Star Wars. One of the biggest franchises to exist in our life-time. Spanning from 1977 to this day, you’d be hard done by to find someone whom which doesn’t have some sort of memory playing/watching/reading the tales from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Our game of the month for December 2017 focusses on Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, an N64 release (with a later PC port) that formed part of the mutually titled, multimedia project created by Lucasfilm ltd. Designed to expand on events between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the project consists of novels; a short comic book series; trading cards; action figures; and the December 3rd 1996 NTSC release of the Nintendo 64 third person shooter. On March 1st 1997 the game received it’s PAL release, making it a launch title for the region. Good Old Games (GOG.com) produced a re-release for the Windows port in 2016, as the game struggled to run on the now more widely used 64 bit operating systems.
Onto the flesh of our tale, bear with me on this one. The protagonist of the story is as yet unknown mercenary Dash Rendar. A freelance smuggler similar to Han Solo, he has the monumental task of trying to recover Han Solo’s carbonite frozen body from Boba Fett; keeping Luke Skywalker alive; and saving Princess Leia from Prince Xizor. Rather him than me! A little background information for those of you who aren’t as involved with the expanded Star Wars universe - Xizor was a Falleen Prince and leader of the criminal organisation the Black Sun. During the Galactic Empire's reign, Darth Vader had Xizor’s family executed, prompting the Prince’s goals to both destroy the Skywalker family, and replace Vader at the Emperor's side - all whilst maintaining a harmonious veil so as not to upset the Emperor. Rendar on the other hand, is a relatively minor character from the Shadows of the Empire books, allowing the game developers to have a little more scope to expand his story.
Shadows of the Empire is split into 4 chapters, combining a multitude of gameplay styles. Primarily a third (or first) person shooter, a number of levels see you partake in dogfights, fly jetpacks, and race swoop riders. I won’t delve deep into the individual levels, it’s much more fun for you to experience those first hand yourself, but each chapter is set a little further along in the timeline of events. Where chapter one kicks off during the Battle for Hoth, the second chapter follows the events of The Empire Strikes Back and sees you tackling the renowned bounty hunter Boba Fett. Then during chapter three Rendar is defended Luke from Jabba’s minions on Tatooine; and we finish up with a battle in Xizor’s palace on Coruscant. There is a plethora of environments on display in the game, and.I think that’s what makes the game shine amongst others. The fact that it coincides with all the other media available from the project, it does a great job to immerse you deeper into the Star Wars Universe.
The game does differ from events in the books. Again, due to Dash having a relatively minor role, we see him take part in the timeline of events much more than what is included in the book. For instance, during the last siege of Xizor’s space station, Rendar plays a huge part of it’s destruction. In the novel however, our protagonist plays no part at all, remaining behind with the fleet. We’re also treated to two separate endings for the game, one standard and one secret ending made available when you beat the game on a higher difficulty.
Due to the nature of the hardware available, there are differences between the PC and N64 versions of the game. The most notable change introduced to the PC version are the cutscenes. Where the N64 version used basic comic book style slides with text on to explain the next part of the story; the PC release utilises full motion cinematic scenes complete with voice acting. In addition to this the PC release runs much more smoothly and crisply - though given the cartridge limit the N64 had, this isn’t very surprising!
Credit is definitely due to the team involved with developing Shadows, having set up to produce the game without a prototype N64 even available. When you’re given what is essentially a modded SNES controller with a few more buttons whacked on, hidden in a cardboard box so you can’t see it, it’s safe to say you are in for an uphill struggle!
Punishingly long weeks were spent programming, and even then the size of the game had to be cut from a predicted 19 levels, to the 10 we can play today. The decision to delay the NTSC launch release until the December that year gave the team an extra few months to polish off visuals and the like. The opening level on Hoth was arguably one of the most stunning 3D experiences any console had put out by then, and to a point almost shadows (pun fully intended) the rest of the game.
As much as I love them (Mollett here by the way, hey!), Star Wars games can be horrifically hit and miss. We won’t delve into some of the shockers LucasArts have put out… Shadows on the other hand definitely leans towards the hit side of the scale. It’s not the best game on the N64 by any means but it gives the player variety, an interesting storyline and fantastic soundtrack. As part of the LucasFilm multimedia project, Shadows of the Empire (franchise) had its own musical score created. Several pieces from Joel McNeely’s work were used in the game, alongside a variety of John Williams’ compositions from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In fact it is exclusive amongst N64 titles in having a fully digitised score rather than standard synthesised music, made possible using an additional 4MB of space granted by Nintendo on the cartridge.
That alone makes this game well worth checking out, nicely done guys!