In the late Seventies, a thrilling new pop cultural phenomenon came out of nowhere and swiftly conquered planet Earth. It used cutting edge technology to transport people into a realm filled with kinetic action, armies of faceless foes, and larger-than-life supervillains. A realm where a whiny kid from the sticks could become a badass warrior, and maybe even the savior of the galaxy. The blockbuster phenomenon made vast sums of money and developed a rabid fan following. At the time, many assumed it was just a fleeting fad that would soon recede. But four decades later, it’s more popular than ever.
I'm talking about the movie Star Wars, of course – now known as Episode IV: A New Hope – which debuted exactly forty years ago on May 25th, 1977. But it's equally true for video games, which began to have a major commercial impact at around the same time. The first blockbuster game console, the Atari VCS, hit stores a few months after the film’s release, and Star Wars was still playing in theaters the following summer when the first blockbuster arcade game, Taito's Space Invaders, appeared.
But here’s the thing: Space Invaders as we know it would not exist without Star Wars. Tomohiro Nishikado, the creator of the arcade classic, is up front about the fact that George Lucas’ movie is what inspired him to give his game a sci-fi setting. It was the first of many, many games to owe an enormous debt to the paradigm established by the film.
The full impact of Star Wars on video games is hard to calculate. Games that were officially based on Star Wars have appeared in almost every major genre, and on every console and computer and mobile device. But the influence of George Lucas’s film franchise goes far beyond officially licensed Star Wars games. Next to Dungeons & Dragons, the Star Wars films were the biggest influence on the settings, visuals and the mechanics of early games. Which is to say, they were the biggest influence on games by a non-game property.
Why is Star Wars so game-friendly? Much of the credit goes to George Lucas. Out of all the young film-savvy geeks who conquered Hollywood and created the blockbuster formula in the 1970s, he evinced the biggest passion for new technology, and games were a part of that. Spielberg was a huge fan of games, but Lucas actually started his own game studio in the early 1980s. And the man who made most of his billions off of merchandising Star Wars initially refused to make games based on the franchise for almost a decade – he just wanted the developers in his employ to explore the potential of the medium.
Just think about the key moments of the films. Firing blasters, dueling with lightsabers, manning turrets, dodging asteroids, locking on TIE fighters, swinging on a wire across a bottomless pit… many of the films’ most memorable set pieces are all about action, especially compared to more cerebral sci-fi experiences like Star Trek. The memorable moments often come down to hand/eye coordination. They are perfect fodder for video games.
And then there’s the rich diversity of settings in which the action of Star Wars takes place. Long before the release of Super Mario Bros, the film franchise whisked fans from desert worlds to ice worlds to forest worlds to swamp worlds, and there were unique obstacles and enemies in each locale. Other settings featured in Star Wars – from sterile space stations to asteroid fields to alien worlds – provided the backdrop for untold numbers of games.
The footprint of the franchise as a whole on gaming is vast. But on the 40th anniversary of the original film’s release, let’s focus in on five ways that the first film molded the modern game industry.