Star Wars: Rebel Assault's lead coder Vince Lee talks to Retro Gamer about the challenges of developing the first Star Wars game for CD-Rom.
Speaking in Retro Gamer 209, the former LucasArts developer gives insight into the process of making the classic rails shooter for a new format the early 90s, and the many challenges the team faced to deliver the game.
"In those days most PCs had almost no memory and fairly feeble processing power. So if you wanted complex moving imagery, it had to be pregenerated and streamed off the CD in real-time," Lee explains. "This style of game became known as ‘rails’ and only really works well when travelling in some kind of vehicle, as that justifies why the player doesn’t have any real freedom of movement.”
Since most of the Star Wars films take place outside of vehicles, the "rails style" led the team to introduce a new story and characters to avoid having to rely heavily on cutscenes.
“I decided that making a fun game was more important than staying true to the Star Wars canon,” says Lee, “and departing from the characters and story let us do just that.” Having worked with a program called Vista on the Amiga console in the past, Lee used this experience to experiment with compressing image sequences "to see if I could get them small enough to stream comfortably off the first generation of CD-ROM drives."
Rebel Assault, which released on PC, Mac, 3DO, and Sega CD on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in 1993, was developed with a cinematic approach in mind. By taking inspiration from some of the classic action scenes from the original trilogy, Rebel Assault sees you take on the role of Rookie One, a Tatooine-born pilot in the academy not unlike Luke Skywalker.
“We had countless challenges,” Vince explains. “For example, CD drives were very primitive at the time, and CD burners were rare and expensive. Not many programmers will relate today, but when Rebel Assault was written, multitasking wasn’t available yet. Because of this, the whole game ran off a CPU interrupt to work around the limitations in the CD-ROM drives and drivers. And while creating the game, the company didn’t even own a CD burner – we had to send copies of the game on hard drives to an external company every time we needed to burn a CD for testing.”
Despite the many challenges of creating a new Star Wars game for emerging CD-ROM technology, Rebel Assault paved the way for future Star Wars games and the transition from the pixelated '80s into a new generation.
You can read more about the making of this classic Star Wars game by picking up issue 209 of Retro Gamer. Or, to ensure you don't miss out on future retro goodness, you can check out the latest subscription offers.