Parker Bros.’s The Empire Strikes Back Atari 2600 game is – according to Wikipedia – the first-ever Star Wars licensed video game. It takes place on the ice planet of Hoth, with the player on a doomed mission to destroy imperial AT-ATs (aka imperial walkers) before they can reach the rebel base.
It plays a minor role in Ready Player One.
Beside the Atari was a shoebox containing nine game cartridges: Combat, Space Invaders, Pitfall, Kaboom!, Star Raiders, The Empire Strikes Back, Starmaster, Yars’ Revenge, and E.T. — Ready Player One p. 10.
The player controls a lone snow speeder trying to stop imperial walkers from reaching the rebel base and destroying the shield generator. From a visual perspective, the game does a decent job of recreating the frantic feel of the Hoth battle scene, with the speeder flitting to and fro as it tries to take down the walkers.
Another game that I didn’t play until undertaking The Ready Player One Video Replay, The Empire Strikes Back succeeds at a basic level – it’s fun to play – but fails overall because you can’t actually win the game. You’ve got two options:
- Destroy walkers until you run out of lives.
- Fail to destroy the walkers, in which case they destroy the rebel base.
There’s no success option here, which seems weird for a Star Wars game. Granted, inevitable death was a feature of most 1980s games. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Frogger, Q-Bert, Galaga and so many more all involved fighting (or hopping) through myriad screens in an attempt to rack up the biggest score possible before dying.
Yet for Star Wars, this seems … unnatural. You want to defeat the Empire, or at least hold them off long enough for the transports to get away. Lacking either end state, the game feels frustratingly incomplete.
No less a figure than Harlan Ellison raged against the futility of The Empire Strikes Back on the 2600:
In other other words, you cannot win.
The game ends when you lose.
It may take you ten minutes or 15 years. The level of your expertise may grow to be so elevated that the game will ahve to be concluded by your children, but … you cannot win.
You should read the entire review; Empire is the first 2600 video game Ellison ever played, and his hatred of both the game and video games as a fad, makes for a tremendous (and hilarious) read.
The Ready Player One Replay is an ongoing exploration of the games that inspired the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Love it or hate it, there’s value in revisiting our geeky roots.
- My High Score: 416
Where to Play
- Wikipedia: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
- Harlan Ellison: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back review