Behind the scenes of Star Wars: Rebel Assault

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A long time ago in a place not so far away, there was no Battlefront, no X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, not even Dark Forces or Jedi Knight. games™ peeks into the forces behind this oft-maligned, yet influential early entry into the Star Wars universe

Formed in 1982, Lucasfilm Games made its name in the mid-Eighties with 8-bit games such as The Eidolon and Ballblazer, before later in the decade beginning its successful line of adventures games, mainly based around the popular SCUMM engine. Unable to develop games based around its most famous IP, it wasn’t until 1993 that the company (by now renamed LucasArts) finally released its first Star Wars title. Space sim X-Wing was a predictably huge hit, finally giving gamers and Star Wars fans the chance to jump into the cockpit of the famous starfighter and take on the mantle of a brave rebel pilot. Developed at a similar time was another game, one that was intended to reflect its more cinematic origins and take advantage of the emerging CD-ROM technology.

Rather than directly emulate the movies, the idea behind Rebel Assault was to generate a fresh story featuring new characters, yet take advantage of the film’s memorable sequences and action scenes. The player took on the role of Rookie One,  choosing either a female or male character, and battled through many levels similar to the original trilogy, yet also subtly different in many ways. Like Luke Skywalker, Rookie One grew up on Tatooine; unlike Luke they are already in the academy and flying out of the rebel base at Anchorhead. Level one sees Rookie One navigating the tight canyons of their home planet in the triangular and fragile T-16 Skyhopper; other levels include overhead shooting, first-person shooting and one third-person on-foot level.

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Despite its scope, the development team of Rebel Assault was surprisingly small. The lead coder on the project was Vince Lee, who had been hired by LucasArts principally to work as a Commodore Amiga programmer. “My interest in computer games is what got me into programming,” recalls Lee, “I remember learning BASIC to code a crude Tron-style light cycle game on a TRS-80 at school. Then I wrote a number of small arcade games in 8080 assembly language and sold my first game to a user’s group for $350.”

While in college, Lee used his leftover scholarship money to purchase a Commodore Amiga. “I then learned C writing an Asteroids clone called Stellaryx. It was published, didn’t sell many copies, but was a good experience.” Unexcited by the range of jobs on offer having completed his degree in mechanical engineering, Lee applied to LucasArts to work on games instead.

Given the style of Rebel Assault, its 3D artists would be key, and the trio of Ron Lussier, Richard Green and Dan Colon formed the rest of the main team along with Justin Graham (installer/launcher coder) and Tamlynn Barra (voice director and producer). They worked on all four versions of the game (PC, Mac, 3DO and Sega/Mega-CD), although as mentioned above, Lee’s speciality was actually on the Commodore Amiga.

“On the Amiga I really enjoyed the Cinemaware games,” he says  “and their games effectively combined game sequences with movie-like cutscenes. I was also a fan of the Star Wars vector graphic games and fairly early on it was clear that Rebel Assault was going to end up as a game that combined elements from the two.” As the Commodore computer never officially came with a CD-ROM drive, the game was never considered for the Amiga, despite Lee’s expertise. Yet while he was a fan of the classic games, Lee wasn’t exactly a diehard follower of the films themselves.

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“Anybody who knew me at the time probably remembers me as a big science and engineering nerd,” he laughs, “And as such I was very interested in science fiction, but hadn’t yet learned to appreciate the more ‘casual’ relationship with technology that Star Wars and similar movies have.” Regarding them as ‘science fantasy’, it wasn’t until Lee began working at LucasArts that he built an appreciation for the franchise’s iconic characters and rich human themes such as temptation and redemption that serve to underpin the futuristic action. From a management view, Rebel Assault had two requirements – that it was based on Star Wars and that it used the CD-ROM format.

“It had some convoluted origins as a demo for CD-ROM-based hardware,” says Lee, “but that was it.” Perhaps more surprising was that a relatively inexperienced, if talented, programmer such as Vince Lee was allowed to take control of the project. “Rebel Assault was never expected to make any money, which I suppose is why I was in charge of it. At the time LucasArts was still mainly known for its adventure games.”

nnn LucasArts management may have only handed down two edicts to Rebel Assault’s development team, yet even as the project lingered in its early stages, these caused major headaches. The CD-ROM technology of the time was struggling to adapt to the imagination of coders, as Lee explains. “In those days most PCs had almost no memory and fairly feeble processing power. So if you wanted complex moving imagery, it had to be pre-generated and streamed off the CD in real time. This style of game became known as ‘rails’ and only really works well when travelling in some kind of vehicle, as that justifies why the player doesn’t have any real freedom of movement.” The issue this then presented was the fact that much of the Star Wars movies takes place outside of vehicles. An exact recreation of the trilogy was going to be extremely tricky.

“Most of the Star Wars movies involve long sequences of characters talking, arguing, flirting, lightsaber fighting and I-am-your-fathering,” smiles Lee. “It became pretty clear early on that trying to shoehorn one or more of the Star Wars movies as-is into Rebel Assault would have made a really annoying game.” The only possible solution would have been the action segments punctured by multiple cutscenes; but even back in 1992, Lee realised how potentially damaging this could be.

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“I’m always the first one to skip past long dramatic cutscenes in games. They interrupt the experience and usually come across as more melodramatic than dramatic. If we’d stuck to the movies, the cutscenes would have been longer than the game. And besides, we didn’t have the budget for it.” The solution was to create new characters and plot from scratch while incorporating themes and vehicles from the famous saga, with the new storyline dovetailing to a certain degree to the plot of the movies. Beginning on Tatooine, Rookie One is a former farm boy/girl, and a rebel pilot in training.

After a brief T-16 Skyhopper practice flight through the desert planet’s labyrinthine canyons, the rebel base at Anchorhead is attacked by the empire. Rookie One’s training is put on hold as they must take to the space above Tatooine and attack the Star Destroyer threatening the planet. After an asteroid field chase and AT-AT attack, both modelled on Star Wars’ sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, there’s an on-foot section followed by a brace of incongruous A-Wing missions. Then ultimately, the hero takes part in the assault on the first Death Star – the fate of the rebellion is in your hands.

nnn “I decided that making a fun game was more important than staying true to the Star Wars canon,” says Lee, an eye-opening statement given how guarded George Lucas could be over his creation. “And departing from the characters and story let us do just that.” The movies had a limited number of action sequences that lent themselves to the rails style shooter. “And we were able to borrow the most suitable of them for Rebel Assault: flying a T-16 Skyhopper, dog-fighting with TIEs in an X-Wing, dodging asteroids, taking down walkers, blowing up the Death Star, and so on.” Fortunately, Lee already had experience working on this type of game, despite the rails gameplay not existing meaningfully at the time.

“I’d done some contract work in college adding features to a terrain generation program named Vista for the Amiga,” remembers Lee. “One feature it had was the ability to generate a sequence of images that played back as a flyover animation, similar to the genesis effect from Star Trek II. So when the idea of creating a CD-ROM experience arose, I began experimenting with compressing the image sequences to see if I could get them small enough to stream comfortably off the first generation of CD-ROM drives.” Lee was trailblazing; at the time, the only other notable CD games were Myst and The 7th Guest. Neither had attempted to weld arcade-style action to their complex images.

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But it was a tortuous process. Digitising and playback of full frame video simply wasn’t possible with the technology of the early Nineties. “The scenes were actually built from individual frame grabs,” says Lee, “hand-cut into pieces, touched up, reassembled and animated manually. It was very labour intensive and required a lot of trickery.” Ron Lussier led the 3D art team, and with no established procedure in place, his team was flying by the seat of its pants.

“We had countless challenges,” recalls Lee painfully. “For example, CD-ROM drives were very primitive at the time, and CD-ROM burners were rare and expensive. Not many programmers will relate today, but when Rebel Assault was written, multitasking wasn’t available yet. Because of this, the whole game ran off a CPU interrupt to work around the limitations in the CD-ROM drives and drivers. And while creating the game, the company didn’t even own a CD burner – we had to send copies of the game on hard drives to an external company every time we needed to burn a CD for testing.”

Nevertheless, development of Rebel Assault proceeded relatively uneventfully, with no-one seemingly caring enough about the project to dictate terms to the team. “There might have been a few artistic disagreements here and there,” recalls Lee, “but nobody really cared enough about the project prior to release to worry about it too much.” 3D models were used and animated in the 3D studio, while the only original footage filmed was a sequence in which a group of LucasArts employees were dressed as pilots for one of the game’s few cutscenes. However, Lee’s struggles against PC technology paled into insignificance against the 3DO and, in particular, the Sega-CD, or Mega-CD in Europe. Fans of the oft-maligned Mega Drive add-on may wish to look away now.

“Unfortunately the Sega-CD was a horrible console,” grimaces Lee. “It was basically a 16-bit Sega Genesis console with a CD-ROM drive tacked on. Its display system was still tile-based, and designed for Mario-style games, not raster images. I don’t believe it even had enough memory to display a full-screen image at more than 4-bit colour.” The console couldn’t even manage all the levels; a stage that saw Rookie One take on Imperial Probe droids on Hoth was excised from the Sega-CD version. “And remember,” continues Lee, “that Windows 95 wouldn’t come out for another two years, and Windows 3 was not a viable choice for games. We had no alternative to MS-DOS, although we did use a DOS extender to exceed the 640k memory limit.”

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An element that was part of every iteration of Rebel Assault, and something that hugely endeared the game to the press and public alike, was its music. From beginning to end, this was the first Star Wars game to feature the famous and soul-stirring original score by composer John Williams. “It was the first game from LucasArts to include a digitised soundtrack,” notes Lee, “though by today’s standards, at a horribly low 11k sampling rate.”

Like most developers, all of LucasArts previous games had been on the standard floppy disk format. Due to space restrictions, these used Midi-based sound systems which resulted in an electronically beepy sound on the sound cards of the time. Continues Lee, “I actually coded an early version of the opening to Rebel Assault with Midi sound and I hated it! Fortunately, I had a sound digitizer on my Amiga, and experiments with it led to the streaming sound system eventually used in the game.” While far from perfect, Rebel Assault’s use of the iconic music helped gloss over some of the gameplay issues players experienced.

nnn Rebel Assault was not expected to do well; the team delivered the game on time, despite the challenges of the Sega-CD version. “The original lifetime forecast [for sales] was 15 thousand units,” recalls Lee, “and that was later raised to 25 thousand, and then again to 50 thousand shortly before release, mainly after the feedback from preview showings started coming in. And if my memory serves, the initial run of 100 thousand or so units sold out within the first three days, which no-one expected.”

Critical reception to Rebel Assault was not so clear-cut. While the public had been starved of Star Wars-themed games and were wowed by the then-impressive graphics on display, journalists were more cautious of the new style of gameplay that the game employed, as well as some of the technical restrictions – clumsy controls, grainy and indistinct graphics and a lack of influence over movement. Lee accepts the game’s criticisms with grace.

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“Sure, everything could have been done better in retrospect,” he smiles, “but given the numerous constraints the team operated under, there’s nothing I think we could have done better at the time. I think we were fortunate as well that the game hit at just the right time, occupying a narrow window between 2D and true 3D games, before technology could make the latter possible. I don’t think it’s had any lasting effect on the industry as a whole, but it does amuse me sometimes to think of the copycat rails games that came out afterwards that tried to ride the same wave.”

For Lee personally, the experience of both Rebel Assault and its superior sequel (for which he had a similar role), were life changing. “They are still some of my fondest memories, not just of the games themselves, but also being at a company with so many wildly creative and interesting people. The success I found there gave me the confidence to start and run my Palm Software company, and in turn led to my current career in iOS and Android development.”

Rebel Assault is undoubtedly flawed, especially from the perspective of 22 years later, but its key role in the development of not only Star Wars games but gaming’s inexorable transition from the pixelated efforts of the Eighties and early Nineties to the full-blown cinematic experiences of today can never be overstated.

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Behind the scenes of Star Wars: Rebel Assault