Star Wars has dominated every conceivable form of media since 1977, but one of the least commonly recognized is the franchise’s rich history in arcades. The arcade has experienced something of a renaissance over the last decade, and most major cities now host an arcade bar or two stuffed full of classic retro machines, with Dave & Busters reliably serving up more recent experiences.
Here’s a rundown of Star Wars’ rich arcade history, which titles to avoid, and what games absolutely deserve your quarters.
7. Star Wars Battle Pod (2014)
The most recent game on the list is also the worst. The big attraction here is the dome screen, with Namco Bandai’s machine billing itself as immersing you in a classic Star Wars dogfight. The sense of immersion is aided by you having to physically climb into the cabinet and shut the door behind you, neatly blocking out the bings and boops from the outside world.
Battle Pod is an impressive sight, but a bad game. It proves to be a very constrained on-rails shooter with a very low skill level, essentially asking you to hold the targeting reticule over enemy TIE Fighters as your fire homes in on them. Worse, it’s also wallet-drainingly expensive, with cabinets asking $4-5 for a single credit. To add insult to injury, that’s one credit per level, so even if you succeed, you have to pump in more cash.
By 2022, the large screen has lost some of its luster, with home release Star Wars: Squadrons blowing it out of the water in every respect (especially if you play in VR). Unless you’re fortunate enough to find it on Free Play, avoid.
As a footnote, this did technically get a home release, with Namco Bandai releasing a consumer version for (wait for it…) $35,000 plus shipping. So, if you want a bad arcade game for the price of a new car, here you go.
6. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1984)
Atari was on a roll with its Star Wars games in the early ’80s (more on them later) but took a slight swerve with Return of the Jedi. This ditches the gorgeous vector graphics in favor of raster sprites for an isometric shooter based on the key action sequences from the movie. You can pilot a speeder through the forest moon of Endor, pilot the Millennium Falcon through the Death Star II, then cycle between controlling an AT-ST on Endor and the Falcon in a fight against a Star Destroyer.
It’s a fairly attractive game for 1984 and all the Star Wars craft and locations are recognizable (there’s also some adorable Ewok sprites) and a lot of digitized voice samples. But it’s a very bare-bones shooter while also being ridiculously hard. To actually beat the game, you need to cycle through its three levels repeatedly, eventually earning an image of Yoda. We always love seeing that guy, but here it’s not worth the hassle.
5. Star Wars Arcade (1993)
This rare Sega shooter arrived near the beginning of its 1990s 3D arcade dominance. Released on the Model 1 board that also powered hits like Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter, it delivers a surprisingly sleek and playable starfighter experience, letting you pilot an X-Wing or Y-Wing through classic Star Wars battles.
The Star Wars aesthetic proves a great fit for flat-shaded polygons and has aged surprisingly well, with its final Death Star II reactor run particularly successful in rendering the brutal Imperial architecture. The only major downside is that actually finding a cabinet is very unlikely, as it wasn’t widely distributed outside Japan for some reason.
There was a 1994 home port on the ill-fated 32X add-on for the Genesis, but it’s substantially less pretty and smooth than the arcade original. If you’re lucky enough to spot it in the wild, don’t pass up the chance to play it.
4. Star Wars: Racer Arcade (2000)
Lucasfilm clearly realized that The Phantom Menace‘s pod-racing scene had video game potential early on, turning out the in-house Episode 1: Racer for Nintendo 64, PC, and Dreamcast around the time of the film’s release. But when it came to an arcade cabinet, it turned to the best in the biz: Sega.
By this time, Sega had moved past the Model series and NAOMI to the short-lived Hikaru arcade system. At the time, these were cutting-edge graphics beyond what even the PlayStation 2 could handle. But Racer Arcade isn’t just pretty, it’s also an innovative cabinet. As in the movie, you control a pod racer with two throttle controls, one for each engine. While the early Tatooine track is fairly straightforward, by the time you get to the film’s Boonta Eve Classic, you’re in for a tough race.
Racer Arcade isn’t too hard to track down and you might even find a slightly creaky cabinet at a Dave & Busters or theater lobby. Keep an eye out for the deluxe version, though, which recreates Anakin’s pod racer. Sadly, this never got a home port, though Episode 1: Racer was remastered on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC in 2020 if you’re really itching to race some pods.
3. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1985)
Atari’s second vector-based Star Wars game is great, though few people have ever played it. It arrived one year on from Atari’s Return of the Jedi and wasn’t even its own cabinet, instead marketed as a conversion kit for the 1983 Star Wars game. As that was still raking in the quarters, few arcade operators rolled the dice on changing things up.
They arguably missed out. Graphics are still wireframe, though better detailed and animated, with the AT-ATs looking particularly snazzy. Music quality and voice samples are noticeably better quality, and there’s much more variety between levels. Sometimes this pays off (the Hoth level) and sometimes it doesn’t (the finicky asteroid field).
The real problem is that finding an original cabinet is next to impossible. Even in the 1980s, it was so rare that many people doubted it really existed, and anyone with the1980s Atari cabinet nowadays is far more likely to have the much more popular Star Wars on it. However, there are other options (see below).
2. Star Wars Trilogy Arcade (1998)
Now we’re really talking. Star Wars was an excellent fit for Sega’s then cutting-edge Model 3 board and on release this offered the best-looking interactive Star Wars experience to date by a huge margin. Particularly refreshing is that the game moves away from the traditional Death Star run (though it’s still in here) for some more adventurous levels.
One is a rail-shooter in which you battle invading Imperial troops through the Rebel base on Hoth, another puts you behind the wheel of a speeder bike, and then you fight through the forests of Endor to disable the Death Star’s shields.
But the real highlight are the two “boss” levels, which let you wield Luke’s lightsaber as you take on Boba Fett and Darth Vader, with each saber impact generating a satisfying rumble of force feedback. Granted these are essentially quick time events, but facing down a beautifully-rendered Vader in first person was incredible at the time.
Of all the cabinets listed here, Trilogy Arcade is probably the most common. This was everywhere in the late ’90s and the sturdy cabinet has stood the test of time. Watch out for the stand-up cabinet in barcades and at least play as far as the lightsaber sections.
1. Star Wars (1983)
The simplest game on here is also the best. Atari’s groundbreaking 1983 cabinet put astonished players into the cockpit of an X-Wing and sent them off to destroy the Death Star. This neatly fulfilled the fantasies of every 1980s Star Wars fan and it became a gigantic hit, topping domestic and Japanese arcade charts and shifting an impressive 12,695 cabinets in its first year of release.
As with The Empire Strikes Back, the colorful 3D wireframe graphics have retro charm in spades, John Williams’ soundtrack is present and correct (in chiptune form), and the voice samples from the movie underline its authenticity. Simple hearing an arcade cabinet speak at all was a novelty, let alone Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi whispering for you to “Use the Force, Luke” when you’re speeding down the trench, with Vader admitting that “The force is strong with this one.”
While there are a lot of lovingly restored original cabinets out there in retro gaming centers, Arcade1Up has released a 3/4 scale stand-up cabinet containing this, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. It’ll set you back about $500, but if you’re crazy about Star Wars and want a talking point in your games room, look no further.
Sadly, there seem to be no plans for any future Star Wars arcade games, though a trip to a VR center should let you play the extremely fun Vader Immortal games on Oculus Quest. That game’s “Lightsaber Dojo” would make for a fine arcade experience, so perhaps Star Wars long arcade lineage hasn’t quite ended.