One of the great things about Star Wars is that it inspires endless debates and opinions on a wide array of topics. Best bounty hunter? Most powerful Jedi? Does Salacious Crumb have the best haircut in the saga? In that spirit, StarWars.com presents From a Certain Point of View: a series of point-counterpoints on some of the biggest — and most fun — Star Wars issues. In this installment, two StarWars.com writers discuss which Star Wars game deserves another look.
Shadows of the Empire is the most underrated, says Cassidee.
Shadows of the Empire was among the first Star Wars games that deviated from being strict film adaptation in favor of being its own distinct experience. Originally released on the Nintendo 64 in the late ‘90s, Shadows was part of a multi-media campaign to create a story bridging the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
At its center is Dash Rendar, a scoundrel-type given instructions to aid Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa as they attempt to recover from the events of Empire and thwart new threats hunting them across the galaxy. With his robot pal Leebo, Dash travels to various planets, stations, and ships to work behind the scenes and face off against high-profile enemies in challenging boss battles.
Video games of the Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation era all share similar criticisms today: they haven’t aged well; their graphics are flat, blocky, and muddy; the controls are janky and unwieldy at best.
Shadows is not immune to this. The environment on planets like Tatooine especially are blocky and jagged, thinly held together to create a feasible progression path for the player. Dash’s face is compressed and blurry, and the textures on creatures, vehicles, and in the environment look more like stains on a napkin than anything representative of real-life substances. It controls with the grace of a car swerving along an icy road, levels are straightforward and largely empty, and the overall pacing ebbs and flows in ways that oscillate between being satisfying and overdrawn.
But Shadows of the Empire is still a significant entry in the Star Wars video game lineup, because it was a clever sampler of nearly every aspect of Star Wars lore. Throughout its entirety, we saw cameos from characters like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Lando Calrissian. Characters only previously seen in Legends fiction made appearances as key characters in Shadows, like the murderous droid IG-88 and the infamous crime boss Prince Xizor. Weapons upgrades and vehicle levels granted variance to the game’s mission design. Dash Rendar offered a new perspective to inhabit, and the story was entirely original instead of being a beat-for-beat adaptation of a previous film, as so many licensed games are wont to do.
Shadows’ galaxy-spanning story made room for gameplay so varied it became a buffet of Star Wars moments sewn together with threads of familiar elements pulled from the original trilogy. On Hoth, Dash flies around in a snow speeder and helps bring down an AT-AT using a tow cable, then later fights an AT-ST in a one-on-one fight inside Echo Base. Later, he pilots the Outrider in a mission to destroy TIE fighters and bombers in an asteroid field swarming with Imperial pilots, rides a speeder bike to fight the Swoop Biker gang setting out to kill Luke Skywalker, arms himself with a jetpack to fight Boba Fett, infiltrates ships, and fights IG-88 aboard a speeding train in a junkyard.
Shadows of the Empire is a playable list of greatest hits, combining so many of the beloved elements of Star Wars in one complete campaign and providing an express tour of classic canon in a way uniquely suited to the expansive fiction of Star Wars.
It also approaches Star Wars from the perspective of a non-Force user, something several of the Star Wars standalone games did very well. When the focus is placed squarely on the struggle of the Jedi versus the Sith, a great deal of side content and characters are lost in the shuffle. Through this perspective, we’re given the chance to explore canon from a more relatable identity; Dash is not a power fantasy character capable of blasting enemies great distances or cutting down foes with a lightsaber. He’s an average guy who relies on his wits, awareness, and own set of skills to get around and successfully carry out missions on behalf of the Rebellion. In a sense, Dash Rendar is the everyman upon whom the Rebellion itself was built; someone who believed so strongly in a cause that they were willing to risk everything to see it through to its bitter end.
History has perhaps not been as kind to Shadows of the Empire than some of the other games released around the start of the 3D era of gaming. It’s not a powerhouse or a showcase of tech, nor a seamless example of masterful development. But its shortcomings don’t do anything to diminish Shadows’ lasting legacy as a fun romp featuring many of the most iconic elements of Star Wars, all within a story whose hero has more in common with the player than anyone else. Shadows deserves credit for being something of an outsider, an experimental piece providing a standalone experience and greater context into the events of the war between the Empire and the Rebellion.
Republic Commando is the most underrated, says Anthony.
Imagine a game that takes the thrill of commanding soldiers and putting their lives at risk with the ferocity of first-person combat. A game that not only gives you a variety of unique enemies to fight, but also features crafted environments that are made to emphasize the skills and unique personalities of the soldiers under your command. OK, now imagine that this game is set in the Star Wars universe, and spans a host of locales — some in far more detail than ever presented in the films, even — and you have the very basic gist of Star Wars: Republic Commando.
If you’re worried this is going to sound like a love letter to Republic Commando then you’ve every right to be. Simply put, it’s not only one of the most underrated Star Wars games, but also one of the most underrated first-person shooters ever made.
Republic Commando puts you in the boots of a clone trooper, but immediately establishes that you’re not just another clone. Instead, like the Clone Wars cartoons would go onto emphasize years later, Republic Commando emphasizes that clones have individual personalities and motivations (and in this case unique voices for each trooper!). Instead of cold, unfeeling soldiers you have characters who obviously care for one another and actually have some great rapport. I dare say you might actually find yourself caring about them as much as I did by the time the credits rolled.
That sense of caring also comes from how instrumental your clone troopers are to your success in most missions. Unlike contemporary shooters such as Halo or Call of Duty, Republic Commando makes the soldiers around you as deadly as your rifle. Holograms appear throughout maps that let you deploy your soldiers to sniper or heavy weapons positions, allowing you to set up ambushes or take on otherwise insurmountable odds. Likewise, you can breach and clear areas, going through blast doors with custom animations that never get old and make you feel like you’re commanding an elite squad.
When it does come time to fire your own rifle, the first-person combat in Republic Commando feels great. Enemies come from throughout the saga, with variable attacks and A.I. patterns that make it feel every bit as thrilling as the Xbox great Halo 3. Trandoshans attack you with devastating melee attacks and scatter guns, Geonosians come at you with the alien energy weaponry they used in the film Attack of the Clones, and near endless amounts of battle droids exist for you to blast, blow up, and chop into pieces. It balances moments of oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-do-this with glory sections that make you feel utterly empowered.
Its gameplay is excellent, but Republic Commando’s greatest achievement might be that it manages to feel like a Star Wars game despite never placing you in control of the Force, a lightsaber, or some iconic hero from the films. Instead you play through the entire game as a soldier doing what must be done, acting behind the scenes to help some of your favorite film characters fulfill missions and scenes shown or hinted at in the films. Much like many of the short stories in Star Wars Legends books, Republic Commando manages to feel at once intimate in its story about a few soldiers trying to do the best they can, while also epic in its scale.
Some of its visuals may feel slightly dated now, but 12 years later Republic Commando stands as one of the best Star Wars games ever made. While it may not have seen wild success initially, there’s never been a better time to try it out with its re-release on Steam and GOG.com. Go forth, command soldiers, and add this woefully underrated game to your library.
Which Star Wars game do you think is most underrated? Let us know in the comments below!
Cassidee is a freelance writer in the Bay Area. You can chat with her about games, comics, and corgis on Twitter at @CassideeMoser.
Anthony Gallegos is a freelance writer who loves Star Wars and video games. He’s written for publications like IGN, GameSpy, 1UP, EGM, and Games for Windows: The Official Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @chufmoney.