To become a killer application, a game has to do something which simply couldn't be done before. Without a doubt, Rebel Assault, one of the three games which have to be credited for really giving CD-ROM drives their big breakthrough, fits this bill perfectly. Its blend of clips from the original films and high-quality renderings of… 'similar' scenes was indeed unheard of. It hadn't been the first major Star Wars game of the decade. X-Wing had preceeded it by about 9 months. Though it had impressed the specialised press and indeed became a bestseller by the standards of the day, it did not have the broad mass appeal of Rebel Assault which just came closer to the feeling of Star Wars.
So how did they try to capture this feeling? The game basically retells the story of the first film, though, admittedly, reduced to the central action scenes: A young country boy joins the rebellion, earns his laurels as an ace pilot and finally destroys the dreaded Death Star. Let's hope this is indeed intended as an alternate retelling instead of a sequel between films, because otherwise, you'd have to ask how stupid the Empire is, building the same Death Star with the same glaring design flaw of that exhaust vent which will make the whole thing blow up so easily once again. It simply makes no sense at all, but of course, those are the scenes which fans were waiting to replay – or rather 'relive'.
Talking about mass appeal, however, there is another, more ambivalent side to the status of becoming a killer application: Usually, to reach the necessary mass appeal, the game also has to be simple enough to be instantly understood. Rebel Assault reduces the interaction to the bare minimum imaginable: It falls into a genre more commonly found in the arcades – the rail shooter. Actually, it would have probably surprised nobody if it had come with a lightgun.
Almost all of the 15 scenes revolve around a ship basically flying by itself while the player desperately tries to move some crosshair over targets skipping and jumping erratically over the screen while pushing the fire button at maximum frequency. There is very limited control over the ship itself, although you are also supposed to dodge obstacles at times. Though if the game decides you can't dodge the approaching asteroid by strafing left, you can't. In the same vein, if your task is to destroy a stationary (or quasi-stationary, like a large ship) target, it's not your decision how to run the approach. Which is probably to say that the game does not do all that great a job to make you believe you're really in the pilot seat.
So what was the appeal instead, then, which made people storm the stores? It was the 'multimedia experience': the original musical score booming from the speakers while pre-rendered graphics smoothly flowed across the screen. The thing, though, is, that these rendered graphics did not age particularly well. For fairness's sake, it should be mentioned that Rebel Assault also had support for the first generation of 3D accelerator cards which made the images a little smoother than what you'll see on today's emulators or screenshots. Yet, what you get to see is basically a mix of some nicely rendered objects and some weirdly blurry backgrounds which give little to no sense of depth and perspective – which even turns into a major gameplay issue at times. Animation is basically absent completely, with objects just sliding across the screen. And when there is animation, like for example in the only action scene without a space ship, it is extremely stiff.
Make no mistake – there was indeed a reason why this became the bestseller it was. There is a reason why it was considered groundbreaking. There are good reasons to still consider Rebel Assault a classic today. It also has to be admitted that all of these reasons are historical ones. What we have here is one of the least timeless games ever. Sort of the opposite of X-Wing, if you think about it.