The Lost Treasures of LucasArts

Posted: December 16, 2011 in Retro

This Belongs in a MUSEUM!

Most people are aware of the fact that LucasArts makes games based on Star Wars and other LucasFilm properties. If you’ve been gaming for any length of time, you’ve probably at least heard of their graphic adventures from the golden days of the ’90s. In the time before they began churning out soulless Star Wars filler, they were quite a respected studio that made games in numerous genres. While most well-remembered are their adventure games like Monkey Island and Sam & Max, they surveyed and experimented in a wide variety of genres and styles. This is a look at a few of their more obscure titles.

Most of these games haven’t seen a re-release since the 1990s, and as such are “lost” to time for most of us.

Zak McCracken and the Alien Mindbenders

Known to hardcore LucasArts adventure gaming fans but to few others, Zak McCracken was the second game to use the original SCUMM engine after Maniac Mansion. Another humorous adventure in the vein of  Maniac Mansion, for some reason this one tends to fade into the background (despite having some excellent box art by Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell). It was received well enough to warrant a fan-made sequel, however, which is pretty easy to find online.

Outlaws

Think the Red Dead series was the first to take inspiration from Spaghetti Westerns? This little-known FPS running on an enhanced version of the Dark Forces engine will prove you wrong.  Putting you in the shoes of a US Marshall hunting down bandits that murdered his wife and kidnapped his daughter, it’s one of the very small number of games with an Old West setting (the only other I can think of from the ’90s is Konami’s arcade title Sunset Riders). Typical of LucasArts at the time, it’s a highly polished game with great production values. More specifically, it’s got a terrific soundtrack by longtime LucasArts composer Clint Bajakian which appropriately channels maestro Ennio Morricone. It maintains a small cult following to this day – not least of which is Doom co-creator John Romero.

Afterlife

Afterlife Disco InfernoA unique twist on the city management sim that has you managing Heaven and Hell. The game is one of the funniest sims out there, and doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. Like SimCity, there are a variety of disasters that can befall your civilization, including Hell literally freezing over and the classic Disco Inferno, as well as game-ending disasters like the Four Surfers of the Apocalypso. It’s a goofy and very fun take on the genre, although it never gained much popularity. It was also LucasArts’ first take on a game set in the hereafter, a concept they would later revisit in Tim Schaefer’s cult classic, Grim Fandango.

Battlehawks 1942/ Their Finest Hour/ Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe

Before the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series of sims, designer Larry Holland created a trilogy of World War II flight sims that showed the war from both the Allied and Axis points of view.  Before this, most games covered only American and British planes. Battlehawks covered the Pacific Theatre, bringing both American and Japanese planes to the forefront. Their Finest Hour covered the Battle of Britain in considerable detail, and was one of the first games to cover the conflict (considering both Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator and IL-2 Sturmovik have games based around it, one can consider it to be the WWII equivalent to the Battle of Hoth). Secret Weapons of The Luftwaffe was interesting in that it primarily focused on experimental aircraft like the Me-262 jet and flying-wing type planes.

While Holland would later create a game called Secret Weapons Over Normandy, it wasn’t quite the spiritual successor many had hoped for, being more of an Ace Combat or Rogue Squadron-styled arcade flight shooter. It wasn’t bad though. In fact, it was a really fun game – it just didn’t have the detail, or the view from both sides of the war. It did have plenty of callbacks to Holland’s earlier WWII games though, which was a nice addition.

Indiana Jones’ Desktop Adventures/Yoda Stories

I may be pushing the limits of the word “treasures” here – historical curiosity may be more appropriate – but in any case, in 1996 and 1997, LucasArts released two games that, instead of going for storytelling or deep gameplay, were more like a heavily simplified take on the Zelda games that could be played on the desktop. The games featured procedurally generated levels and every adventure could be completed in about half an hour. So basically it was an early foray into the world of casual games. But overall, not too bad in the pre-broadband age if you wanted to play something in class that could be quickly minimized (and were sick of Minesweeper and Chip’s Challenge).

Loom/The Dig

These ones aren’t quite as obscure as the others, but are still not as well-known or widely appreciated as the more comedic adventure games in the LucasArts library. The Dig is a science-fiction themed adventure game that was based on a story that Steven Spielberg was originally developing for his Amazing Stories TV show. It’s much more serious than most of LucasArts’ more humorous offerings, and as such didn’t play as much into their usual market. It also suffered from numerous production delays. It’s still a very good game, however.

Loom is also a more serious game, featuring a plot with less dialogue and more visual and musical cues (most of them motifs from Swan Lake). The game features puzzle solving and spellcasting via musical notes (not unlike Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would do seven years later), which are used to solve puzzles rather than the typical adventure game style of finding and combining items.  The game was designed by former Infocom dev Brian Moriarty and featured an in-box audio drama that helped set the stage for the game’s fascinating story and setting. It’s a game with a very unique style that I haven’t seen replicated much elsewhere. While the game has a fantasy setting, it’s not a run-of-the-mill Tolkienesque fantasy. It has a very unique world you’re not likely to see replicated elsewhere, especially in today’s “we fear change” game industry.Loom Screenshot

Loom and The Dig are available on Steam, the only two on this list to so far escape total obscurity.

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Comments
  1. Chad you may be interested if you’ve not caught these before – I interviewed the authors of Loom (Brian Moriarty) and Zak McKracken (David Fox part 1) and part 2) earlier in the year. I also wrote about the the origins of Lucasarts which goes back to 1982.

  2. I remember playing Their Finest Hour on my brother’s Amiga back in the primordial ooze of the early ’90s. I had absolutely no idea how it worked.

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