Written by: Rik
Date posted: February 6, 2017
Rebel Assault isn’t, perhaps, the most fondly remembered Star Wars game, and it has been mocked in passing by many – including me, on this website. It sort of belongs in the same category as the dreaded MegaRace in that (as I pointed out in a somewhat grumpy write-up) it’s basically a load of video clips playing with some sprites dancing around on top to give the illusion that they are in fact part of the same world and that the two things knotted together somehow add up to a game-like experience.
But, on the other hand: it’s Star Wars! Which at the time of writing is now generally acknowledged as good again, although I doubt the franchise will ever quite recover the same level of untouchable magic as it had for those of a certain age in the pre-Phantom Menace world of the early-mid 90s. Coincidentally, that was also the time when there was a fashion for making full use of the storage capabilities of CD-based systems, and Rebel Assault was an opportunity for the license to be exploited in the context of a lightweight multimedia showcase.
That’s fair enough: I mean, X-Wing was all very well, but on a very superficial level the action failed to live up to the promise of that great introduction sequence. And even in that intro, the MIDI rendition of the John Williams score was a little bit of a disappointment, while in the game itself, although the graphics were of course proper 3D and everything, they couldn’t ever look exactly like they were straight out of the film. Plus, you had to do proper stuff like balance your shields and lasers. If you just wanted to pretend you were in the movies, blasting indiscriminately while shouting, “They’re coming in too fast!” then Rebel Assault was for you.
It’s a retelling, of sorts, of the first film, in that it all ends with the first Death Star run, albeit with some strange detours along the way, including to scenes from The Empire Strikes Back – in fact, I’m not entirely sure the chronology of the story, as it’s set out here, makes total sense. Some of the main heroes have also been erased from existence in order to shoehorn in Rebel Assault’s own cast: in this story, it’s not Luke Skywalker who blows up the Death Star, with some assistance at the end from Han Solo, it’s Rookie One and some grumpy old Commander who takes you on a training mission in the early levels. Yes, that’s right: your character is called Rookie One, and is as bland a hero as you could hope to encounter, although you do at least have a choice of male/female characterisation. In addition to the cut-scene clips created especially for the game, there’s plenty of repurposed footage and stills from the films to remind you that this is actual Star Wars and whatever you’re doing at any particular moment is working towards the Rebels’ destruction of the Death Star.
It’s interesting to look back and consider Rebel Assault’s presentation decisions: using clips from the movies and animating stills while replacing voices and faces (giving a slight whiff of South Park at times) seems really quite silly now, but back then it seemed perfectly ok and, frankly – perhaps because the Star Wars brand hadn’t been sullied at this point – we bloody loved it. And it certainly does feel like Star Wars. Despite taking things like digitised audio for granted these days, it would be a cold heart indeed that didn’t feel some stirring at various points as the score cues up the next bit of action. And while the video is altogether rather blocky at times, there’s enough there to remind you why people would have wanted to show this game off to their friends back in 1993.
The game itself though has some problems. The action predominantly involves flying and/or shooting, with the exception of one mission on foot, and you’ll fly an A-Wing and an X-Wing, as well as one of those ice speeder things from the second film. Some of this flying and shooting is viewed from the third person perspective, which means you get to see your ship’s sprite wobbling around as you try to negotiate your way through some furry video of a canyon. On occasion the game will judge that you made contact with the canyon and indicate this with a little explosion animation and an increase on your damage meter. Sometimes you’ll need to shoot things too, but it isn’t as crucial as not crashing, and this can be hard enough on its own.
Occasionally there’s a navigation element, which means you have to choose the right path at various points, achieved by keeping to one side of the screen at the relevant moment (although this is sometimes easier said than done). These sections are pretty unimpressive visually and occasionally tricky, with the game’s interpretation of where you are relative to obstacles somewhat open to question. There are also some top-down interludes which are even less pretty to look at but tend to be over pretty quickly.
The other major action comes via the cockpit view. These bits are largely on rails with limited control over movement and the focus more on blasting. The shooting action is simplistic but enjoyable, however the occasions when you need to dodge obstacles are hampered by the need to avoid them in a very particular way. The general path of the ship is not under your control, so the more tricksy its manoeuvres, the harder it is to judge how you should use your little bit of control to avoid a collision.
Another downside is that the levels sometimes involve attaching a large target – a Star Destroyer, or an AT-AT – and the action will keep looping around until you do what is required to finish it off, so if there’s a tricky bit you keep missing, some levels will seem to go on for quite a while, with little chance of you actually coming to any harm, as you endlessly circle around a largely disabled and gun-free Star Destroyer waiting for the 3-second opportunity to blast the bits you need to. The aiming system – a combination of slightly over sensitive movement and a strange auto-lock system – also takes a little getting used to.
Everything is strung together with brief story scenes, while a password save system allows you to skip to certain levels rather than complete in one sitting (or keep dying after losing 3 lives). In my early notes for this game I began a complaint that a password every 3 levels was a bit rough, only to find they were even more spaced out later on. It’s probably a short game if you’re good at it, but there’s repetition galore if you’re not. And, unlike regular arcade blasters that might have a quick restart button, Rebel Assault’s CD-based origins make quitting and going again a little more laborious than you might like.
Overall, the action isn’t really very well balanced or structured: some levels are quite short and easy, while others are pretty long and rock hard, and there’s no real pattern of increasing difficulty as you progress. On the easiest difficulty level (which, yes, was the one I plumped for), the easy levels are too easy but the hardest ones are plenty tough enough. There are also, as mentioned, too few save points. For a long while I was stuck between levels 11 and 14: Level 11 is a silly third person bit that’s not very hard, then 12 is a really good, but long, first person X-Wing shootout, 13 is a top down section that seems so trivial it’s almost pointless, then you’re back to another hard cockpit section before you get another password. It’s tricky to go from easy to difficult and be in the right frame of mind to do well: often that thing happens where you get pissed off at dying after very nearly making it through the last level and end up messing up the earlier ones on your next go in a rush to get back there.
Level 12 is perhaps the best in the game. It’s the most enjoyable because the movement of your ship is minimal and you can focus on blasting TIE Fighters. There’s even a scripted bit where you need to be quick and take out a couple of TIEs before they destroy your wingman and that even works quite well. It’s a glimpse of what might have been: an update of the Star Wars arcade game, an interactive version of Disney’s Star Tours. Unfortunately, I think it’s the only really enjoyable level. There are some others that are OK – the on-foot shootout with Stormtroopers is not bad, except you can sort of stand in the open and not get shot. But many of the rest are just a bit crap, with memorable moments too infrequent. Even the Death Star finale feels anticlimactic, and Rookie One’s wooden attempt at enthusiasm at the moment of victory is a particular bubble-burster.
Rebel Assault was interesting to revisit, and fun at times, but it’s not really a very good game. The Star Wars showcase stuff holds up better than I expected, but too many levels are dull, difficult or both. The idea of a lightweight arcade SW shooter persisted and was revisited with more success in Rebel Assault 2 and the Rogue Squadron games (although Rogue Squadron 2, generally acknowledged as the best of the bunch, was only ever released on the Gamecube). As for this one, there’s some nostalgia value for those who remember it back in the day, but not much else.