Star Wars games always play out as a promise at least partially broken. This is not because they’re bad but because our expectations have no glass ceiling. We imagine wielding a lightsaber to be an experience energized by our chakras and punched up by childhood wonder. Then you play Kinect Star Wars and it’s to your imagination like driving a car is to those coin-operated buggies caked with rust on the supermarket doorstep.
Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader on GameCube is the best Star Wars game not because it perfectly reproduces the Star Wars experience, but because it most consistently succeeds in replicating a part of it. We’ve all had a blast unearthing every scenario in Star Wars Battlefront II, jacking every vehicle, with every lightsaber, on every planet. But the quality of those skirmishes was about as literary as a mad-lib ([Darth Maul] and [Mace Windu] on [Felucia] in an [AT-AT]), about as consistent as the framerate, and about as much like the Star Wars films as the prequels on which it was (at least partly) dependent.
The premise of Rogue Squadron II is simple. Part 3D flight simulator via Colony Wars and part arcade rail shooter via Star Fox 64, you play mission highlights from a casefile of the rebellion’s three-film fight against the empire. The first mission ends in the destruction of the original Death Star and for me, that was the stuff that sold the Cube. I lit up like Alderaan when I saw the trench in full 3D, or counted the TIE fighter death animations, or walked the hangar discovering a whole canonical fleet to be unlocked.
I bought the GameCube right then. But today it’s the simplicity and not the Star Wars baubles that make Rogue Squadron II endure double the movies and three generations of better graphics.
Like an arcade favorite, the levels in Rogue Squadron II remain especially accessible to those who remember them (I can gold medal difficult levels with a breezy smile and no targeting computer). But unlike the arcade games whose levels were once called “boards,” Rogue Squadron II thrives on variety. This variety is an asset for its own sake, offering up ships and objectives enough to please any fanboy. But a movie tie-in could do this too. Conscripting the diverse experiences into the movie canon is what gives Rogue Squadron II authenticity unavailable to both over-chewed tie-ins and to fan-fic encounters the likes of Battlefront.
For instance, some missions in Rogue Squadron II take place within the movies (the battle for Hoth and above Endor, for instance) and as in a movie tie-in game, these can only equal or fall short of (and never exceed) the original movie experience. But some of its missions are visualizations of conflicts implied and never seen. For instance, you play a mission where you steal imperial plans leading up to Return of the Jedi by infiltrating an imperial base in a low-flying rebel scout ship. In another case, there’s a rebel raid on Bespin following the events in The Empire Strikes Back. Credibility is the key word. Where other games struggle only to replicate the movie experience, Rogue Squadron II adds to it and acts confidently within it.
To the movies, Rogue Squadron II elaborates without making any changes or breaking any canon. And it’s full of fantastic immersion tactics that make its tie-in aspects easy sells. The tutorial for instance could have been the first level of an X-Wing “ring-flying” course with button map overlays. Instead, you pilot Luke’s Skyhopper on Tatooine, as he would have before being conscripted into the rebellion. Your target practice, like his, is shooting womp rats. You practice maneuvering by flying Beggar’s Canyon – just as he does, this is the experience you use for the actual run on the Death Star.
This taps into what Star Wars games should always be about: interacting with its universe as our imagination sees it, and not just as the game recreates it. Rogue Squadron II isn’t free-roaming or anything. It doesn’t create new narratives like Knights of the Old Republic or conscript the player into cathartic mayhem scenarios like Jedi Knight II or The Force Unleashed. But it manages to coerce our dreams of heroism into the open, to interact with Star Wars as the active participant that is the center-piece of all fantasies surrounding it. Star Wars is a story about a lot of things, but it’s about nothing more than agency. The missions in Rogue Squadron II, beginning even at the tutorial level, aim to give us that.
The controls are pitch-perfect and the graphics still look better than the 1997 Special Edition. The voiceovers are inauthentic but passable and the missions aren’t long, or too numerous. But this visualization of the Star Wars experience, much like the Pod Racer arcade machine, delivers a single aspect of the universe so coherently that it’s addictive and heart-warming, like being able to shoot the entire original trilogy up your arm and stay on its high for ten minutes at a time. Of all our continuing experiences with adapting the universe to video games – from the LEGO franchise to Battlefront’s ongoing struggle to reconcile local multiplayer blasts with cold next-gen networks – Rogue Squadron II is the one I keep going back to.
Unfortunately, Rogue Squadron III was bad for many of the reasons its predecessor was good. But it included the second entry in its entirety as a co-op game, and remains one of my favorite local multiplayer experiences of all time, in addition to being my pick for the apex of Star Wars gaming. With a literal wingman might be the optimal way to experience this game for the first or hundredth time. I can’t even write about it without wanting to play it immediately, as I finish. The GameCube’s already on.