible odds, the ticking clock, the high stakes – Han Solo redeeming himself by swooping in and sending Vader’s TIE fighter tumbling off into space. I knew nothing of sprites or video game programming, so my efforts were a solid failure. But that failure took the better part of two weeks’ worth of spare time spent coding in my parents’ basement because I wanted to fly that X-Wing more than anything else.
That experience didn’t make it to the arcades until Return of the Jedi, the last movie in the original Star Wars trilogy, was hitting movie theaters and seemingly wrapping up the Star Wars saga for all of us. It was a long wait, but it many respects, the game really delivered.
Usually, whenever a cool new arcade game came out, we’d have to visit Time Out at the Smith Haven Mall. And indeed, this was the first place I encountered Star Wars the arcade game. But unlike other popular machines at the time, we didn’t have to wait and pray for it to show up in one of the small stores in town like we typically did. It seemed to show up everywhere all at once – Time Out at the mall, the little arcade outside movie screens at the Brookhaven Multiplex, the arcade at Nathan’s, and even at the little General Store in downtown Wading River.
The General Store was already a favorite destination for kids my age. The store had been around since approximately the beginning of time, and had and old-timey, historic feel to it, like it had been original to the town. For kids, it was like a combination deli, candy store and hangout. The hangout bit was thanks to the handful of arcade machines in a nook off to the side, as well as due to some of the other features in the General Store’s immediate vicinity – a pizza place that sold the best slices in town, and the Duck Ponds. The Duck Ponds were where you could park your bike, sit down and have a sandwich or a slice of pizza, maybe feed the ducks and swans, or go hunting for glimpses of fish, eels and snapping turtles that could be seen from the banks. Downtown Wading River was a little paradise for free-range kids.
When we weren’t playing arcade games downtown, we were heading down there to buy baseball cards and stickers. The General Store was always flush with wax packs and rack packs of Topps baseball cards, and we would poke through the rack packs to see if any desirable cards were visible from the front or back. We’d ride our bikes downtown carrying our Topps baseball sticker albums, looking to buy and trade stickers so we could complete the albums for the year, which was a big deal.
Riding our bikes downtown was a cinch. It was getting back that was a bitch. You could stop pedaling at my mailbox, coast past the Catholic Church, the fire department, the historic Congregational Church, and end up at the General Store without having cycled the pedals even once. And on characteristically flat Long Island, the mile-long journey back was a leg-burning, lactic acid-fest of a ride that would wear out an 11-year-old kid’s legs and make him wish he owned a 10-speed instead of a single-gear BMX bike.
The first time I played Star Wars at the General Store, my friends and I were procrastinating. The last of the baseball stickers had been placed in the album and the lament over never seeing the Dave Winfield foil sticker was over with. The last of the pink slabs of bubble gum were chewed to flavorless wads of goo. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to pedal my bike up Mount Everest. I put my baseball sticker album next to the arcade cabinet and plopped my quarter in.
With Star Wars, you always started with Easy difficulty. Because it made your game last longer. For me, the enjoyment of Star Wars wasn’t about how many points you could score, or how many Death Stars you could blow up. It was about how much time you could spend in the cockpit of that X-Wing before the TIE fighters and fireballs caught up with you.
Fireballs. For some reason, TIE fighters and the rest of the game’s enemies fired these slow-moving fireballs at your X-Wing instead of laser blasts. You needed to shoot them before they impacted your fighter, or it would deplete your shield. The TIE fighters could have been firing hamburgers at me, for all I cared. I just wanted to fly the X-Wing down that trench.
“Full-color 3D vector graphics” is how video gaming sites describe the tech behind the visual appeal of Star Wars. What that meant was that enemy fighters and all the other game elements were sketched out in line art, much like the tanks in Battlezone or the giant space rocks in Asteroids, but they were in color. What the game sacrificed in terms of graphics was more than made up for with its smooth gameplay. My 11-year-old brain was able to easily fill in the blanks left by lackluster detail, and was thankful they skimped there but not on the controls.
No joystick here, folks. That was part of the appeal. It had a flight yoke, with triggers and thumb buttons to fire the weapons, that let you smoothly coax the X-Wing into a dive closer to the surface of the Death Star, or take aim at a laser tower high up. The tips of the laser cannons at the end of the S-foils of the X-Wing were always visible at the periphery of your vision as you flew, and they moved convincingly as you threaded the needle under trench obstacles or over bunkers on the way to that fabled thermal exhaust port.
It really was the closest thing you could get to flying Luke Skywalker’s most famous mission. The theme music playing in the background, as well as the occasional interjection of the digitized movie lines from Obi-Wan, Han, Vader and R2D2 only helped.
You couldn’t kill Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter. Just like in the movie, its angled wings set it apart from the other TIE fighters in the game. You could lay into it with laser blast after laser blast, and the worst that would happen to it is that it would flash white momentarily and hurtle off into space.
Whatever adjustments the game made to the subject matter for the sake of playability and challenge didn’t detract. I suppose that if you wanted to challenge your friends to see who could score the most points, you could. But for me, it was all about the experience that sprint down the Death Star trench. I’d feel a little pang of longing when Luke exclaimed “I’ve lost Artoo!” – which in the game meant that the X-Wing’s shield was completely depleted and the next hit from a fireball would end the experience.
It was so immersive that it made me forget about the leg cramp-inducing ride home. In fact, after my quarters had run out and I steadfastly cranked my Huffy back home, I realized I had completely forgotten my baseball sticker album on the side of the arcade cabinet. I went back down to the store with my Dad to look for it, but I never saw the album again.
Cue the lecture from Dad about being mindful of one’s things, but this one had some extra frustration attached to it, largely because my Dad and I liked collecting baseball cards together and he simply didn’t understand the appeal of video games. I lost a little sleep over it, but wasn’t devastated. Mostly because an experience I had been patiently waiting for since 1977 had been delivered.
Now, if I could just figure out how to get my hands on a real light saber…