Remembering LucasArts, the studio that changes the face of gaming

Remembering LucasArts, the studio that changes the face of gaming
(Image credit: LucasArts)

In late January 2021, the long-dormant brand Lucasfilm Games found itself undergoing a surprise resurrection. It had been shuttered in 2012, following the debut of Angry Birds Star Wars and Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm. Around that time, you could call the LucasArts of yore dead in the water, at least, in terms of how we used to view the company. 

The end of LucasArts was the end of an era. For so long, it had been synonymous with some of the most memorable games in the industry, some of which helped launch the careers of many of its greatest creators. So when it was time to see the curtain closing on LucasArts for the final time, many felt pangs of pain and even frustration. That’s why its recent revival is such great news.

Disney's reviving the Lucasfilm Games name as the “official identity” for any games that use Lucasfilm IP. It'll be back in business, for all intents and purposes, but it's still not going to be its own studio. LucasArts is returning, sure, but it won’t be the same. It may never be again, which isn’t what any fan wants to hear, but at the very least, the name lives on. 

But even if this is a revival in name only, it’s still an important part of gaming history, even more so for PC gamers. If you’ve ever enjoyed point-and-click adventure titles like Day of the Tentacle or Grim Fandango, you’re probably familiar with LucasArts’ cadre of classics. Founded by George Lucas in 1982, it saw a multitude of successes during the ‘90s with enduring titles that have remained with players from childhood through their adult years. 

Back to the beginning

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why the company was successful with the backing it had from the beginning. In 1979, George Lucas created the Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1979. This was his solution for exploring additional types of media beyond movies. The Computer Division had two divisions: computers and graphics. The graphics department ended up spinning off in 1982 to become another massively popular company in the distant future: Pixar.

It wasn’t until 1982 that Lucasfilm Games came into existence. Not long after opening the company, Lucasfilm Games worked alongside the legendary Atari for its first projects: Ballblazer and Rescue On Fractalis, for the Atari 5200. But wait, why no Star Wars titles to begin with? There’s a very simple explanation for that. 

Day of the Tentacle  (Image credit: LucasArts)

At the time, the game development license for Star Wars was held by Atari. Thus, the first Lucasfilm Games releases weren't Star Wars titles, but completely original titles. Ballblazer was a rudimentary sports game that resembled a cross between basketball and soccer. Rescue on Fractalus was a similarly simplistic first-person shooter.

That wouldn't be until several games later, in 1990. At that point, the Games Group reorganized and spun off, eventually becoming part of the LucasArts Entertainment Company, also including Skywalker Sound and Industrial Light & Magic. In a consolidating move between the two, the new company became Lucas Digital Ltd. The games division was left to become, as you're no doubt aware, LucasArts.

He’s a maniac

But to look forward, we need to look back a bit. In 1987, Lucasfilm Games published Maniac Mansion, a creation by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. It introduced players to the Edison family, a couple of tentacles, and a mad scientist. It was a comedic adventure that became extremely successful, eventually evolving into what we now know as the SCUMM engine. Many of the LucasArts titles we’ve immortalized over the years utilized SCUMM, from Sam and Max Hit the Road to Loom. 

Maniac Mansion (Image credit: LucasArts)

Maniac Mansion was an important part of advancing the way players interacted with their onscreen avatars. Where it left off, later classics like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Loom picked up the slack. Both made significant improvements to their predecessors in terms of aesthetic overhauls and gameplay. The genre was changing, being molded into something distinctly more personable than ever before, and LucasArts was at the forefront of what was, arguably, a renaissance for adventure gamers.

The Secret of Monkey Island, the first game in the series, debuted in the early 1990s. It followed hapless pirate Guybrush Threepwood, a clueless pirate on a dangerous adventure. It was a return to form after previous endeavors (Loom, specifically) had deviated from the classic point-and-click format, and it brought LucasArts Games back with a vengeance.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge would go on to inspire many other installments in the present day. The sequel made many tweaks to the original, including the introduction of iMUSE, a system that allowed the in-game MIDI tracks to sync with the action on-screen.

Monkey Island (Image credit: LucasArts)

In 1993, the aforementioned sequel to Maniac Mansion rocked gamers' worlds, revisiting the wacky world of the Edison family. Day of the Tentacle was a complete overhaul of the game that birthed it and integrated more fluid animations, voices, and a host of absolutely wacky main characters with a penchant for disaster. The infamous tentacles, as seen in Maniac Mansion, made a reappearance but this time with Purple gunning for world domination and the descendants of the Edison family wreaking havoc upon all those they came in contact with. It was a brilliant successor to the original game, and an adventure that tested the limits of what could be done with the medium. It injected copious amounts of clever humor (and puzzles) into the already out-there situations.

The Maniac Mansion series was its own monster, but LucasArts found success with a previously established property — the Sam & Max games, particularly Sam & Max Hit The Road, which became a signature for the company. The antics of dog-and-rabbit detectives Sam and Max were a perfect fit for those already interested in LucasArts’ brand of humor.

Full Throttle (Image credit: LucasArts)

Several other adventure titles rose to prominence soon after, each within the 2D realm — The Dig, Full Throttle, and an additional Monkey Island adventure — The Curse of Monkey Island — all distinctive variants on a theme. But as the ‘90s were drawing to a close, something that packed a little more punch was necessary. The SCUMM engine was retired, and the Grim engine took its place.

A SCUMMy future

Grim Fandango was the first to use the aptly-named engine, and also the first adventure from LucasArts to utilize a fully 3D environment. Stylized characters, an interactive environment in which players used the keyboard to move around and complete various actions, and full-motion video cut scenes set Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer's last work for LucasArts, apart from the rest of the pack. It garnered a strong cult following as well as rabid fans looking for another rendezvous with Manny Calavera.

Grim Fandango (Image credit: LucasArts)

Escape from Monkey Island was the second title to utilize 3D graphics and the fourth entry into the Monkey Island mythos. It also marked one of the last adventure games that would see the light of day — it received a PlayStation 2 and macOS 9 release as well, and enjoyed success as one of the newest "renovated" series entries, but things started to roll downhill from there.

Several planned projects were canceled, releases were conceived and then immediately cut short, and when word got out that Sam & Max: Freelance Police was about to hit, the project was swiftly cut down in 2004. LucasArts' reasoning for stifling the next installment of the buddy cop story was simply "current marketplace realities and underlying economic considerations."

In the later years, after the days of Escape from Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, it was easy to see that point-and-click adventure games were no longer in demand. It was an unfortunate trend for LucasArts and one that played a part in the once-prosperous company's decision to pursue other projects.

A galaxy far, far away

The end of adventure games didn't mean the end of LucasArts, however. After shifting creative energies to tackling other genres, some brilliant releases were spawned. For example, X-Wing, Star Wars: Rebel Assault, Jedi Knight, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, and other miscellaneous Star Wars titles helped keep the company afloat.

KOTOR (Image credit: LucasArts)

Star Wars wasn't the only successful IP, either — LucasArts struck gold with the western-themed Outlaws and the quirky Armed and Dangerous as well in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Suffice it to say, the studio’s involvement with the LucasArts/BioWare joint venture Knights of the Old Republic remains to date one of its largest victories outside of the point-and-click adventure realm. Not only did LucasArts bring a sequel to the fold, but a similarly-themed MMO in the form of The Old Republic.

It's no secret that Star Wars was an invaluable catalyst when it comes to LucasArts' continuing success — after all, why wouldn't its founder seek refuge in the familiarity of his own creations? 

LucasArts would continue on to publish a variety of different Star Wars titles over the late 2000s. Those sci-fi adventure games became the majority of what the company created, all the way through 2012. By then, Disney had acquired LucasFilm, and the LucasArts name was effectively no more.

A new legacy

Fast forward to 2021, and Lucasfilm Games is back. As we've already discussed, the company isn’t returning as an entire entity. But the fact that the name remains for those of us who wish to feel a bit nostalgic is still good news.

And while we likely won't see a golden age of games as we did with classic point-and-click titles, the excellent Star Wars games, or even the introduction of SCUMM once more, we'll still always have one thing: the legacy of LucasArts and Lucasfilm Games.