Shufflepuck Cafe was a riotous dive of scum and villainy
Star Wars paddle front.
Right now, certain times seem not so long ago and certain galaxies not all that far, far away. The two-pronged assault of Star Wars Battlefront and The Force Awakens means that, willingly or not, we're all reliving memories of George Lucas' space saga: what it meant to us when we first experienced it, what it means to us now and what it might mean moving forward if Disney pursue their rather Imperial-sounding aim of putting out a new Star Wars movie every year until our planet goes the way of Alderaan.
Of course, this is a universe that has always been aggressively expanding in one way or another, through avalanches of merchandising both covetable and tacky, plus novels, comics and other ancillary spin-offs. Games have emphatically played their part, with dozens of beloved titles that have either simulated iconic moments from the films - with DICE's Battlefront resetting that particular bar extraordinarily high - or grafted their own dense mythologies onto the existing Lucas lore. What is weird, though, is that one of the games I most associate with Star Wars has no real connection to the franchise at all. If there's a bright centre to the officially licensed universe, Shufflepuck Cafe would probably be on the planet that it's farthest from. But to me, it's as evocative of Mos Eisley as a mint-condition Greedo action figure or poor Ponda Baba's severed arm.
If there were any lawyers hovering over this particular intergalactic boozer, original developers Broderbund could point to various key differences between the Shufflepuck Cafe and Tattooine's most notorious space-jazz hangout. Droids are allowed, for one thing, and while the rest of the patrons are a motley, often mottled bunch of gamblers, princesses and alien rogues, there is no exact correlation (Corellian or otherwise) with existing Star Wars characters.
Perhaps the closest analogue is the porcine General - a crashing boar with a fondness for epaulettes, blessed with a wily playing style that encourages epithets - since he does have a more than a hint of Jabba's Gamorrean guards about him, and is also prominently positioned on the box art. The rest of the bunch are ambiguous enough to hint at something like the grand sweep of the Star Wars melting pot without teetering into actual breach of copyright: like Darth, but vaguer.
Even if you stripped out the Mos Eisley trappings, Shufflepuck Cafe would still be pretty good - an air hockey simulation where, at least on the Amiga, there was a wonderfully tangible connection between your fidgety on-screen paddle and the vintage A500 mouse. With such crisp controls and the ability to convincingly dunt the puck toward your opponent at high speed, it would have been a rock-solid title, albeit one lacking much depth. But somehow, the light dusting of Star Wars anthropological exotica elevates the whole enterprise, transforming a nuts-and-bolts sport sim into a story. There is an officially prescribed plot - you're a phenomenally unsuccessful intergalactic door-to-door salesman who has to overcome a gauntlet of eight Shufflepuck opponents to earn enough enough scratch to book your passage off-world - but the situation is fairly obvious. You're stranded up the proverbial creek but for once have actually been blessed with a paddle.
Atmosphere and personality are key. Shufflepuck Cafe's title screen is comparatively bare-bones, just a minimally animated panorama of the speakeasy, soundtracked by one very short loop of keyboard space blues and a bar-room hubbub of murmurs and clinking glasses familiar wherever you are in the universe. But it immediately establishes the right vibe, and allows you to size up your potential opponents who, viewed through the cultural lens of 2015 rather than 1989, seem like an even more incongruous bunch. Is that one of Daft Punk serving a space cocktail to Elvira Mistress of the Dark, while Harry Potter and a Minion cower nearby?
Gene Portwood's character designs remain vivid, packing bags of charisma into just a few skimpy frames of animation. The real magic is the way that programmer Christopher Gross, taking his cues from Portwood's designs, manages to convey distinct personalities through nothing more the movement of your opponent's paddle. Some characters are skittish, while others are demonstrable sluggers. Princess Bejin, the Elvira lookalike, is apparently so unused to physical exertion that she uses telekinesis to tee up her surprising serves. It gives each round a sense of genuine, gratifying achievement. It doesn't just feel like you're overcoming the same AI routine over and over again. There's a distinct sense of beating an actual person, and since it's the first to 15 points, many of the matches, characterised by prolonged rallies long enough to get a feel for potential weak points, tip toward the epic.
My favourite foe is Lexan Smythe-Worthington, who looks like an elongated ET with a touch of Terry-Thomas, a galactic fop who heroically hiccups his way through gallons of space fizz before keeling over at the end of the match. The real big boss, the brilliantly-named Biff Raunch, is rather less gregarious, a tubby belligerent space biker who punctuates pauses between serves with either an angry growl or mocking laugh. He's a formidable, surly opponent, but the expanded box art shows a glimpse of a "Nanu Nanu" tattoo on his meaty shoulder. Surely someone who is so heavily into Mork & Mindy can't be all bad?
During each match, the only soundtrack is a spontaneous fusillade of satisfyingly percussive thwacks from striking the puck, interspersed with the occasional wooden donk as it ricochets off the heavily timbered sides of the gaming table. These become almost musical exchanges, improvised but often settling into their own regular rhythm and inevitably ending with a cymbal crash flourish - blaze a shot past your opponent and you also smash their pane of protective glass. It's an addictive cherry on top, effectively evoking the heft and guilty thrill of booting a football into a neighbour's greenhouse.
The spirit of the game lives on, unofficially, in the form of iOS game Shufflepuck Cantina, but just as many Star Wars fans struggled to warm to Lucas's tinkered special editions, I will always prefer the original. Touchscreens will just never be able to fully recreate the sensation of jerking a mouse across a mat at just the right angle and velocity to send the puck hurtling past Vinnie the Dweeb, a rather sad-looking alien who resembles Honey Monster's stunt double. If some canny developer was to retain the traditional mouse input but add on an immersive VR helmet experience, though, I'd warp back to the Shufflepuck Cafe in an instant. And I'm sure Lexan wouldn't need much of an excuse to pop open the champagne.