A History of Lightsaber Combat in Video Games

Star Wars video games have experienced a lot of variety over the franchise's long history with the industry. Gamers have been able to enjoy everything from flight simulators to Doom-like shooters, all with the charm of a galaxy far, far away. In all of that time, however, one thing has remained central to the Star Wars gaming experience, and that is the dream of swinging a lightsaber. The elegant weapon of the Jedi is perhaps one of the most iconic symbols in the whole franchise, and that legacy has been maintained in no small part by its usage in dozens of video games over the years.

Wielding a lightsaber is one of the ultimate fantasies for many Star Wars fans, and for almost as long as the property has existed, video game developers have done what they can to tap into that desire. Star Wars got its start around the same time as the video game industry, so gamers have been able to experience a clear progression of lightsaber mechanics alongside the development of video game technology as a whole. It can be easy to forget that lightsaber combat was once very simplistic, but recognizing its evolution can help build an appreciation for what's available today, as well as predict what might come in the future.

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Lightsaber Combat's Humble Beginnings

The original Star Wars trilogy brought with it a number of rudimentary video game releases of varying quality, but the early 90s is when the franchise really started to dive into lightsaber combat mechanics. 1991's Star Wars and 1992's Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back took an approach to lightsabers that wasn't too different from other action-platformers at the time. Gamers would just swing the weapon in front of them as if it were a sword in any other Legend of Zelda or Castlevania game, except the accompanying sounds and visuals would provide the lightsaber distinction. There wasn't much depth to it, but it was a start.

It was with the release of Super Star Wars on the SNES that the first major innovations in lightsaber combat would really start to take shape. While the game still had players swinging at anything that moved, there was much more variety to the available attacks. Players could attack with their lightsaber while jumping, in mid-air, and when running towards enemies. There was also a much greater sense of speed and style to the general movements of the weapon, which helped players feel more like a Jedi and less like someone who started swinging around a lightsaber they just found on the ground.

Finding A Balance Between Nuance And Fun

As the 90s turned into the 2000s and video games evolved into the third dimension, there was a marked improvement in lightsaber combat across Star Wars games. Two different design philosophies started to take shape regarding how lightsabers should be approached in any given title. On one side, a focus on technical lightsaber mechanics was discovered, where players have almost total control over the movement of their lightsaber and how they attack or defend. On the other side, there were games that were more concerned with letting players feel like an all-powerful Force user, turning the lightsaber into one of the ultimate video game weapons.

There have been multiple manifestations of these design philosophies over the years, but few encapsulate them better than Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Jedi Academy falls into the category of almost being a lightsaber combat simulator. Players have complete control over their combat style, and each lightsaber battle reflects a chess match of perfectly executed attacks. The Force Unleashed reflects the ultimate Star Wars power fantasy, as players are not only given incredibly destructive Force abilities, but the lightsaber combat is some of the most energetic and brutal in any game.

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The State Of Lightsaber Combat Today

Ever since EA took over the development of all major Star Wars games about ten years ago, there haven't been many great strides towards evolving lightsaber gameplay past what was done with games like The Force Unleashed. One of EA's first tries at creating its own lightsaber combat mechanics was with 2015's Star Wars Battlefront, and they were hardly what fans were looking forward to. When it came time for EA's Star Wars Battlefront 2, there were some impressive changes to lightsaber combat that made characters feel more distinct, but there was often still an underlying desire for more depth from some fans.

This brings Star Wars gaming to one of its most recent major releases, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. The numerous accolades that the game has received over the years are a testament to the game's quality, and the one spot where it really shines is in lightsaber combat. Fallen Order's combat is largely reflective of games like Dark Souls, where the focus is well timed blocks and attacks. There is still a great sense of power in wielding the lightsaber, but by employing Soulslike mechanics, the game manages to create a more engaging experience than if players could thoughtlessly swing their lightsaber around.

The evolution of lightsaber combat over the years is one of the more impressive ways of showing just how much game development has changed since the early days of the industry. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order set a sort of standard for modern lightsaber combat, and with Fallen Order 2 and KOTOR Remake reportedly on the way, it should be interesting to see how mechanics might change from here. With EA's Star Wars exclusivity contract coming to an end soon, there's going to be a lot of developers that could put their spin on lightsaber combat over the next few years.

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