Hard to believe Star Wars debuted 40 years ago today. That’s twice as long as it had been when the Beatles chose to celebrate Sgt. Pepper teaching his band how to play (via an album that, in an odd coincidence, turns 50 tomorrow… meaning it’ll now have been 70 years since The Lonely Heart Club Band formed).
But, no, the math checks out. Star Wars is the first movie I remember seeing in a theater, or what passed for theaters circa 1980 — a big car lot where families drove their gas-guzzling Detroit boats to park in front of a large screen and listen to film dialogue on a small portable speaker. Not exactly the THX stadium experience. Could any film memory be more authentically a product of its time and era? I think back on my first Star Wars experience and I can almost hear the Stranger Things soundtrack playing.
We recorded a Retronauts Pocket episode a few years back exploring the impact of Star Wars on video games, and… as it turns out, we weren’t really able to come up with a lot of super strong examples. I feel instinctively that video games have a ridiculous amount of Star Wars DNA in them, but I think the problem is that Star Wars has become so ingrained in pop culture that those elements typically have a sort of hand-me-down quality to them. When you see an Alien reference in video games, it’s usually pretty unambiguous — you’d recognize H.R. Giger’s homoerotic biohorror aesthetics anywhere. With Star Wars, though, it’s so general, like… laser swords? Space dogfights? Maybe Cloud Strife realizing that black-clad samurai-looking Sephiroth is his “father” in a sort of vague, bioengineered sense? It’s a little harder to pin down.
I don’t name-drop Final Fantasy VII here frivolously; in all the history of video games, no one collective work has demonstrated more loving admiration for (and overt references to) Star Wars than Final Fantasy. And no Star Wars reference within Final Fantasy beats the original. That’s right, I’m talking about the series’ greatest recurring characters, Biggs and Wedge.
Note: Spelling may vary by region
Star Wars fandom was a very different thing in 1994 (when Biggs and Wedge made their first appearance in Final Fantasy III, née VI). LucasFilm Ltd. was just beginning to fire up its pop-culture engine after a decade of increasing irrelevance. Return of the Jedi had put a pretty definitive capper on the saga back in 1983, and within a few years all the signposts of a once-juggernaut franchise had faded from sight. The almighty toyline had been steamrolled by G.I. Joe and Transformers, and the ongoing Marvel comic had puttered to a finale. All we had left were those made-for-TV Ewoks movies… which weren’t great, although I did recently read speculation that the curly-haired little girl grew up to be Captain Phasma from The Force Awakens, which… well, why not. Still beats teen-angst Vader.
No, circa 1990, the only genuinely viable and enthusiastic expression of Star Wars love came in the form of the tabletop RPG system. I didn’t play pen-and-paper RPGs, but I would occasionally come across a Star Wars supplement book from time to time and found them to be fascinating rabbit holes. I didn’t really get the idea of “expanded universes” and “derivative works,” so I assumed the role-playing supplements were word-of-god creations along the lines of those art books that compiled production work by the likes of Ralph MacQuarrie and Joe Johnston. So it was exciting to get a peek behind the curtain of the films and read about the expansive world of Correllian corporate ventures and things like that. Pretty much everything in those old books has been redacted, but a great many of the ideas they introduced to Star Wars have become baked into the “new” canon, which is created by the sort of people who used to furtively read the RPG books in their thirst to learn more about George Lucas’s fascinating space worlds. Concepts like the Kuat Drive Yards have been inducted into actual Star Wars dialogue in recent years, but they got their start in West End’s fascinatingly detailed P&P books.
Given the heavy lifting traditional RPGs did for Star Wars during the franchise’s lacuna, I think it was fitting that the first fresh, relevant allusions I encountered to the Star Wars films in the wake of Lucas’s attempt to resuscitate the property in the early ’90s with new novels and comics would appear in a console RPG. Biggs and Wedge open Final Fantasy VI, a pair of heartless imperial soldiers who use the game’s protagonist as a brainwashed weapon and meet an unhappy end a short time later. Granted, this concept wasn’t exactly faithful to the source material, given that the films’ Biggs and Wedge were Luke’s allies and friends, and Wedge was the only minor character to survive the events of all three films. Plus, Final Fantasy III kinda garbled the reference in bringing their names back to English; I don’t think the localization team got the allusion, so Biggs became “Vicks” on Super NES.
“I’m just glad they didn’t translate ウェッジ as ‘Wedgie’.”
Which is actually what made the reference so great. I didn’t get “Vicks” at the time, because I didn’t know anything about the ambiguity of B/V in Japanese transliterations, but I definitely noticed Wedge. Our school events team had put together a public showing of the Star Wars movies earlier that year, and dozens of people cheered every time Wedge appeared on screen; for them, at least, he had taken on a sort of folk-hero status for being the only character skillful enough to survive all three major battles in the trilogy without the aid of plot armor. That experience made me aware of the fact that he had become a cult-favorite character in the movie trilogy. I ended up naming half my Final Fantasy III party after Star Wars characters on my first runthrough, thinking I was terribly clever to riff on an “accidental” Star Wars reference… not realizing that, in fact, that was the creators’ entire point.
There’s nothing mysterious or ambiguous about their cameo anymore, of course. Final Fantasy III has been properly re-translated as Final Fantasy VI, with “Vicks” having his name corrected to the nerdy reference the RPG gods intended. And the duo have gone on to reappear in just about every Final Fantasy since then in some capacity, whether as AVALANCHE eco-terrorists in VII, hapless enemy soldiers in VIII, or even randomly generated combatants in Tactics. Star Wars itself has become a sort of pop-culture juggernaut again, and what was once a winking insider reference to minor characters from the film has become totally prosaic now that “true” fans can tell you idiotic minutiae, including the names of hundreds of characters whose monikers are never mentioned on-screen. It’s all been downhill ever since the “Look sir, droids!” guy got a name and a backstory.
But Biggs and Wedge will always be there for us, dying admirably so that the latest heroes of Final Fantasy can kick some new nihilist’s butt.