Thirty years ago, Namco released the craziest, weirdest, most un-Star Wars-y Star Wars game ever. Thanks to emulation, the cult status of Namco's 1987 Japanese Star Wars game for Famicom only grows as more and more gamers experience the glory of a raven-haired Luke Skywalker stepping into the Jawas' sandcrawler to face Darth Vader for the first time. Then Vader turns into a scorpion, and memes are born.
By now, everyone from Angry Video Game Nerds to happy video game nerds to, well, us two days ago has had their say about this game. As these and countless other articles and YouTube videos have inquired over the years: how does Luke have his lightsaber before meeting Obi-Wan, and why does he rush to Kessel to save this person he's never met? Why does Kessel look like Egypt? Why is Hoth in this game before the Death Star is destroyed – and why did Namco change the ice planet's name to Tina? Furthermore: why does Luke ride a whale to cross a river there? And why does Vader extend his love for animalistic shape-shifting to a shark, a wampa, and a copyright-infringing Gyaos? (Seriously – the manual has the gall to identify him as Gyaos Vader.)
The questions never end, but here's one simple answer for you: in the days before the concept of "intellectual property" was imbued with involuable sanctity, fun trumped everything – including logic and cohesion.
"The simple truth was that to make it fun as a game, we had to take some [design] liberties," says Hiroyuki Kawada, a longtime Namco composer who worked on the game. He admits to not being entirely pleased with how Vader was treated, but also notes, "In order to realize it as a game, we couldn't just trace the main story of the movie, but had to add to the story and include mechanics to make it a game."
"Namco just took the conceit of the whole universe and went with it," says Miguel E. Corti, a Japan-based New Jersey native who has worked in localization for Capcom over the last decade. (Corti was also gracious enough to translate Kawada's responses throughout this piece.) "If they saw Jaxxon the rabbit from Marvel comics, I'm sure they thought, 'We can do whatever the hell we want.'"
Just take a moment to think about how out of place the green-furred anthropomorphic bunnyman Corti refers to would feel in, say, Star Wars Battlefront. Ridiculous. Awesome, but ridiculous. But in Namco's Star Wars, Jaxxon would be right at home alongside the Maritima snakes, Prowler robots, and Elespad elephant men illustrated in the game's manual. The same could be said for all of the other Hoojibs, Hiromi, and further ridiculous species to come in the pages of Marvel's Star Wars comics through 1986 – not to mention the odd assortments of creatures and characters from television's Ewok movies, the Saturday-morning Droids and Ewoks cartoons, and the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special. (OK… so we'll take our Itchy in Galactic Battlegrounds.) At the same time, the appearance of a decoy Vader who sprouts a stinger and two pincers may have been par for the course for an issue of Marvel's Star Wars.
For as much flack as Namco's Star Wars receives for its lack of authenticity, other games based on A New Hope – ones you did actually play when they came out – were not without their own laundry lists of things just not feeling right. No Scorpion Vaders, of course – but plenty of other issues...