As Star Wars fans celebrate the arrival of those swanky new Blu-ray SteelBooks, I’m reminded of much older releases that once struck the same collectible chord.
Does your VCR still work? You might need it for this one!
The original trilogy was released on videocassette no less than five times, and if you count some rarer releases and upgrades to existing releases, that number is even higher!
Each VHS release had something that the previous did not, be it improved audio, a different aspect ratio, or in extreme cases, a humanoid elephant where Lak Sivrak was supposed to be. (Oh, and updates to the box art. My favorite part!)
Since nostalgia is a heck of a drug, every set has collectible merit. The original releases might make you recall seeing the films in theaters. Some of the later releases might make you remember those dark times when the Star Wars brand was comparably dormant. In effect, we can trace our whole history with Star Wars through these videos — all the highs and all the lows!
(Wait. There were lows?)
Below are what I consider to be the five biggest home video releases of the original Star Wars trilogy. How many did you have?
CBS/FOX ORIGINAL RELEASES (early to mid ‘80s):
Technically, calling these the “original” releases is a stretch. A New Hope, for instance, most certainly scored an earlier (and now MUCH rarer) release. Still, for the layman, these were the collective first, and for a great many of us, they remain the ULTIMATE Star Wars videocassettes.
The releases of each video were staggered, and none came out even remotely close to their respective theatrical debut dates. (If I had to guess, that was to give video rental partners a chance to earn money off of their exorbitantly expensive rental copies before the general public could buy them at retail.)
You’ll notice that the box art borrows from the original theatrical posters. Thing is, most fans never owned those posters, so whenever we see these breathtaking collages, we think of the videocassettes. The art hasn’t lost a step. Even by 2015 standards, it’s breathtaking.
The original trilogy would be released again on video in 1990, in similarly-styled boxes. The best way to tell those apart from these? If they don’t have the red “Hi-Fi Stereo” triangles on the front, they’re from the 1990 release.
SPECIAL LETTERBOX COLLECTOR’S EDITION (1992):
Big thanks to StarWars.com’s own senior content writer, Dan Brooks, for letting me borrow this gorgeous box set! (Thanks, Dan. I promise I’m not doing weird things with it.)
To my knowledge, these letterboxed versions of the original trilogy were never sold separately. I was never big into the technical differences between the releases, but as far as the overall presentation went, this one was hard to top!
All three movies in the original trilogy were included, of course, along with a bonus fourth video, From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga. (A fairly legendary documentary that originally aired on television in 1983. This is where most fans found out that the inside of Jabba’s body looked like an albino treehouse.)
Fans also received an artsy book on George Lucas, not to mention a special holographic box to hold everything. Perhaps you were one of the kids who tried to peel that hologram off for placement on some long-forgotten marble notebook? You’d have an easier time taking down the Empire.
THX MASTERED TRILOGY (1995):
This was the last release of the original trilogy before the Special Editions came out, and in fact, this was far from a needless release. Remember, Star Wars is always collecting new fans, and many of them counted this set as their first chance to see Yoda on home video.
For me, the set was one of the first signals that Star Wars was coming back in a big way. Between this and Kenner dusting off its license to make action figures, 1995 filled me with so much hope. After all, I’d spent the prior 10 years subsisting on novels and the errant Star Wars figural pin. Things were finally looking up!
The dramatic changes to the box art used to be a turnoff for me, but I’ve come to appreciate them as a sort of “visual marker” of what it was like to be a Star Wars fan between its hottest periods.
SPECIAL EDITION TRILOGY RELEASES (1997):
No matter where you stand on the Special Editions, these two box sets were super popular, and in their time, absolute must-haves for Star Wars fans.
The “Silver” and “Gold” sets were sold separately, with the only notable difference between them being that the “Silver” set was in widescreen, while “Gold” was in 4×3.
While every release of the original trilogy was unique in its own way, most of the changes were rudimentary. By contrast, these sets provided wholly unique viewing experiences. For better or for worse, the Special Editions featured a lot of changes. (From things as simple as improved visual effects to things as dramatic as the Sarlacc turning into Audrey II.)
And yes, despite the aspect ratio being the only real difference between the sets, many fans bought both of them. Hey, they just looked too perfect standing next to each other!
In addition to all of the releases mentioned here, there were still several more! (Heck, even the Special Editions had more than one VHS release, despite bordering so close to the DVD era!)
There are certainly fans who bought every single release as they debuted. Whatever the sets retailed for, it was a small price to pay for reinvigorated Star Wars passions…plus a great excuse to spend yet another night marathoning the original trilogy.
That’s what interests me most about those just-released Blu-ray SteelBooks. It’s a chance to collect more Star Wars “things,” and a reason to spend all day watching C-3PO complain. Then, just as now, I’ll grab at every opportunity to do those things.
NOTE: Special thanks to Echo Station for their thorough research on the many Star Wars VHS releases, which helped me navigate this frequently confusing subject!