Every winter, when the weather bears down and the cold and snow set in for their long stay here in Michigan, I get the urge to pull out some old video games and enjoy the nostalgia. Some of my youngest memories involve a controller in my hand; Saturday nights at my grandparents’ house playing Ultra Seven, Lemmings, or Super Mario World. Xardion was an interesting favorite for a while, even though I could never get passed the first level. At some point my parents got a Super Nintendo for my brother and I but there were rules and restrictions in our house that Grandma’s didn’t have, grandma also had more variety. Stacks and stacks of games that begged to be explored and tested, it elicited the same feeling I get when I see old pictures of Babbages at the mall.
My grandparents were big RPG players, starting with the original Legend of Zelda and then jumping to names like Breath of Fire and Secret of Mana. I recall a story once where they beat The Legend of Zelda only to discover that there was more to play through afterward. My grandma was so excited that she called grandpa at work to share the great news! Later, when the PlayStation became the dominant console, their taste in games led me to titles like Alundra and Suikoden and finally, my personal favorite, Chrono Cross. We can talk about these titles another time, let’s talk instead about a title that I’ve replayed countless times including a playthrough just in the past month.
What Is It?
Star Wars: Dark Forces, for the PlayStation easily racked up the most time-played as a child and teen. Dark Forces was published in 1995 by Lucas Arts for DOS and Apple Macintosh and a year later for Sony Playstation. The game is a first-person shooter that follows the story of the rebel Kyle Katarn as he discovers and dismantles the Empires Dark Trooper program. Based on my limited knowledge of how the Expanded Universe works anymore, this story is not canon and exists in its own universe despite the Dark Troopers going on to make appearances in later games and fiction and Katarn making additional appearances as a Jedi Knight as the series continued. The first mission is glaring proof of how non-canon the entry is as your start by stealing the Death Star plans from a poorly guarded base, a complete 180 from the story told in Rouge One last year. The inconsistencies don’t take away from the game though, these deviations from what we know actually make it a great experience even 20 year later.
About the Game
The game has a Doom feel in that it pits the player against various enemies where run-and-gun tactics need to be utilized. This was 1996, there was no cover system like there are in shooters these days and the AI was not as dynamic either. This didn’t keep the game from being challenging, however. Mixed in with the run-and-gun gameplay were environmental dangers as well as puzzles that forced the player to adjust their strategy at random times. A standout memory is a level mid-game where I need to break an ally out of a high-security Imperial prison. The level requires the player to gather specific keycards in order to open doors and traverse the level. In my recent playthrough I recalled the notepads I would scribble notes in as I figured things out for the first time and heard my brain start reciting the three-character keycards in my head. “D, Bird, A”, “A, X, R” or something similar as the glyphs on the cards were in the Star Wars language and I resorted to associating the characters to what they looked like. Details like this made the game enjoyable to return to because, despite how linear the gameplay was, it presented challenges at each replay that made it interesting and fun. Each level offered new threats with diverse enemies and the player would be provided with a new weapon to combat the growing number of adversaries. I smile remembering replaying a level only using the mortar launcher just to see if I could – and you certainly can!
The level design was also top-notch. I didn’t know until recently that Dark Forces was one of the first first-person shooters to add multiple, vertical tiers to their levels with elevators, ledges, and balconies. It also allowed the player to swim, jump, and look up and down, a ‘technical advance’ for titles at that time. Early levels had their share of secrets but the later levels were truly daunting. When I was younger the levels felt like they took forever toward the finale just because of their size and complexity, something that I again experienced as I replayed the game start to finish. Levels like Fuel Station Ergo and Arc Hammer captured the size of the environment and filled every nook and cranny with bad guys itching to thwart my mission. The fuel station felt like a giant, galactic gas station full of vagrants and Imperial soldiers. The Arc Hammer truly felt like a sprawling factory ship. The research station on Fest where the player has to carefully navigate perilous icy cliffs or risk falling to their death still made me sweat and hold my breath. To this day, I still can’t play Anoat City because of the dianogas, squid-like creatures that attack the player at random anytime they stray into any kind of liquid.
Even the Dark Troopers, the namesake of the game, were menacing and challenging. One of my only gripes in my replay was how difficult the game could ramp up and be between Medium and Hard. Medium provided a healthy challenge but left some danger to be desired where Hard was unforgiving and almost impossible toward the end. Dark Troopers were daunting adversaries that chewed through the players’ shields in their Mk II variant almost instantly and could easily kill the player in two to three hits in their Mk I variant. The player had to constantly move and be on their toes to avoid the well-placed AI that lurked around corners and was easily alerted to movement as well. While the game had no stealth mechanics like titles today, the AI achieved some form of stealth that gave them an advantage over the player. Perhaps it was the way they aimlessly wandered the level after being alerted but there were more than a handful of instances where a Stormtrooper got the jump on me when I entered a room I thought I had cleared and took a chunk out of my shields or worse. Doors and corners, that’s where they get you.
What Stands Out?
This is one of a few games that I played exclusively on my PSone with the flip-up screen while riding in the car as a kid. It was easy to pick up and put down as each level saved as it concluded. It also stands out as the first game I realized there were cheat codes for. “Right O X, Left O X, Back O X” has never left my head in twenty years and was a staple to a lot of playthroughs. It added ridiculous, end-game weapons and tools to the early game making Hard-difficulty replays easier and more enjoyable. Being able to mow through waves of enemies with Dark Trooper weapons or run through an entire level just placing proximity mines and leaving carnage behind me was a joy in my later replays. Most played levels include Fuel Station Ergo, Orinakra Detention Center, and The Executor. Fuel Station Ergo was a series of interconnected puzzles peppered with a diverse cast of Imperial and alien foes that you could easily get lost in. The biggest reward for me was stealing the smuggler ship at the end, as close as I got at that day in age to piloting a spaceship, even if it was just flipping a switch in a plain-looking rectangular room. Orinakra Detention Center was a favorite because of how massive the level was. You start outside the detention center and fight your way to the front door. Once inside you have to fight harder to the bowels of the compound to free a rebel ally. It took time and determination, it was the first time I had to take notes in a video game just to remember passcodes, which elevator went where and what was on each floor. The Executor was a Super Star Destroyer in the official universe and was incredible to be on as a kid, battling through stormtroopers and dark troopers to get onto the final level, the Arc Hammer. It really captured the size and danger of such a ship that magnitude and in my replay still proved to be a challenge. It really says something about how much I played as a kid when I say that I had only a few moments where I didn’t remember a puzzle or objective and really had to think about it. No guides were used.
Missions like Research Station Fest, Ramsees Hed, and Nar Shaddaa were always difficult but shine through as enjoyable experiences now. The icy cliffs and crags of Fest were daunting when I was younger and each step was dominated by the need to avoid the Wilhelm Scream that accompanied the fall to your death. The satisfaction of finding my way into the facility without a walkthrough this time was a high point in the replay as it is difficult to find the opening and then survive the descent into the base. It took a few deaths and do-overs to really get it done right but stands out as a high point in the entire campaign. Ramsees Hed has always been satisfying but difficult and stands out as a real challenge because of the winding route you have to take to the objective. Some of the design in this level, as well as a few others, made me scratch my head as to how the Imperials function day-to-day having to take these super-secret routes and dangerous passages to their post. Hazard pay for the Empire must be ridiculous. Final note on Ramsees Hed, the bathroom tucked into the rear of the level always gets a chuckle as I toss a timed detonator inside and ran. Lastly, Nar Shaddaa is a former ‘skip’ level that I enjoyed this time around because I took the time to really pay attention to the level design and look for secrets. The version that I was playing, mentioned below, had a game crippling bug so I was forced to replay this level in standard DOSBox which proved difficult after half the game played in HD.
Least favorite levels that I played but always contemplate skipping include Anoat City, Gromas Mines and Jabba’s Ship. I mentioned above that Anoat City featured the squid-like dianogas that scared the daylights out of me as a kid when they leaped from the water to attack you. Combine that with a headlight that dimmed as it depleted battery and you were quickly in a dark sewer full of these roaming jump-scares.
Even in my replay I found myself trying to clear the water with all the ammo I had before diving in. Gromas Mine was a real tech demonstration for the Jedi game-engine Dark Forces was built on as it allowed the developers to cast a red haze over the planet that reminded me of Mars. The level was almost too red and required an advanced level of control to navigate perilous pitfalls that I had yet to develop in my early gaming career. In my replay, I did much better but the levels’ constant machine noise and red haze quickly wore away at me and I was ready for it to be over long before I completed the mission. Jabba’s Ship was the scariest mission as a kid, worse than Anoat City because of the Kell dragons you had to fight off with no weapons. The whole level was spent punching or throwing thermal detonators, something difficult to do when being chased by a creature (or a dozen on Hard) that want to eat you. In the replay, I faced my fears and didn’t use cheats to properly relive that original anxiety and quickly found my fears to be for nothing. The Kell dragons were easily punched to death, the real trouble in the level being the unholy mix of Trandoshaans and Ree-yees with their dominating combo of detonators and gauss rifle-fire. The mission dragged on in an unsatisfying way and couldn’t end quick enough despite personal victories.
The game holds up well to the test of time if you can adjust to the graphics of the mid-90s. My PlayStation version is the inferior of the two iterations, the DOSBox version I picked up for Steam has, and apparently always had, a superior quality to it. In this replay I opted for a fan-built version called “DarkXL” that accelerated and updated the graphics to provide a cleaner and smoother visual experience that also added mouselook; something the original versions did not feature. The version loses some of its other features, such as music in cutscenes and the ability to use a few weapons or salvage batteries for your headlight/goggles (something that made late-game missions even more difficult) but adds a level of visual quality that more than compensates for the missing items. Despite a few shortcomings, DarkXL is a labor of love that helped recapture the original magic of my first playthrough. Even without DarkXL, Star Wars: Dark Forces is a joy to play and already has me itching to play again, this time maybe on the PlayStation for added effect.
If you have a couple dollars burning a hole in your pocket, pick up Dark Forces on Steam and give it a try on DOSBox with DarkXL. If you’re more of a console enthusiast I’m sure you can find yourself a copy at your local resale shop or online somewhere. Hopefully you enjoy it as much as I do, the game will always have a place in my heart as my first first-person shooter and my first Star Wars title.