Lucasarts has had a pretty spotty track record as of late. Amidst a rash of departures by staff and game designers, we've still seen some really good games come down the pike, like Star Wars: Racer for instance. Conversely, there's been some god awful trash that nearly tarnishes the golden license that is Star Wars... namely, the Playstation port of The Phantom Menace. Coinciding with the release of The Phantom Menace on home video, we now have Jedi Power Battles to throw into the mix. And if you're worried that it is might be another blight on the sacred name of Star Wars, let me just say... I find your lack of faith disturbing. The developers have reached back into the past and drawn inspiration from such fun and challenging classics as the Super Star Wars series on SNES and even Ikari Warriors. The result is a very fun and very challenging adventure that is everything the previous Phantom Menace game should have been, and a great two-player cooperative game for the Playstation to boot!
The game is a loose riff on the adventure that was TPM, allowing you to choose from five Jedi and traipse about Naboo, Tatooine and Coruscant in relative correspondence to the film's events. It's a nice setup, in that you don't have the intrinsic tension I always felt in the old Super Star Wars games, where it seems you're performing the exact same tasks as in the movies, except that in the name of video game excitement, the power droid you saw in the movie for five seconds is suddenly a level ending boss. Jedi Power Battles plays as more of an "alternate history" to the events of The Phantom Menace, and in this spirit, you can choose from not only Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, but also three relatively unheralded members of the esteemed Jedi Council, Mace Windu, Plo Koon, and Adi Gallia. We all know who Mace Windu is (though his character remained thoroughly unexplored in this first film), and it's great to see a polygon-rendered Samuel L. Jackson kick ass with a lightsaber, if only as a harbinger of what's to come in Episode II. Plo Koon is something of a bruiser, and perhaps you remember him as the intriguing, silent alien with unexplained eye coverings and breathing apparatus (Lucas knows how to spark interest with just a moment's visual mystery), while Adi Gallia is one of the female members of the Council. She is remarkably quick, holds her lightsaber with an idiosyncratic back-handed grip, and can disorient her enemies through the Force.
The action begins on aboard the Trade Federation ship, and the first thing you'll notice is that this world is very well put together. This is no PC to Playstation port, and the console specific development really shows. It's got the same sort of solidity the best of the Playstation games have, despite the aging hardware (Tony Hawk comes to mind as a comparison). Before you know it you'll be slicing and dicing your way through tons of well rendered, well animated battle droids. The game is basically a hack-and-slasher, but with a huge amount of options in the attack department. Besides the basic differences in style, strength, and speed between characters, each has their own set of force attacks and combos which are earned and added to along the way, Qui-Gon's force push (just like in the movie) being just one of them. The lightsabers in this game are just awesome, with no two characters possessing the same exact style or stroke. But even all this mystical artillery and fancy sworplay can't compare to the simple, beautiful act of deflecting laser blasts with one's lightsaber, which I finally feel has been done justice in a video game. Sure, The Phantom Menace Playstation game let you deflect laser blasts back at your enemies, but they somehow turned it into a mindless skill, where, in fact, all you had to do was hold down one button to get the desired effect. Add to that the fact that your enemies were often off-screen, and you have the recipe for SUCK. If there's anything in Jedi Power Battles that really gives you that Jedi fix (which I know you crave), this is it. Let me explain a bit about how they did it... it's quite simple and elegant!
First of all, the game uses a targeting system not unlike Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. A single button press will lock you on to the closest target, after which you can move around that target without losing the directionality you need to attack. You can do sideways somersaults to evade their attacks, Adi Gallia even does backflips... whatever. It's neat. Anyway, when you lock on to a target, all you need do to press the block button to deflect an incoming laser blast. However, in order to deflect it back at the target, you must wait until the last minute to press block, which actually introduces some skill and timing into the process, and also increases the chance that you'll flub, getting a laser nip in the rear instead. Given the number of enemies there are (many) and the fact that the laser blasts are coming in at a semi-realistic clip (well, they move at the same rate they do in the films), it can get pretty hairy. But when it works, it's golden.
So I've compared the game to the old Super Star Wars games, as well as the good old two-player NES shooters like Ikari Warriors. But with that warm evocation of a simpler age comes a dark side. Do you remember how frustrating those games used to be? Call me a fool, but the Super Star Wars series was simultaneously the coolest and most ridiculously frustrating series I've ever played. Well, it all carries over. First off, Jedi Power Battles is pretty damn tough, especially at the Jedi difficulty setting. There are also a lot of tough platforming elements, only made tougher in the two player game. Make sure you're playing with someone you like, because when you miss a jump because the camera was following the other player, it's better if you can simply laugh it off. There's a good 16-bit era feel to the difficulty, in that a level will at first appear enormously difficult, until you slowly realize what strategy to take, how to pace your power-ups, and how to best to approach the bosses. And yes, there are level ending bosses in the grand old style, though they are a bit less ridiculous than, say, being attacked by that eye in Jabba's gate like in Super Return of the Jedi.
Even with the camera problems the two-player game introduces, I really recommend you play this with a friend. Being able to get each other out of jams, employing the finest tenets of the Force by giving your partner that power-up instead of taking it yourself, marching into a hangar full of battle droids and simultaneously mowing them down with their own blaster fire, it just feels good. And there's some really neat stuff you can do together, like in the Theed level, where you commandeer a Trade Federation AAT (those are the tanks that come up over the grassy hill towards the end of the movie). One player drives the tank while the other operates the turret and firepower. Come to think of it, that's really a great section of the game, as you maneuver through the labyrinthine streets of Naboo's capital, just mowing down Destroyer droids and other Federation tanks (it feels a lot like the tank portion of Tron, actually). But the game is full of that kind of neat stuff, employing the Star Wars mythos (if mainly the newer aspects of it) in all the right ways. And if you're one of those who felt let down by the movie, and aren't sure what to make of the house that Lucas built these days, all this hot lightsaber action might get you back on the path. Did I mention that Jar Jar's appearance is mercifully brief?