Throwback Thursday: Before Jedi: Fallen Order, Star Wars Jedi Academy was the ultimate Lightsaber experience

Last weekend, Electronic Arts and Respawn formally unveiled their upcoming Star Wars game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Respawn’s new game will undoubtedly offer players an intense and exciting Lightsaber combat experience, but in so doing, it will actually be continuing the legacy of an entirely different Star Wars game.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy is a game that more casual fans may not immediately recognize, but one you’ll probably remember if you did play it. Not only did Jedi Academy continue the popular Jedi Knight Expanded Universe video game series, it also pioneered one of the most visceral and dynamic playable Lightsaber combat systems to date.

A Jedi’s Legacy

Released in 2003, Jedi Academy was the final game in developer Raven Software’s long-running Jedi Knight PC and video game series, which began nearly a decade earlier with the 1995 release of Star Wars: Dark Forces.

The Jedi Knight series is mainly known for introducing the beloved EU protagonist Kyle Katarn, a former Imperial officer who becomes a Han Solo-esque mercenary and, eventually, a fully-fledged Jedi Knight under the tutelage of Luke Skywalker. During the timeframe of Jedi Academy, Katarn has become an instructor at Luke’s academy on Yavin IV, transitioning from his playable protagonist role in earlier Jedi Knight games to that of an NPC ally.

In Katarn’s place, the player instead takes on the role of Jaden Korr, a new student at the Yavin IV academy who already displays some aptitude with the Force and Lightsaber combat. In the first major shift from earlier Jedi Knight games, Raven implemented a pseudo-character creation system for Jedi Academy which allowed players to customize not only Jaden’s gender and outfit, but also their race.

Along with stock human options, players could pick from several different alien races like Rodian and Kel Dor as well.

An Elegant Art

Since Jaden Korr was a Force user by default, players also had access to Lightsaber combat right from the start (as opposed to having to first unlock it in previous Jedi Knight games). The hilt style and blade color for Jaden’s Lightsaber were both customizable, and midway through the game, the player could even adopt either a dual sabers or a “saber staff” style, which further expanded their combat options.

Raven Software even took a page out of BioWare’s beloved Knights of the Old Republic (which also arrived in 2003,) by implementing a basic Force alignment system. Jedi Academy players could pick which Force powers they unlocked throughout the game, choosing from both Light and Dark Side options. Choices made at pivotal story points would also determine if the player reached the “Light” or “Dark” ending.

As in previous Jedi Knight games, Jedi Academy utilized a real-time Lightsaber combat system in which players (and their opponents) could perform various attacks including horizontal and vertical cuts, stabs, kung-fu-esque kicks, and even directional attacks like acrobatic spins. Staying true to Star Wars lore, Lightsabers in Jedi Academy were also incredibly deadly, able to sever limbs and kill most targets with a single clean hit.

These varied attack capabilities and one-hit win conditions made for some incredibly tense fights where even a single wrong move or misstep could spell disaster. Granted, the game’s combat looks a bit goofy by today’s standards, but if you were searching for a game which recreated the balletic and visceral Lightsaber duels from the Star Wars movies back in 2003, Jedi Academy had no equal. 

Balance in All Things

At launch, Jedi Academy offered players a thrilling story mode, as well as the equally fun large-scale multiplayer which also defined previous Jedi Knight games. Thanks to the multiplayer component and its robust AI bot support, players could create spectacular matches in which large teams of Lightsaber wielders all clashed in a massive, frantic melee.

That same multiplayer goodness was further bolstered by Jedi Academy’s robust mod support on PC, support which fans put to very good use. Some mods went in obvious directions like adding in maps and characters from earlier Jedi Knight games. Other mods were much more ambitious.

More intrepid modders created their own custom content so that they could layer elements from the prequel movies and original trilogy onto Jedi Academy’s base. One mod even recreated iconic moments from the prequel trilogy, and made them into fully playable single-player and co-op scenarios.

Modders of the force

Fans who were willing to figure out the mod’s install process could enjoy fully playable versions of the Naboo invasion, the three-way Phantom Menace duel, and Anakin Skywalker’s storming of the Jedi Temple in Revenge of the Sith.

There was even a mod which added in more recent Star Wars additions, like the unique “reverse-grip” saber stance utilized by Galen Marek in the 2008 action game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Yet another mod even added an entire RPG-esque progression system into the multiplayer component, complete with character classes and class-specific ability unlocks.  

Jedi Academy’s online multiplayer community obviously didn’t stick around for very long, mainly because widespread non-LAN functionality was still in its infancy. However, as you can tell from the above examples, the game’s modding community and AI bot support helped keep it relevant for many years beyond its initial launch.

In some regards (mostly in the graphical department), Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy hasn’t aged particularly well, but there’s no denying the timeless appeal of its visceral Lightsaber combat and Force powers systems. Even today fans can boot up the core game and create some truly epic multiplayer matches once they’re done with the equally engaging single-player story. And those willing to explore the custom mods scene will find a near-endless supply of additional content to enjoy.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order may be the next major iteration of playable Lightsaber combat, but there’s no denying that Respawn owes much to Raven Software and the bold steps it (and its mod-savvy fans) took with Jedi Academy.