Remembering the life and legend of LucasArts

Life, death and legend of LucasArts

LucasArts has become one with the Force. The venerable studio and publisher was shuttered by owner Disney yesterday, halting production on its games, including Star Wars 1313. Though the amount of content coming from the studio had been drastically reduced over the last few years – well before Disney acquired Lucasfilm in October 2012 – LucasArts was a beloved studio finding success in multiple decades.

But what made LucasArts games so special?

Although LucasArts may be best known for its Star Wars games – starting as the gaming branch of Lucasfilm, George Lucas' production company – the developer's biggest successes in the 1980s were point-and-click adventure games. The classic Maniac Mansion, released in 1987, introduced the SCUMM engine, that would provide the model for most of their two-dimensional adventure games (including several Indiana Jones games, Loom, Day Of The Tentacle, and The Dig).

It has a very familiar look to a certain type of gamer: a collection of verbs like "Look at" or "Open" on the bottom of the screen, and bright inventory. It looks somewhat ungainly now, but at the time it was a revolutionary step toward mouse-based interfaces and away from text adventures that forced players to type in all actions.

Life, death and legend of LucasArts

The SCUMM engine wasn't the only thing that made the games stand out. You couldn't die in a LucasArts adventure, which was very much in opposition to the games of Sierra (their chief competitor in the genre), where death could occur simply by falling into a pond. This gave them more of a slower, more cerebral feel. Likewise, humor in games of the era tended to be built on references and puns, whereas LucasArts used different forms of character-based humor and wordplay to construct its jokes.

The Secret Of Monkey Island's sword-fighting may be the greatest single example of what made the early LucasArts adventures so special. Dueling might theoretically be a fast-paced, dangerous activity in reality and in many games, but in Ron Gilbert's approach it becomes a silly battle of wits. By tossing out insults, and making rejoinders, you change the momentum of the fight. "You fight like a dairy farmer!" is matched by "How appropriate, you fight like a cow!" In making the fights about words, failure without death becomes thematically consistent. It's the most memorable part of one of the greatest games of all time.

LucasArts' success with adventure games was quickly followed by success with flight sims like Their Finest Hour and Secret Weapons Of The Luftwaffe. Although an almost-underground niche now, flight sims were once considered a major genre, with every well-rounded PC gamer acquiring a flightstick at some point. The flight sim's close cousin, the space sim, was an obvious next step. This would lead to arguably LucasArts' greatest triumph: TIE Fighter.

Life, death and legend of LucasArts

In the early 1990s, LucasArts' Star Wars games started getting good. Super Star Wars and Rebel Assault offered action-packed takes on the franchise. The space sim X-Wing wasn't an arcade experience, although it involved dogfights in spaceships. It was perhaps too slow, particularly when compared to Wing Commander, the dominant space sim of the time, and its storyline was virtually non-existent. X-Wing's sequel, TIE Fighter, remedied these issues. By switching the player from the Rebel Alliance to the Galactic Empire and encouraging you fight for law and order, the story instantly became much more interesting. Likewise, flying the imperial TIE fighter, with no shields and virtually no armor, added a level of intensity missing from the original X-Wing. It was a stunning success, and it made it clear that Star Wars games could be as great as anything else on the market.

The generalization that licensed games are terrible has been commonly accepted throughout the history of gaming. LucasArts' success with Star Wars is by far the most consistent exception to the rule. That's not to say that there weren't major missteps – Star Wars Chess and the fighting game Masters of Teräs Käsi stand out as particularly bad. The idea of a Star Wars game becoming a classic became uncontroversial.

Occasionally, LucasArts and LucasFilm got too ambitious with the license. At three different points – Rebel Assault 2 (1995), Shadows of the Empire (1996), and The Force Unleashed (2008) – a Star Wars game became a new focus of storytelling for the franchise. Rebel Assault 2 was the first officially licensed product to be allowed to use film characters like Darth Vader in new live-action video. Shadows of the Empire was the focus of a confusing multimedia campaign to tell what happened between episode five and six. Likewise, The Force Unleashed was supposed to tell the story of what happened in-between the original trilogy and its prequels. Though successful in their own ways, these games did not demonstrate Star Wars gaming at its best.

Life, death and legend of LucasArts

In the mid-1990s, a set of new technologies caused massive changes in the core structures of gaming, particularly on PC. Better graphical technology allowed for smoother, faster gameplay, which ended up allowing the first-person shooter to become one of the dominant genres, while added storage space and three-dimensional graphics indirectly combined to make top-quality adventure games much more costly. LucasArts adapted to the former circumstance extremely well, with its Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series. 1997's Jedi Knight was an all-time classic, suddenly and unexpectedly making real the sort of wild, tense lightsaber and force duels gamers could previously only dream of. Its sequels, Jedi Outcast and the excellent, often-forgotten Jedi Academy, improved on the form.

The decline of the adventure genre hit LucasArts harder, but its attempts to adapt and bring the genre into modernity birthed some of its more memorable games, like Full Throttle and The Curse of Monkey Island. But the clear standout of the era was Tim Shafer's Grim Fandango. Combining influences from film noir, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and jazz music, Grim Fandango still remains a fan favorite. The well-designed puzzles make it a fantastic adventure as well, and easily deserving of its reputation of being among the best of the genre.

LucasArts was less successful in adapting to the changes in Star Wars itself, however. The company shifted to focus almost entirely on Star Wars games around the same time as the prequel trilogy that began in 1999. This was not a good combination: the poorly received first two prequel films didn't gain the cultural cachet of their predecessors, a process paralleled by relative disposable games like Jedi Starfighter, Super Bombad Racing, and Obi-Wan. [Hey now, let's not forget Episode 1: Racer - Ed.]

Life, death and legend of LucasArts

By the mid-2000s, a focus on the entirety of the Star Wars universe allowed for a resurrection of LucasArts as a publisher of fantastic games. 2003's Knights of the Old Republic started the process, and was followed by the steadily improving Lego Star Wars series and the extremely popular Battlefront games. Republic Commando (2005) deserves special mention, not just for being a very good squad-based shooter, but also for seeming to come from an alternate dimension where the prequel trilogy was fantastic and deserved high quality game adaptations.

LucasArts got back into the distribution of non-Star Wars games in the late 2000s, most notably with the Mercenaries series. However, in recent years, they struggled to find the same dominant place in the industry that they'd had for so long.

When Disney purchased LucasFilm, LucasArts was in no way untouchable, though the studio appeared to be regaining its footing with the graphically impressive Star Wars 1313. It was not meant to be, however, and the beloved company has been put to rest. Celebrating LucasArts' great games seems to be the perfect way to mourn.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.