Before the Dark Times
I was relatively old when my Star Wars fandom began. While most kids my age had been watching them their entire lives, thanks to my brother I was raised with Jaws, Major League, and The Lost Boys cycling on a regular basis in our house. What I did know about Star Wars, I learned secondhand from various pop culture outlets that spoofed it frequently. Ironically, I think I learned of Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father from the scene on The Simpsons where Homer spoils the twist for the moviegoers waiting in line.
I got around to seeing the films when they were released on VHS for the final time. Instead of watching them in order, though, I started with A New Hope, moved to Return of the Jedi, and finished with The Empire Strikes Back.
Star Wars was enjoying a nice little Renaissance in preparation for the highly anticipated prequel films. After the VHS releases of the originals, the Special Editions of the films were released in theaters. I remember failing to get into a sold out showing of A New Hope and having to settle for Vegas Vacation. With the series firmly back in the public consciousness, it was only natural that video games would follow the trend.
Shadows of the Empire
When the N64 first launched, apart from Super Mario 64, the most anticipated title was Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. At the time, the leap in what this game offered for those moving from the 16 bit era was like being trapped in a dark cave where ogres repeatedly bunched you in the junk to moving into a well-lighted paradise where fairies fight over who gets to suck you off that day. Even the differences between what a 32 bit game could offer at the time compared to this were like the difference between McDonalds and a nice steak dinner.
Shadows of the Empire starts at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back with the Hoth base under attack. Players are thrust into the iconic battle scene, but instead of taking the role of Luke, the player controls Dash Rendar in a T-47 airspeeder, following the same path Luke did in the movie.
Players will blow up probe droids, AT-STs, and use tow cables to trip up AT-AT Walkers. Needless to say, it’s quite a step up from The Empire Strikes Back game on the Atari 2600.
Once the shield generator is demolished by the Imperials, the player takes out Dash on foot as he traverses the base. All the cum that most players had just spewed out all over their consoles quickly sours at this point. The platforming in this game is passable, but anyone who has played an early 3D game will immediately be aware of most of the issues: non-descript corridors that weave a maze of madness, unseen enemies attacking from God knows where, and easy jumps that lead to death because of camera issues.
The first on foot level in the game is simple enough and helps the player adjust to the controls, but it always reminds me why this game is not held in higher regard today. However, this game does over some truly spine-tingling moments that most Star Wars fans will never forget. For example, right at the start of the Hoth Base level, Dash turns a corner just in time to see the Millennium Falcon take off. This simple touch does more to immerse me in the universe of the films than any of the little nods in Rogue One. Whereas in that movie they are often jarring and stupid (why would Dr. What’sHisName be on Jedha anyway?) this feels organic and lets the player know their place in the larger overall story.
Some other highlights of the game includes boss battles with IG-88 and Bobba Fett, the latter of which involves a jet-pack! In order to break up the gameplay some, the player also takes part in some space battle scenes, but these sections are like being in a gun turret as the player takes out an unreasonably high number of TIE Fighter and Bombers. If one member of the Rebellion was able to take out 50 TIEs in one encounter, the Empire would want to go home and rethink its life.
Although the game skews a bit towards the difficult side, it fluctuates from rewarding hard and infuriating hard because of the gameplay issues. Luckily, there’s enough on the rewarding side to make players want to keep progressing, and there is no part that cannot be overcome with practice.
Graphically, while impressive for the time, it has since befallen the same fate of so many early 3D games. The levels are expansive, but many are so blandly decorated that it becomes a boring sea of whatever color is most prominent for that level. Dash himself looks like a 64 bit version of Chris Redfield from Resident Evil 5. Being a cart based game, there are no videos in the cut scenes, resulting in some still pictures to fill in the gaps in the story.
Amazing for its time, this game has sadly been relegated to the pile of forgotten N64 games. While I cannot argue that is entirely unfair, players with patience will be able to overlook a number of these flaws and find one of the more interesting Star Wars games. It is both familiar and new and showcases how the original trilogy can be used to supplement a story rather than prop up a pile of shit out of pure nostalgia.
The game developers at LucasArts must have listened to the glowing feedback from the first level of the Shadows of the Empire game and gifted the world with a game that featured only space combat using the whole fleet of vehicles from the Rebellion, even the Millennium Falcon! Instead of going down the sim path like the X-Wing series had tried to do, Rogue Squadron is pickup and play arcadey goodness that is still as fresh today as it was in 1998.
Again, this title uses the original movies to set the stage for the game, but it doesn’t rely too heavily on the nostalgia to make it fun. The training level has the player assuming the role of Luke Skywalker as he leads the newly formed Rogue Squadron on a training exercise. Wouldn’t you know it, the Empire shows up and starts some shit for no reason other than Mos Eisley is the most tactically important location in the galaxy.
From there, the player jets off to various locales previously unseen in the films. The gameplay is varied enough that players won’t get burned out on just shooting down all of the enemy ships. Occasionally, there are escort missions and times when players will have to take a more defensive stance. It helps keep the game fresh, but there are some times where the objectives are not clearly defined and I’m not sure why I get a Mission Failed notification from seemingly out of nowhere.
As mentioned in the Donkey Kong 64 review, the N64 memory pack is basically a necessity for this game. While it’s playable without it, the graphics receive a massive improvement from the pack, and I would strongly advise to pick this up with the game if you do not already own one. With the pack in place, the game looks just a shade below what the Dreamcast could put out. While the graphics won’t make anyone shit their pants today, they hold up well enough that naysayers will have to find other areas to nitpick.
In conjunction with the main game, there are a number of unlockables that make the game feel entirely new. Players can either earn these via the game’s medals that it awards for beating levels under certain parameters, or you can be like me and be a cheating bastard that just uses codes to get these goodies. Along with the Millennium Falcon, players can also unlock a Naboo Starfighter; this was overwhelmingly awesome back in the day because no one found out about it until after the release of The Phantom Menace.
Knowing this Easter Egg was hidden on the cart for so long made this game feel special and that there was still more to unlock. In today’s world, something like this would be available on Day 1 as paid DLC.
The other unlockable features were two additional levels. Again, the Battle of Hoth was includes, so players could trade away their Shadows of the Empire carts without fear of missing out on the best part. It also included the Death Star trench run, long before it became a necessity to be included in every Star Wars game, regardless of the gameplay style.
What Did The Future Hold?
It was safe to say that Star Wars was riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave at this point. It had regained its juggernaut status, and it seemed to be incapable of being derailed by anything…