Star Wars: Tiny Death Star was originally announced as a management simulation based on controlling the Death Star. If you’re like me, you’re probably shamelessly interested in this kind of pure fan service. After all, when the entire world is your fanbase, it feels strangely appropriate to exploit every possible tie-in.
When it comes to Star Wars, for the past 15 years we’ve been bombarded with product after product of Gungans, clones, Midichlorians, podracers, lightsaber-wielding Yodas, and just about every other prequel trilogy event that keeps us up at night. But since Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise earlier this year, they’ve seemed determined to backpedal all of the Lucasian shenanigans and give us exactly what we want: more of the original trilogy. Even in just the mobile game scene alone, in the past year we’ve seen Angry Birds Star Wars, Star Wars Pinball, Star Wars Pinball 2 and now Tiny Death Star—all giving us characters, scenes and themes from the original three films.
Again, this is all pure fan service—big corporations making a quick buck off diehard fans who will consume any product with a Star Wars logo on it, especially if it involves the original trilogy. It’s a smart move as Disney prepares the world for a new sequel film trilogy that harkens back to the original trilogy in style and tone. But even on a more practical level, if you’re going to make a quick buck off a licensed product, why not make something that brings back fond memories rather than tears of agony?
Unfortunately, when it comes to Tiny Death Star, those fond memories are about the only thing holding this game up. Seeing all of our favorite characters and settings lovingly translated into the pixelated Nimblebit art style is irrefutably fun. Seeing a pixelated version of a little mustached Lando Calrissian or even the hovering Interrogation Probe from Episode IV instantly filled my heart with gladness. Between the recreated tracks from the soundtrack and the huge amount of obscure references, there’s an attention to detail here that will make any Star Wars fan smile.
The problem is that beyond the cute fan service, there’s very little to differentiate Tiny Death Star from the original game it’s based on. Rather than importing the Star Wars universe into one of its more complex properties such as Pocket Planes or—better yet—given us something new, Nimblebit has taken their simplest game, Tiny Tower, and heavily skinned it with all things Star Wars.
I won’t go into details of the gameplay of Tiny Tower, but at its core it’s a series of time mechanics that require the player to manage the floors and citizens of a building. To keep up with the game, you have to open up the app every few minutes to make sure all your shops, restaurants and stores are stocked and the money keeps rolling in. Of course, there is an in-app purchase aspect to the game as well that isn’t overly burdensome since all you have to do is wait longer to complete your new floors and orders. It’s a time-waster—one that will have you tapping meaninglessly on your phone whenever you have a free second (or whenever you want to look busy).
Outside of some collectibles and miniature Star Wars-themed cutscenes, Tiny Death Star adds almost nothing new to the mix. The types of floors and characters are pretty much the same as before except with a tacked on Star Wars name. They’ve included some new achievements given to you by a cute pixelated Lord Sidious, as well as a new kind of secret Imperial floor, which is where you are secretly building up the more sinister part of the Death Star. These little features give you a taste of what could have been, but for someone who’s already played Tiny Tower, it’s just not enough to justify putting a bunch of more time into something so similar. There are too many elements of the game that don’t make sense with the theme of an Imperial Death Star that the developers didn’t bother trying to restructure. Why is the Death Star shaped like a vertical tower with an elevator? When did the Death Star become an apartment complex / shopping mall, and is that really the most efficient way to fund the operation? Why are the citizens of the Death Star still called “bitizens” who use a social media service called “holonet”? Was it really necessary to have a “Marriage Room” on the Death Star?
Yes, this is just a casual mobile game—and yes, I’m probably expecting too much from it. But when a concept as promising as a management simulation based on controlling the Death Star comes around, it’s hard not to have high hopes and imagine what could have been. I recognize that it’s exactly that kind of thinking that got us into this mess with the prequel trilogy.
But as a Star Wars fan, I can’t help but have naively high expectations—whether it’s as massive an undertaking as a new film trilogy or as small as a mobile game. Let’s just hope J.J. Abrams doesn’t play it as safe as Nimblebit did here.
Luke Larsen is the tech editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @lalarsen11.