In 1997, twenty years after Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope first premiered, the first Special Edition Star Wars films were released. George Lucas made a number of changes, both major and minor, to A New Hope for the new release in order to (as he put it) "finish the film the way it was meant to be."
While several of the changes Lucas made enhance the quality of the film, others -- such as Greedo shooting Han first, rather than the other way around as the original release had established -- ended up doing more harm than good. Here are the changes that stand out the most.
1. Mos Eisley Spaceport
The scenes in Mos Eisley Spaceport are some of the most imaginative and detailed in A New Hope because of the various alien races found there -- especially in the famous Cantina Scene. Among the additions are rontos (large beasts of burden), Dash Rendar's ship the Outrider (from the video game Shadows of the Empire), additional aliens in the Cantina and an insectoid alien who buys Luke's speeder. The changes make Mos Eisley a bigger, busier, and more interesting place, closer to the images of Tatooine in Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
In the original release of A New Hope, Han Solo is confronted by Greedo, a Rodian bounty hunter, about a debt he owes Jabba the Hutt. As Greedo threatens him, Han slowly reaches for his gun, then shoots Greedo under the table. Lucas, worrying that this scene made Han appear too anti-heroic, changed the scene to show Greedo firing a wild shot before Han shoots him. The scene has become a focal point of anti-Special Edition sentiments because of how it affects Han's character: he gets out of his problem through sheer luck, not because of the skill and callousness he's gained from his experience as a smuggler.
3. Jabba the Hutt
In a scene cut from the original release, Han escapes Greedo only to confront Jabba the Hutt himself. Originally, Jabba was not a giant, slug-like alien, but merely a large man in a strange, furry suit; as a result, a CGI Jabba and new dialogue in Huttese were added to the shot. But the original blocking didn't account for Jabba's tail, and so in the added scene, Han steps on Jabba's tail as he walks around the Hutt. It's played for laughs, but perhaps demonstrates, in a more toned-down fashion, a bit of Han's brashness that was removed from his scene with Greedo. Overall, though, having Han argue with two separate people about his smuggling debts feels anticlimactic and repetitive.
4. Enhanced Special Effects
Waiting twenty years between the original and Special Edition releases of A New Hope allowed Lucas to take advantage of special effects technology that wasn't available when he first made the film. Rebel ships flying over Yavin, for example, appeared merely as red flashes in the original but are rendered in full detail in the Special Editions; Luke's landspeeder looks like it's floating rather than riding on wheels that have been blurred out; and the Rebels' battle with the Death Star is longer and more detailed. The updated special effects make the film more realistic for a modern audience used to the kind of extensive CGI that appears in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
5. Biggs Darklighter
In a deleted scene before the Rebel attack on the Death Star, Luke is reunited with Biggs Darklighter, a friend from Tatooine and fellow pilot. The Special Edition restores this scene with only one change: a pilot walks across the screen to mask a removed line where Red Leader mentions Luke's father. The scene ends with Luke and Biggs deciding to catch up with each other after the battle; they can't, of course, because Biggs is killed. The scene is poignant, serving to remind the audience that the Rebel pilots' deaths affect the others personally, and not just as a loss for the Rebellion.
6. Cardboard Cutouts Replaced
The replacement of cardboard Rebel cutouts with real people during the awards ceremony was probably the best change in the Special Editions. Luke, Han and Chewie are being rewarded for their service, and when viewers watching the original version notice that the Rebels observing this ceremony are just two-dimensional pictures, the scene loses some of its dramatic impact. Adding real people to the scene helps remove a major distraction that leaves negative last impressions with the audience.