As the N64’s first Star Wars game, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire superbly showcased the adventure and action of the film saga through varied gameplay and detailed 3D environments.
In 1996, the Star Wars franchise still only consisted of the three films from the original trilogy. George Lucas hadn’t yet sold off the Star Wars franchise, nor had he released his divisive prequels or even the special edition versions of the first three films to mark Star Wars’ 20th anniversary.
Nevertheless, Star Wars remained incredibly popular at this time, primarily due to the film trilogy’s pop culture status and also the staggering amount of related merchandise that came with it. New, albeit smaller stories from the Star Wars universe continued to be told through the medium of books, comics and video games.
Of course, we all now know that Disney bought the rights to Star Wars in 2012 and declared all pre-existing multimedia other than the films and the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series to be non-canon.
Shadows of the Empire is one of these now non-canon stories, but it stands out from the rest because it was the most ambitious and extensive Star Wars multimedia project that Lucasfilm had worked on until that point in time. It’s set in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and tells you what the heroes and villains of the film trilogy were doing during this time.
The project’s goal was to tell a new story in as many ways as possible without having to actually make a film. It incorporated almost everything that you would expect to see alongside the release of a blockbuster film: a novel, comics, a soundtrack, toys, a video game and more.
The video game, which released for the N64 in 1996 in North America (1997 in Europe and Japan), was a major component of the overall Shadow of the Empire project, and influenced a great deal of its development. In fact, Jon Knoles, the lead designer and artist on the game, was the one who suggested it take place in between the two films. It was also released on PC a year later, and this version is more or less the same except that it has full-motion video cutscenes (whereas the N64 version only has lightly animated storyboards due to the limited storage capacity of N64 cartridges).
While the game does feature the likes of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, you only play as a new minor character called Dash Rendar, who was created specifically for this new story. Overall, the plot follows the same general direction as that of the novel, but takes a few creative liberties because you’re restricted to Dash’s perspective. If you’re only interested in the story, then we suggest you just read the book, as it’s far more detailed.
Shadows of the Empire is primarily a third-person shooter, but just like a Star Wars film it has a bit of everything. There are space battles, a Speeder Bike chase, and you even get to partake in the Battle of Hoth in a Snowspeeder. When Dash isn’t zipping around in a vehicle, he’s on foot, infiltrating Imperial bases and taking on enemies with a trusty blaster pistol – he even gets to use a jetpack! This variety keeps the game interesting, especially as some of the on-foot sections can feel quite lengthy at times.
The game also does a great job of delivering a Star Wars experience that feels authentic. While the character and vehicle models have a low poly count, they’re surprisingly detailed for an early N64 game, and vehicles such as the AT-ST move exactly as they do in the films. In terms of the audio, the game features orchestral music from the Shadows of the Empire soundtrack, rather than synthesised music typically found in most N64 games.
As one of the earliest third-party N64 games, Shadows of the Empire’s on-foot missions suffer from some awkward camera and control issues. You move and look using the control stick, and have to use the Z and R buttons to look vertically and strafe, which is too fiddly in combat with multiple enemies. Not only that, but firing your blaster requires you to rely on an unreliable auto-aim system. When it does work as it should, it then feels a bit too easy as you can often pick off enemies from a safe distance with minimal effort.
Despite these issues, Shadows of the Empire remains very much playable. And this is just as well because while the game’s on-foot missions are mostly linear in terms of design, there are lots of hidden paths and areas stuffed full of collectible items for you to find along the way. In particular, the game tasks you with finding pick-ups called Challenge Points in each level; getting all of these on a certain difficulty setting will unlock some hidden features. Shadows of the Empire is quite a short game – you could probably finish it in an afternoon – so being able to explore and hunt for collectibles across multiple difficulty settings enhances the replay value of the game.
Shadows of the Empire may no longer be part of the official Star Wars canon but that shouldn’t stop you from going back and experiencing it. It does a good job of connecting the dots between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Not only that, but both the visuals and sound are impressive for a first-generation N64 game, and the varied gameplay makes it unlike a lot of other games on the system.
What you may like about Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire:
- A unique, albeit now non-canon story set within the timeline of the original Star Wars trilogy.
- Experience lots of different activities such as space battles, train-hopping and Speeder Bikes.
- Lots of hidden secrets to be found in each level, which encourages multiple playthroughs.
- It has a jetpack.
What you may not like about Star Wars: Shadow of the Empire:
- Clunky controls and an awkward camera make on-foot movement imprecise and occasionally frustrating during difficult encounters.
- It’s a relatively short game.
- On-foot combat relies on an unreliable auto aim system.
Want to experience another Star Wars story on your N64?
Then check out Factor 5 and LucasArts’ technically impressive flight-combat game, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron.