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Are you sitting down? Okay. In a month, it will have been 10 years now since the release of Revenge of the Sith. So there, now you officially feel old.
By the same token, it's now been 10 years since Traveller's Tales first released Lego Star Wars, in turn giving birth to a franchise that would become almost as ubiquitous as Call of Duty. It's easy to forget now, but Lego Star Wars was a critical darling in those days — a surprise hit that succeeded in making the prequels bearable, even likable.
Before I continue, let's rewind quickly to 2005. It's all too easy to pile on Phantom Menace and its ilk these days, especially with Episode VII just around the corner; but if possible, the prequel fatigue was even stronger back in 2005. The prevailing feeling was that Jar Jar Binks, midocholorians, and monologues about sand had irreparably harmed the franchise, and that not even an excellent effort by the then-upcoming Revenge of the Sith could salvage it, much less a random licensed game featuring plastic bricks.
I was skeptical that a Lego game of all things could somehow elevate the prequels, but a friend of mine forced me to sit down and watch it for a bit. As in Phantom Menace, a shuttle flew toward the Droid Federation blockade around Naboo, only this one was made of Legos. A few moments later, it went up in a ball of flame, and a pair of dismayed looking Lego pilots fell out and burst into several pieces. I chuckled despite myself.
A month or so later, I took a copy of my own home to play, telling myself that it would be fun to get into the right spirit for Revenge of the Sith. That was the beginning of a surprising love affair with the Lego games that took me all the way through Lego Harry Potter in 2011, in many ways the apex of the series.
The overarching premise of Lego Star Wars was relatively simple, and it hasn't changed that much over the years. Beginning with The Phantom Menace, it followed all three movies in turn, with the levels being based on the various action setpieces. But the real charm was in going back and uncovering various items — red bricks, gold bricks, and ship pieces, which in turn could be used to unlock new areas and characters. When you were done with a level, it would count up all of your money and parts, a little Yoda head floating in the corner to indicate that it was auto-saving.
As a Star Wars fan, I was amused by its willingness to have fun with scenes like the hangar attack, but I was also struck by its fidelity to the series. It featured a huge playable cast, many of them obscure supporting characters that played into my geeky appreciation for obscure details. It was possible to play as a lowly battle droid, or as Jango Fett. You could unlock Emperor Palpatine and Chancellor Palpatine. Kit Fisto was there. Everyone was there.
And they weren't just reskinned character models either. The Lego games take cues from Metroid in the way they tease certain blocked areas, which can only be accessed by certain characters. Thus, in order to cross a gap, I had to make use of Jar Jar's double jump ability, or Darth Maul's ability to shift blocks with the Force. Playing along with my girlfriend, we quickly found our own favorites. She favored Attack of the Clones Padme Amidala, and I liked Darth Maul. It was the stuff of fan fiction.
Relatively early on, we discovered that we could kill one another, which we did... often. When she picked Jar Jar, I couldn't resist Force Choking the poor dumb Gungan, cackling as he rose into the air squirming in agony before finally breaking apart. There are no lives in the Lego games — the only penalty for dying is losing some of the studs that you've collected — so I had no problem turning my wrath on my least favorite characters.
It was that element that made Lego Star Wars one of my girlfriend's favorite games. More a Star Trek fan than a Star Wars fan, she was mostly in it for the collecting elements and the silly humor. There was still some challenge to it — one of the goals was to collect a certain number of studs per level, which disappeared after dying — but the fact that there was no 'Game Over' made it considerably less stressful for her.
Looking back, Traveller's Tales did an incredible job of appealing to a broad swath of Star Wars fans. By making it a collect-a-thon, diehard nerds were encouraged to unlock their favorite characters and ships, the latter of which were built out of parts scattered throughout each of the chapters. And by rendering the characters mute, they removed all of the most annoying dialogue ("Are you an angel?" Stab-stab-stab), shifting the focus to where it should have been all along — the action.
The prequels have a lot of problems, but their single biggest sin is that they are boring. In the Red Letter Media review of the Star Trek reboot, there's a great bit where the Plinkett character juxtaposes the insane pace of Abrams Trek with the weirdly sedate Phantom Menace. Everyone is running everywhere on the Enterprise, things are exploding, and then we're treated to a shot of Qui-Gon Jinn sipping some tea while waiting to commence negotiations with the Trade Federation. That's not a problem in Lego Star Wars, where everyone is either miming out dialogue or chopping up droids with their lightsabers.
Mostly, Traveller's Tales was just having some of fun with the series, which was badly needed in the face of the dreadfully dull and overwrought prequels, and fans responded. It became one of the surprise hits of 2005, going on to sell a shocking 3 million copies. LucasArts, previously so disinterested that they let Eidos Interactive handle the publishing, did a complete 180 and snatched back the rights for the original trilogy version the following year.
For Traveller's Tales, Lego Star Wars: The Video Game became an unlikely springboard to sustained success. The Lego games have since become ubiquitous, with versions covering Marvel, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Lord of the Rings. They've become so common, in fact, that it's sometimes easy to forget what made them so charming in the first place.
Nevertheless, Lego Star Wars remains one of the very few pieces of media based on the prequels that can reasonably be called entertaining, putting it in the same category as Genndy Tartakovskyv's wonderful Clone Wars miniseries and LucasArts' excellent but largely forgotten Republic Commando.
With public attention now squarely on the original trilogy, the prequels are apt to fade further into history, taking Lego Star Wars along with them. But for a little bit, at least, Traveller's Tales unexpected gem made me remember why I fell in love with George Lucas' universe in the first place.