Build droids and solve puzzles across the desert world of Tatooine.
PC Release: October 28, 1998
By Ian Coppock
Because I seek and play video games the same way a drug addict seeks and opens unlocked pharmacy windows, a lot of people have asked me what my very first video game was. With how avid of a gamer I am, surely my journey into the digital realm had audacious beginnings? Well… my first video game was actually an edutainment game set in the Star Wars universe. It’s a game whose legacy lives on in the video game choices I make to this day. And wouldn’t you know it, today is Star Wars Day! Clearly, the fates have aligned.
Star Wars: DroidWorks is a third-person puzzle game released in 1998, by a little-known subsidiary of LucasArts called Lucas Learning. I think this might have been their only project. Now, before a bunch of you click away because I said that this is an educational game, I implore you to stick around. DroidWorks is the rarest of education games, in that it’s fun and novel enough to make you learn without realizing it. The education aspect of the game is delivered not through dry physics lessons, but through fun puzzles and moving around in a big environment.
The narrative of the game is pretty cut-and-dry, which one would expect from a children’s game. The Rebel Alliance has learned that the Galactic Empire has built a hidden droid factory on Tatooine, the desert homeworld of Luke Skywalker. Here, the empire has begun production on a new line of assassin droids, the latest in its long line of tools for silencing dissent. You, a rebel agent, must disguise yourself as one of Tatooine’s hooded Jawa creatures, and build droids to destroy the factory.
Because DroidWorks assumes that you’re a small child, you have no problem fitting in among the diminutive Jawas. Their leader, Wimateeka, starts giving out lessons on how to build droids and what basic physics puzzles you can expect. Jawas in this game speak English, rather than the rapid-fire gibberish they speak in the Star Wars films, though most of them sound like Alvin & The Chipmunks with lung cancer. The game’s sound design is not all bad, though; the soundtrack is nothing but tunes from the classic Star Wars films, a facet of design that is immune to criticism.
Before each mission, players have to assemble a droid from a variety of parts. You can pick between two archetypes: legged droids and wheeled droids, and add various tools, limbs and headsets from there. Once you’ve cobbled your machine together, you can pick from eight training missions scattered around Tatooine. You can also test your droid by running around inside the Jawas’ sandcrawler.
Each training mission takes about 15-30 minutes to do, and focuses on a different aspect of basic mechanical science. From force and motion to magnetism, DroidWorks subtly teaches its young audience about these concepts by employing some simple puzzles. You’ll solve conundrums dealing with pulleys, giant magnets and mass launchers, among other devices. Most puzzles require you to pay attention to the weight of whatever you’re working with. Once you’ve completed the mission, you’ll be rated by how many objectives you completed.
Each of the eight training missions has three tiers of difficulty, giving you 24 objectives in total. You’ll receive a new droid part for each mission you complete successfully, giving you greater versatility in how you build your droids. Some of these parts will be necessary for later missions.
Once you’ve beaten each of the training missions on at least its basic difficulty, it’s time to take the fight to the empire. You’ll unlock four additional missions that challenge you to remember what you’ve learned in the quest to find the hidden droid factory. The aforementioned assassin droids are on the loose in all of these levels, so DroidWorks demands extra caution. This is an old game, so you can rest assured that the enemy AI is ruthless.
Ironically, DroidWorks was my first brush with survival horror. Because this is a children’s game, you can’t equip your droid with weapons, so your only means of defense is to run and hide from the assassin droids the same way I run and hide from monsters in horror games. DroidWorks also doesn’t tell you when the encounters with assassin droids begin, so the first time I played, I had no idea I was about to be attacked. I can clearly remember sitting in my computer room, in our little house in England, running around with my droid and getting the shit scared out of me when a hideous war droid entered my screen from the right side and attacked. That was my first horror adrenaline kick.
I had no chance, you guys. I was doomed from an early age to be indoctrinated into horror games.
After completing the four challenge missions, the final mission to infiltrate the droid factory opens up. From the first mission to the last, every part of DroidWorks requires your droid to have certain traits. You can only use wheeled droids on a mission where using a legged one would be too easy, you need a droid that can see in the dark on underground missions, etc etc.
Looking back now, I noticed that a lot of DroidWorks‘ design was arbitrary, if not downright flawed. Some missions require you to have your droid built a certain way for no apparent reason. Even missions that I don’t think would’ve been a lot easier with a legged droid will flunk you if your droid isn’t wheeled. Worst of all, DroidWorks will let you go into a mission even if your droid doesn’t meet its requirements. So, you can spend an hour playing through the mission and actually finish the objective, only to get a failure screen because you didn’t have the proper coat of paint.
DroidWorks was also built on the Sith Engine, which LucasArts used to make some of the Jedi Knight games back in the day. It was a great engine in its prime, but it hasn’t aged well and it’s glitchy as hell. Countless times throughout my childhood, my droids would get stuck in walls or suddenly get crushed to death for no apparent reason. It makes no more sense to me as an adult than it did then.
I think DroidWorks also could’ve benefited by having more action-oriented missions. When you add up the training missions’ tiers of difficulty, there are 24 training levels in total, much more than enough to get the point across about basic physics and puzzles. There are only five action-oriented missions, making the late game feel very short. To be fair, though, some of them take the same length of time as 3-4 training missions.
I have to take a step back and remember that this is a game made for children learning about puzzles, not for adults yearning for a fight. Even though there are not many of them, the action missions do a good job of tying together what the training missions teach. The action missions combine concepts and puzzles from 2-3 training missions apiece, and it’s up to you to remember what you learned and try your best to replicate it.
The action missions also feature their own sequences and puzzles not seen in the training missions, but these run the risk of confusing young players, especially since, more often than not, there’s no one nearby to explain it. You can interact with Jawas and friendly droids that you find out in the world, and hopefully they can fill you in on what needs to be done. Because this is a child’s game, a lot of this dialogue is quite cheesy. Cheesier than a Wisconsin countryside, in fact. But, we’ll cut DroidWorks a break. Can’t go over a child’s head with dry or sarcastic humor.
Despite the bugs of the Sith Engine and some questionable mission balance design choices, DroidWorks is a good game. It’s a good game because it teaches children mechanical science and physics through fun puzzles and a familiar setting. The game is set in the most beloved sci-fi universe of our time, and you can tell that it was crafted with love.
In a grander context, though, DroidWorks is resounding evidence that video games can be an excellent learning tool. They are proof that you can take concepts as intimidating as machines and mechanical physics and present them in a format that children will absolutely love. They can be an effective way of instructing a young audience by engaging with them in a way that television and classroom lessons cannot. I believe that video games are a more intimate form of media because they put us at the center of their stories; so too are they good learning tools, because they can put children at the center of an educational experience.
While DroidWorks is a good little game, especially if you have kids, it unfortunately is not available in a usable format. There are no stable downloads of the game that I’ve been able to find in years of searching, and the disc is obviously incompatible with modern operating systems. A lot of older Star Wars games have been getting released onto Steam recently, and I keep hoping that one day I’ll open up the Steam store and DroidWorks will be there. If it is, I’ll post an update to this review with a link to the store page.
Even if DroidWorks never gets re-released, I at least wanted to let people know that this game happened. It was a huge part of my childhood and the first video game that I can clearly remember playing regularly and getting invested in. This is where my interest in video games started, and I hope it gives the parents among you hope that there are great games for children out there. DroidWorks is one of them.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.