Today is the 10th anniversary of BioWare's classic Star Wars role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic. Happy birthday, KotOR! Thanks for having such great Star Wars.
Let me back up and explain what I mean by that. Last winter I was in New York talking with my boss Stephen about the animated Star Wars TV show The Clone Wars. He was telling me to check it out, and that while it has flaws that cause a lot of people write it off, it still "has some good Star Wars".
I really liked that term, because I instantly, instinctually knew what he meant. It has good Star Wars.
As it turns out, "Good Star Wars" is much easier to say than it is to define.
I brought the idea back up a little while ago in Kotaku group-chat, which led to all manner of discussion and disagreement about which games had "The Best Star Wars." We didn't reach a consensus, but we saw a lot of the usual suspects tossed around: Dark Forces, Jedi Knight II, X-Wing, and of course Knights of the Old Republic.
Owen put in a vote for Jedi Outcast, and Evan and Owen both offered the opinion that while the game itself had problems, The Force Unleashed had some great Star Wars, particularly in the back half. Luke maintains that Dark Forces had the best Star Wars of any Star Wars game. (I totally see what he's saying there.)
We're in murky territory here, given that we're talking about a phrase that I haven't defined all that well. It's not really the same thing as being a good game, right? But I know in my gut what it means to have good Star Wars, and my gut tells me that KotOR had the best Star Wars possible.
I replayed about 10 hours of KotOR a couple of months ago for the first time since I initially played the game five or so years ago. It's remarkable just how well-written and interesting this game is, particularly given how much hysterical Star Wars garbage had been thrown at us starting right around the time the game came out. It's a sign of how far we've fallen that, as I replayed, it felt like a miracle simply to see characters on screen showing believable emotions, learning to overcome their traumatic pasts and trust one another.
Sure, the main narrative was based around a typical Lights Side vs. Dark Side Jedi battle, with the fate of our heroes and the rest of the galaxy hanging in the balance. But it also let us go deep into the nooks and crannies of previously unexplored areas of George Lucas' beloved universe, from the underbelly of a Sith-controlled city to the jungles of the Wookiee homeworld. If that's not good Star Wars, I can't say what is.
But there are still so many points of contention. Can KotOR have good Star Wars if it takes place so far in the past that it's almost irrelevant to the original trilogy? Does Republic Commando have good Star Wars despite the fact that the Force doesn't show up? Mike says that "Republic Commando is more Band of Brothers than Star Wars." OK, but what about Dark Forces, then? Battlefront is a pretty straightforward game, but you get to take down an AT-AT on Hoth. That's gotta be good Star Wars, right?
And what games don't qualify? I'd say kids' games, as well as most stuff based on the prequels, most of the newer junk that treats the Force less as a moral test and more as a competition to see which side has the better magic. That pod-racing game… that didn't really have good Star Wars. Is it possible for a game to have both good and bad Star Wars?
When it comes down to it, the best definition I could come up with was this: It's not so much about whether or not the game is good (though that helps). It's about whether the game makes you feel like, as a fan of Star Wars, you're getting to do and learn some cool Star Wars shit.
So thanks, KotOR, for having some of the best Star Wars I've ever seen in a video game. I just bought the sequel on the Steam sale, and I'm curious how it stacks up. I hear it has pretty good Star Wars, too. (And don't worry, I'll download all the requisite patches and mods.)
In the meantime, I'm just going to take this primed thermal detonator of a topic and set it here for you guys to defuse in the comments. Which games had the best Star Wars? What does that phrase mean to you? And what's the one thing you hope the new Star Wars keepers at Disney can learn from the successes and failures of the past?