(Nintendo 64)

Game Review

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire Review

Europe PAL Version

Posted by Jamie O'Neill

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.

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User Comments (51)

Other_DaveStaff

#1

Other_Dave said:

Good review. Never actually played this despite being a big Star Wars fan - and I read the SOTE novel and comics. I knew it had problems but was unaware of the specifics. Still tempted to give it a try if it turned up on VC, though I might opt to save a few quid and get the PC version instead.

Cowlauncher

#2

Cowlauncher said:

I really wanted to like this game but I couldn't. Great review but Mario came out in 96 not 06.

V8_Ninja

#3

V8_Ninja said:

"...in 2006, Super Mario 64 proved that there could genuinely be a seamless transition from 2D SNES to 3D N64 game design..."

Just something I noticed. don't know why. :P

Anyways, I found this game over the Summer of 2009 at a garage sale in my neighborhood and picked it up because I'm a bit of a collector. Just found it to be an average game with some weird, giant bunny-hopping character that you controlled.

Chunky_Droid

#4

Chunky_Droid said:

Had heaps of fun with this game's cinematic camera

If you turned that camera on, then had Dash look at the ground, he'd bend over, cue making Dash run head first into a wall, classic stuff :)

Awesome review too, now I feel like playing it again

ToneDeath

#6

ToneDeath said:

It was seeing my next-door neighbour playing the Snowspeeder level that made me want an N64. I got this as well as Mario 64. It was of course the latter game that was a much bigger 'moment' in gaming for me and everyone that played it, but Shadows stood up to it quite well at the time (though there was wasn't much else anyway).
Then playing the Death Star level of Rogue Squadron II on an American cousin's Gamecube before the console was launched here got me super excited again. Got the game and console on launch day, along with Luigi's Mansion. Yeah, Nintendo's was good, but this time it was the Star Wars title that blew me away (with it's graphics and presentation at least) and still does today.

Sean_Aaron

#7

Sean_Aaron said:

If this is your first review Jamie, then welcome! It's a fantastic debut. Is this basically an N64 version of the Dark Forces game on the PC which spawned the superior Jedi Knight series?

JimLad

#10

JimLad said:

SotE was always the ugly duckling in the wake of the N64 launch, when compared to the likes of Mario, Pilot Wings, Turok and later Wave Race 64. We would joke about someone accidently buying us this game as a present, and being really disappointed.
Not fair really, and I suppose I wasn't into Star Wars at the time.
Although now I wouldn't be able to help comparing it to the first Rogue Squadron.

odd69

#13

odd69 said:

If this came to the Virtual Console I'd buy it. I missed out on playing it back then and judging from the screenshots it looks fun.

RGVEDA

#14

RGVEDA said:

Unreleased in Europe? Strange! I had this game for the N64! I recognize the pictures....

JayArr

#15

JayArr said:

I freakin' loved this game. Though, I haven't played it in years. I would be curious to see how it has aged myself.

Atlantis1982

#16

Atlantis1982 said:

I can't count the number of times I had played this game over and over. It was a good game back in the day.

Would I get this if it was released on the VC, perhaps not because I played this title so many times.

Ristar42

#17

Ristar42 said:

One of the first N64 games I played when my friend got the console, it really impressed me at first (nothing like this on my Saturn) but then the slightly negative aspects started to appear. I'd actually really like to see it on VC to play again and see how its aged. Fond memories for this one overall - nice review!

Sabrewing

#18

Sabrewing said:

Shadows becomes much easier to control if you shift the camera into first-person in the on-foot sections. Granted, Dash still slides off of cliff edges way too easily, but he reacts much more quickly as far as changing direction.

jaguarman

#19

jaguarman said:

This was my first game on N64,was a perfect game,but is not unreleased in EU,i bought it back in 1997 from Athens.

hankola

#20

hankola said:

I still have it, and true it didn't hold up well against the newer games; but cut it some slack...At the time it was the pinnacle of Star Wars gaming! Sure it had camera issues, but there are STILL games that have that now. The point is of all Retro Gaming is to enjoy the nostalgia and have fun. Games these days are built easy so you can beat them, so people don't get frustrated and throw the controller on the ground. Don't you miss something difficult to play that new? Check out NSMB Wii and old schoolers rejoice.

rustythekid

#22

rustythekid said:

7.5/10 :)
First 3D game I owned in a home console, just for that I'll give it a 9 out of 10.

blank_user_1

#23

blank_user_1 said:

I haven't come across a Nintendolife score that I disagree with more than this one here. 6/10? Dang, this isn't a mediocre title-- it's one of the 64's great games. The review doesn't even mention the collectible Challenge Points; just try finding all of those. Or the numerous glitches (like being a freaking wampa). Or all the weapons, yeah, like the stunner, pulse, flame, missles, or the nuke-like disrupter. There is plenty of fun to be had in this game. No, I'm not talking about speed runs or graphic novels. I'm just recalling the high times I had with this game, complete with tense ammo conservation, escaping those nasty sewer monsters, and frantically trying to take down a wampa just feet away from swiping the life out of me.

Just a bit of last ranting advice: save your ammo for IG-88. You'll need it for that bad boy. Whoa, I just remembered the jetpack. What an awesome jetpack. I'm sure this reviewer was not soaring the heights of levels looking for extra disrupter ammo.

EDIT: Yes, as another Sabrewing said, switch to First Person perspective. It really is different (and harder) to do it in third. I rarely went out of first.

Knux

#25

Knux said:

This game is better than a 6/10, but whatever. :P
I love SOTE, it was one of my favorite games besides Rouge Sqaudron, and I would buy both when they come to the VC without hesitation. :)

Rawk_Hawk

#26

Rawk_Hawk said:

I have heard such good things about this game. I'll pick it up when it eventually hits the Virtual Console. I was not a big fan of the book though. I don't like it when other authors try to mess around with the original trilogy.

Ren

#27

Ren said:

Yeah, I probably would've rated it a little higher myself, too, but it's a nice review.
It paints enough of a picture for me to remember some of the annoying control issues that came with any early 3d games when Mario 64 was still ruling the world. This was still an amazing game at the time, for it's mood and relative depth. It was much harder then many games now. Sometimes a classic games' charm was in how hard it was to find an edge to jump off of and I miss that difficulty, but then sometimes I just want to indulge and run through an easy modern game.
Like, say "De-Blob"; so well designed and enjoyable and even large, but almost too easy to do everything that it's over too quick. Sometimes incentives for RE-play just don't cut it, when the main adventure is too easy. A main story adventure is the most fun and rewarding if it's hardest the first time.

deadly_by_design

#28

deadly_by_design said:

This was a good game, but I really hated some parts of it. Makes me wish I had been playing Dark Forces on a PC instead... Still, its flying levels were the high points that I'll choose to remember.

kevohki

#29

kevohki said:

I remember beating this game 100% and collecting all the challenge points on each difficulty level. Once you get used to the control, it's not so hard to navigate. The jetpack also made navigating easier in certain levels. The Slave One fight was pretty annoying though. I would have given it an 8, the ship levels alone are worth it.

THENAMESNORM

#31

THENAMESNORM said:

I never got this game on launch, but I did pick it up soon after and really enjoyed it. It was just an outstanding thought being able to blast stormtroopers! Even the horrible camera couldn't ruin it for me(It tried it's best though!!)

the_shpydar

#32

the_shpydar said:

A fair review; i love the game and would probably bump it up a point, but it hasn't aged well. Though, to be fair, a lot of its problems were common at the time it was released when developers were still kinda getting the hang of 3D and analog controls. In '96, this game was amazing; i had friends who were Star Wars fans and not gamers who would make me play this just to watch it -- remember, this came out before the prequels, in one of the "quiet times" of Star Wars's pop culture presence.

Javet

#33

Javet said:

I played this when I was really little with my dad. I really enjoyed it, but now that I love reviewing games, I probably wouldn't like it.

Paperclip

#34

Paperclip said:

I remember enjoying this game when I was a kid. I wonder if I would still like it....

Porky

#35

Porky said:

Thanks for not giving this game a higher rating just because its a stars wars game.

Devastator

#36

Devastator said:

I loved this game. I have two copies of it for my N64. I think the Turok series, especially the first two, need spot light on them again.

SilentJ

#37

SilentJ said:

I was in love with this game back in the day! It was just so much fun being in the Star Wars universe. There were some frustrating parts but I got through it. I know the cartridge is still buried somewhere with some other games.

CanisWolfred

#38

CanisWolfred said:

I used to play this with a friend all the time. I thought it was...okay, back then, but looking back, I can't see why I spent as much time with it as I did. Nothing else to play, I guess.

Gilzane

#39

Gilzane said:

I love this game. The escape from echo base mission in the beginning or whatever its called is pretty fun. I always released the wookies from their cells and led them to attack the bad guys.

BulbasaurusRex

#40

BulbasaurusRex said:

I love Star Wars, and I liked the novel, so I'll get this if/when it comes to VC. If it does come to VC, do you think the controls will work better with a GameCube controller than it does with an N64 controller.

theblackdragonAdmin

#41

theblackdragon said:

ho-ly crap, did i ever play the hell outta this game. i remember the first time i finally beat it on Easy, i freaked out because i couldn't believe the story really ended like that, so i had to check out the book from the library to see whether or not that was what really happened. thankfully you get to see the 'real' ending after beating the game on one of the harder difficulty levels. :3

JamieOStaff

#43

JamieO said:

Wow, there are lots of SOTE fans here, its is good to see them defending this title.
There are loads of good points in this comments board, for example from @Sabrewing and @roro44's comments it is clear that the first person view deserved more time. I did play the game from that viewpoint, but it did not gel with me, I found it more natural in the third person, as I was able to see Dash's actual physical position and footing placement. Note @roro44 that whilst the review does not mention Wampas, it does mention the Challenge Points (last paragraph before conclusion) and the variety of weapons (sixth paragraph down). Regarding control, @Bulbasaurus_Rex, a GCN controller will not change the third person dynamics dramatically, it was a launch game, so animations are quite stiff and the movement is fairly clunky. I have completed SOTE three times in total on separate play-throughs, listen to @theblackdragon, it is worth turning the difficulty up once you have mastered the level layouts on 'easy', but you had better save up those lives on earlier levels.

I agree with @the_shpydar regarding perspective and that its release was during a quiet time for Star Wars in general, it was just as everything was about to pick up with the re-mastered 'Special Edition' original trilogy movies on the cinema in 1997. This downtime in Star Wars releases hyped me up even more for the game when I first played it in '97, which added to the disappointment in the gameplay back then, too. As @dimlylitmonkey mentioned GCN Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader actually lived up to its launch hype and still stood up to comparison with later GCN games, that game proves that a Star Wars launch title can stand the test of time.

A number of the comments seem to be based upon the score, presumably regarding whether it should have received a 7/10. I stand by the 6/10, if a gamer picked up a N64 from a car boot sale today and was scanning Nintendo Life for game reviews as potential cart purchases, I would recommend a number of superior N64 games before SOTE, considering its position in relation to other game scores. Star Wars fans, myself included, will be more forgiving and will enjoy the story and setting. I am not sure if many gamers could ignore its gameplay niggles and award SOTE a score of 8/10, but I do respect the passion and enthusiasm that users hold for it. I would be interested to hear what non-Star Wars fan gamers make of it, simply as an early N64 video game, as it was definitely not my intention to stomp on anyone's memories. It is cool that people are sticking up for an old game that they love, that is pretty much what retro gaming is all about. Cheers everyone. :)

Deviant_Mugen

#46

Deviant_Mugen said:

Great review, though, I would've given it a 7 myself. This is indeed a great game, granted there's some control and camera issues, but overall I say the experience of completing it surpasses the frustration of constant pitfalls and a shaky camera...

I might just have to re-play this game, though, it'll have to wait until after my play-through with Luigi in Galaxy...

Travenous

#47

Travenous said:

This game was one of my faves for the 64. You can tell graphics wise it was a 1st gen game for the system though, but the gameplay was well done, IMO. I loved that damn jetpack lol! All games should have them.

elkangaRoo

#48

elkangaRoo said:

I have this game for PC and I loved it back when I played it. I don't remember much of the game other than the Hoth level. Wonder if it works on WinXP?!

TheEternalGamer

#49

TheEternalGamer said:

This was the game that made me want an N64, from when I saw the TV adverts featuring the Hoth levels, I didn't rest till bought it. All in all, I wasn't disappointed.

Up to today, even though I own more recent Star Wars releases for the GC and Wii, I still play and love SOTE. Lucasarts did a fantastic job with the BGM. The graphics immerse you into the Star Wars universe and the gameplay, whilst not quite up to the heights of other N64 releases is a lot a fun. The fact it also ran full screen without borders (a rarity for PAL releases back then!) increased the appeal.

If you're a Star Wars fan and see this going cheap, buy it - you won't regret it. @elkangaRoo I used to have the PC version and it ran under Win2K. XP should work too.

sketchturner

#51

sketchturner said:

This is a game that has a lot of flaws and probably deserves this score, yet I absolutely LOVE the game! Technical aspects aside, the fun factor is high in this game.

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