An endless saga, told through games
Star Wars is in a weird place in popular culture right now.
Many fans have lost faith in the movies, while still holding onto hope for the world itself, thanks to more experimental shows like The Mandalorian and the ability to step inside your own adventure in Galaxy’s Edge.
That hope, on a long enough timeline, is always rewarded. A new Star Wars video game is perpetually around the corner, and although quality in Star Wars games can vary wildly from game to game, there are enough treasures out there to make the hunt worthwhile.
Plus, we’re going to do the heavy lifting for you here, even though trying to narrow down the huge selection of Star Wars games into a ranked list is next to impossible. It’s a task that has been more complicated than I expected, mostly due to what OnlineSpiel editor-in-chief Chris Plante calls “the tragedy of the good,” which is how he refers to a franchise in which just about everything is at least fine, and few games are truly bad, but even fewer are truly great. Star Wars games often coast on the strength of the property, not the game itself, which can make finding the true gold seem like an insurmountable task.
It’s a task I have surmounted, however, and the results are below. This isn’t a list of games that will be easy to find and play for most folks, however, especially now. Some of them only existed in the arcades, while others may be hard to get running on modern machines. Since this is a historic list pulling from all the Star Wars games, I’m also going to put a premium on historical significance for both the franchise and gaming in general.
That is why, coming in last — which is still an accomplishment when you consider all the Star Wars games that didn’t make the list at all — is …
10. Star Wars Trilogy Arcade
Star Wars Trilogy Arcade is not a good video game. But it’s an effective video game. And for the time it was released — 1998 — that was more than enough. Does anyone else remember the first time they encountered one of these cabinets in the wild? It was a life-changing moment: seeing a video game get a similar level of care to the movies in terms of image and sound reproduction.
Each level consisted of a series of rail shooters that take place during different battles from the original Star Wars trilogy, and all you had to do was move the joystick to aim at the targets and push the trigger when appropriate. There was a large action button that would handle every other interaction, along with boss battles against Boba Fett and Darth Vader in which you had to use the stick as the handle of a lightsaber. This was all displayed on a giant screen, with a booming sound system.
While the play was simplistic, and the timing felt borderline unfair to my young hands, each section was a feast for the eyes and ears. This was a game that tried to wrap you in sound and experience, mimicking the effects of watching an actual Star Wars movie in a theater. It felt overwhelming, in the best way possible.
Star Wars Trilogy Arcade gave us a taste of what it might feel like to attack the Death Star, or swing a lightsaber, or drive a speeder bike. The actual gameplay was the least important element of Star Wars Trilogy Arcade; the experience was made extraordinary because every part of the arcade cabinet worked together to deliver the feeling of Star Wars. It felt like a breakthrough at the time, and to this day, no other interactive experience outside of Galaxy’s Edge feels quite as immediate or real.
How do you play it now?
Good luck. Without the cabinet to make the game feel special, I doubt the gameplay alone would stand up to a home release, and as far as I can tell, it’s never been ported. Your only chance is to try to find an arcade or movie theater with one installed, but remember to bring a mask.
9. Star Wars (arcade release, 1983)
The world was very different when the first arcade Star Wars game was released in 1983. Star Wars featured vector graphics that looked remarkably sharp and bright next to the standard arcade games of the time, and you controlled your aiming reticle with a flight yoke, making the whole thing feel like a cinematic event, not a dim shadow of the original movies.
It’s weird to think about now, but for their respective time periods, both Star Wars and Star Wars Trilogy Arcade delivered very similar levels of spectacle. The vector graphics moved smoothly across the screen, and the cabinet included voice samples from the original Star Wars cast. Being able to fly through a 3D world in 1983 was an absolute thrill, and it helped prove that Star Wars could push the limits of more than just one art form.
This was the closest many of us would get for quite some time to feeling like an X-Wing pilot, and it’s still legitimately fun to play this game in small doses.
How do you play now?
Playing this arcade release in 2021 is a little tricky, even though it was ported to many different classic systems through the years. The easiest path today would be to track down a copy of Star Wars Rogue Squadron 3: Rebel Strike on GameCube and unlock the full game by entering RTJPFC!G and then TIMEWARP as passcodes. Star Wars does unlock automatically if you beat the “Triumph of the Rebellion” mission.
You can also pick up a recreation of the original arcade cabinet if you’re ready to drop some big bucks on playing a classic.
8. Star Wars: Dark Forces
1995’s Star Wars: Dark Forces is often described as sort of an early Doom clone set in the Star Wars universe, but it’s much more than that.
Dark Forces introduced Kyle Katarn, who was like a New Coke version of Han Solo with Force powers who went on to become an important character in the now-defunct Expanded Universe and games. The game ran on a custom engine created by LucasArts that allowed the developers to create levels with more than one floor. The player character also had the ability to look up and down. This sounds basic now, but at the time, those technological achievements made Dark Forces feel like a much more “real” game than its competition.
This isn’t the last Star Wars first-person shooter that was ever released, but the genre doesn’t seem to be the best match for Star Wars. Star Wars is a series about adventure, doing the right thing, and fighting for what’s right. Those aspects are often flattened down by the first-person perspective, especially with such a focus on blasters instead of lightsabers. Still, this was yet another game that proved that Star Wars could be many different things and tell many different kinds of stories.
Dark Forces is also notable for being the place where the Dark Trooper program was introduced. Sixteen years later on The Mandalorian, we finally got to see the might of fully automated Dark Troopers when the show’s heroes fought them off at the end of season 2.
How do you play now?
Star Wars: Dark Forces is available for modern PCs through GOG.com, for only $5.99. Steam also offers a bundle of classic Star Wars games, including Dark Forces, if you want to pick up a bunch at once.
7. Star Wars: Racer Arcade
Opinions about Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace have thawed in the past few years, with fans embracing Ewan McGregor’s turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi and even giving love to Jake Lloyd despite his challenges in bringing Anakin Skywalker to life.
Regardless, the podracing sequence in the film is still one of the best things the Star Wars series has ever produced. It was a brutal, violent, corrupt sport where racers tried to avoid dying on the way to the finish line. It was ripe for a video game adaptation.
And Racer Arcade delivered. So much of Star Wars is about exciting in-universe experiences; arguing about lore or even canon tends to miss that point. What’s important is the feeling you get when you join in on one of these adventures, so Racer Arcade did its best to put you inside a podracer, complete with a deluxe cabinet that featured the dual-thruster design of Anakin’s racer. Even better was the fact that — unlike the previous two games on this list — Racer Arcade itself was an intense, exhilarating racing game only made better by the cabinet.
Star Wars as a franchise is filled with ridiculously cool vehicles and moments of action, and so many of them translate well to video games. Racer Arcade was one of the rare times that a tie-in game homed in on one idea from the series with such specificity, and delivered on that promise with such confidence.
How do you play now?
If you can find a local arcade in your area that has one, you’re in luck.
6. Star Wars: Republic Commando
Star Wars games tend to focus on specific vehicles that fans would love to drive or fly, or they provide a power fantasy where you get to become a Force-wielding, lightsaber-swinging Jedi. That’s the low-hanging fruit when it comes to Star Wars.
That’s not what Star Wars: Republic Commando did. It’s a squad-based first-person shooter where you played as a clone trooper fighting alongside three teammates in the elite Delta Squad, jumping from planet to planet to finish whatever fight was going on. The game begins by introducing you to the squad and its members as they get ready to leave Kamino to go to war. The screen presents a data-heavy, warped view of your surroundings, as if you were inside the armor itself, looking out. In 2005, it felt immediate and raw.
Republic Commando proved that fun vehicles and laser swords aren’t the only reasons that people watch Star Wars, and that there are plenty of points of view left to explore in games and other art forms.
How do you play now?
You can buy the original 2005 game on Steam, and Republic Commando is also coming to Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 on April 6. This is a pretty easy one to track down!
5. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
So many games have been inspired by Star Wars that actual Star Wars video games can almost seem like the snake eating its own tail; everything starts to blend together into a blurry mess of saber duels and blaster bolts. Which is why the recent Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was such a breath of fresh air.
You might be playing as a rather forgettable hero with a lightsaber, but the developers of Jedi: Fallen Order focused on exploration, Crash Bandicoot-style platforming, and environmental puzzles over the act of cutting baddies in half with your saber. Which isn’t to say the combat is unsatisfying — Jedi: Fallen Order has some of the best lightsaber battles I’ve ever played, but they’re not the sole focus of the action.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order review: the Star Wars game no one was expecting
Jedi: Fallen Order also brings in a surprising amount of lore from all corners of Star Wars as it weaves its own story into the fabric of existing events in the timeline. It all fits together so neatly that it’s easy to overlook just how strange Jedi: Fallen Order is when compared to other Star Wars games mechanically; the tone and sense of adventure are otherwise completely on brand for the series.
Jedi: Fallen Order is classed up by influences from the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy, the aforementioned Crash Bandicoot, and Uncharted. We’ve seen this sort of adventure before, but never in a single-player Star Wars game. Jedi: Fallen Order was a welcome change of pace.
How do you play now?
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was released in 2019 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One, so finding a copy shouldn’t be an issue.
4. Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader
Rogue Leader was a launch title for the GameCube in 2001, and it felt like the console Star Wars game so many of us had been waiting for.
The game consisted of levels that mirrored events from the films, focusing on the vehicle-based conflicts, putting you behind the stick of many of the ships that fans had been dying to pilot since the original trilogy. Other missions fleshed out what it might feel like to be a pilot with the Rebellion, and a large number of iconic ships were available to unlock if you did well enough during the campaign … or if you had the cheat codes.
Rogue Leader was almost a revue-style experience, a sort of mixtape of the most impressive battles from Star Wars along with some new ideas for missions and challenges. The ships also handled differently, with each having their own weapons systems, strengths, and weaknesses, and the amount of detail on each model and environment was jaw-dropping for the time. I remember spending so much time in the cockpit view, just looking around and enjoying the feeling of being inside some of the ships I grew up seeing on the big screen.
How do you play it now?
If only it were easier to play Rogue Leader today. A remastered compilation Rogue Squadron game was planned for the Wii, but it was never released. Your only option is to track down an original copy of this game and a GameCube. Rogue Squadron 3: Rebel Strike also included the missions from Rogue Squadron 2 and made them playable in co-op, if you’d like to take a crack at them with a friend.
3. Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series
Vader Immortal has made the smallest splash out of any of the games on this list, which is a crying shame. That also makes perfect sense: You can only play Vader Immortal in VR, and it was released episodically. Both of these decisions meant that it was unlikely to become a mainstream hit.
For those who did play it, though, holy moly. The experience begins in the cockpit of your ship, and soon you’re experiencing a Star Destroyer flyby for yourself. You’re a smuggler just trying to make a living, but you may have value to the Empire that you don’t understand.
That first flyover was an appropriately epic way to begin the very first Star Wars film, but VR lets you feel the size of the Imperial ship in your bones. In this moment, you understand immediately how easy it would be for the Empire to flick you out of existence. You are nothing in this world.
Except — Darth Vader is also on that ship. During your escape, you find out that you have certain Force abilities. Vader himself, in fact, may have been looking for you, even if he didn’t quite know it yet.
Each episode is relatively short, lasting about an hour or two, depending on how fast you play. But living inside the world of Star Wars while you’re being hunted by a Rancor or hoping to survive Vader’s tests feels like a dream come true.
Vader Immortal also lets you use an ancient lightsaber that shows the evolution of the weapon’s technology, bridging the gap between the smooth, efficient sabers of the original trilogy and the crackling, chaotic fury of Kylo Ren’s blade.
If you’re a Star Wars fan, try to track down a VR headset to rent or borrow, even if you don’t want to buy one. Vader Immortal is worth the effort and cost.
How do you play it now?
Vader Immortal is available on Windows PC via Oculus Rift, on Oculus Quest, and on PlayStation 4 via PlayStation VR. You will require a compatible VR headset to play, whichever platform you decide to use.
2. Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Every Star Wars fan grew up wanting to fly an X-wing so they could fight the Empire and blow up a Death Star or two, but who grew up wishing they could fly a TIE fighter?
The Empire’s distinctive ships — which I gotta think would have been called H-wings if they were on the Rebel side — are fast, low on armor, and meant to be flown at the enemy in swarms. Being a TIE fighter pilot meant that you were little more than a bullet to be fired from a gun, and you were all but expected to die in battle. It’s not a place where many pilots find glory.
Which makes it a perfect setting for a flight sim, as this isn’t the point of view most people think of when they think of Star Wars. We were meant to try to destroy Palpatine, not fight to keep him in power.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter not only let us see the war from the other side, but also showed what it’s like to be a part of a war machine that does not value us as individuals at all, only what we can do for the Empire. The design of the TIE fighter craft itself reflects the Empire’s thinking, and getting into one before battle sends one inescapable message: You may survive what’s about to happen, but your ability to do so isn’t very important to the people calling the shots.
How do you play it now?
GOG.com is currently selling the special edition of TIE Fighter for $9.99, and it works just fine on modern gaming PCs.
1. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Was there ever any doubt?
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic features a story that takes place thousands of years before the films involving the Mandalorian wars, the return of the Sith as a galactic power, and the Jedi’s desperate attempt to fight back, all leading up to one of the best twists in gaming history.
The characters are memorable and endlessly quotable, and many even stretched the limits of what we were used to from Star Wars at the time. An assassin droid that was oddly lovable? A Jedi who rejected the dichotomy of light and dark side? Story-based decisions that test what you think you know about how you would operate in the universe of Star Wars? It was all there, complete with a turn-based combat system that rewarded players who were willing to dig in and get strategic during battles.
Knights of the Old Republic set a new high-water mark for role-playing games as a whole, not just for Star Wars games in particular. Fans were finally given a way to step into this world to find friends, decide if they want to do the easy thing or the right thing, and fight more with their heads than with their lightsabers or Force powers. The power fantasy was still there, but it was augmented by a very human story centered around individuals in extraordinary circumstances.
You didn’t need to be a Star Wars fan to play Knights of the Old Republic, but knowing the franchise’s lore and baggage meant that you’d also be able to see how Knights of the Old Republic was able to transcend the expectations of what was possible in a Star Wars game.
I’d argue that everyone who has worked on a Star Wars game has been chasing that standard ever since.
How do you play now?
Knights of the Old Republic is available on Steam.