To "SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE" and Back Again: An Ode to Vintage STAR WARS Video Gaming

There is absolutely nothing unique about me saying that STAR WARS was a significant part of my childhood. I’m one of millions (possibly more?) who can make that claim. And as the last year and a half has shown, they’re more than just movies. It’s an indelible part of our culture and world. And like any self-respecting billion dollar franchise…it has video games.

This won’t be an extensive, well-researched history of STAR WARS games. There’s plenty of articles out there on the subject that you can read after you finish reading this and liking/sharing it on various social media platforms. And as far as I’m concerned, video gaming peaked/ended after the Nintendo 64, so any STAR WARS games released afterward, as good as they may be (all due respect to BATTLEFRONT) are ineligible for consideration here. What I can tell you about are the games released during my childhood at a point where STAR WARS wasn’t so hot, to the game that coincided with its return to pop culture prominence.

Star Wars , NES

Star Wars, NES

I shake my fist in anger/fear at the kids today who will never understand renting a cartridge game from a video store after school on Fridays.  The pressure was on, as you had 48 hours to make as much progress as possible before it was time to return it and return to normalcy on Monday. And if you rented STAR WARS on the original NES, you didn’t make much progress at all. A relatively faithful adaptation of A NEW HOPE, the game was like so many of its 8-bit counterparts: frustratingly, heartbreakingly, controller-throwing-in-a-rage difficult. The first few levels are, naturally, on Tatooine, and if memory serves I made it past that part of the game only once or twice. I certainly never got to the final level where you attempt to destroy the Death Star. So, at least in that timeline, Yavin IV was destroyed, the Empire won, and we never got Bears’s article completely misunderstanding Episode VII

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK followed on NES, and I never got past the first level. That’s not an exaggeration for comedic effect. I wondered around Hoth on my Tauntaun, completely lost and alternately falling into icy abysses and being mauled by Wampas. It was as much fun as it sounds.

Super Star Wars , SNES

Super Star Wars, SNES

There was never a RETURN OF THE JEDI on NES, as we moved into the 16-bit era with the SNES and the legendary SUPER STAR WARS trilogy. Make no mistake, every bit of praise this series gets is richly deserved. Traditional for the era sidescrollers (with a few first person flying levels thrown in for good measure) that pushed the SNES to its capacity, these games were exciting, faithful adaptations that I still play through a few times a year. Like their predecessors, they were also insanely difficult at times. I likely faced the Carrier Drone Boss in the Escape From Mos Eisley level hundreds of times before I figured out how to beat it (you have to slide under it and fire up to destroy the first blaster, and then there’s a spot on the screen where you literally cannot be hit while you take out the other ones. In case you were wondering.)

Shadows of the Empire , N64

Shadows of the Empire, N64

In 1996, video gaming reached its logical and emotional climax when the world was gifted the Nintendo 64. And with that system came the release of SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE. A semi-sequel set between the events of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, the game was just one part of the merchandising push designed to get fans ready for the 20th anniversary special edition releases the following year. There was a novel, a toy line, a comic series, all the usual suspects. The game itself is something of a masterpiece, once again pushing the system processor to its limits and immersing the player in the mythos of STAR WARS to fill in the gaps between the two sequels. By opening with the Battle of Hoth from EMPIRE, they even find a way to work in a Han Solo cameo. You also essentially play as a Solo doppelganger, Dash Rendar, and you’re conveniently killed at the end of the game to help explain why he was never mentioned in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Economical storytelling at its finest. To keep with tradition, the game is unbearably difficult at parts, with the IG-88 boss battle being a particular sticking point. Still, the game is exciting, frustrating, and as playable today as it was 21 years ago.

Since then, there’s been dozens of STAR WARS games released. BATTLEFRONT on the Xbox was a good deal of fun, as was DARK FORCES for the PC. For me personally, the STAR WARS games of my youth will always be the finest examples of the genre. Call it nostalgia, but as I fired up SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE to… research… this article, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of excitement like I did when I rented it on a Friday afternoon for the first time. As much as technology has advanced, and as new generations of STAR WARS fans come along, I can only hope they’re lucky enough to experience that same feeling.

If you can't tell yet, OWA really loves STAR WARS - so much so that this May the 4th marks our third annual Star Wars Day Fan Film Screening! We take the best (and goofiest) Star Wars fan films out there and give them a night of big screen glory. This year's free event take place at 4th Tap, starting at 6pm. They even brewed some beer just for us (Light or Dark Side, take your pick...) so we'll see you there!