Retrospective: Rebel Strike (Rogue Squadron III)
In order to understand why Rebel Strike even exists and why reviewers were so harsh on certain aspects of it, it’s important to understand where the series roots begin in the Star Wars video game universe as well as the significance of developer Factor 5. As most gamers are aware, the mid-late 90s was a rough time for video games as games went from sprite-based 2D experiences to polygonal 3D experiences with extremely varying degrees of success and failure. During this time Star Wars was ramping up for some new content beginning with the 1995 announcement of the Special Edition Trilogy that would remaster the original films and bring them back to theaters. At the time this was all good news. My friends and I were mocking the transparent snowspeeders in Empire, laughing at some of the effects in A New Hope, and reveling over the cool new things that were teased in the trailer (like the ronto in Mos Eisley). These days there are clearly sour grapes with the Special Edition Trilogy and far more edits have been made for the Blu-Ray releases of these films than what hit theaters in 1997, but again before those films had even come out it was time to ramp up on Star Wars console games. Couple that with the announcement of the upcoming Prequel Trilogy set to release in 1999 and Star Wars fever hit. It should be noted that Star Wars games would consistently release during most of console gaming’s life, but most of the variety was found only on PC and the more traditional action games were found on console.
It was during this time that developer Factor 5, known mostly for the Turrican series at this point, started development on a purely spaceship based Star Wars title called Rogue Squadron. Different types of games were coming out all over the place for Star Wars in the mid 90s and it was clear that the action games of before in 3D were getting lukewarm (no pun intended) attention, fighting games like Masters of Teras Kasi were getting slammed, and that perhaps the best route was to focus on the vehicles. It should also be noted that with the success of Rogue Squadron Factor 5 now had a new franchise tethered to it and vehicle-based Star Wars games began to come out in droves (as you’ll hear in our recent podcast). Rogue Squadron was cool, it had wide open spaces thanks to a new engine built by Factor 5 that basically got them the development contract, and it handled sequences mostly from the first two movies (the most beloved at that time in 1998). It also could use the Expansion Pak to offer 640×480 resolution on the N64, which was twice as sharp as the games of the time (normally in 320×240), but like most Expansion Pak titles it was not required to play. I remember picking it up and loving the change of pace and completing missions in spaceships that felt much more natural and looked oh so much better than they did in Super Star Wars. I clearly wasn’t alone because Rogue Squadron released alongside Ocarina of Time in December 1998 in the US and managed to still garner heavy sales. Even more impressive is that it did the same in early 1999 in the UK, seeing an unfortunate delay outside of the holiday season. Domestically in the US, Rogue Squadron celebrated more than 1 million sales, which was far beyond the 100,000 it was expected to sell. Lightening struck twice a few years later in 2001 when Rogue Squadron II accompanied the Gamecube launch and immediately celebrated both critical and financial success, which most will attest was well deserved. Naturally when Rebel Strike: Rogue Squadron III was announced, we were all psyched, especially with the addition of ground combat and missions as well as the news that it was expanding outside of the original trilogy without going into the prequel trilogy (the series always followed Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles).
Then tragedy struck. Rebel Strike has some excellent missions involving starship combat that were consistent with the series, not to mention the classic sound design that new exactly what to take from the films and graphics that compete with most Gamecube titles. The big ugly sore are those damn ground missions, which take up a large portion of the campaign. It was Factor 5’s first outing making these types of missions for a Star Wars game and it shows. Simple battle droids can inflict damage on Luke Skywalker as if it’s his first time in combat, the original Tomb Raider could give the lock-on system a run for its money, and the new ground vehicles like speeder bikes completely sucked. Not only that, but it wasn’t always clear what the heck you were supposed to be doing in missions, whereas this had never been a problem before. Perhaps development was too rushed to polish even the ship sequences or there just wasn’t time to thoroughly test it, but regardless that game is unplayable with the sound off because you will miss the contextual dialogue that tells you what to do. Factor 5 also committed one of the main sins of video games: requiring you to replay levels multiple times. You see, there are a ton of unlocks in this game – most of them great – and all of them revolve around medals you receive at the end of a level. Well the trouble is that many of these medals can’t be earned your first time through and you aren’t given the task as to what you are to do until you complete the level (and yes, the Internet renders this issue almost obsolete today). This means that clearly the developer wanted you to play each level once to get the layout and then a second time to nail certain challenges like beating the level in a record time, killing a certain number of enemies, not dying, or finding hidden objects. That’s fine if it’s unlocking cosmetic or challenge items but many of these medals are required to unlock levels of the game, which I admit are bonus missions, but they are still part of the game. In addition there are documentaries on development, commentaries, characters, vehicles, and even arcade games that all are unlocked with these medals so you will be playing the levels multiple times if you want to see all this great content you paid for. Again, the Internet has passcodes now that can circumvent this, but at the time that was the basic plan. All of these factors – bad ground gameplay that makes up half the campaign, the need to replay levels, and unclear mission objectives – came together to discourage fans of the originals and new players alike. It’s too bad, too, because nowadays the complete package is definitely something worth owning.
Okay sure, the initial campaign leaves a bit to be desired, but there are about 10 levels you can replay time and time again that are starship based and worth returning to. In addition, you can unlock like the Millenium Falcon, Slave 1 (Boba Fett’s ship), and multiple TIE Fighters. The game introduced co-op for the first time and even included the entire campaign of Rogue Squadron II on the disc to play with buddies (this game is purely co-op, no way to play single player), so it’s quite the pack-in for free. Beyond that there’s a great, albeit short, documentary of the development for Rebel Strike that I appreciated (side note: we try to collect as many game documentaries for you all as we can but commercial on-disc stuff probably is off limits). Then there’s the big whammy: the original Atari developed arcade games are unlockable on all versions of the game. Listener feedback has asked us about a special disc that came with pre-ordered copies of Rebel Strike that included the original Star Wars Atari game on it, which is the case and does have the game but also all copies of the game released have all 3 of Atari’s arcade games (which we captured on a video here). And finally if you wish to enjoy all this bonus content without having to worry about playing the base game, all of the codes have been well distributed online so that you can unlock them all without playing a single moment of the base game. Even better, the unlocks save to your memory card so you don’t have to put the code in each time you boot the game, they are permanently unlocked.
Rebel Strike is a product of its time that was a bit hard to swallow when it originally released in 2003. Nowadays it’s a bit easier to accept and enjoy, especially with the retro gamer’s eyes, and has a whole ton of content that makes the current going rate in the US of $15 worth the price of entry. Couple that with the unlockables that you can now jump immediately into and I quite recommend it for those Star Wars fans out there. Either way, I went in expecting a dud with some arcade games and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed a majority of my 5-7 hours with the campaign and had a new game to return to on those random moments where I want a single player Star Wars fix.