Atari's Star Wars: Vector's Shining Moment
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
As much as I would like to believe in the illusion that I can fit an unlimited amount of huge wood boxes with electronics in my home (aka Arcade Games), the sad truth is room is getting tight for the collection in the old place. Although our house is decent in size, it is poorly arranged. Hopefully our next house will have a walk out basement, the ideal solution (a situation we hope to resolve in the upcoming years). The collection of 28 games is somewhat at its peak capacity right now, with 3-4 projects in the wings on top of those.
So, when my collector friend Robert made me an offer “I couldn't refuse” on a working Atari Star Wars, it required a bit of deep thought as which game would need to find a new home in order to fit another one in the collection. It wasn't a super difficult choice it turns out; the Defender was sold to another collector friend in Virginia. So why did Defender get the short end of the stick? Simple, we already have a Stargate with a JROK PCB in the cabinet which allows us to play an authentic version of Defender (among other classic Williams games) ... so having basically two Defenders made zero sense. The Defender was a wonderful instance and was rarely played or even turned on. I also put the red Donkey Kong up for grabs but as I type this, I have only had a series of tire kickers interested in it. Although DK isn't my favorite game, I don't mind hanging onto it either after all the work that went into it.
Atari's Star Wars is a brilliant game in so many different ways. As a game, it is an "ahead of its time" on-the-rails style space shooter with innovative graphics, digital voice samples, and excellent gameplay. What kid in the late 70's through early 80's didn't want a chance to blow up the Death Star in their own X-Wing fighter for aa quarter? Vector graphics had the ability to make passable wireframe style pseudo-3-D graphics in an era before polygons or more advanced processes. Using this technique, Atari was able to create a game engine that feels like you have free reign for your player and gives a true sense of depth and dimension in space.
The game runs with smooth animation, great control, and overall is a pretty immersive experience for 1983. Added to the experience is the amazing cabinet with a fun and easy to understand yoke style flight controller. The cockpit adds even more to the experience with the ability to truly feel like you are inside an X-Wing fighter. Atari really nailed it with this game from the real movie sound clips, to the great cabinet design with Darth Vader’s mug right on it. Star Wars sold very well for Atari and although wasn’t their last vector based arcade game, it would be the last one produced in large numbers.
Atari's Star Wars also ended a bit of a losing streak for Atari dealing with licensed properties for arcade or home gaming systems. Atari had attempted to offer versions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Krull, Gremlins, and famously E.T. for home systems (and computers) to little success. Other than Star Wars, arcade offering of licensed games was limited to only one officially released game based on Clint Eastwood's film Firefox. Firefox was also Atari's only Laserdisc game to be released, although both Battlestar Galactic and Road Runner Laserdisc games were planned (Road Runner would eventually come out, but in a non-laserdisc version).
Star Wars was shipped with the new (at the time) Amplifone color vector monitor in a 19-inch version, and 25-inch version for the cockpit game cabinet. Previously Atari color vectors (Tempest, Space Duel, Gravitar, etc.) had used the Wells Gardner 6100 monitors, and the Amplifone had several advantages. First, Amplifones moved the high voltage board and deflector boards to the sides of the cabinets instead of being mounted on a cage like the WG6100. The idea was to help with heat distribution since the WG6100 essentially used the monitor cage as a heatsink for the high output transistors (which commonly fail for many reasons). The Amplifone was also technically a higher resolution than the WG6100 and offered a faster redraw rate as well. Despite these advantages, it is common to see older WG6100 monitors as replacements in these machines. And like many Star Wars machines at some point mine had the original Amplifone switched to a WG6100 (which appears to have been previously in a Tempest). Although the WG6100 is compatible with Star Wars, there are some notable visual differences that take place if the monitors were to be viewed side to side in comparison while in operation. One of these examples is the Death Star explosion sequence at the end of a wave of gameplay is much more dramatic and controlled looking on the Amplifone monitor. The WG6100 tends to “bloom” the animation a bit during this sequence.
The reasons so many operators eventually changed the superior Amplifone monitors for older (usually from Tempest or other vector games they might have laying around) WG6100 monitors could have been because....
- An operator who grew weary of fixing the Amplifone monitor
- A lack of available parts
- Lack of proper knowledge to repair it
- The Amplifone might have had a catastrophic failure
- The operator simply didn't have the will or time to fix the Amplifone and put a known working WG6100 in the machine for a quick fix
Star Wars was one of those arcade games that stuck around in locations for a long time. The last one I remember seeing on location would have been around 1991 at an airport arcade. Pretty amazing for a game at that time would have been over 8 years old, an eternity for arcade games that still earn money. Most game titles from the classic era that somehow continued to make money for years and years (looking at you Ms.Pac-Man and Galaga) often would be repaired somewhat haphazardly as the years went by. So, for an operator with older games that a are still making some money but not a lot, you can see why they would slap an older known good monitor in a machine instead of attempting to spent time fixing the original one.
One amazing thing about this particular monitor is despite an ancient repair tag it appeared that most of the capacitors and transistors were all original. I went ahead and added the low voltage LV2000 mod as well as some fresh capacitors and replaced a few diodes for good measure. The monitor works well but still needs to be dialed in a bit more. Some of the letters can appear with "crooked" vectors sometimes. Some of these alignment issues probably have more to do with aging caps or transistors on the game PCBs than anything with the monitor.
Speaking of odd operator fixes or lack of fixes, check out this series of holes drilled into the bottom of each side of the cabinet! An obvious attempt to keep the game cool, so I can't fault the logic, but the execution is pretty terrible. The drilled holes aren't exactly even and do little to help the heat issues higher up in the game where the monitor lives.
The game also has a fair share of cigarette burns around the plastic bezel on the front (which is common for this title), people sure loved to smoke in the 80's! And there is the typical number of bangs and small cabinet woes that any almost 40-year-old arcade video game is going to have. Still, this is a solid survivor which has been relatively un-messed with over the years and seems mostly original with the exception of the monitor replacement. I do plan to fully restore the game with special attention to the cabinet damage, especially those series of holes on the sides.
One last interesting thing about this particular example of this game, is what I happened to notice when I was cleaning out the bottom of it. The inside bottom piece (where the power switch and cord live) was made out of a scrap piece of a Pole Position upright cabinet. This reusing of silk screened, or printed cabinet parts is common across all manufactures, who would cut up unused or defective cabinets for support pieces or interior cabinet parts. Still, it's pretty neat and shows that even Atari didn't want anything to go to waste.
Star Wars joins both finished and current project in the workshop, and since its arrival I have played it just about everyday inbetween school work. I am looking forward to it joining the other games in the arcade upstairs at some point in the future.