There’s so much to admire about the Star Wars saga. There’s the iconic art direction, the music of John Williams, a robot in one of the comics being called Bollux… it’s impossible to chronicle all of it. But then there are the games. Seriously, let’s forget for a moment how many of them have been rank(our). When Star Wars games are good, they’re amazing.
19 years after the fact, my favourite Star Wars game is still Shadows of the Empire on the Nintendo 64. Seriously. Let me give you some context for this.
Scant weeks before getting the game and an N64 for Christmas, I was still happily playing stuff like Andre Agassi Tennis on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. Then I got my present. Seeing Shadows of the Empire in motion for the first time on Christmas Day - by way of its stunning Hoth-based opening level - was like having a thermal detonator thrown at my eyes by a nudey Santa. A total, surreal shock, that my young self was just utterly unequipped to handle.
For its time, it was incredible. That level is still talked about in reverential tones to this day, and for good reason. At its core, it’s relatively simple, featuring four stages of shooting things and wrapping wires around AT-ATs’ legs in a Snowspeeder. That simplicity though, is why I still prefer it to every subsequent Hoth adaptation.
In a post-GoldenEye world, the design of shooters rapidly changed, and in came myriad level objectives, many of which led to instant fail-states - something I continue to hate in games to this day. Shadows’ Hoth level though, does no such thing. It gives you total freedom to cut your own path and blast everything in your limited sandbox, even your own comrades. In fact, they were more fun to take out as they were more challenging. I spent a good few hours shooting Wedge and company down, because there’s no 'I' in ‘team’, but there is in ‘traitor’. Scum and villainy, yes, but that freedom to explore and express in the Star Wars universe cuts to the root of why I really love Shadows.
You see Hoth meant more to me than just next-gen graphics and gameplay. My knowledge of Star Wars up until that point was – perhaps surprisingly - minimal. My one previous frisson with the franchise was when my dad recording Return of the Jedi on VHS (I think it was on the same tape as a Peter Ustinov Poirot movie) and we never got round to properly watching it. I knew the characters through the constant media bombardment, but it occupied the same apathetic headspace for me as Star Trek, which I’d never had any real interest in.
After playing the game’s opening though, something began to transform in my tiny head. Everything in Shadows just clicked for me. The gameplay and the graphics drew me in, obviously, but more importantly, the presentation, music and atmosphere enraptured me. I didn’t know why these mad gits were fighting on this ice planet in cool space ships and big walking tanks, but there was something instinctively alluring about it all.
There was more to this than just a game. It was a window in a world, a place with a distinct feel and atmosphere, that the then next-gen presentation could finally help me understand, first-hand. Everything came together, through direct experience and a real sense of presence, pulling Star Wars out of the abstract. Suddenly it was time to check these stupid films out.
The rest is history. I am 31 years old, contemplating buying Star Wars cutlery, and buying drinks bottles with Star Wars characters on them, even if I don’t like the drinks. Because that’s how sick I am.
This is all Shadows of the Empire’s doing.
Shadows was also my introduction to how grand games really could be. Yes, we got Super Mario 64 that Christmas too, but honestly, it took a while for that to sink in. To a lad weaned on cartoony platformers and football sims, Shadows of the Empire represented a brave new world, a world that was immediately more appealing than one filled with Technicolor plumbers and animals to jump on. I’d seen versions of Mario before, but by delivering me new tech, new gameplay styles, and a whole new, fully-established fictional galaxy to explore, Shadows of the Empire changed my view of everything.
The critical consensus is that the game falls apart after the Hoth level, but that didn’t, and still doesn’t, matter to me. I had my first 3D shooter and I loved every bit of it. It was just the sheer scope of the thing. Shadows of the Empire had a breadth and ambition that few games at the time (and arguably, since) matched.
As good as Hoth is, the following Escape from Echo Base level is equally iconic to me, with its looping music, cold, icy level design (playing during Christmas helped), various pitfalls and traps, and a big old boss fight against an AT-ST, which took me and my Dad all of Boxing Day to best, as we didn’t know Dash could look up and shoot it in the face. I spent hours on that level.
After finally downing the walker, we blasted off in Costner-alike hero Dash Rendar’s ship, for a huge on-rails space battle-cum-escape sequence, clearly modelled after the Millennium Falcon’s own escape from Hoth in the movie. In the first three levels we’d had three different gameplay styles. And it kept escalating. A level in a giant rocky spaceport (Google reliably informs me it’s on the planet Gall), which culminates in a showdown with Boba Fett, is so large-scale that it requires a jetpack to traverse, a jetpack that can also be used to find scads of secrets.
Scant months earlier I was still playing a crummy Mega Drive version of The Terminator.
It was genuinely exciting anticipating whatever the next level would throw up. I struggle to think of a modern game that’s tried to fit as many level types (and gameplay styles) into one package. In fact to me, Shadows of the Empire is something of a precursor to the likes of Uncharted. It felt like a real globe-trotting adventure, as I hopped from planet to planet, riding runaway trains in abandoned Imperial junkyards, leaping onto turrets to blast TIE fighters, and flying ships into monstrous three-way space battles. It set the template for what blockbuster games would eventually aspire to, but it did so way ahead of its time.
I haven’t experienced a generational leap like that since, and honestly, I know I never will again. Maybe it’s the curse of getting old and jaded, or video game hardware upgrades becoming an exercise in diminishing returns. Or maybe it’s really the special convergence of circumstances that made Shadows of the Empire such a unique and perspective-changing occurrence for me. But no matter how sad the realisation might make me, I’ll always have the memory of watching my Dad (who mostly hates computer games) going all kamikaze with a wild grin on his face in the battle of Hoth 19 years ago. Stuff like that, you never lose.
Shadows of the Empire is my Super Mario 64. It is also my Empire Strikes Back. And Dash Rendar is my Han Solo. With remasters all the rage this generation, I propose a Steam re-release immediately, and following that, a George Lucas special edition of The Force Awakens with Rendar digitally imposed into every scene. I know only the movies are canon these days, but can’t we make an exception just this once?