Every once in a long, long while, I bring myself to buy a Star Wars game. This is not a common occurrence, because I have an inherent fear of what is essentially my favorite series of movies being made into crappy videogames. LucasArts has been good to us through the past couple of years, licensing the franchise to competent developers with more or less stellar track records. This seems to be such a case: Ubisoft is the house that gave us Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time on all platforms. They know something about action/platformer games and what makes them tick. With the knowledge that this game is based on all three original movies, one can expect something epic. I know I did.
I ended up disappointed in a big way.
Let's get this out of the way: this game is short. It is so short as to redefine the stereotype of short games. The biggest reason for this is probably that the game designers, for one reason or another, decided solely to follow the exploits of Luke Skywalker. As a result, every significant scene involving him in the movies becomes a prolonged scene of combat and platforming. Even walking to your uncle Owen's house in the very beginning of the game is an act of immense peril, with Sand People swarming all over the place in numbers so immense that one has to wonder what kind of anthills they have built beneath the dunes. However, even though every conceivable instance of what could be misconstrued as action is translated into such, the game is perilously short. This is the game's biggest fault: you're going to spend thirty dollars on a game that won't give you more than three hours on the first play through if you're decent.
But the game is fun, while it lasts. There are lots of things to like about it: after getting familiar with rather boring shooter-style action during the course of Episode IV, you're immediately thrown into Episode V with a lightsaber. This does not sound like a lot, but it is. The lightsaber mechanics are the best part of this game, to me, largely because it creates the illusion of being able to do so much. In actuality there are only five or six actual moves available to you (and I mean animations, not actual moves), save for your Force powers, but these can all be linked together in what eventually becomes a lightning fast blur of laser-y doom. The actual combat itself is not really all that deep (and I didn't expect it to be), but it's surprisingly exhilarating to just leap into battle and cut down dozens of Storm Troopers in a matter of seconds.
Yes, I meant that literally. Most of the time, battles come in the form of "ambushes", where you're trapped in a certain section of a level until you kill every single one of them. You'll come across your fair share of Storm Troopers just running around aimlessly, but most of the action in the game is concentrated on fighting wave after wave of enemies coming at you and waiting to be slaughtered. This is undeniably exciting: the sheer speed you have to react with means that every battle is fast-paced and requires excellent timing. However, once you have down the intricacies of lightsaber combat, which can take up to an hour of playing around with the controls, every battle becomes an exercise in grim repetition. Sure, your opponents die fast, but there aren't all that many enemy types in the game and they all die to the exact same attacks.
The graphics in the game are a mixed bag. Literally. The characters and creatures all have the most beautiful animations I've ever seen in a handheld, in that every single movement moves borderline seamlessly into every other. I can't describe this particular quality very well, but it's something to see. This fact is nullified, sadly, by the fact that all of the character models are ugly. And I don't mean ugly like most ugly games, I'm talking ugly like Darth Vader with his helmet off. Instead of stylizing the characters at all in order to give them a recognizable design, it looks like the developers took actual pictures of actors and superimposed them into the game. This sounds good, but it's not. It results in an irregularly shaped, vaguely recognizable blob in place of the human characters in the game, where colors bleed into places they shouldn't be and what could be an easily recognizable cast and crew becomes something akin to a mockery of the gaming gods. The thick black outline around all of them only serves to amplify this inherent ugliness (which is in itself forgivable, they really tried to make them look real) by drawing your eye to it constantly. It almost looks like some twisted take on the cel-shaded trend. Now, admittedly, the creatures in the game look nice, the wampas and the rancor in particular, but this only serves to further contrast with how crappy the human cast looks. The environments are almost negligible: lush in places (the first fight with Darth Vader comes to mind) and boring in others (see: Tatooine), every single environment is seen so many times that it becomes mind-numbing.
Might as well get into another problem I have with the game: it's as monotonous as anything I've ever played before. Some racer-type levels are sprinkled in the episodes, and there's even an Asteroids-type level before you go on the Death Star run in Episode IV, but well over four fifths of the game consists of just running and jumping and killing things. There's only so many times you can cut down that Wampa or get shot by those pig guys on Jabba's barge before you get tired of it, and the so-called boss battles don't help matters.
And how about that sound. It's hard to be overwhelmed by Star Wars music in MIDI form, but the tiny blips and beeps that are meant to convey atmosphere and action are just sad. In all honesty it would have been better to scrounge up some original tunes that really sounded decent and fit the game. The sound effects, though, are very nice in a lot of places - blaster bolts sound about right, the lightsaber hums when you swing it, and Darth Vader's breathing sounds about as genuine as it's going to on the Gameboy Advance. Admittedly it's not much, but I still got chills when facing off with Vader on Bespin.
How long the game will last you is a difficult question to answer, because it depends on the type of gamer you are. If you like to play the same game over and over again for the sake of being familiar with it and in order to beat it without ever getting hit, this may just be the game for you. If you're the kind of gamer who likes to challenge themselves by playing a game on its absolute highest difficulty and eventually just be able to beat the crap out of it, or the kind of gamer who likes unlocking secrets, or the kind of gamer who likes long games, look elsewhere. Every single secret is unlocked after you beat the game once, and these consist of eight still photos and a single secret level in which you beat the unholy tar out of what must be endless enemies until you either die or get tired of it. And those multiple difficulties you like so much? Forget about it, they don't exist, there's only one difficulty. There's no special mode to unlock, no real extra missions, no special powers to use on your next play through, no nothing.
It's really very difficult to call this game good. I want to like it. I do. You play as Luke Skywalker, and you chop things up with your light saber, and the final boss battle is with Darth Vader on the Death Star. That is very cool. Certain parts of it are very fun. But when you combine this with ugly character design, dinky music, a single difficulty, monotony in gameplay, and three whole hours to experience, you do not have a very good game. But hey, it's Star Wars.
Beautiful character animation
Intense lightsaber action
Force Powers are all easily used (and Force Heal borders on being essential in certain fights)
Darth Vader's in the game
Some of the ugliest sprites on the Gameboy
Three hours long
Costs you ten dollars for every hour you'll play it
More monotonous than a short game should be
Mostly useless Force powers may come into play once or twice
Certain enemies are way too hard to kill, as you're using a lightsaber
Way, way, way too short
A disappointment. Maybe I've been spoiled by Castlevania and Metroid, but this is flat-out not a very fun game. Thirty dollars for three hours is not good. A single difficulty, worthless Force powers, and an utter lack of unlockables do not serve to grant this game any longevity. If you're an absolute Star Wars nut you're going to pick up this game regardless of what I say, so go ahead, you're probably going to have fun with it - at least for a while. For everyone else, I can't recommend this. Borrow it from a friend for an afternoon, if you want it that badly.