Review: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (N64)

Lurking in the shadows lies a foreboding adventure

The anticipation surrounding the launch of a new console is among the most exciting moments in a gamer's calendar, and one of the most notable hardware changeovers was between Nintendo's SNES and N64. The significance of the N64 generation is not only the enhancements afforded by an extra 48-bits of CPU power, but most of all by the transition from 2D perspectives into 3D game worlds.

During their E3 1996 conference Nintendo unveiled N64 in full, including displaying Shadows of the Empire as a launch game. A 1996 Spaceworld promotion video also depicted epic Star Destroyer space battles, swoop bike races through Tatooine, a one-on-one fight between one mercenary's single blaster versus an AT-ST and the legendary Snowspeeder tripwire wrapped around an AT-AT's legs. Couple these promotions with a storyline following on from arguably the most magnificent of the movies, The Empire Strikes Back, and it is understandable why the hype successfully rocketed gamers' excitement into the stars.

During 1996, Shadows of the Empire was a multimedia project which incorporated "everything but the movie". It included a novel, comics, a graphic novel, trading cards, its own musical score, action figures and of course, a N64 video game, with the N64 story following the mercenary Dash Rendar as he assists the Rebellion. Dash not only pilots a Snowspeeder during the Battle of Hoth, he also attempts to rescue the recently frozen-in-carbonite Han Solo from the clutches of Boba Fett, as well as assisting Luke Skywalker in thwarting the dastardly plans of the reptilian Prinze Xizor, who intends to murder Luke to undermine Lord Vader in the eyes of the Emperor. The story is painted through hand-drawn still cutscenes and the events of the N64 game interweave between those told in the novels and comics. For true Star Wars fans, combining media will reveal the greatest intricacies of the plot, which is best followed by reading the graphic novel alongside playing the N64 game.

LucasArts were ambitious in the ten levels of their game design, mixing up four craft sections (Snowspeeder, Outrider and Swoop Bike), with six levels of third person action and exploration. Gamer excitement was not just built from the internal N64 hardware specs, it also centred on taking control of its 'm' shaped, three pronged analogue controller, which was innovative for a console. However, as a launch game Shadows of the Empire struggled to exploit the fidelity presented by the N64 stick. The game features many precarious overhangs, with deep drops of doom, but the accuracy of the control response is not precise enough to enable sure-footed navigation.

With a seemingly generous choice of four camera viewpoints, it soon becomes clear that the first person view is redundant without a targeting reticule and that the cinematic view is a poor joke which serves only to make Salacious B. Crumb snigger at its reckless inclusion. The overhead viewpoint was used once during play of the entire game (to navigate a Gall Spaceport walkway) which overall left the main third person camera as the only viable option. However, from this viewpoint it is still awkward to target and blast annoyingly placed Stormtroopers high up on bridges and walkways, taking potshots down on Dash. Considering that a number of boss battles drop Dash into a maze or arena in which Boba Fett, IG-88 or a Gladiator Droid hover and loiter above with malice aforethought, the lack of dexterous third person controls is a concern.

It is possible to target upwards with the Z trigger, but this is cumbersome, as is strafing by holding down the R button, which is a shame because these bosses have been well chosen as classic Star Wars bounty hunter adversaries and their confrontations are suitably epic and multi-layered, including a face off with Slave I. The third person gameplay displays potential in its ideas, too: in later levels it implements a jetpack which opens up distant platform routes and hovering pull switches, to add a basic puzzle and exploration element to the gameplay. However, these environments are often sparse and bland, with the player fighting the controls as much as battling Xizor’s Black Sun gang and the heinous Empire. It also has a selection of six different weapons, including heat seekers, powerful flames, quick blast pulse cannons, freeze stunners and, best of all, a tremendous green disruptor blast.

The game design is most successful in three of the vehicular shooting levels. This game's depiction of the Battle of Hoth was massively impressive in 1996 and is still fun today, its legacy having gone on to influence a number of predecessors, most notably Factor 5's snow battle rendition in the GameCube's Rogue Leader. Shadows of the Empire's third level sees Dash fly his remarkably Millennium Falcon-esque Outrider ship through the midst of an asteroid field as well as blasting down Tie Fighters and Tie Bombers. Most impressive of all is the Outrider's direct attack on Xizor's humongous Skyhook, a space battle involving X-Wings, Tie Fighters, Black Sun's Star Vipers, a lurking Star Destroyer and a Return of the Jedi-inspired ending involving blowing the Skyhook up from its inside out. These vehicle sections have inside cockpit and external craft views and, with the exception of the clumsy, dire speeder bike level in which you crash members of a swoop bike gang into Mos Eisely walls, the vehicle levels are the most fun to be found in the game.

Shadows of the Empire is atmospheric in its audio and visual presentation, however it achieves this by oozing menace, arguably more so than any other Star Wars video game. This is not a Resident Evil or Silent Hill game and certainly isn't built for scares, yet almost accidentally through the N64's limitations the developers have blanketed it in gloom, which is entirely fitting of its place in the Star Wars timeline. Through a combination of fog-covered environments, cheap enemy placements which make the jittery player jump at every corner and possibly from Joel McNeely's audio contributions, a dark, specifically crafted musical score in the third person sections, it creates a real feeling of tension.

This is accentuated from a feeling of solitude which perpetuates throughout both the vast, open landscapes and the claustrophobic environments. It is a lonely life being a Han Solo wannabe and aside from his robotic buddy Leebo (LE-BO2D9), pre-dating The Force Unleashed's more charismatic sidekick PROXY by 12 years, Dash is alone in his journey. Even upon successful completion of his adventure, his fate is uncertain. An example of the tense level design is in The Sewers of Imperial City with dank and bleak brick tunnels, flowing sewage water and a foul green mist, making for levels which are literally, visually dark. The boss battle for this level takes place in the depths of the sewage water, deep below which Dash is overwhelmed by the tentacles of a giant Dianoga monster, desperately searching the gloom and managing his air to destroy its eye. The levels become more enjoyable once a player knows their layout in a second play-through of the game and each mission can be selected individually for repeated play once it has been completed.

With an average play time of three and a half hours, not including replaying a level from the very start once all lives had been lost, most of the lastability for this game is built around a hunt for hidden Rebel Alliance symbol Challenge Points, dotted around precarious areas in the levels. Finding these rewards the player with extra lives and unlockables, and it is also possible to collect extra lives hidden amongst the environments and compile over twenty lives to assist the player through the final levels. The game has four choices of difficulty, including a Jedi expert level and gamers who wish to rush through it on a minimum number of lives will face the steepest challenge. Upon reaching the game's end credits, the developers tease the player with "Can you beat these times?" This indicates that all ten levels could be completed in under an hour and provides an extra challenge for players who enjoy attempting one single, snappy speed run through the game.

Conclusion

LucasArt's attempted to make a successful jump from 16-bit starscapes to 64-bit hyper-space, but became lost in the nether of unfulfilled pre-release hype. Whilst it has not aged particularly gracefully, one Snowspeeder and two space flight sections still contain trusty shooting playability, but sadly the cumbersome third person adventuring is let down by unwieldy controls. The wayward, yet ambitious Shadows of the Empire blaster fire was repelled by one real N64 launch contender, which was intent upon taking Nintendo games into the 3D stratosphere. In 1996, Super Mario 64 proved that there could genuinely be a seamless transition from 2D SNES to 3D N64 game design. Shortly after, in 1997, Star Fox 64 supplied N64 players with a truly accomplished space opera.

Despite any shortcomings, for Star Wars fans reading a retro graphic novel alongside playing this N64 title, there is an atmospherically dark and somber game world to absorb here. Its gloom is the antithesis of the atmosphere created in Lego Star Wars: The Original Trilogy, and even if its third person Escape From Echo Base level is noticeably less fun to play, a murky and oppressively jittery Star Wars game still makes for a welcome change.