The mid-1990s were a dark time for Star Wars fans. We hadn’t had a new movie in well over a decade, the Special Editions of the original trilogy were still a full year away and the prequels were more rumor than real. At the time, the expanded universe existed almost exclusively as novels and anthologies, and were, for better or for worse, considered as for hardcore fans only. And even though Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy had been a bestseller, nothing had quite set the world on fire the way the original films once did.
Enter Shadows of the Empire.
Touted as “an Adventure in Multimedia,” the 1996 project from Lucasfilm was an expansive, interconnected series of stories set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, following the Rebel Alliance as it waded into the underworld of bounty hunters and crime syndicates. The goal was to create an event on the scale of a motion picture, without having to actually make the movie, reinvigorating interest in the then-flagging Star Wars franchise.
In addition to the cornerstone Shadows of the Empire novel, written by Steve Perry, Lucasfilm also released a “junior” novelization for kids, a comic book series from Dark Horse that followed Boba Fett and the rest of the bounty hunters from Empire, and a video game from LucasArts, one of the first for the new Nintendo 64. But that wasn’t all: Shadows of the Empire also gave us a soundtrack, a series of trading cards, new role-playing games, posters, model kits, Micro Machines, and a full series of action figures and vehicles.
Shadows of the Empire also got its own television commercial – aimed at the entire experience and not just one product specifically, something still nearly unheard of for a non-theatrical, non-television franchise release.
The story of Shadows picks up almost immediately after The Empire Strikes Back, with Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando trying to locate Boba Fett, the bounty hunter not yet having delivered the carbonite-encased Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt. A very Han Solo-like scoundrel, Dash Rendar, is introduced as a Rebel ally, and it’s his discovery of Fett’s ship that sets things in motion.
But things are never that easy, and a further wrinkle is introduced in the Falleen crimelord Prince Xizor, whose goal is to hunt down and kill Luke as a way to ingratiate himself with the Emperor and take Darth Vader’s place as his right-hand man.
After Imperial intervention keeps our heroes form getting to Boba Fett, Xizor manages to capture Luke, and then, after he escapes, Leia, who’s then freed by Lando and Dash. Meanwhile, a full-on space battle is going on between the Rebels and the Empire over the planet Coruscant. Darth Vader blows up a fleeing Xizor and, accidentally, via the exploded debris of the prince’s ship, Dash Rendar as well.
The comic book acted as a bit of an ancillary story to the novel, following Fett, Bossk, IG-88 and the rest of the bounty hunters from Empire, while also introducing Jix, an Imperial agent working for Darth Vader. The story follows Jix as he stops the bounty hunters from killing Luke before Vader can turn his son to the Dark Side.
Of course, most of Shadows of the Empire was nullified by the new canon and reclassified as Legends following Lucasfilm’s acquisition by Disney. But the Falleen and Black Sun crime syndicates did end up carrying over, becoming official in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, with Darth Maul’s Shadow Collective taking over the Falleen. Dash Rendar, too, was eventually made canon, technically, reappearing briefly in the Solo: A Star Wars Story journal tie-in, Tales from Vandor, in 2018.
While the book, comic books, video game, and toys may not have had the same, lasting impact on the Star Wars universe as, say, the introduction of Grand Admiral Thrawn or Mara Jade, or expanded the lore quite as much as the Knights of the Old Republic titles, Shadows of the Empire was still an accomplishment.
In its own way, the multimedia expanded universe “adventure” laid the groundwork for the Star Wars franchise going forward – there hasn’t been a lull in books, comics, games or toys since. More importantly, though, Shadows of the Empire did exactly what it set out to do: it reinvigorated fans and reminded a lot of us why we loved Star Wars in the first place.