The Force Awakens is nothing if not a love letter to the Star Wars films that came before. While there's been plenty of debate over whether that's a good thing or not (with a lot of arguing about the definitions of copy and homage), it's hard not to feel the love for Star Wars that pulses through every minute of The Force Awaken's two-plus hours in a galaxy far, far away.
There are references to the previous films aplenty, old characters coming out of the woodwork, and in between a few hidden Easter eggs that it takes a keen eye to find. They certainly don't outnumber the more in-your-face throwbacks to the last two trilogies (gotta love Rey calling the Millennium Falcon "garbage" and Han muttering about his bad feelings), but they're well worth snatching up and giving a closer look.
Finn throws aside Luke's training ball on the Millennium Falcon
One man's treasure is another man's trash it seems. Back in A New Hope, Luke got a lot of mileage out of his seeker droid, an airborne ball that Obi-Wan Kenobi used to teach him to both use his Force abilities and not be such an impatient dweeb all the time. Finn later finds the same ball in The Force Awakens while looking for bandages for Chewbacca, but quickly tosses it aside as he tries to tend to (and not be choked by) several hundred pounds of screaming Wookie, and it's never seen again.
Rey has a doll with an X-wing pilot outfit in her home on Jakku
The X-Wing helmet Rey offhandedly puts on while hanging around her makeshift hovel definitely shows that she's a fan of the pilots of yesteryear, as does her impressive understanding of airship architecture and handling. But perhaps the most adorable expression of her love is a small, clearly handmade X-Wing pilot doll tucked away in her house. Granted that was probably the only thing keeping her company during her many lonely years of isolation but it's still so cute.
Starkiller Base is named after Luke's original surname
Dedicated Star Wars fans undoubtedly spotted this in heartbeat, though it's perhaps less obvious for general audiences and newcomers to the franchise. Starkiller Base, the weaponized planet that Rey, Finn, and company valiantly blow up, is named after Luke Skywalker... sort of. Originally Luke's surname was meant to be Starkiller, but it was changed during production due to sounding uncomfortably murderous. Instead, that name went to the death machine of the First Order, which deserves it a lot more.
Alec Guinness says Rey's name in her vision
The vision that Rey has after touching the lightsaber in the basement of Maz's keep is equal parts flashy and confusing - voices overlap, scenes blur, and we get a glimpse into the future well ahead of time. But all of that is obvious enough if you look, and not especially hidden. What does take some extra digging to find is the fact that Obi-Wan speaks directly to Rey, and her name is said by Alec Guinness, the late actor who portrayed Obi-Wan in the first three films. Producer Bryan Burk manipulated a line from the original trilogy where Guinness said the world 'afraid', pulling out the proper syllable and pasting it into the film.
Carrie Fisher's daughter plays a resistance fighter
Looks like those hair buns run in the family. While Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Princess Leia in The Force Awakens - though she's now she's going by General Organa and heads the Resistance in opposition to the First Order - Fisher's daughter can be seen in the background, playing the part of Lieutenant Connix. If that name doesn't ring a bell, don't worry - it's a really small part. But if you watch closely during the scenes in the Resistance base, you can spot her reading screens with a very serious face and calling General Organa's attention to unfortunate happenings outside.
Finn's Stormtrooper number matches Leia's cell number from A New Hope
This one is definitely miniscule and has few far-reaching implications, but it's still pretty fun. Before abandoning the First Order and getting a proper name, Finn goes by the title FN-2187, seemingly a random combination of letters and numbers. However, that's the number of the cell Princess Leia was being held in for execution back in A New Hope, which was itself a reference to a little-known Canadian art film that inspired George Lucas when he was making the original trilogy. Obscure nods all around!
The Stormtroopers on Starkiller Base are finally getting a new model
Small talk apparently never changes for Stormtroopers. When Obi Wan sneaks through the Death Star on his own to disable the tractor beam in A New Hope, a pair of Stormtroopers can be heard talking about the "new BT-16" droids to pass the time. Decades later, when Rey is attempting a daring escape from Starkiller Base, she very nearly dodges a pair of Stormtroopers talking about the "new T-17" droids. I hope there were some 0.5's and S models in between.
The Holochess game on the Millennium Falcon continues from where it left off in A New Hope
One of the most blatant references to A New Hope in The Force Awakens has to be the Holochess board, which Chewie and C-3PO are seen playing in the former and Finn accidentally turns on in the latter. That's not the egg in this basket. Watch closely, and you can see that the game Finn turns on picks up right where the match between Chewie and C-3PO ended - you can see the creature that was knocked down in A New Hope reacting to the blow and standing back up in The Force Awakens.
The original Ewok actor makes a cameo
The Force Awakens is absolutely jam-packed with cameos - Simon Pegg, Kevin Smith, possibly Daniel Craig (he's reportedly the Stormtrooper who gets the privilege of being Rey's first Force test subject) - but this one has a special place in the heart of Star Wars. Warwick Davis, who started his film career as the Ewok Wicket in Return of the Jedi, appears as a pig-like patron of Maz's castle/cantina (castletina?) in The Force Awakens. As long, long ago as that first performance was, it's amazing to see him come back right alongside so many fans.
R2KT joins the crowd
There's nothing wrong with your eyes here - that's not R2D2, but his similarly-shaped friend with a slightly different color scheme, R2KT. KT has appeared in various Star Wars stories over the years and is a tribute to Katie Johnson, a young girl who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2004. Following cameos in The Clone Wars film and TV show, she appears twice in The Force Awakens: first when BB-8 reunites with Poe, then again when the Millennium Falcon returns to the Resistance base.