I got my first Windows PC in 1996. I remember it was a custom built Gateway and cost my parents about $3000. It ran Windows 95, connected to the internet via an internal modem, had a Pentium processor, 3dfx Voodoo graphics card, and a hard drive capacity that base model Xbox One’s and Playstation 4’s would laugh at. Aside from that I don’t remember much about it, except that it played games.
Until that time my gaming was relegated to home consoles (not a bad thing) and my mother’s Mac from work, which if you know anything about gaming on a Mac, it meant pickings were slim. The PC however, opened up all new avenues of gaming for me. Adventure games, strategy games, first person shooters, flight sims, you name it, the PC had it. Of course being a huge Star Wars fan, I immediately gravitated towards the stellar output coming out of LucasArts. Games like X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Dark Forces all got tons of play time on my family PC. I remember all of them quite fondly.
With 2017 being the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, I decided that this year would be a great time to look over some of the Star Wars gaming catalogue and the first game that came to my mind was Dark Forces. For one, Dark Forces seems timely coming off the heels of the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One. For another, I had this weird copy of Dark Forces on the Playstation that I had never played.
It should be noted that none of the events of Dark Forces, or any of its sequels are considered canon Star Wars lore. All of that, and more, was wiped clean when Disney bought Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries from George Lucas a few years ago.
Dark Forces, which debuted on PC in 1995 and Playstation in 1996, was a first person shooter, or a Doom clone. It featured the rogue Kyle Katarn travelling the galaxy tracking down information on the Empire’s Dark Trooper project. What makes it timely in relation to Rogue One though, is that the first level of Dark Forces, has Kyle infiltrating an Imperial base and stealing the plans to the Death Star. This just so happens to also be the exact premise behind Rogue One.
When I originally played Dark Forces, I played it with mouse and keyboard. The Playstation has no such option and being a game from 1996, it also doesn’t have analog controller support. Dark Forces on the Playstation was a D-pad control game, with some button tricks to allow free look and strafing. Let’s just say, it’s not the ideal control scheme to play with.
It’s also not the ideal device to play this game on. Now with this game being over 20 years old, my memory is foggy on how good it actually looked on the PC, but I don’t remember it looking anywhere near this pixelated and blocky when I played it. Dark Forces on the Playstation is a really ugly looking game. Stormtroopers, of which you will shoot plenty of in the game, look like someone tried to construct them using LEGO but only had enough to amalgamate a humanoid form. Dark Troopers, look like a two year old’s drawing of an unskinned Terminator. Then there’s Boba Fett, whom is just absolutely unrecognizable as a mass of uncoordinated pixels.
I expected the awkward controls, and even to some extent, the ugly visuals. That just comes with being an early FPS on the Playstation. What I wasn’t expecting was the god awful level and encounter design Dark Forces has. I honestly didn’t remember it being this bad. Maybe there is some basis to the argument that games have gotten too easy and guide us too much because I honestly don’t know how I completed this game twenty years ago.
The design is obtuse in a way that isn’t smart and fun but just frustrating. At one point I had to lower two elevators, in different sections of the level, and find a hidden panel to progress. I spent forty minutes running around this level trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing before resorting to a YouTube walkthrough. This wasn’t the only time I was left scratching my head, there are numerous instances of design like this. Some of it can be attributed to the graphical fidelity of the Playstation version, some things just aren’t as visible as they would be on the PC but still, I count most of it as just straight bad level design that I accepted years ago because I had time, less games to play, and it was Star Wars.
The encounter design also leaves something to be desired. There is a spike in difficulty from the general fodder of imperials and other grunt mercenaries, to enemies like the Dark Troopers or Boba Fett. The game doesn’t prepare you well for the ass kicking you are going to receive and it can be frustrating as you die over and over again. It often doesn’t feel like you’ve bested a foe with you superior skills but rather just kind of lucked out. None of these encounters is as bad as the Kryatt Dragon you need to take on with your bare hands. Yes, you literally have to punch a dragon to death and most of the encounter is spent running far enough away from it to set yourself up to punch it in the face and then run away again. This one wasn’t just frustrating, it was damn stupid.
Still, for all the bitching I am doing about bad levels and encounters, there is still something innately satisfying about shooting Imperial Stormtroopers. It helps that the sound effects and music are top notch and shooting the troopers, imperial officers, and such sounds like you would think it would based on the movies. Because it sounds right, when mixed with the blaster bolts emanating from your blaster rifle, it also feels right. Getting that Star Wars feeling right is the most important aspect of any Star Wars game. Dark Forces just feels right, and that goes a long way towards counterbalancing its myriad of issues.
Years ago, I would have said it went all the way to counterbalancing it, and maybe even counteracting it but now, with years more gaming under my belt, I can’t. Dark Forces is still a fun game because it feels like Star Wars but it’s not a great game. It is merely good, and the Playstation version of Dark Forces is less than that.