The impact of the 1993 PC game Doom was such that it led to a swath of imitators. Though they would become known as first-person shooters, these kinds of games were often referred to as Doom clones. One title to emerge from the scene was LucasArts’s Star Wars: Dark Forces. Originally released in 1995, it was a commercial success, selling over 300,000 units and enjoying fairly positive reviews. The developers named the custom engine on which the game was built Jedi after the franchise’s heroic faction. The game stood out from Doom by having no limitations on the Z-axis. Levels in the older game only existed on the X-Y plane, meaning areas could not overlap vertically – even if floor and ceiling heights varied.
Shortly before the debut of Dark Force, LucasArts began work on another game in 1994. The team wished to create a multimedia side story to the films entitled Shadows of the Empire, setting it between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – a time period that had not been explored in any Star Wars novel. The idea was to create something that could be considered a film without actually making one. The video game adaption of this project was to be released on Nintendo’s upcoming Nintendo 64 console. This decision was made because, though LucasArts enjoyed a lot of success in the PC circuit with classic adventure game such as Maniac Mansion, they felt they missed opportunities for extra revenue by ignoring the console market for so long. Therefore, by being an early adopter for Nintendo’s newest console, they could make a lot of money in this venture while also getting more people interested in it, forming a mutually beneficial partnership. In order to give themselves more creative control over the story and the gameplay, they decided against using any of central characters from the film. Instead, they elected to cast a minor character from the Expanded Universe in the lead role.
The development cycle for this game proved to be an interesting experience as the team was allowed access to the hardware months ahead of its launch. A prototype Nintendo 64 was not yet available when work began, so the developers used a Silicon Graphic Onyx visualization system. Eighteen months later, a nearly complete sample of the Nintendo 64 was given to LucasArts. Thankfully, two developers in particular had extensive experience with the SGI platform and prototyped the game using the Performer 3D API. This allowed the team to port their coding to the Nintendo 64 hardware in only three days. They were even given a prototype controller with which to test the game. It was actually a modified SNES controller with an analog stick and Z-trigger designed by Konami. To ensure complete secrecy, the LucasArts team signed a strict nondisclosure agreement, disallowing them from speaking to anyone about the hardware or the project. Furthermore, the controller prototype was concealed in a cardboard box that they could place their hands into, but prevented them from removing it.
Though the development cycle wasn’t plagued with any major setbacks, it ended up taking its toll on the team. According to the game’s director, Mark Haigh-Hutchinson, some team members were regularly working 100-hour weeks for the better part of a year. Compounding the pressure was the fact that they had to release their game shortly after the console’s launch. To make matters worse, when the game was demonstrated at the 1996 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the audience’s reactions were mixed. In response, LucasArts canceled their original plan to have their work coincide with the Nintendo 64’s launch so they could take extra time to polish the gameplay. Despite this, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was postponed a mere three months later, finally seeing the light of day in December of 1996. After the Nintendo 64 debuted with Super Mario 64 being one of its launch titles, the 3D craze of the mid-nineties had begun in earnest. The idea of a real three-dimensional Star Wars game was truly exciting for both old and new fans at the time. It was one of the console’s first big third-party successes, and played a role in the 3D revolution’s continued momentum. Can it claim to have held up as well as its pioneering contemporaries?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: There will be minor, unmarked spoilers for the original Star Wars trilogy in this review.
A hotshot smuggler and mercenary by the name of Dash Rendar along with his droid co-pilot Leebo arrive on the frozen planet of Hoth to deliver food supplies and assault blasters to Echo Base, a secret Rebel stronghold. When he docks in the hangar, he is surprised to meet Han Solo, a fellow bounty hunter who became involved with the Rebellion since their last meeting. This meeting is cut short when an Imperial force advances to assault the base. From here, Dash instructs Leebo to load their cargo into the evacuating transports and to retrieve their payment. Han gives Dash temporary clearance to fly with Rogue Squadron to fight off the Imperial forces.
The first stage of Shadows of the Empire was doubtlessly a treat for fans of the Star Wars trilogy. They are thrust into the game only to immediately begin reenacting the Battle of Hoth, which formed the basis for the famous opening of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s appropriate that the game would begin with you piloting a genuine Star Wars aircraft. Not only does it give the fans what they want, it takes the idea of the medium having a third dimension to its logical conclusion. Now that 3D gaming was firmly established, it’s appropriate how one of the Nintendo 64’s earliest tiles would allow players to freely move on the newly discovered Z-axis.
Just like the other members of Rogue Squadron, Dash pilots a Snowspeeder to fight off the Imperial forces. It can freely ascend, descend, and turn according to your movements of the control stick. As these vehicles were just modified civilian transports, it does not possess any shields, and its primary method of attack comes from two blaster cannons mounted on its front. The first wave of Imperial forces consists primarily of Probe Droids. As these droids are typically used by the Empire to perform reconnaissance missions, they’re not particularly durable and are destroyed in just a few shots. The purpose of this is to get players accustomed to the controls before the second wave sends AT-ST (All Terrain Scout Transport) Walkers. These mobile attack transporters seek the Rebel forces out far more aggressively. As such, a head-on fight would only result in your speeder getting torn to pieces.
Once you’ve felled all of the AT-STs, the gigantic AT-AT (All Terrain Armored Transport) Walkers join the fray. The power of these quadrupedal machines strikes fear into the hearts of all who would oppose them. Attempting to shoot one reveals why this is the case. You get to watch as your blaster shots only deal damage one single percentage point at a time. Even attacking its head barely phases it. Luckily, all is not lost, for you can simply shoot their legs with a harpoon and circle around them.
If you encircle them enough times, they will trip and destroy themselves instantly upon impact with the ground. This is the ideal method of toppling these foes, and doing so earns you a Challenge Point. As a total of three AT-ATs are present in this stage, there are three Challenge Points up for grabs. Getting one grants the player an extra life. If all of them are obtained in every subsequent stage, the player unlocks a bonus feature depending on the difficulty level when they accomplished this task.
The vehicle’s integrity is depicted as an icon on the bottom-left corner of the screen. In the event that it takes damage, the icon will progressively turn yellow then red. Sustained damage when the icon is red will cause the ship to explode, resulting in the loss of one life. You can continue the stage immediately after losing a life, but you will have to restart from the beginning if you expend them all.
All in all, the Battle of Hoth is an excellent introduction to the game. The only real complaint I have about it is that flying around the AT-ATs with the harpoon cable can be a little difficult to control. You have to account for where the speeder is in relationship to the transport. If you get too close to the AT-AT, you will crash your vehicle into its legs. If you fly too far away, you will sever the cable. You only have a limited supply of harpoons, so it’s especially bad when the ever-changing camera angles make the task unnecessarily difficult.
It doesn’t matter how well your fare in battle, though, as the stage ends with the shield generator protecting Echo Base getting destroyed by the Imperial forces. This leads into the next episode, which is aptly titled “Escape from Echo Base”. Here, you control Dash on foot.
As his primary means of defense is a blaster, the game becomes a third-person shooter, though you are allowed to change the perspective, making it a first-person shooter instead. The blaster never runs out of ammunition, but its power diminishes when you fire rapidly. By firing in shorter bursts, you generally inflict more damage.
Keeping true to the spirit of the first-person shooter, you can find numerous other weapons to help you take down Stormtroopers and other Imperial foes. Among other things, these include seeker missiles, a flamethrower, and a disruptor. Though your weapons array is Star Wars-themed, they do fill the same niches as corresponding weapons in a typical example of the genre. The seeker missiles are an obvious stand-in for a rocket launcher while the flamethrower is the devastating close-range weapon. Meanwhile the disruptor is the standard overpowered weapon you save for boss battles. This is helped by the fact that it’s a poor choice for close-quarters combat, as you could potentially get caught in the blast. In these levels, Challenge Points take the form of silver icons that resemble the Rebel insignia, and you restore your health using medical kits.
Shadows of the Empire was notably released before Goldeneye pioneered how first-person shooters should be played on a console. Around this time, using the “W”, “A”, “S”, and “D” keys to control movement while aiming with the mouse was quickly becoming the standard for computer first-person shooters. This meant translating such an experience to consoles proved to be tricky. They had the twofold disadvantage of a utilizing a comparatively simple controller coupled with the player usually being further away from a television set than a computer screen. In the end, I would have to say LucasArts didn’t exactly find ways around these setbacks, and Shadows of the Empire lacks a lot of developments that are easy to take for granted these days.
To give the developers some credit, they did try to compensate for the platform with which they were working. Dash automatically aims at any enemy he faces, typically prioritizing enemies by proximity. Moreover, that you can switch between a first and third-person perspective comes in handy whenever you’re trying to jump across a gap. In the coming years, many creators of first-person shooters would incorporate platforming elements into their games. They quickly proved what a terrible idea it was, as making precise jumps when you can’t see your character or your intended destination is immensely frustrating. There’s even a top-down camera angle that is useful in a few situations, which showcases the amount of foresight the development team had.
Unfortunately, very little of this helps compensate for the overall lack of polish in Shadows of the Empire. Though the automatic targeting system is helpful, you’ll often miss with your first few shots as Dash adjusts his aim. You can choose to manually aim, but it’s incredibly difficult because there is no onscreen cursor to indicate where he’s shooting. Meanwhile, even the simple act of moving is rendered obtuse. Dash moves forward when you push the control stick in the appropriate direction. However, pushing the control stick left or right doesn’t cause him to go in that direction, but rather turn from a standstill. Strafing can help a player overcome this setback, but it’s still unintuitive for a controller with only one analog stick.
The physics engine also leaves a bit to be desired. Regardless of where the level takes place, the jumping mechanics are rather imprecise. Countless times will Dash successfully jump onto a platform despite appearing to fall off. These instances are only rivaled by number of times he’ll fail to make jumps one would easily think he could make.
One saving grace is that the game gives Dash a jetpack relatively early on, meaning you don’t have to worry about platforming for most of the experience. Much like the introductory stage, I have to give LucasArts credit for incorporating the fully three-dimensional presentation into their gameplay. The downside is that the stage in which you find it is a giant, largely featureless canyon. This makes navigating it even more difficult than it would have been had Dash been on foot the entire time.
In a bit of good news, the game doesn’t rely entirely on these types of missions. After fleeing Echo Base, Dash is made to control the turrets of his personal spacecraft, the Outrider, while Leebo pilots it through an asteroid field. Admittedly, it’s fairly boring compared to the Battle of Hoth, but it does capture the essence of an intense escape sequence one would find in an action film.
The bad news is that it’s followed up with the Ord Mantell Junkyard. After Han Solo has been encased in carbonite during the events of The Empire Strikes Back, Dash has taken it upon himself to locate Boba Fett, the infamous bounty hunter. He had been involved in a skirmish with a rival bounty hunter: an assassin droid that turned on his creator when activated named IG-88. As a result of the fight, IG-88’s ship was badly damaged, forcing him to land on Ord Mantell to look for spare parts. Because Boba Fett is Dash’s only lead to locate the frozen Han Solo, he must seek out IG-88.
To this end, he decides to take a hovertrain to the salvage plant where IG-88 currently is. If one’s attempted playthrough of Shadows of the Empire was prematurely ended by this stage, I can fully understand why. It takes place on a fast-moving train, and you are accosted by various droids along the way. One could consider this a translation of the auto-scrolling levels that exist in many 2D platforming games. They were invariably the most annoying stages in their respective games because they take agency away from the player. Shadows of the Empire seems to make the case that as annoying as they could get in 2D games, they’re even worse in 3D ones. You have to contend with having no real control over your own progression while worrying about approaching enemies and obstacles in a three-dimensional plane. In a 2D game, because you can see them appear on the screen the exact second they become an issue, you’re allotted enough time to react accordingly. In this stage, you have to contend with being unable to see the railings you must jump over or duck under clearly until they’re too close for you to do anything about them. Jumping from train to train can get pretty harrowing, as being even slightly off will result in an instant death.
The boss fight with IG-88 showcases one of the biggest flaws this game has – its graphics. A mantra within the community is that graphics don’t make the game. It’s an argument that one shouldn’t place style over substance when assessing a game. However, this is a case where the graphics actively make the experience worse. It’s very difficult to distinguish IG-88 from the mountains of garbage piled up in the salvage plant unless you get close. Doing so would be suicide, as his strongest attacks, a pulse cannon, inflicts a severe amount of damage at point-blank range.
This isn’t an isolated incident either. By far the worst stage in the game has Dash navigate a complex sewer system underneath the Imperial City. Sewer levels tend to have a bad reputation in gaming circles, and the one that features in this game is a distillation of why they’re so roundly disliked. It’s a complex maze with indistinct scenery and poor visibility that becomes even worse whenever you’re underwater. Without a guide, your first attempts at playing through this stage are likely going to involve you going back and forth between the same two or three areas until you accidently stumble upon the boss or die due as a result of the innumerable hazards present.
The quality of the rest of the game varies wildly. The stage immediately after the Ord Mantell Junkyard is decent, as you not only get to acquire the jetpack, you will find yourself face-to-face with the fan-favorite Boba Fett. He even engages you in his personal ship, and it makes for a legitimately exciting fight. The problem is how this serviceable level is followed up with one that takes place on Mos Eisley. Setting a stage on Luke Skywalker’s home planet could’ve made for one of a memorable sequence. The level is certainly memorable, but for the wrong reasons. A gang whose members ride fast, hovering vehicles called Swoops has been hired to assassinate Luke, and it’s up to Dash to stop them.
He accomplishes this by getting into his own Swoop and smashing the gang members into the walls. It is impossible to overstate just how difficult it is to control the Swoop. As the stage consists of multiple narrow passageways, you will find yourself crashing into walls all the time. If you’ve been steadily gathering lives throughout first five stages, you could potentially see them dissipate one by one as you fight the controls to stay on the road. Counterintuitively, it’s actually a better idea to take a slower, methodical approach to dispatching the gang members. As long as you don’t dawdle, you will have more than enough time to deal with all of them well before they reach Luke’s position. The worst part is that in any other game, this would be the worst stage simply on the merits of its bad controls. In Shadows of the Empires, it has to settle for being the third-worst, trailing far behind the Ord Mantell Junkyard and the Imperial Sewers.
One of the more subtly disappointing aspects about Shadows of the Empire concerns its primary antagonist, Xizor. He is the head of a powerful crime syndicate called Black Sun. Though his status makes him one of the most influential beings in the galaxy, he seeks to become Emperor Palpatine’s right-hand man. Standing in the way of this goal is Darth Vader, whom he hates with a vengeance. To accomplish his goals, he intends to have Luke Skywalker killed before Vader can turn him over to the emperor.
On the face of things, this is an intriguing scenario in that the forces of good have to deal with two different evil factions whose goals clash with each other. It’s also a great way of playing with the earth-shattering revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes Back in how Darth Vader would favor turning him over to the Emperor over outright killing him. On the other side of the equation is Xizor, who would have every reason to want Luke dead. In the spirit of making a side story to the trilogy, it’s thematically appropriate for a new hero to face off against a new villain. It’s is then incredibly disappointing that this confrontation never occurs. The only time you ever see Xizor is in one solitary cutscene. Even when you explore his palace in the penultimate stage, he is nowhere to be seen. It’s implied that he retreated to his superweapon, the Skyhook, and perished in its destruction in the final stage. If that was the intent, it doesn’t reflect in the narrative, for it gives off the impression he survived the events of this game when most evidence from supplemental materials suggests otherwise.
This particular issue was addressed somewhat when the game received a PC port in 1997. In this version, all of the cutscenes are fully animated and voice acted. There are even a few extra new ones, including one in which Xizor acknowledges that Dash has been a persistent thorn in his side. Even so, he is never actually fought, rendering this small amount of goodwill moot. It is possible to make a compelling story where the protagonist and antagonist never directly confront each other, but it doesn’t usually work for an epic series such as Star Wars, and Shadows of the Empire doesn’t provide a meaningful exception to this rule.
Drawing a Conclusion
It’s a shame that time has not been kind Shadows of the Empire because it captures all of the superficial elements which made the original trilogy so memorable. In the span of one game, you fight the Battle of Hoth, shoot down Stormtroopers, take out a motorcycle gang, and pilot a spaceship that resembles the Millennium Falcon. I can imagine I’m making the game sound incredible based off of this description. However, in practice, the sheer amount of variety this game boasts means nothing when only one or two of the ideas don’t suffer from glaring execution issues. It’s a product of an era when 3D gaming was in its primordial phase. Though it’s not unplayable garbage, I feel it benefitted from the fact it had practically no viable alternatives at the time. One of the only other titles to fully grasp 3D gameplay was Super Mario 64, so fans had an easy enough time overlooking the many issues in Shadows of the Empire as long as what it gave them emulated the feel of a Star Wars film.
If it’s one thing for which I can give Shadows of the Empire credit, it’s that it had an incredible presentation for its time. Rather than settling for using MIDI approximations of John Williams’s iconic film score, LucasArts convinced Nintendo to increase the cartridge’s storage capacity from eight to twelve megabytes. This allowed the developers enough room to sample fifteen minutes of music on the cartridge. In the end, Joel McNeely composed the score, recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
It’s entirely possible this was a double-edged decision, on the other hand. The game was originally going to feature nineteen levels. The publication Nintendo Power then reported that the number of stages had been reduced to twelve. Because the final product only contains ten, the development team put themselves in a borderline unwinnable situation. Even masterpieces have weak stages, but it’s easy to overlook as long as there are enough quality ones to balance them out. I’m confident that most people attempting to try out Shadows of the Empire without any nostalgic sentiments are going to find at least three stages they won’t like. This hypothetical person would then question if it’s worth seeing the game through to the end. For diehard Star Wars fans, trying out the PC version wouldn’t be too bad of an idea, and I can imagine somebody being fully satisfied with the experience once all is said and done. With the knowledge that it has been surpassed since 1996, I think everyone else can safely pass on this one.
Final Score: 5/10