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‘The Mandalorian’ Is Basically a ’90s Video Game You Can’t Play

This is (mostly) a compliment.

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For anyone who played video games in the ’90s, or really, ever, the plots of most episodes of The Mandalorian are familiar. Raid a base. Dogfight with starfighters flown by bad guys. Take out countless enemies in order to get through a locked door that leads to another locked door. Gather clues that add up to a larger “mystery” that may or may not actually make sense at the end of the game. Defeat a giant “boss” at the end of the level. So far, The Mandalorian Season 2 has mostly amounted to variations on themes you might find in an old first-person shooter like Goldeneye, or more appropriately, various Star Wars games from the ’90s like Dark Forces or Shadows of the Empire.

In “Chapter 12: The Siege,” the latest episode of Mando, (spoiler alert!) Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) seems to have a bunch of nifty, and creepy, giant troopers shoved into the back of his spaceship. For people who played Dark Forces on Windows 95 or our  “Power Macs”, this glimpse reminds us of the Dark Troopers we had to blast endlessly in that game. Meanwhile, the rest of the episode was mostly a chase sequence combined with shooting a bunch of Stormtroopers to get to a place, to open a door, and then, pull a lever. Needless to say, The Mandalorian manages all of this action thrillingly, and this latest episode — directed by none other than Carl Weathers — is a fantastic mishmash of several familiar Star Wars-y elements all at once.

And yet, in the back of my mind, the question persists: At this point, would the show be better as a video game? Between Moff Gideon’s possible “Dark Troopers,” and Greef Karga (Weathers) blasting TIE Fighters, the only thing missing from this cover-album of the greatest-hits-from-Star-Wars-video-games, is the participatory component. I’ve written elsewhere that part of the way the Mandalorian-parent-power fantasy works is that we don’t see his face. This means, that a parent can imagine themselves as a one-person arsenal defending a small child. But, in this season, it feels like the immediate danger to Baby Yoda is largely absent, and when Mando isn’t trying to prevent Baby Yoda from eating things he shouldn’t (relatable) he’s kind of just dropping him off with whatever babysitter is around. In the early episodes this season, that meant Amy Sedaris, but in this episode, it meant a very convenient daycare/school run by a droid.

This isn’t a criticism per se, but the parenting aspect of The Mandolorian feels less integral to this season, and the plots seem more focused on replicating the thrills of “old school” Star Wars-action. This isn’t to say that The Mandalorian is aping the beats of the old films, more that it’s imitating the thrills we got from ’90s video games that tried to funnel the Star Wars aesthetic into a 16-bit environment. Whether it was Rebel Assualt, Dark Forces, or Shadows of the Empire, the player often controlled a character a lot like Mando: Someone who was just a badass because they were, and had to shoot things and blow-up bases, because that’s the way the game had to be played. In the new episode, locating the clue about the experiments in the secret Imperial lab feels like something that had to happen so we can get to the next “level.” This isn’t to say it didn’t work, and it wasn’t exciting — it was! But for old ’90s kids like me, there’s a contrivance to these pieces of the Mando puzzle that feel like things that need to happen in-between all the video game action.

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Again, this is mostly a compliment. Since it debuted in 2019, many people have said they like The Mandalorian because it “feels like real Star Wars.” I guess I don’t disagree, but I think what everyone is missing is the notion of what “feels” like Star Wars doesn’t really come from the OG trilogy, but instead, for the adult consumers of Star Wars, the kind of approximate Star Wars we got in the ’90s from video games, tie-in novels, and comic books.

Make no mistake, the ’90s are what made Boba Fett the obsessive cult thing he became, and the obsession with the visage of the Mandalorian and the pew-pew-pew action of the show itself is likely an outgrowth of that Star Wars. People who grew up in the ’90s don’t love The Mandalorian because it represents the Star Wars we watched. Instead, this is the Star Wars we played.

The Mandalorian is streaming now on Disney+.