Shadow Squadron: SEGA games that (should have) changed history

Do you like Star Wars? Do you love SEGA retrogaming? Do you dislike playing as anthropomorphic animals in your serious space shooters?

If you answered “yes” to at least two of these questions, don’t bother yourself with the likes of SEGA’s Star Wars Arcade for 32X or StarFox for Super Nintendo; instead, experience Shadow Squadron (or Stellar Assault as it’s known in the UK) for an unmatched console experience that fans and game developers alike should have noticed.

I was fortunate enough to have been raised on PC games as well as consoles, and Star Wars flight sims X-Wing and TIE Fighter were complex, nerve-wracking, free-flight simulators that put you in the cockpit of iconic starships in a true 3-D space. Not only do they make you a key influencer in one of the greatest fictional universes ever, but being to fly anywhere and do anything while managing your mission objectives, your comrades’ safety, and your own ship’s systems makes for a unique, unrivaled gaming experience.

This immersive world of a free-flight space flight sim seemingly could not be created on Genesis or SNES,  with their limited 3-D power (see: StarFox‘s framerate) and lack of an analog flightstick or keyboard.

The more-famous Star Wars Arcade on 32X (which I paid $70 for at launch) is ugly, has no freedom of movement, and features Admiral Ackbar with a Brooklyn accent and possibly a brain disorder asking you to “Wipe out … enemy fightahs” in almost every mission. Even years later, the Star Wars: Rogue Leader games on Nintendo Gamecube look amazing and are very fun, but stop short of creating the epic, boundless feeling of actually influencing the Star Wars universe through open-ended flight.

I spent a quarter of this feature explaining about how unsuccessful console attempts were at recreating the incredible feeling of PC space flight, right? Well, our beloved SEGA achieved it with the unheralded Shadow Squadron, and you can imagine how I thought it might change gaming forever (but didn’t).

You can fly, you can fly, you can flyyyyyyyy!

Shadow Squadron - Stellar Assault 32X
It looks like garbage now, I know, but see it in motion!

NiGHTS’s charm and playability created an amazing feeling of freedom and atmosphere (and I hope you agree if you’re a big enough SEGA fan to be reading about obscure 32X games on a SEGA fansite). Piloting a futuristic Last Starfighter-esque craft in first person delivers that same satisfaction, unparalleled by any other console space game.

Shadow Squadron gives you complete freedom of movement: a true 3-D world, in space. (How many early PlayStation or Saturn games can claim that?) What’s more, the 32X handles it very impressively, with minimal slowdown and a playable framerate. It’s probably the finest 3-D showcase of the platform, and a sign that if the system had a longer lifespan, it could have done some really fun, impressive things (at least with unshaded, flat polygons).

You’ve got two ships with different attributes: essentially a Star Wars X-Wing and a Y-Wing (which like a “real” Y-Wing has a two-player mode for pilot and a gunner, or you can play one-player mode and play gunner with autopilot for on-rails shooting).

Shadow Squadron 32X Missles
These guys are about to be lit up by Panzer Dragoon-style homing missiles! I love you, SEGA!

Shadow Squadron makes great use of the six-button controller, too, with an array of weapons, speed control and views all mapped to the 32X’s controller. It even uses the damn Mode button for an actual in-game function! This game is seriously as close to a showcase title as the 32X ever got.

It’s pretty short though, unfortunately, but the six missions are varied and challenging. And with true 3-D freedom, you have the option of playing through the game in an unlimited number of ways.

Shadow Squadron has the good sense to add capital ships, a la X-Wing/TIE Fighter, that you can actually blow up piece by polygon to disable parts of the craft in turn. Your HUD gives you a lot of info on the ships around you, as well. Very cool, and proof that SEGA did not take the lazy way out with this game.

You’ve eventually got to destroy this crazy, huge StarGate/Halo apparatus/super weapon. It’s awesome, and even with minimal story, the game gives you the feeling you’re apart of an epic struggle and only you can turn the tide.

Dude, where’s my Star Wars?

Shadow Squadron
Bang, bang, banggity bang, I said-a bang bang bang, banggity bang #HIMYM

If SEGA had licensed Star Wars for THIS engine, it would have garnered acclaim and attention it deserves. It’s as close to those PC greats you’ll get in the pre-Saturn/PlayStation era of video gaming. I do recall several magazines giving it high marks, but by the time it came out, most game writers were too busy gushing about how how sexy the PlayStation looked (I still don’t get that, Game Players) to give this gem the print it deserved.

Shadow Squadron proved that the elusive PC simulator could be achieved on a 3-D-powered console, and the nuance and control options of a computer could be stuffed into 7 buttons and a D-pad. No one had really tried before this, and I can’t think of many developers who tried after, to my befuddlement. Console gaming of course evolved, so much so fewer PC-centric, complex games were developed (outside of real-time strategy, of course). So despite this game’s achievement, both PC and console gaming pretty much went in a different path, and the campaign-driven space sim completely faded away.

SEGA is my favorite game company because so many of their creative, original titles forge an immersive connection between the player and the game worlds they generate. It’s a shame most gamers missed Shadow Squadron by virtue of the 32X itself, selling far less units than StarFox the cartridge did.

But for any fan of SEGA retrogaming, give it a shot – the Force is strong with this one.

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