REBEL ASSAULT: The First Cinematic STAR WARS Games

Originally published in the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2019.

Star Wars video games are big business. Studios spend millions of dollars building high production value, AAA-grade games that offer immersive Star Wars stories and experiences. But around the start of the ‘90s, Star Wars games were generally simple tie-ins, shoehorning events from the films into tried-and-true gameplay concepts, none of which replicated the Star Wars experience. It wasn’t until 1993 that Lucasfilm’s in-house game studio LucasArts would find a way to shortcut technical limitations and offer something more like a Star Wars movie. Enter Rebel Assault.

The first Rebel Assault is difficult to recommend these days. Its story takes place sort-of alongside the original Star Wars, with unnamed fighter pilot Rookie One attacking the Star Destroyer that destroyed the Tantive IV, before replacing Luke Skywalker at the battles of Hoth and the first Death Star. (Series canon was not as rigorously maintained back then.) It’s a tour through classic Star Wars locations and situations, depicted with pre-rendered CGI that – for all its roughness by modern standards – was technically the first photorealistic CGI used in Star Wars.

In 1993, Rebel Assault was something of a technical marvel. One of the first FMV (full-motion video) games ever made, and LucasArts’ first game to ship only on CD-ROM, its pre-rendered backgrounds sported far more complex graphics than real-time 3D processing could produce. LucasArts developed a brand-new engine for the task: INSANE, or INteractive Streaming ANimation Engine, which combined full video and audio with point-and-click gameplay. It would later be used on more traditional adventure games like Full Throttle and The Dig.

Playing on PC back in 1993, the impression granted by INSANE felt – to a six-year-old, at least – like you were really inside a Star Wars movie, with the full John Williams score and everything. But given inherent design limitations, it was only an illusion. Mechanically, Rebel Assault operated like a rail shooter, with fly-through videos unspooling in the background while the player manipulated and shot at 2D sprites. Players could not fly wherever they wanted, gameplay was a simplistic point-and-shoot affair, and controls – relying on baked-in hitboxes – were clunky and imprecise. By today’s standards, even the animation was rough, with a near-total lack of realistic physics.

LucasArts would not have that particular problem in Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire, released two years later. Built on an improved INSANE engine, Rebel Assault II’s cutscenes and characters were fully live-action, blended with CGI environments and effects that far outstripped its predecessor’s. Barring the Ewok-centric spin-off movies, Rebel Assault II represented the first official live-action Star Wars content since Return of the Jedi – beating The Phantom Menace by four years. 

Rebel Assault II also bested its predecessor in storytelling. This time, the game told an original story. Centring once again on Rookie One (played in the flesh by Jamison Jones, who’d just appeared in Lucasfilm’s Radioland Murders), it saw its hero answering a distress call only to discover the Empire had been testing ships with newly-developed cloaking devices. In the course of the story, Rookie One goes undercover as a stormtrooper, teams up with fellow rebel Ru Murleen (Julie Eccles, Indy’s secretary in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and destroys the planetary shipyard building the new fighters. Darth Vader’s in there, wearing his original costume from the films; Admiral Ackbar appears as “himself”; it’s a whole production.

But in spite of those improvements, familiar issues still plagued Rebel Assault II. The gameplay was still made up entirely of sprites atop background video, with the same indistinct control scheme and light difficulty. The CGI, while vastly improved, was still rough in places. And despite technically telling a new story, Rebel Assault II’s “Phantom TIE” tale was a thin imitation of “the Imperial superweapon plot,” its combat encounters redressed versions of well-trodden scenarios. You fly a speeder bike through a swamp, not a forest; rather than flying the Millennium Falcon into the Death Star’s superstructure, you fly an identical-looking Corellian freighter through a mining facility.

The improvements led to further shortcomings. Though LucasArts’ games were an exception, voice acting was sub-par in many video games of that era, and Rebel Assault II invited further criticism of its live-action performances. Jones, Eccles, and co-stars give it their all – even the LucasArts employees roped in for the job – but they suffer from an issue that also affected the Star Wars prequel trilogy. All live-action footage was shot on blue-screen stages using the original costumes and props, with environments and sets added later – a practice which hadn’t really been used until then. This resulted in mismatching camera angles and lighting setups, but it also affected performances. What’s more, the story struggles to rise above its plot; the end-of-game kiss shared by Rookie One and Ru Murleen comes out of nowhere.

Both Rebel Assaults were commercial hits. The first game sold over a million copies, equivalent to the original Unreal; the second sold half a million. Critical responses were mixed, generally praising the presentation but criticising the gameplay. The response from this author was that I probably completed Rebel Assault II dozens of times as a child.

The Rebel Assault series ended quickly, though – killed by the very technical advances that made it a hit. While full-motion video was impressive in the early ‘90s, the latter half of the decade saw realtime 3D graphics improve dramatically, making FMV almost comically obsolete. Even Rebel Assault’s contemporary Star Wars games – Dark Forces, X-Wing, and TIE Fighter – had started to lead that charge. Rebel Assault could only have emerged in the tiny window of time it did, when creative cheats were required to present quality 3D graphics.

Today, FMV games are considered relics. Occasionally, new titles pop up, with the award-winning independent game Her Story offering an exceptional example. Amusingly, Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch approaches the format from the TV side of the equation, rather than the video-game side. But the general consensus is that the genre’s done. Why make an FMV game when you could do it better with realtime, interactive graphics, a la Until Dawn?

Rebel Assault is probably the deadest Star Wars sub-franchise there is. But for a few precious years, it was the only kid on the block when it came to new live-action Star Wars – a product of its time, certainly, but one that brought considerable entertainment to fans. Maybe we’ll see a Star Wars equivalent to Bandersnatch on Disney+ someday. Until then: thanks, Rookie One.