Today it was announced that Disney, new owners of Lucas Film, would lay off LucasArts’ staff and turn the studio into a licensing machine. This brought an end to a developer that had lasted decades…but to mourn LucasArts is to mourn a studio that truly ended decades ago.
Before LucasArts transformed into a developer geared around Star Wars, they were a beloved maker of adventure games. Their first was the partially Douglas Adams-designed Labyrinth, based on the film, famed for an obscure puzzle that requires you to “adumbrate” an elephant to escape prison.
Later adventure games were designed in the iconic SCUMM engine, created for 1987’s Maniac Mansion. The first of LucasArt’s games to be designed by Ron Gilbert (with Gary Winnick), Maniac Mansion was renowned for dark humor – humor censored in the game’s infamous NES port.
Other LucasArts adventures included 1992’s acclaimed Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and 1990’s Loom, which featured a fantasy setting and complex magic system. Yet the favorite LucasArts adventure of many would be The Secret of Monkey Island, designed by Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer. The story of wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood is renowned as one of the funniest in gaming; Secret of Monkey Island is often regarded as one of the greatest games of all time.
Alas, it was not to be. 1993’s Sam & Max Hit the Road and 1993’s Day of the Tentacle, a sequel to Maniac Mansion developed by Schafer and Grossman, were creative and popular with reviewers and gamers. By 1995, LucasArts was still making great adventure games (such as Tim Schafer’s Full Throttle and The Dig, which featured a story by Steven Spielberg) – and no one was buying them anymore. The genre was too slow for an era of shooters and 3D graphics.
At the same time, LucasArts was finding success with action games, many Star Wars themed. 1993’s Zombies Ate My Neighbors was an action game for the Super Nintendo and Genesis; drawing on B-movie tropes and featuring co-operative multiplayer, it would become a cult hit. A more immediate success came with 1993’s Star Wars: X-Wing, which put the players in control of a starfighter through scenarios in the Star Wars trilogy. After the success of its sequel, TIE Fighter; a rail shooter series known as Star Wars: Rebel Assault; and first person shooter Star Wars: Dark Forces, the company was set on a new path.
Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire for the Nintendo 64 and PC drew in players by allowing them to replicate key scenes like the battle on the ice planet of Hoth; it didn’t matter that the game wasn’t very good. Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II let players be a lightsaber-wielding Jedi. Games that replicated key moments in the Star Wars trilogy were in.
The LucasArts memorialized today came to an end with 1998’s Grim Fandango, the Day of the Dead-inspired adventure game from Tim Schafer that sought to bring adventure games into a 3D era; moving past SCUMM, Grim Fandango featured 3D graphics. Grim Fandango was greeted with enduring acclaim – considered one of the best games of a strong year that also featured Half-Life, Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid. However, the game was a massive commercial flop. In the face of Grim Fandango’s failure, LucasArts pulled the plug on development of adventure games – effectively killing off the entire genre.
Unfortunately, LucasArts’ newfound reliance on Star Wars games would prove harmful as far too many clogged the market. Star Wars: Rebellion was a widely criticized RTS; but at least that genre fit the galactic warfare of Star Wars. Less fitting? 1997’s Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi, a ridiculous fighting game that pitted Luke Skywalker, Boba Fett, and expanded universe characters such as Mara Jade against one another. 2000’s Star Wars: Demolition, meanwhile, was a Twisted Metal knock-off that memorably featured the Death Star as a level; yes, finally one could run around the surface of the Death Star as a rancor.
To advertise the then-upcoming prequels, LucasArts explored new avenues for exploiting Star Wars. One hit was the original trilogy based Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and its Gamecube-based sequels. Another was Star Wars: Episode I: Racer, which copied The Phantom Menace’s popular podracing sequence. Yet there were also many failures. While the Nintendo 64 was granted great games like Rogue Squadron and Racer, the Playstation – the dominant system – was given not one, but two mediocre action/platformers based on Episode I.
In the next generation, LucasArts showcased mediocre titles with names like Star Wars: Obi-Wan or Star Wars: Bounty Hunter. The absolute nadir of this era is 2001’s Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing, a kart racer with Star Wars characters grafted on.
In 2003, LucasArts returned – briefly – to developing original games. The gladiator strategy game Gladius and comedic shooter Armed and Dangerous were critical hits. Yet LucasArts’ biggest success in this era was a game developed by Bioware – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a roleplaying game that introduced the system of morality that would become familiar through games like Mass Effect; the game’s depth made it the most interestng entry in the Star Wars franchise since the original film trilogy.
Sadly, the sequel to KoToR – developed by Obsidian – was rushed and incomplete, and the Star Wars MMO Galaxies was a critical flop that was massively retooled in the hope of becoming successful.
What is there to say about LucasArts’ final years? Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was heavily hyped and terrible; Star Wars: Battlefront captured the scale of battle and was quickly run into the ground; Lego Star Wars was a cult hit that was also run into oblivion; Star Wars: The Old Republic failed to capture the magic of KoToR. LucasArts’ final game? Kinect Star Wars, a game infamous for a sequence where you dance wildly as Han Solo.
Today people remember LucasArt’s adventure game days, but those days ended in 1998. The company they loved, however, lives on. The developers of Sam & Max, after their planned sequel was cancelled, founded Telltale Games, who moved adventure games into an episodic format; they found massive commercial and critical success with last year’s The Walking Dead. And Schafer moved to Double Fine, developers of the brilliant Psychonauts; they too revived adventure games, with a popular Kickstarter.
Mourn for LucasArts all you want, but the LucasArts you remember is 15 years gone; its spirit, however, lives on.