I’ve spent well over a year writing about games from all sorts of origins, but this entry will mark only the second time I’ve written about an N64 game. The deadbeat of the console family, the 64 had all attention diverted from it in its toddler stage for the newborn baby Playstation, which we all soon realized came out with dozens–and eventually hundreds–of good games. (I figured I’d pass on the chance to make an amniotic fluid joke in there) And of course, this problem plagued Nintendo through the Game Cube and even a little into the Wii era. Fortunately by that time, they’d noticed the DS. “Oh, really? Players enjoy a wide array of fun games, along with backwards compatibility so they can still play all those old games floating around?” See, it turns out that selling a system on the tech alone just doesn’t cut it. But sadly, the N64 hadn’t quite read that memo yet, and millions of people decided to bypass its wonderful new 3-D environments in favor of the 3-D environments that Playstation developers made fun and exciting to play in.
Still, while terms like “amass” feel too grand for what happened, I did accumulate a modest collection of cartridges for the system, about three or four of which I actually enjoyed playing. Of the handful of these I have, I probably encountered Shadows of the Empire before anything else. It impressed me. It hooked me on the system, like a free shot of heroin that would eventually lead to an unsatisfying and expensive habit. But hey, Star Wars! In 3-D! The ability to walk around in the Rebel base on Hoth amazed me. Wandering in and out of my star ship…yeah, it sounds stupid now, but at the time it felt like strapping on a virtual reality suit and logging into Quest World (speaking of nostalgic disappointments). Still, I while I do have a tendency to overlook my N64 games in favor of a towering mass of Playstation discs, I recently began to wonder why I had ignored Shadows of the Empire for so long. So I pulled it out, dusted it off, jammed it in the slot and turned it on…then turned it off, pulled out the cartridge, blew the dust out of the game, blew dust out of the N64, put it back in, and sat back in amazement as I realized “Oh yeah, it doesn’t actually have much to offer.”
Shadows of the Empire owes a lot to two things. The first, in a move surprising both for the game industry–in basing a game adaptation off something other than a movie–and for Hollywood–to resist hacking and slashing an obvious cash cow of a book into bloody pulped mash of beef and bone–they took inspiration from a Star Wars expanded universe novel. The book focuses on the period of time between Empire and Jedi, while the film’s heroes search for Leia’s hunk of a carbonite boyfriend, matching wits against a crime syndicate lord jealous of all the attention Palpatine gives to Vader. The crime lord hatches a plot to bump off Vader, thus endearing himself to the Emperor (a plan which would make no sense with anyone other than Palpatine) and becoming his new green-guy Friday. So the novel ends up looking at how Luke and Leia get by without the disarming wit and street-smarts of Han Solo, pushing them to their limits to test their mettle. Just kidding. They introduce Dash Rendar, a character exactly like Han, who fills his function just long enough to get them through to Jabba’s palace. Dash, a relatively minor character from the novel, becomes the central figure of the game, driving much of the action.
Second, the Super Star Wars SNES games clearly influenced Shadows of the Empire’s creation. It retains the same semi-animation style of cut scenes, at least one secondary blaster power-up, and even some of the slightly nonsensical premises for dashing through a gauntlet of stormtroopers, droids and wampas rather than just landing your ship in a better location; it also makes sure you destroy your quota of tie fighters before jumping into hyperspace. The vehicle levels also feel lifted straight out of Super Star Wars, especially the one level they literally just took from Super Empire Strikes Back, spruced it up a bit, and used to open their game; you fly a snowspeeder at the Battle of Hoth, slaying progressively larger and more dangerous enemies that didn’t actually fight at the Battle of Hoth (we all see you, Probe Droid!) until you have to harpoon a handful of AT-ATs and bring them down in what always feels like the sci-fi video game equivalent of walking heel-to-toe while saying the alphabet backwards.
That sort of drunken play control really marks the game, unfortunately. As an early N64 title, it almost feels like a demo they decided to market. I could almost feel the separate layers of the graphics, with Dash responding to the controls on top and an environment doing the same on a layer beneath. The amazing 3-D environments in retrospect come off as simple and non-interactive, with only a handful of objects that do anything more than just sit there, not letting you walk through them and looking all Star-Warsy. Each level jumps up and down like a 3-year old desperately trying to show you what it can do, especially in the various vehicle levels and the one moving-along-the-train level designed by a programmer who apparently slept through high school physics. While Dash has all the equilibrium of Mario in an ice world, once you get the jet pack the game really starts to handle as well as reading a newspaper in a gale force wind.
But I’ve safely navigated through Mario games before, so I can forgive that. I can even forgive the rarity of blaster power-ups effectively classifying them as too-awesome-to-use items. The save feature, though, pisses me off to the point where I’d gladly strangle a Lieutenant if one made itself available. And I had Force powers. Not yet reaching modern times, Shadows of the Empire uses lives. But still in love with itself over 3-D capabilities, it also uses enormous levels that can take upwards of 30 minutes to an hour to complete. If you don’t get to the boss and die. Like I did. Numerous times. On the medium difficulty setting. A setting which otherwise offered the perfect balance of challenge without frustration, yet still allowing adjustment for veteran players. The game only saves at the ends of levels, meaning any mistake and you get to play through everything again! Better pick something good to watch on TV while you do it. (I recommend Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”) For extra challenge, each level contains either hidden or difficult-to-reach challenge points. Collecting enough of these will grant you bonus lives which become part of the save data, carrying over into the next level (meaning you can play through old levels again to potentially increase your life total for the next). While discovering these trinkets gives the same rush as finding a twenty dollar bill in a parking lot, the bonus lives don’t add to the minimum–if you have one life left and get three bonus lives from challenge points, the game feels that raising you back up to the minimum lives ought to reward you enough.
Shadows of the Empire has all the nostalgic appeal of Johnny Quest–something you loved as a kid, but then you go back and catch the disturbing racial overtones and shallow plots. The game doesn’t come off as racist (well, unless you count casting green aliens as villains and white humans as heroes), but does kind of flop as a retro hit. For all the frustrations, I’d definitely put it in the top…let’s say fifteen N64 games. Maybe even top ten. But let’s face it; it didn’t exactly have fierce competition.