Star Wars: Shadows Of The Empire Changed The Franchise Forever

By Jonathan Klotz | Updated

shadows of the empire

With a never-ending stream of new series and eight more movies since the release of Return of the Jedi, it can be hard to remember how dark the 90s was for Star Wars. Instead of movies, LucasFilms went to work developing video games, from the overlooked NES version of The Empire Strikes Back to the classic Super Star Wars on the SNES, but none had the impact of the N64 title, Shadows of the Empire. A full multimedia event, the game was released alongside a tie-in novelization, action figures, trading cards, and posters; despite never becoming a movie, it’s easy to see the seeds being planted for the modern Star Wars franchise.

Shadows Of The Empire Used Familiar But Underused Characters

Set in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Shadows of the Empire tells the story of what Leia, Luke, and Lando were up to in between the movies. Considering how later Disney would release Solo, Andor, Ahsoka, and Rogue One, Shadows of the Empire was well ahead of the curve with re-using old characters. Shining the spotlight primarily on Leia and Lando, the story not only explains how the Rebels knew the location of the second Death Star but gives fans their first look at the criminal underground of the Star Wars universe.

Lando, in particular, despite making an immediate impact in The Empire Strikes Back, doesn’t have a lot of screentime, but Shadows of the Empire has him in the center of the action alongside Luke, Chewie, and the Han Solo stand-in, Dash Rendar. The modern comparison is how Boba Fett went from a few minutes of screen time to headlining his own Disney+ series.

Expanding The Universe Beyond Rebels And The Empire

According to a former LucasFilm marketing executive, Howard Roffman, Shadows of the Empire was “a movie project without a movie.” George Lucas was involved behind the scenes, offering insights, and it was his suggestion that the story would focus on a crime syndicate and take influence from Goodfellas and The Godfather. From there, Xizor and the Black Sun Syndicate were created, giving them a classic Star Wars villain that had no ties to the Empire.

The Black Sun Syndicate would return later as the organization Darth Maul had assumed control of in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The criminal underbelly of the Star Wars galaxy has been one of the most fascinating parts of the franchise, which was, until recently, unexplored outside of Shadows of the Empire. Adding a “third side” to the Light/Dark dynamic of the original trilogy made the universe feel more alive and gave us some new characters fans have been asking to see in live-action for years.

Prince Xizor Was A New Type of Star Wars Villain

Presenting a new threat required a new type of villain, and author Steve Perry did an amazing job in making Xizor out to be a slimy, insidious villain who approached problems very differently than the Empire’s leadership. Unlike Jabba the Hutt, who in Return of the Jedi seemed content to lord over Tatooine, Xizor actively attempted to curry favor with the Emperor to advance his organization’s goals by killing Luke Skywalker. When confronted by Leia in his base on Coruscant, the Falleen alien resorts to something never used before or after in the Star Wars galaxy: sex appeal.

In an interview with Den of Geek, Perry explained that originally, the team at LucasFilm wanted Xizor’s seduction of Leia to work. Worried about the fan reaction, and this was well before social media, Perry instead opted for the future General to trick the criminal and knee him in the family jewels, which is, admittedly, right in line with her character.

Xizor, in a rarity for a Star Wars villain, was so confident in himself that he’d even end up going against Darth Vader. He lost, but he tried. It’s because of the green-skinned greedy alien that Shadows of the Empire has remained a fan favorite story for nearly 30 years, but there’s one more reason why demand for an adaptation can still be found on the Internet.

The Video Game Is A Classic

Shadows of the Empire pushed Star Wars in a new direction because it was really all about the N64 video game. Telling a major, canon (at the time) story in a spin-off video game was unheard of at the time, and even now, it does not happen. To say this was groundbreaking would be an understatement; it was like a new Star Wars movie was getting released.

There are still plenty of people who have played the game, either with the original release or the re-release, that have never gone past the first level, which is the best depiction of the Battle of Hoth ever to make it into a video game. Later levels, particularly the third-person shooter ones, were not nearly as well-made, but it’s hard to touch the iconic opening.

In addition to a video game, the Star Wars merchandise machine cranked up to, at the time, a brand new level of fever pitch as Shadows of the Empire toys hit the market, alongside posters, trading cards, Micro Machines, tie-in roleplaying games, models, and a separate video game soundtrack release. All of this was laying the groundwork for the release of the Special Edition films and the prequel trilogy that was already in the works.

Shadows of the Empire was a bold experiment for a franchise that, at the time, wasn’t known for trying new things. Now that the Disney+ series is getting long in the tooth and it’s been almost five years since the last movie, what’s next for the Star Wars franchise? Will Disney attempt something as bold and different as giving a major marketing push to a video game and a novel?

It seems unlikely, but what we might start to see is the Star Wars Jedi series from EA start to show up in live-action since after all, they did cast Cameron Monaghan as Cal Kestis, and it would be easy to drop him into the next season of The Mandalorian or Ahsoka. Though Shadows of the Empire was tossed aside with the rest of the “Legends” stories from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, could Xizor make a comeback in a different form?

And will we ever get a Hoth level that’s as fun as the opening to the video game?

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