Nineteen years before The Force Awakens, three years before the start of the dreaded “prequel trilogy” and even before the slippery slope of remasters where the phrase “Greedo shot first” got its origin. In 1996 Lucasfilm set to expand the Star Wars canon with a multimedia project that would span a novel, a comic book series, and eventually a video game for the then new Nintendo 64 and PC. Dubbed Shadows of the Empire, the new chapter in the beloved Star Wars saga took place at the start of Episode V, Th Empire Strikes Back and concluded at the start of of Episode VI, Return of the Jedi. It told the story of a smuggler like Han Solo named Dash Rendar who gets caught up in the ongoing conflict between the evil empire and the rebel alliance when the head of the Black Sun Crime Syndicate, Prince Xizor, plots to assassinate Luke Skywalker to win favour with the Emperor and become his new right hand man.
It’s difficult for me to look back at Shadow of the Empire objectively because it was a game that made such a lasting impression on me, well at least ten percent of it anyway. The first time I played Shadows was in early 1997 when I rented an N64 console from a local video store and the game to play with friends at a sleepover at my house. I vividly remember booting up the game and immediately being blown away by the first stage: a full 3-D, interactive rendition of the Battle of Hoth. Never before in all my years, at the time at least, had I ever seen anything so impressive in a video game: flying around in an open arena in a snow speeder, listening to an orchestrated score taken straight from the movies, shooting down AT-ST walkers and the cherry on top, attaching my tow cable to the legs of an AT-AT and toppling it over.
I had played other Star Wars video games that let me do exact same thing, namely the Atari, NES and SNES versions of The Empire Strikes Back, but never before had it felt so real and authentic. The Battle of Hoth has been recreated in other Star Wars games both on PC and console, even on another N64 game in Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, to the point where it fails to really excite anymore, yet seeing it in full 3-D for the first time as opposed to 2-D on the likes of the SNES was the first sign, for me at least, that gaming had truly taken a giant leap into the next generation.
You’re probably wondering why I’m lingering so long on the first stage of a ten stage game, and the reason is that it’s really the best part of the game. I realized this as early as my first time playing it when even after beating level one, my friends and I kept going back and replaying it over and over again instead of trying to progress through the game to see what else it had to offer in our short one night rental period. In replaying Shadows all the way through, in one sitting I might add, for the purpose of this feature, I still feel that the Battle of Hoth still holds up, but the rest of the package is just really, okay.
For a near launch Nintendo 64 game (it arrived a little over two months after the system’s North American launch) Shadows of the Empire has a lot of variety. Of course there’s the introductory stage that I’ve already spoken in length about, stationary turret stages, space battles and a high-speed race through Mos Eisley on a Swoop bike. Some of these distractions are fun, such as the swoop level once you get a feel for the bike’s physics and the space battle at the end where you have to fly Dash’s ship the Outrider into a space station to destroy its core, but others like the turret levels are overly long and not that thrilling.
The main problem with Shadows of the Empire is what makes up the bulk of the games ten stages: third-person shooting and awkward platforming. Shadows is an early 3-D game and you can tell especially now by the way your character controls and shoots. Unlike Super Mario 64 which featured a true 3-D movement set for its main character, Dash Rendar controls like Lara Croft in the early Tomb Raider games or like the Raccoon City police force in Resident Evil, that is to say the loathed turn/pivot tank controls. I’ve personally never struggled with this style of movement having played and replayed Capcom’s classic survival horror series countless times, and honestly I didn’t struggle that much with the controls in this game either, however this game has an emphasis on shooting and the controls aren’t suited to this. Things are fine when enemies are directly in front of you, but if you come up and elevator or enter a room where an enemy gets the jump on you, a large portion of your health can get eaten away just by having to turn to face them.
When you can get the jump on enemies aiming isn’t all that great either. Your unlimited blaster fire gets the job done damage wise, but lining up shots is like controlling a storm trooper: someone your shots hit, other times they go wide. You can fine aim by holding the Z-trigger, but your then susceptible to enemy fire because you’re forced to stand still. You can strafe and shoot by holding down the R-trigger, but your character movement is very slow and it’s best to only use this function to peak around corners looking for enemies than to strafe in a fire-fight.
Exploring the levels awards alternate weapons suck as seeker missiles, a rapid-fire pulse cannon, a flame thrower and a very powerful yet rare gun called the disruptor. These are all best not used within a level and saved for the game’s many bosses. Despite going up against overwhelmingly large bosses like an AT-ST, Boba Fett’s Slave One and even the bounty hunter himself, bosses in Shadows of the Empire aren’t that fun to fight. None really have any strategy or trick, mostly it’s just a matter of switching to your seeker of pulse rifle and firing until you’re the last one standing. In the case of Slave One and the AT-ST, you just have to get behind them and fire up to get away unscathed.
Along with shooting your way through stormtroopers, droids, and wampas, getting to one of these bosses involves a hefty amount of platforming which never feels very precise. Dash has an odd momentum when jumping where he feels heavy and like he wants to jump either slightly to the left or right, even wheen you aim straight. This is perhaps the most frustrating in the game’s fourth stage where you have to jump across a series of moving trains to make it to the end. Jumping from one train to another that’s in front of you is hardly an issue, but it’s very easy to overshoot your landing when your tasked with jumping from trains that run parallel to one another. The game’s camera also makes it difficult to see where you’re going at times as it defaults way too close to your character. You can cycle through various camera angles with the C-buttons, but they range from not very useful to how did this make it into the final game at all.
For all its faults about how you make your way through Shadows of the Empire’s stages, they at the very least offer a lot of variety. After the Battle of Hoth you get to explore the Hoth base which is perhaps the game’s best third-person action stage, before moving into a planet with giant canyons and an imperial freighter. The latter couple of levels aren’t as good as the first few, with a stage in a drab, hard-to-see-in sewer among the worst not only to see but to navigate, but I like that Shadows of the Empire, like the Star Wars films, takes you on a journey across the galaxy and doesn’t stick to one planet or location.
Is Shadows of the Empire really that bad? Not really. It’s not exactly unplayable but it certainly doesn’t hold up either. For the longest time I gave this game a pass and looked back on it fondly but that’s due to my preciously held memories over playing it for the first time with my friends and having our collective heads explode over how good the intro stage was. Discount that level though, and you’re left with a game that has a decent amount of variety, but lacks precision and refinement in what makes up the backbone of the entire game. If you still have a copy lying around along with an N64, I’d advise to hook it up and play this just to experience the first stage alone, but you might want to stop there or else tarnish your beloved memories of this really just okay entry in the Star Wars video game franchise.