Retrospective: Star Wars Dark Forces/Jedi Knight (Part 1)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent over 30 hours livestreaming a playthrough of the Star Wars: Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience, welling up nostalgia from the deep recesses of my memory. It’s also been a tour de The Force in game design history, helping to illustrate how PC games evolved from “Doom Clones” in the mid 1990s to the modern genre of “First Person Shooter” influenced by Half Life, Halo, and others.

I spent plenty of time during the streams trying to analyze the games and elucidate my thoughts, but now that I’ve had time to digest the games, I wanted to write up this retrospective covering the whole series and my experiences playing and remembering them.

Star Wars: Dark Forces

(1995, LucasArts)

The first game in the series is perhaps the one that brings the most nostalgic thoughts to mind. I was 12 when it came out, and I think it’s fair to say that put me square in the middle of the marketing cross-hairs for a product like this. I had grown up watching the (then) three Star Wars films obsessively, and the mid 90’s saw a rapid resurgence in their popularity. Not long after playing this game, we got the news that Star Wars would return to the big screen as a brand-new Special Edition! (And if you haven’t seen the absolutely masterful and epic trailer for this re-release, do yourself a favor and check it out). The prequel films, which yes, we were very excited for at the time (if we only knew) were just a few years away.

In addition to my Star Wars pump being primed, I was also deep in the throws of the mid 90’s PC gaming scene. Only two years before, Doom landed on the platform and created a genre-sized crater. It was followed a year later by Doom II, one of the finest games ever published. What we call today the “First Person Shooter” genre was known at the time, fairly or unfairly, instead as “Doom Clones”—a type of game I had a deep love for ever since playing Wolfenstein 3D and Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold.

So, when we realized LucasArts was going to release a game in the genre we loved, based on a universe we loved, we were thrilled. And the game did not disappoint. My first experience with Dark Forces was watching over my brother’s shoulder as he played (being older, he got the first turn). At first, it was odd—Where was Luke? Do I get a Lightsaber? Who exactly is this Kyle Katarn dude? But by the time Boba Fett showed up, I was convinced.

But I’ll leave the nostalgia behind, at least for now. Let’s talk about playing through this game again, with an extra two decades of gaming experience under my belt. First off, let me say it holds up—it is a really solid gaming experience that flows well and is an excellent play if you’re a fan of retro shooters. There are some rough edges, mostly owing to deliberate changes to the formula, but overall, I think it’s a great game.

The really unique thing about the game isn’t—surprisingly—the setting, which is used in a low-key, gritty, and rewarding way that doesn’t drown itself in Jedi and the Force as almost all other major Star Wars properties seem to do. Instead, what makes the game great is the fact that it develops the genre past what we had seen before in games like Doom. For all of its strengths, Doom and Doom II lacked a lot of cohesion in their otherwise beautifully designed levels. Only the first game tried to tell any sort of story with the level layouts; Doom II in essence was just a big map pack.

Instead, Dark Forces turns each of its large, elaborate levels into a miniature adventure, and each adventure is strung together to build an exciting story that stands apart from the films and builds a new, exciting character in Katarn. And from the first mission, the developers where quick to show off the verticality of their game, with enemies on high platforms and lots of elevators. (elevators certainly become a running theme in this series).

This type of design philosophy changes how this game was experienced compared to its predecessors in an important way. As I said, each mission is an adventure; beginning each one, I found myself immediately trying to figure out what to expect and how the game would use its story-conceits to challenge me as they translated into level design. And as each mission ended, I was rewarded with genuine feelings of accomplishment—I completed a mission, I didn’t just survive an arena with enemies.

That was a landmark change that this genre went through during this period—Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, and others began a shift towards the FPS as a coherent story telling medium, and this change culminated with the ultimate redefinition that was HalfLife. This shift gives Dark Forces a more refined and mature experience compared to some of its popular contemporaries.

It also leads to the biggest issues with the game. In the drive to make each level of the game feel like a unique and lengthy adventure, we run into the ‘where the heck to I go now’ problem. Levels become large and complicated mazes that can be too confusing to navigate and find objectives (especially the obligatory sewer level…ugh). A map is provided, but just like with the Doom series and other pseudo-3d games, the map can be confusing to read and can sometimes actually create more problems that it solves.

Drawing on what little was available from canon sources, Dark Forces does a fairly good job of filling out a weapon list, and virtually all the weapons remain important and viable throughout most of the game. That’s a complaint I have about most of the rest of the games in the series, and most more modern FPS games in general—earlier weaker weapons often get forgotten about the longer you play and gain more equipment.

The shooting in this game is at its peak for the series. That isn’t too much of a surprise, since by not including Lightsabers or Force powers the developers committed to a purely shooter-focused game. The weapons all feel decent to good, though none ever reach the level of perfection that their counterparts in Doom achieve. Not much of a complaint there, and they still feel the best out of all the series in this first entry.

Presentation-wise, the game unsurprisingly triple-A. Since the developer was part of the LucasFilm family, they had access to the music, sound, and design aspects that made the Star Wars films so beloved. Graphically, the game is average, even for the time. Some textures can be pretty muddy, but the fancy atmospheric effects they implemented improved the look of the game overall. Nevertheless, by 1995, Dark Forces wasn’t ground breaking visually, but was and is able to lean back into its universe to overcome this technical mediocrity.

As I said before, I love this game. Before my recent playthrough, I hadn’t touched it in probably 20 years, and so I was worried that a modern view would burn away my nostalgia and uncover a bad game. But I enjoyed it quite a bit; I’m not certain if its my favorite game in the series, but it’s a very serious contender. I think it’s the most tightly designed, focused, and coherent of all the games I’ll be discussing here.

Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

(1997, LucasArts)

Of all the games on this list, the sequel to Dark Forces is absolutely the most ambitious. And like it’s predecessor, Jedi Knight perfectly encapsulates the era of gaming when it was released. It was extremely well received upon release, and during my playthrough of the series the majority of comments I saw from viewers listed this as their favorite game. Released the same year as the original films were re-released in theaters, Star Wars was riding very, very high.

There’s a lot to like here. As I said, this was an ambitious game; even when it was released it felt big. The full motion video cutscenes, while feeling pretty cheesy even when I played this game in 97, have impressively high production values for the period—specifically in the costuming. Gone are the sprites of the past, ushered away in favor of cutting edge full-3D graphics. And of course, we still have that soundtrack and feel to drive home that this is a game to be taken seriously.

Gameplay-wise, the biggest change comes from the revelation (mentioned in the finale of the previous game) that the protagonist Kyle Katarn is force-sensitive. In fact, we find out that his father was a Jedi, and squirreled away his Lightsaber for Kyle to claim as his own. After a few retro-feeling guns-only levels, we find the saber, and start developing our force powers. This was an exciting development for fans, putting all the powers of the Jedi, including some we hadn’t yet seen on the big screen before.

Fighting with the saber is rewarding, though it feels somewhat underwhelming compared to later games that drew inspiration from the frenetic and acrobatic Lightsaber duels that appeared in the prequel films. Likewise, the force powers are useful, but can still be awkward to use compared to later games. During my playthrough, I found myself forgetting to use them a good deal of the time. And various level and enemy designs force the player to continue using blasters and other ranged weapons throughout the game.

There are, however, two sides to the coin of this new Jedi-focused gameplay. The new options are fun, but as my modern playthrough drew to a close, I really started to feel there was a palpable lack of focus from Dark Forces. It was as if the developers couldn’t decide if they wanted Katarn to still be a run-and-gun mercenary digging out through underbelly of the galaxy, or a Jedi Knight wielding his powers in the name of good. And while from a story perspective, this duality worked extremely well, from a gameplay standpoint, it felt like both halves were compromised by each other. The gunplay isn’t as tight as the previous game, and the Lightsaber just isn’t as fun to use as it should be.

The maze-like level design remains and becomes even more confusing at times thanks to the fully 3D environments. In retrospect, though, this criticism isn’t quite as strong, owing simply to the times when this game was made—fully 3D was a new design possibility, and nobody was really doing it all that well yet. I think this complaint really will remain for me about these games right up until we reach the final entry, Jedi Academy.

The story and presentation are spot on, and probably the best in the series (cheesy acting notwithstanding). I enjoyed watching the growth and change in Kyle, who begins as hard-boiled and world-weary, and is then forced to face the new powers he unlocks and the choices he makes. The idea of the Valley of the Jedi is somewhat hokey, but feels original and grounded enough to be fun, especially compared to the later games (ahem…magic sith ghost laser staffs anyone?).

All in all, it’s another solid entry into a solid series. I think this entry carries a lot of nostalgia for fans, myself included—I have wonderful memories of dialing up and having epic Lightsaber duels with my friends on the MSN Gaming Zone. But compared to its prequel, this one doesn’t hold up as well after 20 years. I’d chalk that mostly up to the awkwardness of early full-3D games which led to some level design frustrations, as well as the aforementioned design confusions between guns and sabers. It’s worth picking up and playing through, though, if for no other reason that seeing the wonderfully hokey cutscenes.

Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith

(1998, LucasArts)

Like the previous two games, I played this expansion pack not long after release, but hadn’t touched it since. And I really expected to enjoy it going in; I had rediscovered a love for these games with my modern playthrough, and after finishing Jedi Knight I was really amped up for more. However, this game really lets down the side.

I say game, but again, it’s important to remember this is an expansion pack. These days, the closest analog would be DLC; this is extra content, separate from the main game, that cost extra to access. In gaming’s yesteryear, the idea of making this extra content bite sized and easy distribute wasn’t feasible, and so the modern DLC model wouldn’t have worked. Instead, you shelled out a large sum—though usually not as much as a full-price game—and got a large chunk of extra content. Not quite a sequel, not quite DLC. I miss this release model. Bring it back, please.

Anyway, with Jedi Knight being so ambitious and expansive, the expectation was for Mysteries of the Sith to continue the trend. Using the same engine and gameplay, the potential was there, especially since the game focuses on Mara Jade, an already established character from the extremely well-received Thrawn trilogy of books by Timothy Zahn. Going in to this game today, I was certainly excited to see Jade in action and (re)learn a bit more about her character.

Sadly, that doesn’t really happen. Set several years after the previous games, we start by playing as Kyle for a little bit, before we switch to Jade, and Katarn is turned into the McGuffin of the story. The game doesn’t seem interested in exploring Jade as a character in anyway; she just bumps from mission to mission, occasionally wondering where Kyle’s run off to. Eventually, we discover the Kyle has, for some reason, fallen to the dark side (therefore repeating the exact same story arc he did in the previous game, only offscreen this time). And in the end, it’s only the strength of their relationship, a relationship we never really get to see and are only told about (shades of Episode II there, yuck) that forces him to give up his evil ways.

Coupled with the replacing of the entertainingly hammy FMV cutscenes with in game engine ones, this weak rehash of a story is extremely underwhelming and disappointing. If the developers had spent the effort they obviously didn’t on the story, one would have expected some top notch level design and interesting changes to gameplay. Instead, we get the exact opposite. The levels feel uninspired and are ugly and difficult to navigate.

Honestly, there really isn’t much to like in Mysteries of the Sith. After an ambitious sequel like Jedi Knight, it would be natural to feel a little let down by an expansion that didn’t try anything new. But not only does MotS lack any growth, it’s a major regression for the series. Avoid it, unless you are a massive Mara Jade fanatic who just needs to see every piece of Legends content she was ever in.

Thanks for reading Part 1 of this Retrospective of the Star Wars: Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series! Look for Part 2 next week, and lots more awesome Star Wars content for May The Fourth! To watch my whole playthrough of these games, check out our playlist on Youtube here. And to see more streaming content from me as it happens, follow my channel here!