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Shadows of the Empire was a whole commercial movie campaign, just without the movie. With novels, comics, action figures and more, it briefly took over the nerd world. But the one piece of the puzzle that people remember today was the video game. We take a look a the N64 release to unearth secrets about the game based on the Star Wars film that was never made.
Back in the mid-90s, Star Wars was in a period of transition. A decade after Return of the Jedi and a few years before the Prequel Trilogy, Lucasfilm needed something to reinvigorate interest in the franchise, which led to a multimedia project the likes of which had never been tried before, and has been largely lost to time.
This is the story of Shadows of the Empire – the game based on the Star Wars movie that was never made.
Hey how’s it going guys, this is Tom from UDS and welcome to The Best Star Wars Games Ever, our series where we look at the cream of the crop from a galaxy far, far away. If you’re new to the channel we review new games but also dig deep into gaming history to find the forgotten gems of yesteryear. So if that sounds like your thing then please subscribe. We’re only a few away from 1,000 subs and we want to get on the community post gravy train before YouTube nerfs it. Anyway, on with the show.
The story of Shadows of the Empire goes much further than just a game for the N64, and it’s worth starting with a little look at the wider picture before we get into the nitty gritty. Originally thought up in 1994 and released in 1996, not only did it look to bridge the real world gap between the Original and Prequel Trilogies, but also the timeline between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
While there had been material set between A New Hope and Empire…, the chasm between Episodes 5 and 6 was much less explored, making it ripe for adaptation. The story focuses on the heroes of the Rebel Alliance tracking down a carbon-frozen Han Solo, while Darth Vader uses the might of the Empire to locate his baby boy Luke.
It also introduced new characters and factions such as the roguish Han Solo… I mean Kyle Katarn… of course I mean Dash Rendar! As well as Prince Xizor, leader of the criminal Black Sun group. We’ll see much more of both of these when we get to the game in a second.
But what made Shadows of the Empire so unusual was that it was everything you’d expect from a commercial movie campaign, without the movie. What I mean is that it included novels, comic books, a soundtrack (which of course I have on vinyl), trading cards, role-playing games, posters, model kits, Micro Machines, statuettes, and action figures. Heck, they even gave it a cinematic trailer, comprised of a new narration over repurposed shots from the films.
But among this Krayt Dragon-sized mountain of content, the one piece of the tapestry that’s continued to skirt around the zeitgeist is Shadows of the Empire the video game.
Designed to be a launch title for the Nintendo 64, it was developed before the console had even been made. This meant work on the game had to be done on computers that vaguely mimicked the N64’s hardware. Would this ‘make do’ style reflect on the final product? Well, let’s find out.
The game focuses on new protagonist Dash Rendar, a rugged smuggler who has a heart of gold that compels him to help the Rebellion. Sound familiar? Ok, so he’s an obvious stand in for the frozen Mr Solo, but he’s still a charmer and has enough personality to carry a story.
Speaking of the game’s story, it’s split into 4 chapters, each of which has its own classic title crawl:
Part 1, entitled ‘Escape from Echo Base’, serves as a prequel, actually taking place during Empire’s Battle of Hoth. Here we’re introduced to Dash and his droid companion Leebo as they drop off supplies at Echo Base in their ship The Outrider, which definitely doesn’t look exactly the same as the Millennium Falcon… promise.
With the impending Imperial assault, you jump in a Snowspeeder to take down AT-ATs in classic Rogue Squadron style, before making a getaway in the nick of time.
‘Part 2: In Search of Boba Fett’ takes place immediately after Empire…, with Dash on the hunt for everyone’s second favourite Mandalorian, who’s in possession of Dash’s brother from another mother – Han Solo. We finally find Boba after a detour rendezvous with bounty hunter droid IG-88, but ol’ helmet head manages to escape, presumably to sell him to Jabba in return for his own Kowakian monkey-lizard.
It’s in this section that we’re introduced to Prince Xizor and his malevolent plan to get Luke Skywalker killed, believing he’ll endear himself to the Emperor.
We go back to Tatooine for ‘Part 3: Hunting the Assassins’, as Jabba’s goons head to Ben Kenobi’s house where Luke is honing his Jedi skills. This section includes a really cool speeder bike passage, in which you take out Jabba’s biker gang in a race to Ben’s homestead.
With Luke safe for now, he informs you of plans for a secret construction project hidden on an Imperial computer, a secret spherical, ‘that’s no moon, that’s a space station’ type of construction project, if you know what I mean. You then singlehandedly steal the computer like the rugged, handsome, definitely not Harrison Ford hero that you are.
The fourth and final chapter ‘Lair of the Dark Prince’ starts with Dash, Luke and the other top lads on a mission to rescue Princess Leia, who’s fallen captive to Xizor. After sneaking his way into Xizor’s base, Dash manages to save the Princess and blow up Xizor’s space station, killing the prince seemingly at the expense of his own life.
That is unless you beat the game on medium or hard, which unlocks a secret epilogue scene where it’s revealed that Dash and Leebo escaped by jumping to lightspeed. With everyone believing them to be dead, it’s inferred they slip back into a life of honourable swashbuckle-ry.
Personally, the four part episodic nature of the story really works for me. It feels similar to a limited series, with each part having their own mini climax, ramping up to the spectacular final act.
As for gameplay, it’s a bit more of a mixed bag, and is ambitious if nothing else. It’s split between third person combat and vehicle sections, and while the latter has aged pretty well, the former wasn’t that hot even at the time.
The controls are cumbersome at the best of times, and that’s when Dash’s body is blocking out the entire screen. That’s why it’s probably an inadvertently good thing that most of the enemies are slow and cumbersome. Had they been any more challenging, I probably would’ve died a whole lot more!
None of it is game breaking, it’s just a bit annoying, and demonstrates why critics called it too ambitious for its own good. Had they stuck to just vehicle combat or on-foot action, they could’ve refined the experience into something more intuitive.
With that being said, it’s still an essential play for fans of Star Wars, and isn’t without some nifty features, a few of which have some pretty prestigious origins. For example, a lead at Nintendo thought the renegade Rendar should have an idle animation, rather than just standing still when not being controlled. That Nintendo lead happened to be the creator of Mario – Shigeru Miyamoto.
Despite its obvious shortcomings, there’s still an undeniable charm about Shadows of the Empire. Exploring the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars Galaxy was something seldom seen beforehand, and the game does a good job of making you feel part of the universe, without falling back on lightsabers and the force.
On the N64 version, cutscenes play out through static images and text on screen. While they do make Dash look a bit like a caricature of Kevin Costner, they do a good job of filling in the gaps between gameplay.
The later PC port had fully voiced CG scenes, which although more engaging, do smack of late-90s computer block people. I guess what I’m trying to say is that despite technical limitations, the N64 version has probably aged better.
But if you ask me, it’s about time we got a remaster or at least an HD rerelease of Shadows…. Sure, it’s not canon since the Disney purge, but neither are Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast or Jedi Academy, and they both got Switch ports.
As we ourselves enter a relatively quiet spell of Star Wars releases, what with The Mandalorian finished for another year and the annual movie release cycle paused, it’s only fitting to have Shadows of the Empire fill the void once again.
And that’s a wrap on this edition of The Best Star Wars Video Games ever. Have you got fond memories of Shadows of the Empire? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe. As a small channel every interaction helps and hey, maybe you’ll enjoy what you see!
But most importantly let me know which Star Wars game to feature next. I’ve got a huge backlog to get through, and without your guidance I just know I’m going to end up playing Attack of the Clones on the Gameboy Advance again.
Wow this is underwhelming… just like the movie!