Star Wars in the 90's

A look at the franchise in the years leading up to the 'Prequel Era'
July 13, 2010
It has been said that the 90's was the dry spell for Star Wars. The Star Wars 'mania' that had begun in 1977 had dwindled and faded away by 1985 when Kenner had stopped making the action figures and the kids who had been enthralled by the original movies were now interested in beer and girls. The words 'Star Wars' were synonymous with video rental stores, faded and half-rubbed off stickers on school lockers and the kiddie-orientated Droids and Ewoks cartoons on TV.

Well, the 90's was the decade that I myself got into Star Wars. I was born in '83 and really missed the boat with the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia. But some geeky part of myself took over in the mid to late 90's when I discovered the franchise and somehow, I became a fan when everybody else just wasn't.


Star Wars novels depicting events outside of the movies have been around since Alan Dean Foster's 'Splinter of the Mind's Eye' published in 1978. But the enormous entity that we now call the Expanded Universe (EU) and the hundred-odd novels that it now encompasses really began with Timothy Zahn's 'Thrawn' trilogy which was published 1991 - 1993. This was when the general public had all but forgotten about Star Wars. You might think that a trilogy of books based on some films that had their heyday over half a decade ago would flop, but 'Heir to the Empire' was hugely popular and even made it on to the New York Times' best seller list.

The flood gates were opened and the following years saw a huge output in novels based on George Lucas' characters and stories. I shan't be reviewing each and every one of these books, because honestly, I didn't read them all. But I have selected a few ones that I found memorable. 'The Truce at Bakura' (1993) by Kathy Tyres picked up where Return of the Jedi left off and concerned the remnants of the Empire teaming up with the victorious Rebellion against an alien race called the Ssi-Ruuk.

Kevin J. Anderson's 'Jedi Academy Trilogy' (1994) was a series I really enjoyed. It told the story of Luke attempting to re-establish the Jedi Order using the old temple on Yavin IV as a base.

These three anthologies (1995 - 1996) began the tradition of giving every single half-seen character in the movies a name and a backstory. 'Tales from Jabba's Palace' was the first Star Wars book I bought.

Kevin J. Anderson returned in 1995 with 'Darksaber', a tale about a Hutt clan trying to build a secret super weapon similar in destructive power to the Death Stars.

The 'X-Wing' series by Michael A. Stackpole were the first books not to feature Luke, Han and Leia, instead focusing on the elite fighter squadron mentioned in the movies. I found these pretty good, especially as I was playing the 'X-Wing' computer games to death at the time.

Probably one of the most famous EU novels is 'Shadows of the Empire' by Steve Perry. Published in 1996, 'Shadows' was much more than just a book; it was part of a massive multimedia project that was designed to pave the way for the release of the special editions of the movies the following year. The project involved a video game, a soundtrack by Joel McNeely, A comic series, a range of action figures, trading cards and even a movie-style trailer.

Comic Books

I've never really been much of a comic book reader, but for Star Wars of course, I made an exception. The ones I remember most were the excellent 'Crimson Empire' series which explored what happened to Palpatine's red-cloaked guard after his death and the 'X-Wing' series, most notably a one-shot issue called 'The Making of Baron Fel'. This comic was so great; it was basically a biography of TIE Fighter ace Baron Fel that followed him through the Imperial academy and beyond, meeting people like Vader and Tarkin along the way. Not many entries in the EU look at things from the point of view of the Imperials.

Action Figures

In 1995, Kenner, the company who had struck gold back in the late 70's with their Star Wars license returned to it once more with their 'Power of the Force 2' collection. Originally carded on red backgrounds, the figures themselves were about as articulated as the original line but featured closer attention to detail. There have been many complaints about the overly muscular sculpts (WWF was very popular at the time) and the fact that most of the figures couldn't fit into their vehicles or even stand up unassisted.

The line switched to green cards around '97 after the 'Shadows of the Empire' range was brought out and later the figures came with 'freeze frame' slides that could be viewed on a projector. There was even an 'Expanded Universe' line which featured fan favorites like Mara Jade and the Dark Trooper from the 'Dark Forces' video game.

Video Games

Star Wars video games started in the early 80's with 'The Empire Strikes Back' for the Atari 2600. But the franchise got its first real start in 1992 on the SNES with its 'Super Star Wars' series. 'Empire' and 'Jedi' followed in '93 and '94. These were basic platformers with lots of running, jumping and shooting. I can remember playing the first game at a friend's house and finding it incredibly hard.

In 1993, Lucasarts began its successful 'X-Wing' series. I bought the 'Collector's cd-rom' around 1997 (which included the 2 add-ons; 'Imperial Pursuit' and 'B-Wing') and played it until my wrists cramped. This was a great game.

1993 was also the year 'Rebel Assault' was released which was revolutionary in its time for its use of full motion video (FMV) in its gameplay. This meant that movements were quite limited as you followed an 'invisible rail', but very reminiscent of arcade-style games. 'Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire' followed in 1995 and was the one I played the most. I remember being impressed that Lucasarts had actually filmed live action cut-scenes with actors and costumes from the Lucasfilm vaults. This was probably one of the first games to do so.

'TIE Fighter' came out in 1994 and was an update on the 'X-Wing' series. This time you got to play on the side of the imperials and the game was a hoot. With improved graphics and a lot more to do other than the usual story missions, I played this game the most. As with the 'X-Wing' games, I bought the 'Collector's cd-rom' which included the add-on; 'Defender of the Empire'. It was this game that is responsible for me possessing the geeky knowledge of the differences between TIE Fighters, Interceptors, Bombers and Defenders. Oh, and TIE stands for 'Twin Ion Engine'. Yes, I am a nerd...

'Dark Forces' came out in 1995 and was basically 'Doom' in a Star Wars environment. A pretty good shoot 'em up where you play Kyle Katarn, the guy who stole the Death Star plans and beamed them to Princess Leia (that was the first level). Later levels involve Jabba the Hutt's space barge, Boba Fett and an imperial plot to create hundreds of elite 'Dark Troopers'.

With the release of the N64 in 1996, Lucasarts was quick to churn out 'Shadows of the Empire' as part of the multimedia project that would warm the public up for the re-release of the movies in 1997. You play Dash Rendar, a character created to fill the void left whilst Han Solo was encased in carbonite and on his way to a date with Jabba the Hutt. The game involved shoot 'em up platform levels as well as some flying missions and was a popular early entry in the N64 line.

Two PC entries here from 1997. 'X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter' was an updated version of the previous entries designed mainly for multiplayer use as it did not follow a storyline. 'Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2' gave you control of Kyle Katarn once more (now a Jedi in training) and involved a RPG-style system of upgrading force powers. You also got to use a lightsaber as well as the usual range of blasters.

The second Star Wars game for the N64 was directly inspired by the 'Hoth' battle in 'Shadows of the Empire'. 1998's 'Rogue Squadron' was a great flying game that replaced the deep space missions of the previous 'X-Wing' games with aerial battles over planets.

Model Kits

I made a few model kits in the 90's and obviously Star Wars was a winner for me. These fighters looked great once assembled and painted (and with battle damage added via the use of a burning match). A lot of these kits were gathering dust in the backs of model shops until I found them, presumably left over from the early 80's (although I do think that the box art was kept the same for these kits well into the 90's). There is a rumour that the MPC Darth Vader's TIE Fighter kit (from 1978) was so good, ILM used it as a background ship in 'Return of the Jedi'.

20th Anniversary Special Editions

1997 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of 'Star Wars'. I was 13 at the time and back then 20 years seemed like a huge amount of time to me. 'Man, Star Wars is an old movie', I remember thinking. But what films are 20 years old today? 'Home Alone' and 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'. Ouch.

In celebration Lucas re-released the Star Wars Trilogy with various changes and re-hashed special effects which I won't go into here. I never got around to seeing the movies on the cinema screen (which I regret to this day), but I made damn sure that I picked them up on video when they came out the following Christmas.

You see, it was remarkably hard to find these classic films on VHS. Nowadays you can pick up pretty much any DVD you want in most big stores or order them on the internet, but back in the VHS days, stores usually only kept the most recent and popular titles in stock. It sounds crazy now, but back then I couldn't get my own copy of the most succesful movie franchise of all time for love nor money. It just wasn't available. My only way of watching the movies was by renting them from a local video store (which I did many, many times). So you can bet that I jumped at the chance when the special editions came out in a beautiful gold box-set.

In the Netherlands (where I was living at the time) Pepsi did a promotion where you could save the black ring pulls from Pepsi cans and trade them in for Topps Star Wars Special Edition Widevision trading cards at your local video store. I drank a lot of Pepsi that summer, but never managed to complete the set.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Now we come to it at last; the end of the 90's and the beginning of a new era. The hype building up to the release of Episode I was unbelievable and for a while in 1999, the world went Star Wars crazy once again. I can remember devouring the production photographs in 'Star Wars Insider' #36 which showed the Naboo hanger and some shots of Tatooine. I had no idea what I was looking at and, like most Star Wars fans at the time, my head was buzzing with what the story might be. Around this time Kenner released a sneak preview action figure of Mace Windu (who?) and started a line of 'Flashback' figures of original trilogy characters with a changeable cardboard photo that showed their Episode I counterpart.

As the movie approached the merchandising machine worked overtime. And I bought into it hook, line and sinker. Before I saw the movie I had already read the novelisation and graphic novel and listened to the soundtrack to death. So there were really no suprises for me by the time the movie came around. Conversley, I avoided any Episode II stuff like the plague in 2002 and enjoyed the movie much more for it. Oh, and Jar Jar works much better as a comic book character.

Darth Maul's face was on almost every piece of merchandise and the new action figures came with a 'Commtech chip' that could play back quotes from the movie if connected to a special 'Commtech Reader' (sold seperately).

The area of video games was not about to be neglected amidst this 'Episode I' boom. I had 'The Phantom Menace' on the playstation, and although it was a pretty crummy game, I spent a lot of time playing it as it was the only way to enjoy some Episode I action in computer game form other than 'Episode I: Racer' which my friend had on the N64.

And so the 90's came to an end and Star Wars had once again, evolved into something else. Love it or hate it, 'The Phantom Menace' managed to inject some youthful energy into the franchise which had grown a little stale since the 'Return of the Jedi' days. After 1999 you could see young kids wearing Darth Maul T-shirts and playing with battle-droid action figures. Star Wars was no longer solely the realm of geeky teenagers and adults (like me). For better or for worse, the whole thing seemed to have started over.

Although I myself got carried away in the 90's by the glut of Star Wars merchandise and memorabillia, I've somewhat calmed down these days. There is just far too much stuff out there, and with new books, action figures and other things being churned out every year, I find it too much to keep track of. Nowadays, I limit my interest to collecting the really old stuff from '77 - '80 which you can see in my blog here:

It's not that I don't like the prequels or that I have turned my back on the 90's era of Star Wars, in fact I love the new 'Clone Wars' series. It's just that I cannot bring myself to spend money on every single new line of action figures. I haven't read an EU novel in years, but I'll always have fond memories of my teenage relationship with the franchise as it was something that, for a few years, brought me a huge amount of joy.
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