You’ve no doubt seen countless lists of the best video games set in the Star Wars universe today, since so many websites like to do those things on May 4. I’d like to try something a little different, and tell you what the best Star Wars video game is.
The former is telling you about excellent video games that just so happen to feature characters and locations from the Star Wars universe. X-Wing, Super Star Wars, Pod Racer, etc. You know the lists. They’re usually pretty similar.
The latter, which I’m more interested in, is more about which game is most faithful to the look and feel of the Star Wars movies (preferably the original trilogy, since that’s the one with the biggest legacy and influence). Which game most feels like it actually belongs in the Star Wars universe.
For me, that game is Dark Forces, a first-person shooter released in 1995.
Sure, others come close. X-Wing does a very good job, especially with its soundtrack (TIE Fighter less so, it’s way too purple), while I always felt Republic Commando best captured the murkier side of the prequel trilogy. More recently, Jedi: Fallen Order was pretty good too!
But Dark Forces just feels right. Like someone shook the end of Empire Strikes Back and this game fell out, as dark and as real as a Star Wars game was ever going to get.
For starters, it looks the part. It re-uses locations and design cues from the original trilogy, like the interiors of Imperial installations (including the Executor), cobbled-together firearms and gritty desert huts, but where it needs to create new areas, it leans heavily on existing Star Wars themes.
There’s no time in Dark Forces—and this is a rarity in Star Wars games—where you can point to where the actual Star Wars designs end and the work of Lucasarts’ own artists begin. Everything you see in Dark Forces, from the walls to the guns to the ships, looks like it was designed by Ralph McQuarrie and belongs in one of George Lucas’ original films.
Does it help that it’s a first-person game? Maybe. We certainly get a lot closer to the light switches than we do in, say, Galactic Battlegrounds, allowing us to appreciate these finer details. But loads of other Star Wars games, from Force Unleashed to Jedi Knight to, well, Obi-Wan did the same thing, and all the closer perspective provided was evidence they weren’t as Star Warsy as Dark Forces managed.
The game also gets its cast right. You don’t play a Jedi; it wouldn’t be until Dark Forces II that Lucasarts ruin everything and turn Katarn into one. In fact, the holier-than-thou space wizards aren’t really in the game at all; Dark Forces populated by men and women and aliens and robots, much like the original trilogy, which let’s not forget, keeps its force powers mostly in check until the end of Return of the Jedi.
And it’s a good cast! Before he became a soppy beardo in later games, Kyle Katarn was a badass, part secret-agent, part-commando. His main foe is a gruff, fat Imperial officer. Nothing fancy, no obscure and implausible Sith, just a bad dude. Your allies aren’t random expanded universe churn, they’re folks like Mon Mothma. General Madine is in this game, as is his magnificent hair. And your sidekick, Jan Ors, is maybe the coolest Star Wars sidekick since, well, any of them.
This video by PixieButt1 doesn’t just show one of the early cutscenes, it also drops a ton of cool trivia!
Few Star Wars games could resist the lure of tying themselves in with the films somehow. The X-Wing games dabbled in all three of the original flicks, from trench runs to Hoth evacuations to more Death Stars, while Shadows of the Empire did a pretty good job of sliding itself in between movies.
But this often feels forced, and more than a little unnecessary. We saw how the movies went down, so it always feels a little silly when a video game twists things around to fit its own story. Dark Forces, on the other hand, plays it cool. It begins with Kyle being the guy who steals the plans to the first Death Star (below), something we can relate to and say “hey, that’s neat” (even if Rogue One will eventually arrive and retcon this, which isn’t Dark Forces’ fault!), then it retreats into the shadows and never touches the over-arching story of the films ever again, leaving it free to do its own thing.
Which is what made Dark Forces so good. It looked Star Wars, and it sounded Star Wars, and it felt Star Wars, but rather than try to mooch off any particular movie or scene (which ultimately undermines the entire process), it set out—and succeeded—in doing so on its own terms. You never flew alongside Luke Skywalker, or fought Darth Vader (though even this game couldn’t resist a Jabba cameo), but you still felt like you were living through the same world they inhabited.
It’s testament to the strength of the characters and design in this game that, for a 90’s FPS that has all but faded into insignificance, Dark Forces still resonates with Star Wars fans outside of the video game scene. Kyle’s ship, the Moldy Crow, has been introduced into the hugely-popular X-Wing miniatures tabletop game, while the Dark Trooper design became Expanded Universe canon, before spawning an action figure and recently earning a starring role in The Mandalorian.
If you’ve never played Dark Forces, or have and want to play it again, it’s available on the major downloadable stores. You won’t get much mileage out of the gameplay, which is more Doom than Half-Life, but the cutscenes and overall vibe are as good today as they were in 1995.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku in May 2015.
The Bests are Kotaku’s picks for the best things on (or off) the internet.