Back in ’96, Lucasarts embarked on a multimedia blitz to add a major part to the Star Wars canon with Shadows of the Empire. It wasn’t just one product; this was a storm that would be copied by other IPs in the years to come such as those from Ubisoft and Microsoft. A novel, toys, and games were all part of a project surrounding a singular story set between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It would also herald an interesting approach to marketing a property beyond its “roots”.
Shadows focused on the underworld of Star Wars introducing fans to Xizor, a rich merchant by day who terrorized the underworld as the head of the largest criminal organization in the galaxy by night. Obnoxiously wealthy, connected, and deeply charismatic, he hatches a plot intended to ruin his sworn rival for the emperor’s attention – Darth Vader. And to do it, he’s willing to use Luke Skywalker and his friends as pawns in his elaborate scheme.
Enter Dash Rendar, a new character introduced into the story and a Han Solo clone. Poor Dash didn’t quite score a direct hit with the fans I know, but he was at least a face that could be used in the actual game which came out for the N64 and then later for the PCs without stepping on the sacred toes of the major characters.
The novel kicked open the rotten doors of a side of the Empire that I had known nothing about outside of Jabba the Hutt and the few references that followed. This was a space that the likes of Han Solo had trafficked in, made his bones through, and shot a lot of people up from. It was rich, heady stuff that seemed poised to create a mini-revolution of new ideas and concepts. Even George Lucas had admitted that he would have made Shadows a film had he the time.
That’s why it was peculiar that for a game to encompass this new world, it focused squarely on only the N64 and seemed only grudgingly to come out on PCs a year later. In ’96, the Playstation and the Sega Saturn were both also on the market. Sony’s console, in particular, would become the reigning champ and establish the television maker as a major player in the market disrupting the traditional rivalry between Sega and Nintendo. For something like Shadows to ignore the potential of the Playstation or even the Saturn was simply bizarre.
As for the game itself, I thought it wasn’t bad. The N64’s controls worked fairly well in speeding through alleyways or taking on Prince Xizor’s forces on foot or in space, and the technical achievements for the game were impressive enough to bring in orchestrated music on the chip. The book, of course, was a lot better at telling the story, but Shadows was one of the few action games on the N64 that had kept me up late at night to get to the next level.
Lucasarts’ Shadows project would also pave the way for similar efforts in the following years to expand the reach of IPs across as many media channels as possible. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, EA’s Dead Space, and many others would assault the public through comics, books, and animation shorts all feeding into the creative vortex empowering these properties to go beyond the space in which they started in.
No longer just games, efforts would be spent in making these media empires stretching across the digital ether. It would even create a small cottage industry of “creative specialists” whose job it was to find ways in which to grow their client’s properties in whatever medium was hot at the time from Youtube to Twitter. Not every game would be given this treatment, but enough would be when the bigwigs wanted to place their bets on the next big thing that their developers had come up with.
Ubisoft, for example, has Hybride whose specialty in in VFX for film and television giving the game company access to a stable of seasoned talent who know how to bring properties to life onscreen for the masses. In their view as well as that of others that share it, games can go far beyond the kind of interactivity that they give players at home or on the go. It might be too much to call it an ecosystem of its own, but it’s also not too far from what some may want to see their games become as they buck traditional trends.
The double page ad below shows off a strip of shots directly from the game and boasts “5 different modes of combat” which it lived up to. Whether it was from Dash’s ship to a speeder, or dodging bolts as a pesky smuggler with a blaster, the game did its best to incorporate “Star Wars moments” into the game. It could also be tough, especially in the final battle, but not so much so that it was impossible to finish. A bold effort from Lucasarts, Shadows of the Empire’s hero may not be as memorable as the person he was made to mimic – but it’s still far more entertaining than in having to go out to pick up power converters.