The Battle of Hoth

Jeff and Joe's conversation about hoth

Launching Shadows of the Empire felt just like popping in one of the original trilogy movies, with the iconic "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." in blue text over a field of stars, then the John Williams trumpet fanfare as the opening crawl begins to scroll. I have a soft spot for '90s FMV - I bet the opening cutscene with Dash Rendar approaching Hoth looks good at low resolution on a CRT. Loved Dash's early Han Solo name drop, which is funny because my first impression of Dash's character design and voice acting is very "Han Solo at home." I'm curious to see what makes him unique.

When the cutscene ended and I gained control of a snowspeeder on Hoth, things didn't go well. The game ran way faster than intended, like 5x speed, and the speeder moved forward without any input. I was unable to keep turning around quickly enough to stay within the confines of the level and got many repeated squawks of "return to battle!" Zero chance of shooting down Imperial probe droids in these conditions. I set the max framerate to 30 FPS and tried again.

At normal speed, I successfully took out the probe droids. I accidentally traded a life for an AT-ST, crashing into it after overcommitting to a strafing run. The walker toppled over as my speeder went down in flames, then reappeared to try again. Time for the main event against the giant shambling AT-ATs, and to figure out how to launch my tow hook. After crashing into the legs on my first attempt, I got a feel for the distance and timing and tried again. Getting the tow hook to catch triggered a shift in the camera - disoriented and attempting to play with keyboard and mouse until I got the controls mapped properly, I crashed again. Game Over: Prince Xizor's big green face scowled at me.

Man, this feels so familiar. I can't quite place it, but I must have played at least the Hoth level at a friend's house. Looking forward to getting my controller set up and giving it another go, or going over to a friend's house again.

This week I sat down, figured out (again) limiting frame rate to 30 FPS, got my controller mostly mapped, and played some Shadows of the Empire!

With a functional control setup, I was able to complete the Hoth snowspeeder level. Harpooning an AT-AT with a tow cable, looping around its legs, and taking it down feels so satisfying. It's a pitch perfect interpretation of the ESB scene as a game.

The next sequence, escaping Echo Base, doesn't quite measure up to lassoing AT-ATs, but what could? At least I finally get to play through the scene in the hanger I'd watched many times in the launcher at 2-3X speed while testing my graphics settings and trying to reign in the frame rate. Wait, was that the Millenium Falcon taking off? Overshadowed by Han again! Also, these pants make my butt look weird. I expected the six switches to turn the generator back on would be spread throughout the base. I was worried I had missed some after boarding an elevator and entering a new area without flipping any switches, and laughed when I discovered all six in the same place.

Maybe my controller configuration was missing it, but I couldn't find a way to aim up/down. When needed, I adapted by changing the camera to first person and backing away from the target until the auto-aim helped tip things the right direction. The struggle to get this game working properly on modern hardware is no small part of the experience.

I have to fight an AT-ST on foot?! The first attempt, I died in a single burst of laser fire. With no Ewoks to assist me, I turned to GameFAQs and pulled up a plain-text walkthrough, looking for tips. The recommended strategy I found was to hide underneath the walker and shoot up. Shoot! I switched to mouse and keyboard and fumbled through another attempt, alternating between running around behind the walker and pausing while holding V to aim up (with inverted controls, moving the mouse down) to blast the chicken walker's underside. It was tense, but I pulled it off.

The next sequence on board the Outrider was dumb fun, a regular TIE fighter shooting gallery. No individual fighter or bomber is a real threat, but shooting down 50+ fighters and a dozen bombers adds up. Some TIE fighters crashing into asteroids and eliminating themselves for you is a nice touch, as is moving between firing the top and bottom turrets as you move the aiming reticle around. I thought I was finally ready to let go of my remaining X-Wing miniatures, but not before having a photoshoot with the Outrider and some TIE fighters in an asteroid field. I might even have a green astronomy laser somewhere... On to Part 2!

I never had Shadows of the Empire as a kid, but through the Kenner action figure line, I knew all about Dash Rendar and Chewbacca disguising himself as the bounty hunter Snoova . I think the the SOTE gesturing at a larger world, more and different (evil?) wookies, and other scoundrel types made Star Wars feel impossibly huge, which was a major draw for me. I wonder if this was some of their goal? Here was this series of three movies that I knew back and front (I could pause Return of the Jedi at the exact moment to see Dengar peering down into the Rancor pit) and all of a sudden, there were characters, storylines, and conflicts that I had no idea about. It was revelatory.

We had an N64, though we didn’t get it until 1999 when the price dropped to $100. At that point, I was chasing relevancy with my friends, playing Super Smash Brothers and Pokemon Stadium. I was already becoming enmeshed in late 90’s internet culture, printing off huge GameFAQs guides and emailing the creators with specific questions about movesets or secrets. When the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 2000—I was home alone playing Pokemon Snap while my parents were across the street at a New Years party. I remember luxuriating in our den and realizing it was almost midnight.

My dad was a journalist and had helped me put together a “Y2K prep kit” earlier in the year—basically, a big D call battery flashlight, some canned ravioli, some candles, and blankets. It wasn’t a paranoid thing, but the news had mentioned that it would be good to be proactive in case there were any issues. I was excited at the prospect that something might happen at midnight, that we might be witnessing some sort of major meltdown of systems.

As midnight creeped closer, I started turning all of the lights off in the house to make sure that there wouldn’t be some sort of power surge or electrical damage. I have no idea why this was important to me, but I also thought: “if nothing happens, maybe I can play a prank on my parents.” I was 12 and it seemed like a very funny prank. Midnight hit and nothing happened. Because the lights were still on across the neighborhood, my parents didn’t buy it when I tried to pitch my fake power outage. Fror the next year, my dad would let me pilfer cans of Chef Boyardee mini ravioli from our Y2K stash when I wanted a snack until our cache was gone.

In a small way, the N64 is associated with my first awareness that the world as I knew it could end.

Booting up Shadows of the Empire in 2024, I am more charmed than annoyed at the clunky controls and the blocky textures. I quickly realize that the speed of my snowspeeder’s laser blast is directly correlated with the speed that I can tap my steam deck’s “A” button. By fluttering the button extremely quickly, I can get 30 or 40 shots off towards the AT-AT’s, destroying them without having to awkwardly navigate the towcables. Is this a quirk using a modern controller? Or just a gap in our relationship to following instructions? I don’t know, but pretty soon all of the walkers are down. Echo Base is safe for now…

"A Dash of Help"-- a Dash Rendar short story

I am careful. I am methodical. I don’t miss anything. On some level, I am aware that the clock desperately ticks. The Falcon just blasted out of here and I’d like to do the same. Of course, it won’t be so easy for me. Of course, there is another turbo battery to activate or shield to disable or ion cannon to atomize. Dash Rendar, batting cleanup. Here I am, taking care of all of the issues so everything runs smoothly. Sometimes I call myself “Dash Fix-ar”, but only in my head. The hero the rebellion needs but not the one it deserves. I guess I’m having a tough day.

I never met my parents, but I assume that the universes played a small joke on them by inspiring them to name me “Dash”. It implies speed, a quick and controlled movement from point to point. I am anything but that. If I had a choice, it’d be caff and holonews on the Outrider all morning while we’re parked at a quiet spaceport. Maybe a game of dejark with Leebo if he’s feeling generous. It’s exhausting to move quickly, to be ready with the quick trigger finger and the proton torpedos at a moments notice. Han Solo moves fast and breaks things. I guess I’m the guy who moves slow and fixes them.

Truth be told, when I showed up to Hoth this morning, I was mostly thinking about updating the crossword puzzles on the Outrider. The imperial holonet puzzles are terrible and jingoistic, but the rebellion has been releasing dumps of pirate crosswords, with real shit like the history of Coruscant or the top speed of a Wampa (11 kilometers per hour). Unfortunately, I didn’t even get the download before I was convincing myself to join Rogue group to defend the base.

I hear the commands barking over the speeder radio. In my head, all I can hear the voices say is “Oh look folks, here is the immutable martyr Dash Rendar once again, trying to fix things he didn’t even break.”

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