By Marshall Garvey
It’s a great time to be a “Star Wars” fan these days. OK…anytime is a great time to be a fan of arguably the best sci-fi franchise to grace the earth. But with concrete details of Episode VII (filming as we speak) emerging, the period until its Christmas release in 2015 marks an especially opportune stretch to revisit as much of its vast array of media installments as possible, while also delving into the expanded universe that could provide the foundation for a new trilogy. First in line would likely be Timothy Zahn’s highly acclaimed expanded universe novels, but given this site’s namesake, we’ll explore the history of how a galaxy far, far away has come to our game consoles over the years.
Being a 90’s kid (born in 1989), I personally can’t draw on recollections of some of the first “Star Wars” console games for the likes of Sega and Super Nintendo, nor did I get to experience the magic of the original film trilogy in theaters. But nonetheless, the 90’s were still an exciting time to be a newly minted “Star Wars” kid. Not only did the movies return to theaters and home video in 1997 in their refurbished special editions, but the series matured exponentially in the video game realm in a short amount of time as well. Without a doubt, the best was “Rogue Squadron,” the surprise 1998 hit for Nintendo 64 that will assuredly receive a Hall of Fame review here. But it was another game that defined my childhood, and one that also served as one of the pivotal launch titles for the Nintendo 64 altogether when the system was unleashed in 1996. It additionally provides a crucial chapter of expanded mythology, as well as a turning point in the franchise’s presence in the gaming world. It’s the one and only “Shadows of the Empire,” a game that still makes for a fascinating chapter in ST history even as it’s shown its age.
Before getting to the story and some of the game’s salient features, I have to say I can’t emphasize enough how much SOTE consumed my childhood. Before I even owned an N64, I was obsessed with it. When I wasn’t busy looking behind my grandparents’ couch for new “Star Wars” action figures, I would regularly bother my uncle Tim to play it for me. By the time I finally had a copy of my own in 1998, I practically knew the game inside out. So while I’ll detail and review key elements of it here, this is chiefly an opportunity to both enjoy some nostalgia and highlight it alongside other key “Star Wars” games in due time.
Much like how “Rogue Squadron” transpires between the first two films, “Shadows of the Empire” tells an entire plotline situated between the events of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” The player assumes the role of Dash Rendar, a rugged gun-for-hire and smuggler who’s like a spitting image of Han Solo, complete with the same blaster and an oddly shaped space vehicle of his own (albeit he tows a droid named Leebo as his sidekick in lieu of a Wookie). Hired by the Rebel Alliance, he fights in the Battle of Hoth before escaping on his own after everyone else has fled. From there, Dash and Leebo find themselves jolting from one planet to the next as the conflict between the Rebels and Empire continues to escalate. Not only are there bounty hunters hot on Han Solo’s trail, but Emperor Palpatine has begun to turn to criminal syndicates throughout the galaxy for help. The most prominent of these is led by Prince Xizor of the Black Sun organization, who gains the Emperor’s trust and seeks to eliminate Luke Skywalker immediately. Dash and his rebel friends are soon faced with the daunting task of defeating both, climaxing in a battle at Xizor’s space station that pits the Alliance, the Empire, and Black Sun against each other.
Playing SOTE as it nears its 20th anniversary, one aspect that’s held up remarkably well is the game’s level variety. Kicking off with a perfect Battle of Hoth recreation, the game alternates fluidly between standard FPS, space missions, and vehicle-driven ones. One of the best levels is the Ord Mantell Junkyard, which has Dash jumping from one rusty train to another while battling off enemies all around him (all before crashing into a final confrontation with IG-88, one of the notorious bounty hunters seen briefly in “Empire”). Those who love the speeder bike chases from “Return of the Jedi” will savor the Mos Eisley level, a sort of death race in which you have to catch up to and destroy a fleet of Jabba the Hutt’s hitmen before they can reach Luke’s compound. Others work thanks to their atmosphere, the best of this kind being the sewers to Xizor’s palace, which is cloaked in green fog and a dreary musical score that perfectly accentuate its equally repulsive and frightening design.
Another key to SOTE’s value is ironically what many may consider a flaw. As even the most casual fan will notice, key characters such as Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and others are neither playable nor seen during gameplay (although they are featured in numerous cutscenes). While it wouldn’t hurt to interact with some of these characters in the game, the ultimate effect of only playing Dash’s side of the story strengthens the game’s focus in adding to the story, especially given the plot’s immediate proximity to the second and third films. Granted, the “Shadows of the Empire” storyline had been conceived before the game’s release, but this doesn’t change the fact that the game itself presents a very replete and engrossing tale.
In many respects, though, “Shadows of the Empire” hasn’t aged entirely well, especially when stacked up against some of the finer ST games that have come since then (In a moment that should require a session in a church confession booth for both a “Star Wars” fan and gamer, I’ve yet to play “Knights of the Old Republic.”). For one, Rendar is fairly limited in his abilities as a playable character, particularly his inability to grab ledges (a shortcoming compounded by his often awkward jumping mechanics). While the levels are outstanding and feature some worthy boss battles, such as an AT-ST walker and even Boba Fett himself, they can also be fairly vacant at times, with the shooting action sometimes limited and repetitive (save for a few extra weapons, including the badass Disruptor laser that engulfs the entire room in a giant green explosion that wipes everyone out, including Dash if his health is low enough). Partly attributable to the game’s limitations as an N64 launch title, Dash has no personality or speech outside of painful grunts when hit, although the PC version features fully animated cutscenes that make him as personable as he appears.
If you have a similar relationship to the game as I do, though, these flaws are outweighed by the flood of great memories that come with each playthrough. There are still plenty of quirks that’ll get a laugh, such as releasing wampas from their cages in Echo Base and watching them fight, or shooting stormtroopers near a ledge and waiting for the Hollywood scream as they plummet. My favorite trick, however, is one that spans several levels: In Echo Base, if you lure a wampa onto your ship before escaping, you’ll hear it occasionally rock the ship while flying in space, and it’ll still be there once you land. Should the majority of it fail to resonate, though, there’s always the opening level at Hoth, which allowed legions of kids to fly a snowspeeder and take down probe droids and AT-AT walkers. Bonus nostalgia note: If you’re a fan of “the N64 fog,” you may very well overdose on it playing SOTE. There’s hardly a level that isn’t shrouded in it.
Reading some of the contemporary reviews from its original release, it would indeed seem the only difference playing the game today as opposed to then is the nostalgia. Although it was pivotal in bringing kids to the N64 by the busload along with “Super Mario 64,” it didn’t quite live up to the promise established by its incredible opening level for many. Today however, especially at a time where the expanded universe will expand and receive more attention for the sake of new films, SOTE is all the more compelling to revisit beyond simple N64 nostalgia. Considering the volumes of movies Disney plans to make, perhaps we can even entertain the notion of Dash and Leebo coming to the silver screen. Should that happen, though, I would suggest Dash swap out those hideous blue and orange pants for something a little more sightly.
Original commercial for the game: