Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire may be a game you’ve heard of but never played. It’s a popular game to cite because of its famous proto-Rogue Squadron-esque opening set during the Battle of Hoth. Except there’s more to it than that. Not only is Shadows of the Empire more complex, but 25 years after its original release, it’s actually never been easier to experience it for yourself.
Like many Star Wars games of its day, it was intended to be a full-fledged expansion of the main storyline, charting the time between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Where a novel of the same name explores the story from the perspective of existing characters, George Lucas’ movie-without-a-movie tie-in game focuses squarely on one Dash Rendar.
To be fair, Rendar is as ‘90s as you can get with his shoulder pads, looking more like Cable from the X-Men. Nonetheless, he’s charmingly voiced by John Cygan on PC, the same man behind fan-favorite Mandalorian Canderous Ordo. Better yet, where he handled like an awkward tank in the original Nintendo 64 release, he controls fantastically on PC.
Shadows of the Empire is technically one game but basically plays like it’s four games. There are the opening and concluding open-flight sections with (for the time) sizable combat arenas. Then there are the many on-foot sections where it’s like if Quake and Uncharted had a baby. Between those, you’ve got turret sections and a speeder racing section. Somehow, despite trying way too hard to be all of the things, only the racing section sucks.
Everything else in Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire is rock solid. The on-foot levels are expansive, including an elaborate tram-leaping sequence with more variety than Uncharted 2’s Orient Express shootouts. You feel like an absolute badass tearing through stormtroopers as Dash fans his pistol. There are also secrets to find, an arsenal of alternate ammo types for your guns, and a glut of bosses that reward skillfully navigating the environment. Again, it’s very ‘90s, but this time in the best way possible.
Probably my favorite encounters on foot are when dueling IG-88 and Boba Fett. Each requires different tactics that fit their characters. IG-88 is all about manipulating his limited mobility by ambushing from above or below, which is made all the easier by the auto-aim targeting for Dash’s DL-44 pistol.
You can sort of manually aim in Shadows of the Empire, but the auto-aim more than does the job once you’ve gotten the feel for it. Plus, a variety of your alternate ammo types either have a wide area of effect or auto-target like a Halo Needler rifle – which you’ll need, because fighting Boba Fett throws riding a jetpack into the works. You’ve got to harness a full 360 degrees to beat Fett, and after you take him down in person, you have to cripple the Slave I.
It’s that sort of modern boss fight cinematic framing you expect, with the freedom to act as you please like the best classic games offer. This does also mean you can waste ammo if you aren’t careful, and some fights can utterly hose you if you aren’t mindful. However, a generous pool of lives helps offset this.
The turret sections and concluding dogfight are equally excellent, feeling like arcade-y twists on the X-Wing and TIE Fighter games. They even use similar input displays, but now paired with lightning-fast action as your cannons dish out damage as fast as in the movies. It leads to an increasingly hectic yet thrilling ride as you pull off your own twist on the famous trench run, crippling Prince Xizor’s Skyhook base.
Honestly, the only thing you’re gonna miss out on by playing the PC re-release is the story. LucasArts didn’t carry over all the text-based cutscenes from the N64 release, so there are a few gaps in the plot. If you want the full story, you’re best off reading either the comics or the novel (or going to YouTube for the N64 cutscenes).
Overall though, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire is still a blast 25 years later. The sheer variety, ingenuity, and satisfying action hold up amazingly well. It is clearly a game of its time, but Shadows of the Empire has got it where it counts. If you’re feeling nostalgic, there’s never been a better time to revisit Shadows of the Empire.