25 years ago, Dash Rendar blasted his way to Nintendo 64 in Shadows Of The Empire

Today, Star Wars is everywhere. You cannot escape it. But in 1996, it was a very different story. 15 years after the Death Star exploded in Return of the Jedi, fans (myself included) have rattles for anything Star Wars related. It was the Expanded Universe that kept us going. Thrawn novels by Timothy Zahn, classic games like The Dark Forces and short stories compilations like Tales From the Mos Eisley Cantina. These are places where you could lose yourself in a galaxy far, far away in the mid-1990s.

There’s no shortage of great stories, but it’s a movie we want. Something official, straight from George Lucas himself. Alas, that won’t be the case for another 4 years when The Phantom Menace finally hits theaters. But in the meantime, Lucasfilm has given us the next best thing: Shadows of the Empire. This popular multimedia project is essentially a sequel to the new Star Wars, set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but a project that exists in every medium except film.

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Viewed skeptically, the whole venture was a way for Lucasfilm to cash in on Star Wars without having to wait for George to finish a new movie. There are two novels — one for adults and one for teenagers. There’s a comic strip, action figures, model kits, trading cards, and just about every kind of merchandise you can imagine. But commercialism aside, Shadows of Empire’s story and central characters are superb. To this day, it remains one of the greatest Star Wars stories ever told.

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It is the story of Dash Rendar, a rough-and-tumble smuggler and ally of the Rebel Alliance who joins Luke and Leia in their quest to free Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt’s palace. Meanwhile, scheming crime lord Prince Xizor plots to kill Darth Vader and replace him as the Emperor’s right-hand man. Shadows of the Empire would be a great Star Wars movie if it made it to the silver screen. But that’s okay, because Steve Perry’s novel is written in a lively and extremely interesting way.

Of course, there is a video game. Developed in-house at LucasArts, it launched on PC and N64 in 1996, and has gone on to sell over a million copies — I think thanks in large part to being on the first level. During the intense battle of Empire’s Battle of Hoth, Rendar temporarily joins the Rogue Squadron, jumping in a sleigh, and joining an AT-AT team. This is the most realistic and thrilling digital reproduction of star battle ever seen in a video game and everyone wants to play it.

I remember people having heated discussions about this level in school, and cartridges being passed between the few of us that had N64s. It feels like Future. It’s also fun to play a Star Wars game where you play as a rogue and a scoundrel, rather than a Jedi or some other typical protagonist type. Dash is still a hero, but Han Solo is better than Luke Skywalker, which is super fun. It’s an aspect of Star Wars that we haven’t really seen in a video game before.

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The game is primarily a third-person shooter, but there are several levels where the vehicles come into play. These include a high-speed bike chase and 360-degree space battles in Rendar’s ship, the Outrider. The game was pretty messed up in ’96 and even harder to play today, but we didn’t care back then. We persevered and considered its flaws, because it was a great Star Wars experience. Also, as a fan of the source novel, dig into parts of that story as Rendar is a thrill.

LucasArts was an early adopter of the N64 and worked closely with Nintendo while developing Shadows of the Empire. Shigeru Miyamoto even had some creative input, hinting that Rendar’s animations would take on more personality. Motion capture was handled by Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects team behind the Star Wars movies. Nintendo even allowed to increase the cartridge size from 8 to 12MB to accommodate sampled orchestral music. It was a big, expensive project.

I’ll be honest, Shadows of the Empire is not a great game. It’s a very pedestrian third-person shooter and clearly a product of the era when people were still figuring out how to make 3D games work on consoles. But it’s great because it captures the essence of Star Wars in a way that very few games have before. Back in ’96, I mostly just played Battle of Hoth over and over again, because I found the later levels too difficult. But for me that is enough. I did in Star Wars, and it’s magical.

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About the author 25 years ago, Dash Rendar blasted his way to Nintendo 64 in Shadows Of The Empire


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