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Why N64 launch title Shadows of the Empire will always be my favourite Star Wars game

Rebel without a cause.

Star Wars - Shadows Of The Empire
Image credit: LucasFilm

Shadows of the Empire does not appear on best Star Wars video game lists. It is not fondly remembered (or is it?). Parts of it are quite bad, in truth. But it will always be my favourite Star Wars game.

I was tremendously excited, a teenager bouncing off the walls of our temporary Tooting home in South London. My dad had promised he'd buy me an N64 and a couple of games for my 16th birthday in June 1997. Nintendo's new console had only released on these shores a few months prior, and I had patiently waited. Well, not so patiently.

My mum and three siblings had already left the UK to live in Dublin, leaving my father and I in London so I could finish my GCSEs. He was sick, then, from a cancer that would eventually consume him a year later. It was an extremely difficult time, not that I showed it. My N64 and Star Wars Shadows of the Empire would help me through that summer until we joined the rest of my family in Ireland.

It was a short drive to Dixons and a short drive back, although I remember it feeling like it took forever. As soon as we got home I rushed to set up the N64 and slapped Shadows of the Empire in the console, breathless with anticipation.

Shadows of the Empire starts with a mission set within The Empire Strikes Back's famous Battle of Hoth scene. You play Dash Rendar (what a name!) who, alongside his droid Leebo, has a brief chat with Han Solo before jumping into a snowspeeder to fend off the Empire's invasion.

Shadows of the Empire thrusts you into this wonderful snowscape and charges you with shooting down droids and AT-STs as the battle rages around you. You even take on those intimidating AT-ATs by sweeping around and through their legs to trip them up. It felt like I was playing the Battle of Hoth directly from Empire. It was epic, which was a word I used a lot back then to describe things that were bigger and better than anything I'd experienced before. Next-gen gaming indeed.

I wonder what DF will make of the Dash Rendar-ing in the game.Watch on YouTube

Unfortunately, Shadows of the Empire plummets downhill from there. As you complete the Battle of Hoth level the Empire destroys the shield generator protecting the rebel base, and the gameplay shifts to properly janky, uninspiring 3D third-person shooting, with you, Dash Rendar, blasting your way to your ship. Along the way you fight several wampas, lumbering blaster sponges who do little more than grind your progress to a halt for a minute or so. Inevitably, you fall off platform edges to your doom.

It's awful, really, looking back at it now, but at the time I was wowed. For me, someone whose gaming life had gone from the NES to the SNES and now the N64 via a brief love affair with the Amiga 1200, Shadows of the Empire represented one of my first experiences in a fully 3D environment. I wasn't about to let bad gameplay put me off! I'm not even sure I knew what bad gameplay was, back then. It's funny: the more I have come to understand how video games work, the harder they have become to love.

While the medicore third-person shooting and platforming make up the bulk of Shadows of the Empire, the Battle of Hoth wil endure as a Star Wars video game mission for the ages. Now, Shadows of the Empire's inconsistent innards make sense. "There was considerable pressure to finish the game in time for the Christmas 1996 deadline," the late Mark Haigh-Hutchinson told Game Developer magazine in a postmortem.

"This reality meant many, many late nights, with some team members regularly working over 100 hours every week for the best part of a year. Hopefully, this sort of workload can be avoided in future projects."

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Of course I rinsed Shadows of the Empire for everything it had, not just finishing the campaign but collecting everything available to collect. I spent tens of hours hunting spinning Jedi symbols tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the levels, the imprecise platforming infuriating me, the draw-distance fog concealing platforms I really could have done with seeing. Onwards, though - I, like many of you I imagine, only got new video games on birthdays and Christmas. Shadows of the Empire and Mario 64 was all I had to play on my N64 for half a year.

Thank god for Shadows of the Empire, then, which helped me through one of the toughest summers of my life, a summer I spent in denial at what was happening to me, my father and my family, a summer in which a Star Wars game no-one likes kept me from veering too far off the rails. Looking back, I suspect my dad appreciated the relentless sound of Dash's blaster bursting out of our CRT, because he knew, as he lay in bed unable to get up, that that sound meant I was in, safe and sound, not out getting into trouble on the streets of south London.

When I think about the best Star Wars games, I think about the Knights of the Old Republic games, the Super Star Wars games on the SNES, the original Battlefront games and Rogue Leader on the GameCube. Worthy but obvious picks you can read about in the countless top 10 Star Wars video game lists across the internet. But for me, Shadows of the Empire will always be my favourite Star Wars game, not so much for the game it was, but for the game I needed it to be.

May the 4th be with you!

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