I was born in 1977, the year the first Star Wars film was released. I’m confident that when I die, even if I live to be 100, there will be another Star Wars film lighting up theaters or looming on the horizon, Jawa sandcrawler-style. What began nearly 40 years ago as a hopelessly dorky and old-fashioned space opera has become an inescapable cultural juggernaut, one that permeates and defines modern pop culture, and one that will undoubtedly continue to do so for decades to come. I grew up with and internalized Star Wars; my children and hypothetical grandchildren will likely do the same.
My Star Wars knowledge runs deep. I can rattle off random trivia about Aunt Beru and Sy Snootles. I can describe in detail the major and minor differences between the original films, the theatrical “Special Editions,” the DVDs of the “Special Editions,” and, yes, the Blu-rays of the “Special Editions.” I can passionately explain how Jar Jar Binks and Midi-chlorians aren’t to blame for the stunning shittiness of the prequels, and how it all rests with the fact that those films are mostly about people sitting in rooms and talking about fucking trade routes and “votes of no confidence” in the Galactic Senate or whatever. I occasionally dip into the Star Wars subreddit. I’m stoked for Episode VII.
And yet, for all that useless knowledge and troubling fandom, I wouldn’t consider myself a Star Wars nerd. (I use that term affectionately, of course.) I’ve never read any of the “Expanded Universe” novels, and I’m not sure what shape the Star Wars canon will be in after the release of The Force Awakens. (I think it’s going to be kind of fucked, right?) Maybe there’s some denial at work here—like people who have seen dozens of Pearl Jam concerts and yet don’t consider themselves, you know, Pearl Jam fans—but it seems like an important distinction. After all, obscure trivia and endless discussion of sci-fi minutiae are no longer relegated to fan ’zines and comic book shops. The Internet has made unwitting geeks of us all.
All of this is to say that on a recent Friday afternoon, I drove out to Dave & Buster’s in Wauwatosa for the sole purpose of playing the new Star Wars: Battle Pod arcade game. I’m not sure why I did it. Maybe it was because I was bored. Maybe it was because I was looking to give my inner dork a real-world stretch. Maybe it was because the game looked pretty fucking awesome.
Some background. Last week, a trailer for Star Wars: Battle Pod began circulating online. It looked pretty fucking awesome. First, this was a brand-new arcade game. Think about that for a moment: When was the last time you heard about a brand-new arcade game, much less saw a trailer for one? Second, it was a Star Wars arcade game that dropped you in the cockpit of various vehicles for five missions straight out of the original trilogy. (You get to pilot a snowspeeder on Hoth and a speeder bike on Endor!) Third, it wasn’t your average standup arcade: it was a battle pod, for Christ’s sake, an immersive, 1,200-pound behemoth that filled your field of vision, blasted your ears with licensed music and sound effects, and put you directly inside some of the most iconic scenes in sci-fi film history. The game was apparently headed for select arcades across the country. After making a joke on Facebook about organizing a Kickstarter to bring Star Wars: Battle Pod to Landmark Lanes, some friends mentioned that it was already at the Wauwatosa Dave & Buster’s. Less than 24 hours later, so was I.
So. Dave & Buster’s. This was my first time patronizing D&B, and I was pleasantly surprised. Far from the grubby kiddie laser-tag shack I was expecting (R.I.P. Fun World), it was a roomy, welcoming, carpeted, and comfortably “adult” complex. A bar beckoned on my left; a bar-style dining area beckoned on my right. In front of me was nearly every new or semi-new arcade game I could think of: an elaborate Transformers machine, a shiny Mario Kart co-op racer, a Terminator: Salvation shoot-em-up. Air hockey tables, Flappy Bird clones, prize redemption areas. Literally hundreds of games. It was definitely an arcade, but neither a seedy nor a sanitized one. Oh, and despite playing host to only two groups of kids and an Initech-style office outing that Friday afternoon, it was loud. Really, really loud. Like “seeing-Manowar-live-in-1984” loud.
After acclimating myself to the electronic noise, I began the hunt for my first catch of the day. (That’s a quote from Star Wars!) It didn’t take long. There it was, sitting smack dab in the middle of the room, between a Star Trek coin-pusher and three Rambo machine-gun shooters. Star Wars: Battle Pod. “New!” proclaimed a sign hanging above it. “It’s here!” It certainly looked impressive—big, bulky, formidable, Star Wars-y—and though it only casually resembled the escape pod C-3PO and R2-D2 hijack in A New Hope, it was a dead ringer for something out of Cronenberg’s The Fly. I imagined watching a naked Jeff Goldblum emerge from its mysterious innards, possibly carrying a baboon. Instead, I patiently waited for a 10-year old kid carrying a plastic bag stuffed with skee-ball tickets to finish up before stepping in myself.
So. Star Wars: Battle Pod. It is indeed a pod, one with a plastic hatch that can be opened and subsequently closed behind you, sealing you inside like a spacefaring droid. A projector beams the image on a large curved screen in front of you. A stick on your left controls your throttle; a stick on your right controls your aiming reticle and fires both normal and “special” weapons. Five missions await you: Yavin IV (the Death Star trench battle from A New Hope); Hoth; Endor; Death Star II (the Millennium Falcon attack on the Death Star from Return Of The Jedi); and something called “Vader’s Revenge.” I started with the easiest, Yavin IV, and mentally prepared my “Stay on target!” zinger.
And suddenly I was inside the cockpit of a T-65 X-wing, flying above and eventually inside the Death Star. TIE fighters zoomed past me. Rebel allies flanked me. Somewhere, Porkins was doing his thing. Shit was firing and shooting and blowing up and blowing up again on all sides. John Williams’ familiar theme blasted in my ears. I had no idea what was going on.
The first thing to hit me was the sound. If hanging out at Dave & Buster’s is the aural equivalent of going to a really loud show, then playing Star Wars: Battle Pod at Dave & Buster’s is like going to a really loud show, sticking some earbuds in your ears, cranking the volume to the max, playing a live recording of another really loud show, and smacking the side of your head with a brick. Mere seconds into lighting out for an attack on the Death Star, my ears were ringing and my equilibrium was thrown for a loop. I had no idea what was going on. The only other time this had happened to me was when my brother fired a 20-guage shotgun inches away from my left ear while we were duck hunting. (True story!) There may be no sound in space, but there’s a universe’s worth of racket in Star Wars: Battle Pod.
The graphics, it turned out, weren’t as impressive as the sound. Possibly due to their projected nature, the visuals in Star Wars: Battle Pod are a bit lo-res, more akin to a first-gen Xbox game than a state-of-the-art arcade. They’re light years beyond the (still-awesome) vector graphics of the 1983 Star Wars arcade, of course, but still nothing to write home about in 2015. They reminded me of the CGI Jabba from the “Special Edition” of A New Hope—and I’m not talking about the somewhat-improved DVD version. Serviceable, but underwhelming and awkward nonetheless.
Okay, on to the gameplay. There’s been a lot of grumbling online that the game is “on rails,” meaning it simply whooshes you through a preset path and offers only minimal interactivity. To which I would reply: No shit, it’s an arcade game. Were you expecting a free-roaming, open world Star Wars game where you’re able to dick around wherever you like? Explore every nook and cranny in space? Maybe take a leisurely trip around the Dagobah system? Save that shit for Pilotwings, ’cuz this is an arcade game. Stick in your money, get on, get pummeled for two minutes, get off, and fuck you.
Oh, about the whole “money” thing. On the day I played it, Star Wars: Battle Pod cost a staggering 15 credits to play. Yeah, 15 credits. For comparison, an old House Of The Dead 4 machine cost 6.5 credits. What does that mean in real-world currency? Well, $16 bought me 60 credits, meaning I could get my Battle Pod on for four times at $4 a pop. I wasn’t exactly expecting “insert-a-coin-to-continue” prices for a brand-new game, but still.
So back to that brand-new game. Before I knew what was happening, it prompted me to use my “special” weapon as I approached the Death Star’s exhaust port. I did, Han Solo said “Let’s blow this thing and go home,” my torpedoes found their mark, the thing blew up, and I was done. I had conquered the Yavin IV stage. It was kind of thrilling, but also kind of rushed and confusing. On to the next mission (and $4).
And so it went for the Battle of Hoth, the Battle of Endor, and the Battle of the Death Star Part II: The Lando-ing. Like most arcade games, there isn’t much skill involved in Star Wars: Battle Pod. You simply blast whatever’s in front of you (missing your mark drains your energy, discouraging you from simply firing non-stop), wait until the game tells you to hit a different button, hit it, and watch a quick victory cut-scene. (In the case of Endor, you get to enjoy a bunch of Ewoks jumping around, sans the “Yub Nub” song.) In other words, there’s not a lot of replay value. It’s more of a Star Wars ride than a Star Wars game.
But hell, there’s still a weird thrill hearing Admiral Ackbar cry “It’s a trap!” while you’re downing TIE Fighters, and the part where a Scout Trooper jumps on your speeder bike and you have to fling him off by slamming down on your throttle is pretty great. There are plenty of near-transcendent moments in Star Wars: Battle Pod, though maybe not enough to warrant playing through a level twice. After beating the Yavin IV stage, losing Hoth, beating Endor, beating Death Star II, and not playing Vader’s Revenge, I hung it up for the day. I headed for the door. Like Han near the end of A New Hope, I had collected my reward and was happy to hit the road. Attacking that battle station again was not my idea of courage. It was more like…suicide.
But not really, because in the end, Star Wars: Battle Pod left a good taste in my mouth. It was just the kind of Star Wars experience I was looking for: flashy, fluffy, fun, and not at all concerned with the feasibility of a lightsaber with a teeny-tiny lightsaber hilt. Was it worth a trip to Dave & Buster’s and $16? Sure. Was it a reminder of the bizarre and overwhelming ubiquity of the Star Wars franchise, and how it will be with me for the rest of my life? Definitely. Was the highlight of the entire experience when my wife solemnly said “Many Bothans died to bring you this level”? Absolutely.
So, again like Han, I turned back before leaving and gave Star Wars: Battle Pod one more shot. It was the least I could do. I closed the door, I stuck in four more dollars, I let myself go. I laughed. I had fun. I blew that thing and went home. Yub nub.