Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith

While Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight had some flaws, it also contained more than a few elements that made it endearing to me and a legion of other fans. It was the story of Kyle Katarn’s ascension from a freelance blaster-toting fighter to a member of either the Jedi Order or ruler of the Sith, depending on your choices. Traditional shooter gameplay gave way to using Jedi force powers and spectacular (at the time) lightsaber duels. Combine the enthralling gaming experience with the delightfully cheesy live-action story videos, and you have a game that’s better than the sum of its parts.

Imagine my delight when I saw that this game I loved was getting an expansion that not only dealt with the Sith, but featured Mara Jade as the lead character! A new game with Mara Jade, nemesis of Luke Skywalker turned ally, was a big deal. After all, this was 1998; the peak of the Expanded Universe for Star Wars fans. Considering Lucasarts’ track record, there didn’t seem to be any downside to having high expectations. Just look at this box art! Mara Jade! Purple Lightsaber! RANCOR!!!

Okay, so it’s just the manual but it’s all I managed to hang on to for 21 years.

Unfortunately, Mysteries of the Sith is the least fun I’ve ever had while playing a Star Wars video game.

That’s not saying that the game has aged badly, even though it has. It’s more a reflection of the lack of quality found in the game at the time it was released. In fact, the thing I remember most about my first attempt to play the game was encountering a progression-stopping bug that either forced me to restart it or wait for a patch to be released.

Both Jedi Knight and MotS have some shared quirks. There’s a unique feel to the movement and the action that’s only present in games built in the Sith engine. Because the games were developed in the early years of three-dimensional shooters, everything is big and blocky. And while Jedi Knight embraced this and gave players huge and expansive levels to explore, MotS traded these for medium-sized levels that are packed with more non-player characters and scripted sequences.

I could list off a laundry list of things I observed in my experience with the game, but ultimately I think it boils down to four distinct failures:

Failure #1 Mysteries of the Sith starts off by giving the player control of Kyle Katarn.

By itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Players were familiar with Kyle, and starting a new game with a lightsaber and full suite of force powers is a good way to get straight to what made Jedi Knight shine. Unfortunately, the game’s introduction takes a long time; four of the fourteen levels belong to Kyle instead of Mara Jade. Though she’s present in between missions during the cutscenes, I started to wonder if I’d ever get to play the game’s marquee character.

Finally, after spending two hours repelling a generic Imperial attack on a nondescript base players are given a glimpse of what this game is all about:

At the end of the fourth mission, Kyle abruptly leaves the story to go and pursue rumors of a Sith temple on a faraway planet. This leaves the player to take control of Mara and not do anything related to mysteries or Sith.

Failure #2After immersing the player to fun, competent mechanics it strips all of them for a restart almost 1/3 of the way through the game.

You’re finally in control of Mara Jade on the fifth mission. Jedi student to Kyle, her force abilities are considerably weaker than his. Forget about the first two hours of the game that you spent wielding a lightsaber to block blaster bolts and force-pull enemy weapons out of their hands. You’re a padawan now! While it makes sense from a story perspective, it makes the game instantly less fun to play.

Mara is unable to reliably block enemy shots with her lightsaber, and her force powers are weak and seem to take ages to recharge. It’s much more effective to equip a blaster and shoot everything that moves. Forget about being a Jedi until you can level up your force powers.

Leveling up your force powers happens between missions. Completing mission objectives will usually give you a point or two to apply to a power of your choice. What’s stated in the manual but not in the game itself is that extra upgrade points are awarded for discovering secret areas. I missed a lot of secret areas, so by the time I got to the end of the game I felt like Mara was significantly under powered to face the uncertainty that was waiting for me. Speaking of the end of the game:

Failure #3The key selling point of the game, Mysteries of the Sith, isn’t embraced until the last three missions.

There are fourteen missions in MotS. Kyle makes a vague reference to a Sith temple at the end of mission four, but the player doesn’t actually do anything related to mysteries or Sith until mission 12. So what the heck happened in the middle seven missions? A lot, and nothing.

Mara is sent to secure supplies from a Hutt gangster, who sends her to steal something from one his rivals. In the process of doing this Mara is captured and sent to a dungeon. Eventually she faces off against a Rancor with nothing but her lightsaber and an array of weak force powers. It sounds a lot more fun than it actually was. Fighting a Rancor involved a lot of saving, dying, and reloading while I figured out how I was actually supposed to survive the sequence. There was so much potential for a fun game, but the way the game was executed really sucked the fun out of it.

By the time I got to Dromund Kaas, the location of the Sith temple, I was ready for the game to be over. The last few levels have a ton of creepy atmosphere, but there are a bunch of new elements thrown at the player for them to figure out.

No weapon except your lightsaber will function on the Sith planet. There are creepy statues that block your passage unless you use your power of force persuasion. Scattered about are a few tiny Ysalamiri that sapped my force powers. Oh, and there are some traps and hidden sinkholes that appear without warning and kill you in about three seconds.

And can we spend a minute to talk about the encounter with ‘Evil Mara’? In the first level on Dromund Kaas, Mara enters a foreboding structure to find a darker mirror of herself. She’s dressed in black and wielding an orange lightsaber like Kyle’s. This begins your first lightsaber duel in the game. It had the potential to be really cool, but wound up being nothing but a pile of frustration. My under-leveled force powers were a severe liability here as I tried to cope with Evil Mara’s frequent bursts of force lightning. While I died after about 3-5 hits with a lightsaber, Evil Mara took close to thirty before finally going down.

What wound up happening is a vicious cycle of save, hit, save, hit, die, reload, repeat.

Never mind the fact that I still don’t know exactly why I was fighting against an evil version of myself. My best guess is that it’s supposed to mirror’s experience in the cave on Dagobah during The Empire Strikes Back. In the movie, there are enough subtle and overt clues to let the audience know that this is a warning to him not to fall to the dark side. Mara’s experience in the game, however… I still don’t quite know how to interpret that.

I still have a lot of questions about the direction of the game and I think the answer to them is:

Failure #4The developers had ambitions for a game bigger than the one they wound up making

In short, I get the feeling that the developers had far more ambition than they had resources to realize their vision. 1998 was a legendary year for action games on PC, so I’d guess that MotS had to be released early in order not be competing with other big titles. Releasing a scant five months after Jedi Knight, it’s possible development was rushed to meet deadlines.

While I don’t know how exactly we got the game we did, I do know what it’s like to play now. And it’s not fun. Really. I don’t recommend anyone play this; it’s just not worth it.

It took me about eight hours to beat the entire game. I recorded all of it and cut out about three hours of frustration, wandering, and failing to give you my definitive play though experience. Most videos have some hopefully humorous annotation to give you a glimpse into my madness while playing:


Mysteries of the Sith has some good qualities and a lot of bad ones. There is a wealth of great concepts present here, and most of them were executed flawlessly in 2002’s sublime Jedi Outcast. But that’s a game for another post…

Star Wars: X-Wing

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. […] On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow.

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. This is the first time gamers had the ability to freely pilot the iconic starfighters we all know and love without the “on-rails” limitations of arcade cabinets. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re blasting TIEs left and right and waging war against the bad guys! On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow. Those missing elements accumulate in your mind over long play sessions to create an experience that is ultimately one of frustration with moments of bliss scattered about.

In terms of gameplay, X-Wing is something of a “lite” simulator. It’s not as daunting as the fully fledged flight simulators of the late 90s, but it’s decidedly more complex than the Star Wars arcade shooters from the 1980s. Simulation aspects are present in the function of your starship as well as the mission design. Your fighter has a limited amount of energy which must be used to run three vital components: engines, shields, and lasers. A certain amount of skill and tactical awareness is required in order to make sure your ship can do everything it needs to do in the heat of battle. For example, increasing your laser recharge rate and leaving your shields at the default maintenance level will reduce your speed by about 12%. This means you have to make some tactical decisions when approaching a dogfight. It’s somewhat safe to sacrifice some speed to charge your lasers while piloting the nimble A-Wing or the X-wing, but this slowness can be a death sentence in the Y-Wing. These limitations placed upon your starfighter always make sense in the world of X-Wing and never feel like a frustrating game handicap.

Ludicrous Speed! Er, wait...
The “E L S” indicators near the center-right of your cockpit show your energy settings.

The missions also introduce some variety that goes beyond just blowing up every Imperial in sight. You might be tasked with assisting in the capture of an Imperial transport, but before you can do that you need to fly close and inspect multiple starships to figure out which one holds the quarry you’re after. Other missions have goals that are tailored to the ship you’re piloting. A number of capture missions see you pilot the Y-Wing so you can use the ion cannons to disable the appropriate craft. One of my favorites requires you to pilot the nimble A-Wing through an Imperial convoy to identify all the enemy ships present. Sure, you could try to be a hotshot and blow up some of the TIEs that launch and pursue you, but that means slowing down enough so as to be vulnerable to turbolaser fire from capital ships. It’s a risk that’s demonstrably not worth taking. Missions where you’re allowed to play a specific part in a battle, and not perform every action on your own, are the ones that are most fun (and memorable).

Unfortunately for you, the game consistently requires you to fly missions and complete objectives almost singlehandedly. You do have wingmates and other friendly allies, but most of them lack any discernible sign of intelligence and are about as useful in combat as a pet rock. Perhaps the scripting language of 1993 wasn’t detailed enough to write complex AI routines, or maybe this was an intentional design decision to reinforce the feeling of the Rebel Alliance fighting as the underdog against the Galactic Empire. Whatever the reason, the effect is still the same: your allies rarely do more than the design of the mission requires them to do. If your mission as a Y-Wing pilot is to disable a shuttle, you may have X-Wings to cover you while that happens. But the moment the shuttle is disabled and the mission scripting moves on to the next event those X-Wings will be gone, leaving you to deal with squadrons of TIE Interceptors and Assault Gunboats all by your lonesome. Occurrences like this would be fine if they could rationally be explained within the context of the game, but as things are your continual abandonment makes no sense. Why wouldn’t faster, sturdier fighters; X-Wings; stick around to escort the entire capture operation instead of leaving a sluggish bomber; Y-Wings; to singlehandedly protect a target of interest?

Abandonment
Red Leader leaves you hanging again. How typical. Be prepared to see this message. A lot. 

The other major frustration is that since you have to complete most of the objectives yourself, many missions will feel more like puzzles than combat simulations. Frequently, you’ll be assigned with flying a long way downrange of your starting position to take out a squadron of bombers, then be required to hightail it back past your start position to protect some other helpless craft. Everything seems to be going well except… Oh wait, there was another squadron of bombers you missed in your first engagement and they destroyed a mission critical craft. Time to start the mission over and play through 12 minutes to do it again in a different sequence. The missions in the original campaigns aren’t totally horrible; it’s a fair mix of puzzle missions and straightforward assignments. However, the difficulty is significantly ramped up in the B-Wing expansion. So much so that hints for each mission are available during the briefing before the mission starts, should you choose to see them.

The most frustrating puzzle for me was the final mission of the original game: the Death Star trench run. What was supposed to be the crowning moment of the game turned into repeated frustration. Starting above the surface of the Death Star, your first goal is to make it to the trench. Once you get there R2-D2 does his job and increases the power output to your engines, almost tripling your speed.  This helps you evade enemy fire and lessens your time in the trench, but it’s not enough. No matter what I tried; shooting turbolaser batteries, charging everything on full, hiding behind pillars to preserve my shields; I got blown up every time. I’m ashamed to admit that I had to look up what turned out to be, to me, a completely counterintuitive solution: Once you’re in the trench you need to set shields and laser recharge to zero and put all energy to the engines. That’s right, run the Death Star trench with no lasers and no shields. If you furrow your brow and look at it from an angle it might make sense from a story perspective: How else could Vader pick off Rebel fighters with two laser blasts in A New Hope? Because they had no shields! But from a gameplay perspective, it’s totally counterintuitive. After playing three dozen missions where managing your fighter to have sufficient shields and laser power at all times is essential to your survival, having the final and most dangerous mission force you to abandon them completely is mind boggling.

And that’s the thing about X-Wing: For every moment of sheer joy, there’s an equal moment of raw frustration.

Successful trench run
Darn it Jim! I’m a spaceship pilot, not a puzzle-solver! Also: Look, no shields! At all!

Note: There are officially three versions of the game, all of which can be found and played today: 

  1. 1993 – Original release – 320 x 240 native resolution, iMuse soundtrack, limited voiceovers
  2. 1994 – Rerelease – 320 x 240 native resolution, runs in upgraded TIE Fighter engine, iMuse soundtrack, many voice parts
  3. 1998 – Collector’s CD-ROM – 640 x 480 native resolution, certain menus and cutscenes redone in higher resolution, polygons (ships and other objects) have textures instead of plain shading, music taken from the soundtrack of the movies plus quality audio

The 1994 version of the game might be worth a quick install just for an understanding of how the iMuse score works; it’s a system that dynamically matches the background music to match the action happening within the game. Not much going on? Slow, relaxing themes abound. Sudden appearance by an Imperial Start Destroyer? The score seamlessly shifts to the Imperial March. It’s quite effective at evoking the feel of Star Wars. However, the super-low resolution visuals and detailess models make for a somewhat painful playing experience. It’s just too “chunky” and jagged to flow right. When flying the Death Star trench run to grab some screenshots I crashed into the surface more than once because I couldn’t tell how close I was to the single shade of solid gray beneath me. Unless you have a nostalgic urge to experience the ’93 or ’94 versions, stay away from them. This retrospective was written about the 1998 version of the game, and is the one I recommend playing.

Regardless of what version you play the game’s menus, cutscenes, and transitions are beautifully rendered in a style that’s barely aged over 23 years. Yes they are a bit “chunky” and you can tell they were done a long time ago, but that doesn’t diminish their appeal. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of these even after the game ages another two decades. .

Transition cutscene
Pixelated, yes; but still beautiful!

The Final Raving – Qualified Endorsement OR Don’t Bother

If you like Wing Commander, TIE Fighter or Descent: Freespace, then this might be worth your time. However, be prepared for some experiences that can’t help but feel primitive. X-Wing might be best left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

This one is a tough call. If you love Star Wars or space combat games in general, you have to play X-Wing if for no other reason than to experience a slice of gaming history. However, if you’ve only ever played the later games in the series or other more modern space games it’s going to be very hard to enjoy X-Wing for what it is. If you’ve never played any Star Wars space sims and wanted to get started with one, I’d have to suggest you skip ahead to TIE Fighter.

Good:

  • Nails the desperation of fighting for the underdog
  • Distinct gameplay differences between the available ships
  • Moments of theatricality hint at the greatness later games will achieve

Bad:

  • You’re not fighting for the Rebel Alliance, you are the only Rebel alive
  • Mission design gets repetitive about 2/3 through the game
  • The game doesn’t give you enough feedback during missions to let you know exactly what you need to be doing

Ugly:

  • Visuals of ’93 and ’94 versions are just too difficult to adjust to today

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • I own these through GOG.com, and they work flawlessly in Windows 10. You can play the ’93 and ’94 versions using a mouse, but a joystick is required for the ’98 edition. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend playing any edition of the game without a joystick.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Your shields will recharge at an impossibly slow rate, so it’s not usually worth it to increase the power to them. Instead, give your lasers maximum power and shunt energy from them to your shields. It’s always faster to do it this way.
  2. You will be required to blow up a Star Destroyer on more than one occasion. The shield generator towers really do supply deflector shields. Take them out with three torpedoes each and your job becomes much easier
    BwingShields
  3. Once a ship’s shields are down, disable it! This buys you some time to deal with the other interference that will undoubtedly be surrounding you.
  4. Disable what you can, and then leave it there. A lot of missions are scripted to send new waves of ships into battle after one wave is destroyed. In the case of Assault Gunboats in particular, disabling one wave may prevent a new wave from joining the battle.

Details

Release Date:

  • Original Game: 1993
  • Expansion #1 – Imperial Pursuit: 1994
  • Expansion #2 – B-Wing: 1994

Developer: Totally Games

Publisher: Lucasarts

Where to buy: Steam & GOG.com – $9.99

Screenshot Gallery