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13-08-23 | What if you produced a slate of merchandising to promote a movie – such as books, toys, videogames, the whole lot – without actually producing the movie? What if fans could experience a feature film, just by virtue of its memorabilia? If, like me, you grew up in the 1990s, chances are that Shadows of the Empire was just as much part of your classic Star Wars experience as A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were. An innovative multimedia project, of which every major Star Wars licensee was a part. One that I experienced before I saw the movies, in fact!

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was the brainchild of Lucasfilm’s Lucy Autrey Wilson and Bantam’s Lou Aronica. Wilson recalled how Lou ‘suggested that because of Lucasfilm’s licensing arrangements, we were perfectly positioned to do a multimedia event, with one story line going through different product categories.’ During the Star Wars revival of the 1990s collectibles were big business, appealing to an audience broader than mere hardened fans. They were going to be treated to a tale which seamlessly filled the gap in between Empire and Jedi. And it was up to the consumer to choose their favoured medium for experiencing Shadows of the Empire.

Unlike the feature films, Shadows of the Empire finds its heroes and villains scattered across the galaxy. Some of the main characters never interact, while others only meet fleetingly. While Luke and Leia attempt to track down the carbonite encased Han, Boba Fett is trying to shake off the many bounty hunters out to steal Solo from him. Darth Vader, meanwhile, is foiling a plot to kill Luke, as the Sith Lord wants Skywalker alive for his own evil purposes. All these familiar names are manipulated from afar by a new character, the villainous Prince Xizor, one of the few men able to come as close to the Emperor as Vader can.

In many ways, Shadows of the Empire is the Pulp Fiction among Star Wars tales. The threads are connected, be it loosely. Each product offers a different perspective on the same story. The novel by Steve Perry, for instance, chooses to focus on Luke, Vader and Xizor. The two villains both need Luke, but for different reasons. A source of tension also present in the superb Dark Horse comic, beautifully illustrated by Kilian Plunkett and written by none other than Judge Dredd creator John Wagner.

The comic obviously takes a broader, more action oriented approach than the novel. Boba Fett’s status as the coolest dude in the galaxy is cemented in his many encounters with rival bounty hunters. Prince Xizor is equally fascinating. In both the novel and the comics he pulls all the strings with reptilian charm. It really holds up, Shadows of the Empire has the pace of the original films and does not get bogged down in minutiae. It’s simply a great boys’ own adventure, be it a tad darker than the original films.

No surprise, given the presence of so many unsavoury characters. Aside from Xizor, the most memorable newcomer is undoubtedly Dash Rendar. At first he appears to be a poor copy of Han Solo, even flying a Falcon style freighter. But Rendar is more than that. Unlike Han he chooses money over loyalty. But when he commits to a gig, he goes all the way. Rendar had the great honour to be the lead character of Shadows of the Empire’s videogame tie-in, in which he destroys Imperial walkers during the battle of Hoth, tracks down Boba Fett and aides in fighting Xizor on Coruscant. One of its levels even finds Dash helping to steal the plans to the second Death Star.

The game was among the very first to be released on the brand new Nintendo 64, one of the earliest home consoles to render environments in 3D. It became a classic of its kind and was the definitive version of Shadows for those who did not read the book or the comics. The fourth major platform for Shadows of the Empire was Kenner’s line of action figures. Here too Dash Rendar was a key ingredient, being made into a figurine and having his Outrider be one of several cool vehicles. For kids low on pocket money, the Outrider must have made a great alternative to the pricey Millenium Falcon.

To reiterate: during the 1990s, Star Wars was more than a brand for nerdy collectors. Kenner’s vast and colourful selection of toys would have appealed to kids who had never seen the movies. Many of them will have been introduced to Shadows of the Empire during visits to their local toy store. There they would have found figures of Dash, Xizor and versions of Luke, Leia and Chewie disguised as intergalactic villainy. I still have my Prince Xizor figure, which might be the first Star Wars bad guy I ever owned. Many lines would follow Kenner’s assortment. Galoob produced their signature mini-figures and vehicles, while Applause rendered collectible statues in PVC and polystone.

Many other products brought Shadows of the Empire to life. A set of Topps trading cards featured breathtaking artwork by the Hildebrandt brothers. Every single card was a tiny masterpiece, as vibrant and magical as the finest fantasy paperback covers. The most bizarre collectable must be the soundtrack album, which Joel McNeely composed to fit the novel. That’s how far Lucasfilm carried the film-without-a-film analogy … they weren’t going to produce the movie but they sure as hell were going to score it!

Shadows of the Empire was a vast puzzle, that you could assemble any which way you pleased. Whose perspective did you choose? Was it Dash Rendar’s? Luke Skywalker’s? Maybe even Darth Vader’s? Each product broadened the world of Shadows, and the Star Wars universe along with it. And Lucasfilm is to be applauded for not having it feel like a cold cash-grab. Shadows of the Empire is legitimate Star Wars. A delicious slice of intergalactic adventure, splintered across several fascinating characters. Shadows of the Empire does what classic Star Wars does best … it makes you feel good.

By 2008, Lucasfilm attempted to do another multi-media project in the shape of The Force Unleashed, dealing with Darth Vader’s secret Sith apprentice. By this time the magic of physical media was fading, leading to the popular videogame overshadowing the book, comics and action figures. It goes to show how things have changed since 1996. Shadows of the Empire had a presence in brick-and-mortar stores. It was something to be discovered, piece by piece. And having sampled it at the time I can honestly say: I did see Shadows of the Empire and it’s a great movie!