A long time ago in a place far far away, Star Wars games were very different to how they are today. With International Star Wars day tomorrow, Antstream Arcade takes a look back at a game that represents an important stepping stone between then and now. May the force be with you!
Released by LucasArts in 1993, Star Wars Rebel Assault swiftly became a monster hit for the developer then chiefly known for its graphic adventure games. Telling the story of Rookie One, the player essentially takes on the role of Luke Skywalker from A New Hope, working their way up from the canyons of Tatooine to battling the evil Empire in space. Until Rebel Assault, Star Wars video games had lacked the visual and auditory excitement of the movies. Whether you love or hate full motion video games (and there does seem to be no middle ground between those two opinions), the expansion to CD-ROM as a storage medium that allowed for cinematics and improved sound, opened up Star Wars games to a whole new vista, and the famous line of games we know today. Antstream Arcade caught up with Vince Lee, former LucasArts designer, to chat about Rebel Assault and life in general at the famous developer.
Antstream Arcade: How did you start work at LucasArts?
Vince Lee: In high school, I wrote a number of small arcade games in 8080 assembly language, and sold my first game to a user group for $350. When I went to college, I used my left over scholarship money to buy an Amiga and learned C by writing an Asteroids-like game called Stellaryx. When I finished grad school, I wasn’t thrilled with any of the jobs in my field (mechanical engineering), so I applied to LucasArts to work on games instead.
A: Were you a Star Wars fan?
VL: I was a big science and engineering nerd, as such very interested in science fiction, but hadn’t yet learned to appreciate Star Wars and similar franchises that have a more ‘casual’ relationship with science and technology. Then, after starting with LucasArts, I began to build a real appreciation for the iconic characters and the underlying human themes – temptation, redemption and so on – that support the story lines.
A: How did Rebel Assault come about?
VL: The game had convoluted origins as a demo for CD-ROM based hardware, then from a management point of view, it had two requirements: to be based on Star Wars and to use CD-ROM. The problem with doing a CD-ROM game in those days was that PCs had almost no memory and fairly feeble processing power, so if you wanted complex moving imagery it had to be pre-generated and streamed off the CD in real time.
A: Who else worked on the game?
VL: The core team was surprisingly small. I wrote the code and my colleague Justin Graham wrote the installer/launcher. Ron Lussier, Richard Green and Dan Colon worked on the art, Tamlynn Barra directed the voice work and Aaron Muszalski was our lead art tech.
A: Why are there no characters or segments from the movies?
VL: It became pretty clear early on that trying to shoehorn in the movies would have made a really annoying game, and the cut scenes would have been longer than the game itself. Besides, we didn’t have the budget for it, so I decided that making a fun game was more important than staying true to the Star Wars canon, and departing from the characters and story let us do just that. The classic Star Wars movies have a number of action sequences that lent themselves to the format: flying a T16, fighting TIE fighters, dodging asteroids, taking down walkers and so on.
A: Was the game originally developed on MS-DOS?
VL: Yes. Windows 95 was two years away, and Windows 3 was not a viable choice for games. There was no alternative to MS-DOS, although we did use a DOS extender to exceed the 640k memory limit.
A: How did you settle on the style of gameplay?
VL: Technically, at the time, Myst and The 7th Guest were the only notable CD-ROM games, both of which had limited video-like sequences interspersed with static backgrounds. I had done some contract work adding features to a terrain-generation program on the Amiga, and one feature it had was the ability to create a flyover animation similar to the Genesis effect sequence in Star Trek II. So, when the idea of creating a CD-ROM experience came up, I began experimenting with compressing the image sequences to see if I could get them small enough to stream comfortably off the first generation of CD-ROMs. The concept of a rails game didn’t really exist at the time, but yes it only really works when travelling in some sort of vehicle that justifies why the player doesn’t have any real freedom of movement. In terms of gameplay, fairly early on it was clear that Rebel Assault was going to end up as a game that combined elements from the Star Wars vector graphics arcade games and the Cinemaware games that mixed game sequences with movie-like cut scenes. The exact form was constantly evolving until the day we gold mastered it.
A: How difficult was it to create the cut-scenes?
VL: At the time digitizing and playing back full frame video just wasn’t feasible. The scenes are actually built from individual frame grabs, hand cut into pieces, touched up, reassembled and animated manually. Very labour intensive and required a lot of trickery. We had countless challenges, for example CD-ROM drives were very primitive, and burners rare and expensive. When Rebel Assault was written, multitasking wasn’t available; as a result the entire game ran off a CPU interrupt to work around limitations in the first generation of drives. And LucasArts didn’t even own a burner. We had to send out copies of the game on hard drives to an external company every time we needed to burn a CD for testing.
A: The inclusion of John Williams’ iconic score was a huge bonus for fans.
VL: Rebel Assault was the company’s first game to include a digitized soundtrack, although at a horribly low 11k sampling rate by today’s standards. I coded an early version of the opening with midi sound and hated it. Fortunately, I had a sound digitizer on my Amiga and experiments with it led to the streaming sound system eventually used in Rebel Assault.
A: How did you get on with the Mega-CD/Sega-CD port?
VL: It was not up to the standard of the others. Unfortunately, the Sega-CD was a horrible console, basically a 16-bit Genesis console with a CD-ROM drive tacked onto it. Its display system was still tile-based and meant for Mario-style games, not raster images.
A: What was the expectation for the game in general?
VL: It was never expected to make any money at all, which I suppose is why I was allowed to take control of it. At the time, LucasArts was known for its adventure games and I believe the original forecast was 15k units. That was later raised to 25k, then 50k shortly prior release, after feedback from preview showings started coming in. If memory serves, the initial run of 100k or so units sold out the first three days, which nobody expected.
A: Wow! You must have been pleased with what you’d created?
VL: Despite its flaws, it’s a key title in terms of video game development and still one of my fondest memories, not just of the game itself, but being at a company with so many wildly creative and interesting people. Rebel Assault hit at just the right time, occupying a narrow window between 2D and true 3D games, at a time before technology could make the latter possible.
Our thanks to Vince Lee for his time.