Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire | Retro Review | Nintendo 64 - Japan-based Nintendo Podcasts, Videos & Reviews!


Friday, January 31, 2020

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire | Retro Review | Nintendo 64

by Danny Bivens

How do Shadows of the past hold up in the present?
As many of you are well aware, the whole Shadows of the Empire project was one that was multifaceted. Of course gamers got the game on the N64, but fans also got books, comics, toys and probably more. The story takes place in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with the game focusing on the newly created smuggler, Dash Rendar. In the game, players are tasked with aiding the rebels, helping Luke Skywalker and other heroes of the Rebellion and bringing down the new Vader wanna-be, Xizor. While the game was met with middling reviews from the gaming press upon release, there were numerous Star Wars fans who have fond memories of their time with the game. But, how does it hold up all this time later?

Shadows of the Empire was first released in North America on the N64 on December 3, 1996, followed by a PAL release in March of 1997 and a release in Japan in June of the same year. The Japanese version kept the same title in English visible on the box, but offered the translated title and logo (Teikoku no Kage) as well. Since its original release, Shadows was also released on Windows in 1997. 20 years later, it was released on Steam in 2017 and in 2019, Limited Run Games announced a new physical version of the game for the Nintendo 64.
As for the game itself, there are a few different gameplay segments available - on foot missions, ship combat, and turret control in Dash’s ship the Outrider. Primarily, you will be in control of Dash on foot where you can jump, shoot enemies, interact with doors/buttons and even fly with a jetpack. There are several different camera options here (with a few being cinematic and not very useful), but most will probably find playing in third or first person the easiest way to play.

While the controls for the on foot missions get the job done, they do feel a bit sluggish at times. Dash’s movement feels a little bit slow and his floaty jump takes some getting used to. There are some minor platforming areas where you need to be on point with your jumping skills, which can be frustrating at times. The addition of the jetpack in a handful of stages is pretty entertaining, though. With limited use of fuel, the game fairly balances how much you can or can’t use this aspect of Dash’s arsenal. Speaking of the arsenal, there are different power ups for the blaster that can be found throughout the stages including seeking missiles, a flame thrower, a pulse cannon and more.
Throughout the game, you’ll be visiting lots of familiar places and seeing a lot of familiar ships and enemies. Level design overall is decent, but some of the stages tend to drag on for quite awhile. Littered throughout each of the levels are a variety of collectibles - extra lives, health pick ups and the coveted Challenge points. You don’t have to seek these out, but the extra challenge is there for more adventurous players. Enemies are pretty varied here, too. You’ll encounter snow troopers, stormtroopers, wampas, probe droids and whole lot more. Boss battles also put you up agains some challenging foes. An AT-ST, IG-88 and even Boba Fett and his ship Slave I all make appearances.

The stages when you are in the cockpit/drivers seat are phenomenal. Even with the first level of the game, The Battle of Hoth, you are plunged right into the world of Star Wars in full 3D. As a kid, like many of you I’m sure, I played the hell out of that stage. From Hoth, to the swoop stage on Tatooine to space battles, everything feels spot on. Even now. When controlling the ships in the free roam stages, controls are responsive and there are lots of great camera options to give the feeling that you are taking part in a movie (that will never be made). The turret stages, while maybe a bit boring for some people, were easy to get into and just fun to play through numerous times just to see if you could beat your high scores. Of course, the climactic battle at the Skyhook was breathtaking. On top of the killer music in the stage, just getting to see these the Star Destroyer, the Skyhook station itself and tons of ships flying around was something that blew my mind. I really felt like I was playing a movie. It still feels really good today, too.
The visuals in Shadows are decent for an early game on the Nintendo 64. Lucasarts managed to stuff a lot of detail into the game and allowed you to get up close and personal with much of this for the first time in 3D thanks to the power of Nintendo’s home console. As a way to tell the story, the Nintendo 64 version of the game plays these out through comic book-like images with text on the bottom. Kind of disappointing when taking into account the entire N64 library, but for 1997, the story telling got the job done well enough.

Music and sound effects, while somewhat muffled, sound very on point. Rather than going with synthesized music, Lucasarts opted to go with compressed digital samples of real orchestral music. Of course, with the cart size being limited, this was all done in mono. At the time, it worked out pretty well especially considering that most people who would be playing the game probably weren’t doing so through an elaborate sound setup. Again, things sound very authentic, but might be a little bit underwhelming to a modern audience.

Japanese Differences
There are a few differences between the Japanese and Western versions of Shadows. Most notably with the name entry. In the Japanese version, you’ll notice that the cursor clicks over with each character, while the Western version glides between each of them. You are able to put in up to 14 characters per name, while in the Japanese version, you can only put 11. Why is this significant, you may be asking yourself? Well, for the game’s infamous debug code, as well as other codes, you need a certain number of characters in the name entry section. With the Japanese version lacking this, Japanese gamers were unable to make use of this code (as far as I know). No controlling wampas, stormtroopers, AT-STs or anything like that in this version. An unfortunate miss for sure. (That didn’t stop me from busting out my North American version and trying out a few things, some of which you’ll see in the footage. Also, I should note that putting in that debug code by yourself could be a real pain the ass. I mean, I only have so many hands and holding down nearly all the buttons on the controller and tilting that stick was a chore…but definitely worth it.)
One other difference with the game is with the cart itself. On the Western versions of the game, the cart featured a stormtrooper on a black background shooting at an off cart target, probably you, the player. The Japanese version features none other than fan favorite, Boba Fett, posing next to the Japanese and English logos for the game. The boxes are more or less identical, featuring the same artwork, however, the the Japanese box (like all N64 boxes) is vertical while the Western box art is horizontal.

Shadows of the Empire isn’t without flaws. You could even say that the majority of the game, particularly the on foot sections, feel a bit plodding and sometimes tedious due to the slow movement of Dash and somewhat poor handling. At the same time, though, these missions as well as the stellar vehicular missions really set the ground work with what could be done with a Star Wars game on a console. More importantly, they show what can be avoided or improved upon, which helped set up tons of excellent Star Wars titles well after Shadows was released. If you can overlook some of the flaws here, Shadows of the Empire definitely deserves a play through even all of these years later. You might find yourself frustrated or angry at times, but it will probably be worth it. If you’re a Star Wars fan and HAVEN’T played it, you owe it to yourself. If you haven’t played through them game in a long time like me, you should definitely give it another go.

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