When I first started writing for JGR, a reader called Yoda requested that I tackle Shadows of the Empire. Well, six months or so later, we’re finally getting to it. Better late than never.
If there’s one franchise that’s been squeezed harder for more money than Star Wars, I cannot think of it. Three good movies, three terrible movies, a bunch of novels, a re-release of the three good movies, wagonloads of toys, and a metric shitload of games. Some of those games were awesome. Some of them were…not…some even existed to punch you in the face at every opportunity. This is one of the first category, thankfully. Shadows of the Empire was one of the first N64 games released, and one of the most successful commercially. You owned it. I guarantee that if you owned an N64, you had this game. Even if you didn’t buy it, the government issued you a copy. But, good sales do not correlate to a good game, right? Was it as good as we remember, or did we just think it was better because it was Star Wars?
Nope, it’s still good. You play as intergalactic smuggler/bounty hunter Dash Rendar, who wants to be Han Solo so badly he can taste it. They’re both smug, they both fly around in souped-up ships with goofy names, and they both have one crew member/companion (in Dash’s case, it’s a droid named Leebo, who basically seems like a less spastic C-3PO). If you wanted to play through an entire Star Wars adventure as Han, you’d better enjoy this, because it’s as close as you’re gonna get. As soon as you turn the game on, you’re immediately bombarded with the classic Star Wars theme and the iconic upward-scrolling text intro, which both flexed the N64’s muscle and immediately pumped you up for some motherfuckin’ Star Wars.
From the intro, you’re plopped into the Battle of Hoth from Empire Strikes Back, piloting a snowspeeder in full, lush 3D, starting by blasting probe droids, then battling AT-ST’s, culminating in a pitched battle where you both swap lasers with the chicken walkers and try to trip up the hulking AT-AT’s, before having to race back to Echo Base and escape in your ship while it’s being overrun by stormtroopers. Then the game switches to a more conventional shooter, with the option for either third of first-person perspective (as well as a cinematic camera that looks cool but has zero practical value). That’s a hell of an intro.
Most everything handles pretty well in the pilot levels, and the shooter stages are good also, but the controls are a bit floaty. When you jump, you can turn in mid-air, but you’re stuck jumping in the direction you started in. Even worse, the game has a nasty habit of deciding you’re in “jump mode” while you’re walking down a hill or a ramp, meaning the game will send you careening off a cliff at times with no recourse because one foot isn’t registered as being on the same plane as the other foot. After you get the jetpack, this pretty much ceases to be a problem, and while there are levels where you’ll be asked to make precise jumps, it’s not overly brutal. Aside from that one hitch, it’s pretty easy to control; you can duck, jump, shoot, putt around with your jetpack, change camera angle, and strafe without much trouble.
Aside from the occasionally wonky jumping mechanics, the only real beef I have with this game is the difficulty. Even on Easy, this can be an ugly gauntlet of pain. It’s not Empire Strikes Back bad, but enemies have a nasty habit of spotting you the second you enter a new room and getting the first shot off the moment you’re in their line of sight, and unlike the stormtroopers in the movies, these guys don’t tend to miss very often. Even worse, they also tend to pop up the tops of elevators on different sides then you’re facing and tag you for cheap damage, and that’s not even getting into the multitude of microscopic droids that shoot at you and fixed guns that snap into action and hit you before the game will allow you to register a hit back. You do have a pretty good auto-aim to assist you, and Dash will turn his head if he sees an enemy, but shooting things above or below you is a bit tricky because the auto-aim takes a minute to adjust for height, and using the jetpack makes your auto-aim kinda check out entirely.
What this all essentially means is that you will have your health whittled down bit by bit through the level and then be pitted against a boss who inevitably falls into one of two categories: really strong but cumbersome bosses you can just run behind and pepper with shots, or bosses that will just curb-stomp you and force you to basically fight a war of attrition. For example, fighting an AT-ST requires you to run around the back of it and stay in its blind spot while firing. Meanwhile, just two levels later, IG-88 will mercilessly cut you in half with a pulse cannon.
In fact, the very next level, Gall Spaceport is the best example of the best and worst about this game; it’s long, expansive, it’s the first level you get the jetpack, and has a nice mix of puzzle-solving and shootouts. The downside is that it takes about an hour to crawl through, there’s quite a few fixed guns and angry droids, and at the end of the level, you have to fight Boba Fett and his ship back-to-back. Yes, after all that time being pecked at by the minor enemies (and an AT-ST mini-boss), you have to fight a bounty hunter AND HIS FUCKING SHIP.
Luckily, this is all balanced out somewhat by the fact that extra lives are plentiful. During the game, you’ll happen upon quite a few gray Rebel Alliance icons called Challenge Points, as well as red icons that serve as the proverbial green mushrooms.. Collect enough Challenge Points, and you’ll get a good return of extra lives at the end of the level also. If you find all the Challenge Points in the game, you’ll unlock a special reward depending on the difficulty level. I feel I should also mention that there is a master cheat that allows you to alter things like gravity and enemy accuracy, but I’ll leave that to you to look up…just know that it requires more than two hands. Trust me.
Aesthetically, this game is TREMENDOUS. Everything looks spectacular, not just by ’96 standards, but even today, they acquit themselves nicely. Dash and other characters are well-rendered and very detailed, down to Dash’s omnipresent five o’clock shadow. Lasers shoot off across the screen well, explosions look pretty good, and levels look appropriate for their purpose; the imperial freighter looks spartan and coldly mechanical, and the inevitable sewer level looks nasty and dilapidated. Story is fed to you through a series of cutscenes that have a very comic book feel to them, but it works very well.
Sound is pulled straight out of the movies. TIE fighters make their distinctive whirr as they zip around in space, stormtroopers announce your presence with “Stop” or “There he is!”, and the orchestral music score always fits the situation. Also worth noting is the rattle and click when you switch ammo for your blaster. One thing you have to say, no matter how badly LucasArts pimped out its flagship franchise, they never half-assed the presentation.
When I played through SotE again for this review, I was amazed at how good it still was. I didn’t feel like I needed to cut it a break because of its age or sugarcoat anything. It was great in ’96, and it’s still great today. It hits all the right notes a Star Wars game needs to, even without getting bogged down in the Force and Jedi lore like many of them are prone to do. Since you all own this game, I’d invite you to pop it back in and run through it again. I can almost guarantee you will remember why you wanted this game so badly.
Presentation is off the charts, handles really smoothly for the most part, really enjoyable Star Wars adventure despite having no lightsabers or Force powers.
Can be frustratingly difficult, and this game and I have different opinions of how gravity is supposed to work.