Although ultimately viewed as a financial low-point for Nintendo, the GameCube era gave us some of the best games ever made: Luigi’s Mansion, Super Mario Sunshine, Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. One of its best, a launch title that wasn’t an in-house Nintendo project at all, was Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, a game that is not only at the top of the GameCube list but is also one of the greatest Star Wars games and space combat games ever made. This is the game that made ten-year-old John Saavedra choose Nintendo’s new console over the technologically superior Microsoft Xbox in 2001.
It seemed like an arms race at the time, Nintendo and Microsoft releasing consoles within days of each other in the States, although it didn’t turn out to be much of one. The sixth console generation was dominated by Sony’s PlayStation 2, the clear winner, while the Sega Dreamcast, a console not of its time, was quickly sent to die. Still, it was the GameCube demo kiosks at my local EB Games store that sold me on the prospect of the cubed console.
I don’t want to harp on this fateful moment for too long, but it really was destiny that a budding Star Wars fan like myself, who had only ever played the fantastic Shadows of the Empire video game for the Nintendo 64, should encounter a demo for Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II‘s “Death Star Attack.” I found the entire offensive entrancing, as I locked S-foils in attack position for the very first time and prepared to attack the most dangerous space station in the entire galaxy.
This was my very first space combat game, having missed out on all of Totally Games’ excellent X-Wing series, and it’s the perfect introduction. Although one of the most daring offensives in the films, “Death Star Attack” is actually the game’s introductory level, a training mission done very right. The attack takes you through all of the pillars of the games: destroying stationary targets, dogfights, squad commands, and flying through obstacles, all without making you stop to read a single prompt or watch an introductory video. Like Luke Skywalker, introduced only as Red Five in the opening sequence, you’re forced into the cockpit immediately against indescribable odds.
After taking out the pesky deflection towers, you’re immediately hounded by wave after wave of TIE fighters. Using your targeting computer, which highlights enemy ships in red and yellow, you manage to take them out, at which point Red Leader orders you to prepare for your attack run. It took me a while, certainly more time than I had with that demo kiosk, to figure out how to speed my way through that chaotic Death Star trench, evade Darth Vader’s superior TIE Advanced, and fire proton torpedoes into the exhaust port, but my initial defeat was enough to make me beg my parents for the console and this game.
Replaying Rogue Squadron II all of these years later, I’m able to beat “Death Star Attack” pretty easily and speed through most of the other 15 levels, blasting my way through Imperial forces with glee. What I gathered from this latest sit down with the game is that Rogue Squadron II is still one of my all-time favorites and arguably the best Star Wars game ever made. It is, at the very least, absolutely a masterpiece.
Factor 5, Standing By
While it proved to be an ill-fated alliance in the end, developer Factor 5 was LucasArts’ golden boy in 2001. The first Rogue Squadron game, which came out in 1998 for the N64, was not only critically acclaimed, but it also sold well over a million copies, taking even producer Julian Eggebrecht by surprise. Eggebrecht told GameSpot in 2003 that the game sold “about 100 times better than anybody expected.” LucasArts quickly put Factor 5 to work on a second game, an Episode I tie-in game called Battle for Naboo, which reviewed even better than Rogue Squadron.
By 2001, Factor 5 was on to its third Star Wars space combat game, this time for Nintendo’s newest platform, the GameCube. For Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, Factor 5 introduced the Command Cross, the game’s most important feature, which allowed you to give orders to your wingmen. While flying around as Luke Skywalker, you could command Wedge (voiced by Denis Lawson himself!) and another squad member to keep TIE fighters off your tail while you hit Imperial targets or protected Rebel frigates, or you could order them to focus all fire on a single target. The Command Cross added tons of complexity to a series that was largely known for its arcade-style action. Squad commands allowed you to plan your approach. Would you charge in with your squad, guns blazing, or would you allow your wingmen to open up a pocket for you to zoom in and destroy a main objective? Factor 5, an ingenious little developer, found a way to make three games in three years that were basically the same but ultimately felt and played differently.
Factor 5 followed its well-earned success with another sequel in 2003, Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, which introduced an all-new original story and on-foot missions, aimed at turning the Rogue Squadron into the ultimate fighting team. Several instances in the game had you switch between space and ground combat, as you shot your way past both TIE fighters and Stormtroopers to complete your objectives. Of course, the on-foot missions are very suspect of a rushed development, as they’re less refined and are almost unplayable to today’s standards. Just look for yourself:
No, it’s not the best shooting I’ve ever seen, although the speeder bike portion is much better. Rogue Squadron is best played when in some kind of vehicle or ship. The idea was cool, though.
Rebel Strike didn’t score as well with critics as its predecessors, but it did well enough to warrant another sequel that never arrived. Factor 5 was undeserving of its eventual fate. I’ve written at length about LucasArts’s restructuring in 2004, which left Factor 5 out of a job when the publisher’s execs decided to cut out third-party developers in favor of in-house development. Factor 5 completed just one more game, 2007’s very ill-received flight combat fantasy game Lair, a terrible way to go out. While developing an unreleased Superman game, Factor 5’s parent company, Brash Entertainment, went out of business, forcing the developer to close its doors due to lack of funding.
Thus fell the video game world’s very own Rogue Squadron. To this day, it is a great tragedy that we have not received a new space combat in the Star Wars universe. The upcoming Star Wars Battlefront‘s Fighter Squadron mode is the closest we’ll get to the golden age of these space combat games for a while. Also, the Star Wars Battle Pod arcade machine is quite good. Go play it.
A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…
While the first Rogue Squadron was very story-based and took place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel pretty much abandoned the idea of story and just recreated the big space battles of the Original Trilogy, sprinkling in new missions here and there for connective tissue between big moments. Rogue Squadron II leaned heavily on nostalgia for the iconic battles, and although many of the game’s new missions are fantastic, its the Battles of Yavin, Hoth, and Endor that act as the game’s big “story beats.” There’s also an “Asteroid Field” hidden level that puts you in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon during the escape from Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back that’s one of my personal favorites. These recreations show Rogue Squadron II at its very best.
Many of the new missions are great, though, especially the very difficult “Razor Rendezvous,” which puts you in a B-Wing during the Battle of Kothlis, in which the plans to the Death Star II are stolen. You know: “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” Rogue Squadron’s objective is to help Luke Skywalker’s Rebel corvette escape with the plans before a Star Destroyer can intercept it. While the mission is fairly short in length and is really the first half of a two-part mission to steal those plans, it’s almost impossible to complete at first glance, as both TIE fighters and the Star Destroyer’s turrets are shooting at your fighter from every angle. After developing much better dodging skills and learning to shout quick commands to your wingmen, the mission is manageable enough, although you will die. A LOT.
Another great one is “Prisoners of the Maw,” the first mission where you solely play as Wedge, since Luke leaves the game during “Battle of Hoth” after being shot down. Flying the particularly slow, but powerful Y-Wing through the Maw, a cluster of black holes and asteroids near the spice mines of Kessel, Rogue Squadron’s objective is two-fold: help captured Rebels escape an Imperial prison and destroy the facility’s communications. The level is a perfect combination of the two most common objectives in the game: destroy targets and offer support. It’s exhilarating to follow the Rebel prisoners all over the prison, as they escape on train and eventually on an Imperial Shuttle. You have to take out guard towers, satellites, and TIE fighters in the meantime. The success of your mission depends on whether the soldiers escape.
Most of the new missions take place during The Empire Strikes Back or right after, leading up to the Battle of Endor, and revolve around preparing for the attack on Death Star II. One mission, “Imperial Academy Heist,” has you steal Tydirium, the shuttle that Han, Luke, and Leia will eventually fly into the forest moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi. While it’s exciting, tense, and also the only mission to involve a stealth operation, it’s also my least favorite in the game. Wedge can fly through Prefsbelt IV via airspeeder or Y-Wing, and must avoid Imperial sensor outposts as he makes his approach to the Imperial Academy where the shuttle is docked. But the game’s crazy pace, controls, and default flight speed doesn’t quite support the stealth approach, especially when the level ends in a bit of an anti-climax. What should be a fierce chase through the mountainous canyons of the planet and into space, aided by Rogue Squadron, ends in a pretty abrupt way, even if TIE fighters are on your tail. You reach a checkpoint and the level just kind of ends, as if it were a finish line. But then again, you just got to steal the Imperial Shuttle from Return of the Jedi, so I guess you can’t complain too much.
The third and last pre-Battle of Endor mission takes place on Bespin, where the Rebels desperately need to secure and steal the tibanna gas from the Empire in order to power their weapons and ships for the Death Star II attack. It’s a daring little sequence, as you zoom in on the incredibly fast, but low-shield A-Wing and then on an odd Cloud car. The mission isn’t particularly long, but the moments you spend on Bespin are some of the game’s graphical best. There aren’t many things better than zipping through the eternal orange sunset of Bespin, as you approach the towering Cloud City. Although kept to a particularly small sandbox for the most part, there’s a sense of scale in this mission that leads quite well into the Battle of Endor. Spend just a few minutes flying over Cloud City, avoiding turret fire as you fly low and into the trenches, and you’ll see what I mean.
Are You Sure You Can Handle This Ship?
I can’t declare this mission accomplished until I talk a little bit about the different ships themselves. Like I said above, the game culminates with the Battle of Endor, which gets two missions at the end of the game. These levels give you the option of flying any ship you want, including the default X-Wing, Y-Wing, A-Wing, B-Wing, Millennium Falcon, Slave I, the super sleek and fast Naboo starfighter, and even a Buick. Yup. You unlock most of these ships by finishing the respective levels in which they are introduced or via the miracle of cheat codes, which also offer you unlimited missiles and lives if you need them. I certainly never used them. Ehem.
There are also plenty of hidden upgrades in every level of the game. By taking the time to find them, often forcing you to abandon main objectives for a minute or two, you can upgrade your shields, lasers, speed, and even acquire the precious concussion missiles, which are a godsend in the final levels of the game. Rogue Squadron II is certainly manageable without these upgrades, but they do make your life a little easier in hectic moments. They’re certainly a must for those players who are spaceship nerds and want the most powerful ships possible.
That’s something special about this game: it doesn’t just focus on the missions themselves and the stories woven around them. Rogue Squadron II tells the stories of all the different ships and gives them personality. While in the hangar, you’ll be treated to plenty of commentary on ships’ origins and weapons classifications. Standing under the Millennium Falcon will immediately cue a voiceover about Han Solo’s mythic Kessel Run. Like picking your loadout in today’s first-person shooters, you’ll certainly spend a lot of time picking the right ship for the job. The variety of missions and settings allow you to strategize, but also get creative. I would not suggest, for example, that you charge the Death Star II with the Buick on your first try. But after you’ve mastered the mission with an X-Wing, the other options create almost a Game + and add tons of replayability. You’ll spend a lot of time in that hangar thinking things over or just listening to the commentary. I promise.
Every ship maneuvers differently, which forces you to really get to know them. The Millennium Falcon, while the coolest and fastest ship in the movies, is actually pretty slow in the game when compared to the TIE fighters on its tail. It’s a hulking vessel that’s not the best in fast-paced situations. In “Asteroid Field,” you can’t really outrun enemy fighters. Instead, you have to outsmart them by making them crash into asteroids, all while using your rear cannons and dodging blaster fire and very big rocks. And if you think “Strike at the Core,” the final mission of the game, is difficult with an X-Wing, try completing it with the much bigger Falcon. You’ll definitely lose more than an antenna on your first few tries.
Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader treats you to all of the ships you loved when you were a kid, whether you owned a Slave I model or hung TIE fighters from your ceiling or spent weekends reading Michael J. Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s great X-Wing novels. This game is the ultimate celebration of the most epic part of these films. While we were captivated by Luke’s spiritual journey to become a Jedi, it was the battles we brought the popcorn for, and Rogue Squadron II continues that great legacy.