Balancing is a tricky thing in games. If done right, you don’t notice it at all. When it’s not aligned properly though, it can throw off even the best experience. That’s the tricky part of talking about Star Wars: Bounty Hunter. It’s an excellent action game drenched in lore, with game design, storytelling, and presentation years ahead of its competition. Sadly, Bounty Hunter also has one hell of a mean streak when it wants to.
At its core Bounty Hunter is the video game of every Mandalorian fan’s dreams. You step into the boots of pre-The Clone Wars-retcons Jango Fett, heir apparent to Manda’lor Jaster Mereel. Unfortunately, Mereel and all the Mandalorian super commandos are dead, leaving Fett drifting alone as he tries to make ends meet, a king without a kingdom. As chance would have it, Count Dooku has put out a bounty of five million credits for whomever can kill his errant apprentice. This great hunt also serves as the perfect contest to locate the ideal candidate for the future clone army of the Republic.
While obviously we all know how the story is going to end, Star Wars: Bounty Hunter puts considerable effort in making sure the ride’s worth it regardless. Temuera Morrison and Leeanna Walsman superbly reprise their respective roles as Fett and Zam Wessel respectively. Each finally has a chance to inject some nuance into his or her role, selling you on the idea of the pair as far more complicated than just business partners. Clancy Brown joins them as Montross, Fett’s rival from a corresponding Dark Horse comic, and he chews up the scenery with delightful menace. Rounding things out is Lucille Bliss’ Rozatta, who provides solid chemistry with Jango as a surrogate mother. It’s rock-solid performances all around, capturing the space western aesthetic to a T.
Not relying on star power alone, the gameplay is insanely ambitious, interweaving the double-barreled action of Max Payne, the platforming of Tomb Raider, and a set of gadgets that’d make Metal Gear’s Solid Snake envious. You’ll do everything from dueling a starship and infiltrating a maximum security prison to leaping between skyscrapers with a jetpack to kidnap a Republic senator. Fett goes to every length to track down Dooku’s botched protégé and get his credits.
It all handles marvelously, with both precise and lock-on aiming options combined with an intuitive control scheme for more complex tricks; remote-controlled rockets are literally a blast. Even the levels are absurdly ambitious for their day, between densely populated city streets full of explorable buildings and draw distances that push the limit of 6th gen screen resolutions. Not to mention the dynamic AI that reacts naturally to you and events in the world, or moments where you can manage a stealthy turn with enough toxic darts.
Star Wars: Bounty Hunter verges on a truly modern experience despite being nearly two decades old at this point. It’s got variety, polish, secondary objectives and unlockables (including an entire comic book issue!) for replay value, and its story is well told. This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to what could’ve been with Star Wars: 1313. As I said at the beginning though, there’s one slight problem, at least if you’re playing it on original hardware or via PlayStation Classics: Bounty Hunter can be a cruel schutta when it wants to be.
LucasArts inexplicably tries to reinvent the wheel on how checkpoint systems work. Players don’t just walk into an area and trigger it; they have to walk into an icon that otherwise has no context in the game world. You also get five lives to complete a level. Run out of lives, and you have to start the whole thing over, side objectives and all. At the start this isn’t too bad, but then death pits and precision-platforming moments arise where a single dangerous jump could cost you several lives.
Plus, if you use a life to continue, any ammo and power-ups spent are lost, but all enemies reset up to that checkpoint. Some scenarios really rely on your leaning into these pick-ups to get you through a tough section, meaning you’ll have only a harder fight ahead. Your health doesn’t regenerate either, so you’re relying almost entirely on medpacks that either spawn randomly from dead enemies or are hidden across levels. The farther in you get, the less medpacks spawn and the more punishment your enemies take.
Now, if you’re playing your copy of Star Wars: Bounty Hunter via an emulator, you’re good to go. You can just use manual save states like any reasonable person would. Had Bounty Hunter released for PC, I have no doubt it would’ve been a feature, but as a console-only affair, it opts for this ridiculously contrived checkpoint system that exacerbates the rising difficulty with every level. Suddenly, those complex environments to navigate become anxiety-inducing. Bombastic adventure gives way to stressful danger management as you cleave your way to your final objective. While there are thankfully cheat codes that unlock every level for each version, there are inexplicably no codes for adding more lives; your best bet there is probably a GameShark.
I bring this up because legitimately every other part of Bounty Hunter is fantastic. It’s a supreme example of the early 2000s era of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, weaving story beats and elements from other material into a broader exploration of a character who deserved more time to grow. It feels like a proper prelude to the coming Clone Wars and establishes the morally ambiguous tone excellently; even loading screens are layered with surprisingly interesting flavor text about the growing corruption in the Republic. As delightfully duplicitous as Forces of Corruption and excellent at expanding its world as Lego Star Wars, Bounty Hunter deserves better than its broken save system.
If lives weren’t a factor, it’d be so much less frustrating. Were you able to at least earn more or even unlock additional retries via some sort of progression system, that’d be easier to swallow. Whether an oversight or an awkward attempt to draw out time to completion, it’s the only thing besides graphical detail that betrays Bounty Hunter’s age. While it’s great the PlayStation 4 release adds trophy support, you’ll need a Jedi’s patience to play it from beginning to end outside of standard emulation.
Star Wars: Bounty Hunter undoubtedly holds up in every other regard; just be sure your will’s as tough as beskar’gam to see this bounty through.