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Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire: a Shacknews retrospective

Happy Star Wars Day, everyone! Today, Shacknews celebrates by looking back at a game that has proven as elusive as its main character, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.

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Today is Star Wars Day, a celebration of one of the richest universes in all of science fiction. Many are observing today by getting together with freinds, watching the classic films, or expressing their love across the great expanse of the internet. In the gaming world, May 4th usually means huge discounts across the wide array of Star Wars games. And by extension, it's a good time to reflect on the best games the series has given people of all ages.

Today, Shacknews is focusing on one game from the Star Wars series that has become quite a rarity. It can't be found on Steam or GOG.com and Nintendo hasn't dusted it off for its Wii U Virtual Console. It's the 1996 classic, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

The Star Wars series began in the 1970s and (until the prequels came along) was solely comprised of the main trilogy. That changed in the early 90s when Bantam Books and Dark Horse Comics came along and began expanding on George Lucas' universe. With Lucasfilm's blessing, new stories were launched within the setting of the films, officially ushering in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Many of the stories continued the narrative of the original trilogy, chronicling the continuing adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia Organa (who would marry and have three Force-sensitive children), and the New Republic.

However, there was one story called Shadows of the Empire, a tale written by Steve Perry that took place between "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." The story would focus on the hunt for the carbonite-imprisoned Han Solo, a treacherous plot by sinister forces to assassinate Luke Skywalker, shine a greater spotlight on bounty hunter Boba Fett, and introduce a whole new roguish bounty hunter character. Lucasfilm's plan was not only to issue this story via novelization and comic books, but also through a standalone video game for the newly-released Nintendo 64 in 1996.

The game would put players in the role of Dash Rendar, a close friend of Han Solo's. Following the events of "The Empire Strikes Back," Dash would aid the Rebels in tracking down Han Solo, frozen and in the clutches of Boba Fett. Meanwhile, fans were introduced to the Black Sun, a criminal organization led by Prince Xizor. Xizor was trying to gain favor as Emperor Palpatine's right-hand man. Knowing Vader was planning to turn Luke to the dark side of the Force, Xizor instead planned to assassinate Luke and discredit Vader in the process. As he continued searching for Han, Dash's mission quickly turned to protecting Luke and warding off the Black Sun assassins.

This was a bold move at the time, putting console players in control of a completely new character for the first time. Luke and the rest of the Rebel Alliance were ancillary characters. That didn't take away from what would become a memorable experience.

Fight or Flight

The Hoth battle from "The Empire Strikes Back" didn't always used to be a Star Wars video game cliche. Shadows of the Empire offered one of the first opportunities to play out this pivotal conflict in 3D, putting players in the role of Dash Rendar helping out the Rebels. Using a cockpit perspective, players would face escalating threats of probe droids, AT-ST, and AT-AT walkers. The camera would even pan out to show Dash's speeder wrapping its cable around the AT-AT's legs, the first time this iconic movie moment was played out in a video game.

Flight missions would soon mix in with the Star Wars series' first foray into 3D adventuring. Dash's missions would take him into the Hoth bunker, aboard the junkyard planet of Ord Mantell, and even aboard an Imperial vessel. His on-foot missions would see him taking on Imperial Stormtroopers, as well as members of the Black Sun, across different planets. In addition to on-foot platforming, stages would feature some cool gimmicks, like a moving train stage and a flying jetpack sequence. Dash's missions were mainly memorable for his boss battles with some popular members of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, like the Droid supremacist bounty hunter IG-88 and the resourceful and relentless Boba Fett. The boss battles were tightly designed to take advantage of their settings, with IG-88 blending into his junkyard surroundings and Boba Fett jumping aboard his Slave I ship to up his battle's intensity several notches.

Shadows of the Empire is remembered fondly for its variety. It never leaned too much in one area, successfully mixing up its on-foot missions with dogfighting and space flight. The mission aboard Hoth would be followed up by the asteroid field flight, reminiscent of the scene from "The Empire Strikes Back," complete with classic musical score. The intense boss battle with Boba Fett would later be followed up by a speeder bike chase, one of the most fun and unique missions in the game that would see Dash trying to crash Black Sun assassins into obstacles or send them spiraling down a Sarlacc pit.

Of course, the Force wasn't completely strong with this game. Shadows of the Empire had many of the growing pains of 3D console games, namely its camera was something of a bear to navigate. Worse yet, precision platforming wasn't exactly the game's greatest strength, so accidental plunges off cliffs were quite frequent.

Some may also criticize the game's endgame scenario, as there never was a "final boss battle" with Prince Xizor. Rather, the final stage was a three-way dogfight around Xizor's Skyhook space station. This issue is quickly overlooked, though, just because of the massive scale of the final battle. The sight of watching X-Wings and TIE Fighters fire at each other and even join forces to gang up on Xizor's Star Viper ships is a sight unlike any other in the series. Watching the Empire's Super Star Destroyer come simultaneously to your aid and for your destruction is still one of the coolest moments in a Star Wars game.

The Legacy

Like Dash Rendar, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire made a clean escape and has not been seen since the late 90s. The game released on PC in 1997, but it has since become a major rarity. Not even GOG.com has been able to get its hands on this 64-bit gem. The console version was published by Nintendo, so there's good reason to believe that they have some of the rights to the game and the Disney sale may have created a number of complications, somewhat similar to a rights situation with another N64 classic, Goldeneye. Regardless, there's no sign that Shadows of the Empire will emerge on the Wii U Virtual Console, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Shadows of the Empire's visuals look rough by today's standards, but helped pave the way for some of the later, more polished 3D Star Wars efforts. And its variety in gameplay still make it one of the most well-rounded of the classic Star Wars games. It would also be one of the most influential, with the first stage Hoth battle, in particular, forging the path for what would eventually become the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series.

With Disney's Star Wars acquisition, much of the Star Wars Expanded Universe is no longer considered canon. Shadows of the Empire is no exception. But regardless of its place (or lack thereof) on the Star Wars timeline, Shadows of the Empire still has a place in the hearts of many Star Wars fans.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
  • reply
    May 4, 2015 11:00 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire: a Shacknews retrospective

    • reply
      May 4, 2015 11:30 AM

      True or false: if the Hoth battle wasn't in this game, no one would have given a shit about it.

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        May 4, 2015 11:30 AM

        False. People would have cared, because Boba Fett was given prominent billing at the time.

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        May 4, 2015 11:54 AM

        Speeder bike chase was rad. Last mission, was awesome too.

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          May 4, 2015 3:48 PM

          The space missions with the turret was my second favorite to Hoth by pretty close margin.

          I mainly loved the incorporation of real Star Wars music and not some replication.

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        May 4, 2015 12:35 PM

        False. That game was a ton of fun. Frustrating at times, but worthwhile. I still remember being shocked when that AT-ST suddenly bursts into the room you're in and starts shooting you.

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        May 4, 2015 3:47 PM

        It would have still be a star wars game on the N64 which was already dry for games.

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      May 4, 2015 11:48 AM

      I remember hanging out with one of my buddies playing this game. We played through it several times on easy or something only to realize that the last cutscene was locked behind a "See what happens to Dash Rendar after beating the game on normal or higher." I still don't know how the game ends.

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      May 4, 2015 11:57 AM

      Man, that was such a sweet game.

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      May 4, 2015 12:01 PM

      [deleted]

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      May 4, 2015 12:07 PM

      I played the opening Hoth Snowspeeder level at least a hundred times. I loved it. :)

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        May 4, 2015 1:26 PM

        Yeah I remember nailing the rope mechanics after failing so hard, so many times. To this day I bet I could pull it off flawlessly.

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      May 4, 2015 12:57 PM

      one of my favorite star wars games of all time. Boba Fett fight was fucking awesome.

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      May 4, 2015 1:29 PM

      [deleted]

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        May 4, 2015 3:49 PM

        Rogue Square 3 had shooting stages I thought. I never got to play that one though.

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      May 4, 2015 1:34 PM

      Awesome game

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      May 4, 2015 1:41 PM

      I will always remember the soundtrack of the train in Ord Mantell

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      May 4, 2015 1:50 PM

      I forgot about that Skyhook battle, that was awesome.

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      May 4, 2015 1:53 PM

      nice frontpage coordination ya'll

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      May 4, 2015 3:16 PM

      Ha I still remember that stupid cave the Beast is hiding in the cliffs part.
      The game also had some weird auto aim issues so sometimes you could shoot stuff across the map without risk.

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      May 4, 2015 7:28 PM

      I remember my local Babbage's charged 99.99 for it during the first N64-holiday season due to low supply. Seemed pretty shitty.

      I eventually waited to buy it for a normal price several months later.

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