If it hadn’t been for Sean Connery’s blasting everyone on Alcatraz in 1996, one’s ears might have been pleasantly tickled from across the Bay by Rick McCallum: ‘It’s gonna be awesome.’
The media was busy reporting on Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which kept blasting box office records out of the sky. Variety’s Todd McCarthy noted adroitly how ‘it took a foreigner to create what could arguably be the most patriotic film since John Wayne rode into the sunset’ (Variety, Mon. July 1st, 1996). Hulking space ships racing in above the heads of speechless audiences…seen this before, we have.
Far removed from Will Smith’s wisecracking was engineer Doug Kay, who found himself happily ensconced in the bucolic setting of Lucas Valley, investing many a thought at LucasArts headquarters on how to translate an intergalactic struggle for supremacy into the world’s most technically advanced video game.
The moment was remarkably opportune for such a feat: as the 1990ies evolved, video games grew into a multi-billion market again. Some reasoned, therefore, that people mostly allergic to spread sheets and word processing would be more than willing to purchase only the equipment needed to play games. Sony’s Playstation was a powerful testament to the resurgence of video game consoles, yet its technology felt dated only two years after its introduction. For Nintendo had risen to the occasion with the world’s first true 64-bit console, the aptly named Nintendo 64. The people at Nintendo had naturally realised that Star Wars had made a powerful comeback and asked LucasArts to develop a launch title exclusive to their gleaming hot N64 console.
‘[T]he introduction of the Nintendo 64 was like a movie debut, and we wanted the absolutely best companies capable of producing blockbuster games.[…] I think LucasArts understands how games played on a system like the N64 provide a creative venue for stories that might once have been considered just for the movie medium’ (p71, The Secrets of Shadows of the Empire, Mark Cotta Vaz, 1996 ).
It was a match made by the Force: the designers needed technology to create an epic action adventure title that fully harnessed the characters’ roller coaster ride through the universe. Doug Kay proudly ensured readers of Lucasfilm’s own The Adventurer periodical that they would ‘squeeze every ounce of power out of those machines’ to create a ‘richer, highly complex and […] more interesting visual experience’ (The Adventurer, No. 11, p12-3).
The intricate design which Shadows of the Empire afforded gleeful galactic gamers added another narrative layer to Lucasfilm’s unique project. Never before had it been as easy to explore the world of Star Wars, especially previously unseen worlds, and pilot exotic space ships. Regardless of the overall plot, Shadows of the Empire quickly attained notoriety for its excellent implementation of the Battle of Hoth.
One major setback for the Star Wars N64 launch title was the principle design of the console itself. While every other entertainment device made CD-ROM the data storage technology of choice, Nintendo insisted on cartridges. Shadows was therefore sorely lacking animated cut-scenes, although Jon Knoles’ beautifully drawn art for the N64 was a certified stunner nonetheless.
The omission of cut scenes for a piece of entertainment as exhilarating as Shadows was decidedly painful. LucasArts had very smartly anticipated such a reaction and would know how to prepare for a very crucial PC CD-ROM release a year later when the exclusive N64 license would expire.
While PC owners were left ailing, Shadows of the Empire was an outstanding, resounding success, as well as a corporate battle plan.
Lucasfilm had previously focused on self-contained products, with LucasArts’ X-Wing and the similarly titled novel and comic book series that followed being a notable exception. The newly hatched road map would be as story based as business savvy: as evidenced by Shadows, any narrative created within the Star Wars universe would from then on act as the cornerstone for what is essentially a separate commercial venture. By drawing characters, places and vehicles from the storyline concerned, sufficient building blocks emerged to mount sub-ventures of virtually any kind, with the only restriction being that the resulting product would have to be steadfastly inline with story continuity. Most important, however, was the dictum to never reiterate content.
Shadows spawned a considerable collection of such ventures, ranging from a novel to comic books, action figures and computer games. While competing properties would reliably attempt to duplicate the experience of the main attraction (consider the tie-ins to Tim Burton’s Batman, for instance), Lucasfilm demanded originality of every offspring generated by any narrative.
As welcome – and rare – as originality is these dire days, this irrevocable concept principally meant that the core narrative arc would have to be eviscerated, with choice cuts simply disappearing from the central distribution medium. Boba Fett, prominently rendered on the Shadows cover, is a two-page affair in the novel, but a major player in the comics and a formidable foe in the game. Consumers where therefore forced to purchase the selfsame entertainment product multiply, albeit in distinctly different incarnations, to experience the actual story in full. Thus only gamers learned that Dash Rendar had not vaporised into infinity, with readers drenching the final pages of the novel with a tear or two.
For Shadows, this strategy worked remarkably well as there was no clear central narrative medium per se. A quick glance at Shadows marketing reveals that not a single product was set apart as the main event, a wise move, apparently, but an entirely necessary one: despite all the hassle, there was not a new Star Wars film just yet, but what if there were?
Star Wars had always offered plentiful ways of exploring George Lucas’ universe. One must simply remember space rabbit Jaxxon of Marvel fame to fully comprehend how rewarding it can be to travel beyond a well-known story. Yet back in the days, the Star Wars films told the whole story in every necessary detail to maximise audiences’ appreciation of the characters, their motivations and destinies. Additional media was treated as supplemental action to fill the three-year gap between film releases. Shadows, by contrast, skewered in multiple directions, distributing crucial information to diverse media. Had there been a film in earnest, would it have contained a mere skeleton story?
Now epic tales have by default a wealth of references to previous, parallel and future events. The OT hinted how Luke learned to build a new lightsaber, Han Solo clearly confronted a bounty hunter on Ord Mantell in a spectacular clash and Old ‘Ben’ Kenobi remarks en passant that he used to be a major general in one of the greatest intergalactic wars ever. None of this was elaborated on in the films and was in some cases neither included in the screenplay nor the novelisations or the comic books. The reason why one tends to readily accept such exclusions is that it is not conducive to the main narrative at hand. Plainly speaking, referencing events that bear immediately recognisable associations automatically flesh out the characters connected to them with style.
Lucasfilm’s new no-holds barred approach of supplying products in all available shapes and sizes, each featuring interlocking narrative segments of a central, uniform story was decidedly more promising than daunting. It realised a unique vision in many varied forms, unleashing in full the potential of artists, among them Episode I’s production designer Dough Chiang, who could reveal to the world new strokes of genius on the vast canvas of Star Wars while the prequels still germinated in obscurity.
Shadows had grown into such a sizeable undertaking, it warranted its own behind-the-scenes coverage: with The Secrets of Shadows of the Empire Mark Cotta Vaz wrote an endearing chronicle of the project’s evolution. Beyond its apparent role in the Shadows enterprise, the book contained several motion picture storyboards, even though Lucasfilm had never considered turning the story of Dash and Xizor into a film. Closer examination revealed these special storyboards to be seemingly alternate takes on well-known shots from ANH.
As per Lucasfilm’s purposeful habit of including material related to their film projects (such as an early view of Coruscant in 1994’s game TIE-Fighter), Vaz’s book revealed some of the new elements planned for the 20th anniversary re-release of ANH, now dubbed Star Wars Special Edition.
This gentle marketing push allowed prospective audiences to let their minds linger on precious memories of happy movie screenings. A strong sense of nostalgia inevitably developed among people, who would soon be greatly rewarded as early as summer 1996.
‘It’s gonna be awesome.’
TO BE CONTINUED…