When most people think of brilliant Star Wars video games, they’ll think of Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic, or classic PC space simulations like X-Wing and TIE Fighter. Retro Nintendo fans will also no doubt have a fondness in their hearts the incredibly difficult Super Star Wars trilogy for the SNES.

Star Wars’ history with video games is so expansive; almost everyone can recall their first digital voyage into the galaxy far, far away. Mine was relatively late, with the 2001 Gamecube launch title Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader.

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The first Rogue Squadron, released for the PC and Nintendo 64 in 1998, was an arcade-style space combat game featuring many iconic areas and ships from the original trilogy, all recreated with incredible detail for the time.

Yet, despite being one of the first games to make use of the N64 Expansion Pak, Rogue Squadron still covered up its low draw distance with unfortunate fog effects. A spiritual successor, Battle for Naboo, was released two years later and fixed the fog problem to a degree, but it was obvious Factor 5’s ambition was destined to be realized on a more powerful system.

Thankfully Nintendo’s GameCube was right around the corner, and the second Factor 5 got its hands on a development kit they began work on the true sequel, Rogue Leader, just in time for the launch of the little purple box. Not only did the developers improve on their previous work, but they also created one of the best looking GameCube games that still holds up, even today.

From the beginning it’s clear how much reverence the game holds for the original Star Wars trilogy, with even the title screen showing edited clips of iconic moments from the films. Not only that, but the first proper mission transports you into perhaps the most significant space battle in the franchise’s history– the attack on the first Death Star.

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In this mission you of course control Luke Skywalker, flying over the jagged surface of the space station while blasting defense turrets and taking down TIE fighters. This is combined with the ability to order the rest of Red Squadron with the D-pad, giving you some semblance of control over the chaotic battlefield.

Eventually the ships fly down and enact the original movie’s showstopper– the Death Star trench run. The claustrophobic atmosphere, the terror of rapidly incoming beams and pipes, and the encroaching TIE Fighters are all accounted for. Even the loss of your wing-men is scripted, followed by Han Solo’s belated rescue, and, finally, you must use the Force. It is genuinely one of my favorite video game openings, and it was a spectacular early showcase of the Gamecube’s capabilities.

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Unfortunately, this amazing introduction almost works against the game as a whole, as by opening with the showstopper the subsequent missions almost seem like a step down. They’re still fun; after all, what’s more satisfying than tying up the legs of AT-ATs with a Snowspeeder’s tow cable? But for the most part, nothing else really captures the immediate thrill of that initial Death Star’s destruction (apart from, well, the rather predictable final level of the game).

That’s not to say Rogue Leader is a simple game, however. Fittingly for it’s arcade-style gameplay, every level is ranked across a number of categories, such as accuracy and time taken, and you can make your way up very traditional high score boards. On top of that you can also find unique bonuses for all of the playable ships, granting upgrades to weapons and durability, letting you reach higher and higher scores and unlock secret levels and ships.

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Factor 5 went on to make another sequel in the Rogue Squadron series, although its introduction of on-foot combat proved divisive. Following that they moved on from Star Wars to work with Sony on PlayStation 3 exclusive Lair, which was a critical and commercial disappointment and a few years later Factor 5 was closed.

Will we ever see Rogue Squadron again on a Nintendo system? With most Star Wars games coming out of EA now it seems somewhat unlikely, but with the recent ports of classic PS2 Star Wars titles to PS4, complete with some rudimentary upscaling, a HD collection of the Rogue Squadron titles might not be impossible.

Were you blown away by Rogue Leader when it was released way back in 2001? Let us know in the comments!

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Written by Tom Brown

Whether it’s an exciting new entry in a series long established or a weird experiment meant only for the dedicated, Tom is eager to report on it. Rest assured, if Nintendo ever announces Elite Beat Agents 2, he’ll be there.

Tom Brown