‘Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire’ Turns 20 – Remembering a Flawed Classic

Bob Mackey
Games Nintendo
Games Nintendo Star Wars

Believe it or not, Star Wars wasn’t always a universally beloved brand. Yes, it always had its fans and superfans, but during Star Wars’ period of absolute dormancy—roughly 1984 to 1997—the world largely considered lightsabers, Jedi, and Wookiees the shameful domain of nerds. But while creator George Lucas decided what to do next during this period, plenty of other talents filled the gap by fleshing out Star Wars’ extended universe. And one of the biggest multimedia chunks of Star Wars non-canon took the form of 1996’s Shadows of the Empire.

Not Just a Video Game

Though the most popular Shadows of the Empire product—and the focus of this article—released on December 3, 1996, this project spanned several different types of media. In essence, it’s all the stuff you’d see alongside a Star Wars movie, but without the movie itself. All told, Shadows of the Empire took the form of a book, a comic book series, a soundtrack, action figures, trading cards, and, of course, a video game.

In a way, Lucasfilm intended for Shadows of the Empire to test the waters of Star Wars fandom. While books, comics, and other related products existed before, Shadows amounted to a concentrated effort on all fronts, focused on a singular original Star Wars story. Soon after Shadows of the Empire drew to a close, the Star Wars Special Editions hit theaters, followed by the prequels. Without this initial primer, who knows if the world would be ready to embrace Star Wars all over again?

A Nintendo 64 Must-Have

A screenshot of the Hoth level in Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.

The Nintendo 64 didn’t exactly have the strongest launch. While it released alongside genre-defining classics like Super Mario 64, the following months saw very few other games. Simply put, N64 owners had a craving for something new, and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire fit the bill. And releasing just in time for Christmas certainly helped it sell over one million copies.

Despite our warm memories of Shadows of the Empire, it came into being as a flawed game due to its rushed development schedule. Originally planned to have 19 levels, Shadows released with just 10. And its cutscenes amounted to text over still images, rather than fully animated productions. But even though its gameplay felt more than a little uneven, N64 owners hungry for something new only had to look at that opening Hoth battle with AT-ATs to fully buy into the hype.

A Technological Showcase

A screenshot of Dash Rendar in Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.

Though Nintendo’s choice of cartridges for the Nintendo 64’s media format had its benefits, developers growing used to the increased storage space of CD-ROMs found themselves hobbled. The developers of Shadows of the Empire planned to work around this issue by using the MIDI format for their music, but found it lacked the zing of John Williams’ iconic score. To give players music befitting a Star Wars experience, they expanded the cartridge space and found a way to compress 15 minutes of pre-recorded audio that would then stream throughout the game. That feat may seem minuscule now, but hearing actual Star Wars music in an N64 game felt like sheer magic in 1996.

What Shadows of the Empire lacked in consistency, it makes up for with variety. You have the classic intro, which tasks you with flying a snowspeeder into the thick of battle, on-foot shooter segments, which you can turn into a makeshift FPS experience by dropping the camera into first-person mode, and space battles, which approximate those seen in the movies. True, this variety gave the developers a bigger challenge when it came to fine-tuning Shadows. But in an age when 3D gaming was still new, Shadows’ different play styles held a lot of novelty for those experiencing this form of entertainment for the first time.

A Flawed Classic

Ultimately, Shadows of the Empire isn’t a great game. Yet, despite that fact, it remains well-remembered. While it hasn’t aged particularly well, it earned a spot in the hearts of Nintendo 64 gamers who found it when they absolutely needed something to play. And hitting just as Star Wars-mania entered its second round—as the Special Editions hit theaters, and a few years before Episode I disappointed us—made for perfect timing. Shadows of the Empire and its creaky technology may not hold up today, but we can still remember it fondly as a dose of Star Wars we didn’t know we needed.

Bob Mackey
Bob Mackey is Games Editor at Fandom. Since joining the games press in 2007, he's written for sites like 1UP, Joystiq, The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, USgamer, and many others. He also hosts the weekly podcasts Retronauts and Talking Simpsons. Follow him on Twitter @bobservo.
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